Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas is two days past, New Year's is soon to come, but the festive holiday spirit has been interrupted by some fucker that likes to light fires...

Last night we were awakened around 2:30 am by sirens and commotion, looked outside to see that there seemed to be something pretty serious happening the next block over on Union St., just on the edge of downtown Northampton. It was clear that whatever was going on was pretty serious but the fire department was already on the case so we went back to bed, but as soon as I woke up in the morning I started checking TV and web news sources to see what I could see. I was shocked to learn that the fire that happened one street over was not an isolated occurrence but one of eight (and soon the number increased to eleven) that were reported within the span of little more than an hour, all of which were more or less in my neighborhood. Two people are dead and many more had homes and cars destroyed, including Glenn Siegel, one of the nicest guys in Northampton, whose Union St. home was the one burning when we got woken up. Thankfully Glenn and his son got out unharmed.

Northampton is up in arms, and with good reason. Mysterious fires are unfortunately not so rare in this part of town, and it's hard not to jump to conclusions about how last night's fires might be connected to others that have happened in recent years. At the same time, it's too easy to speculate about such things - we've all seen too many episodes of CSI or The Wire or any number of other police shows that lead us to theorize about the crimes that occur around us whether or not we have any real evidence. I'll admit I have my theories but mostly I just hope that the folks whose job it is to solve these matters don't leave us hanging for too long. And that nothing else like this happens again any time soon.

Daryl LaFleur at Northampton Redoubt has posted a good number of photos and other links relating to the fires. Those wanting more info can go to http://www.valleyadvocate.com/blogs/home.cfm?uid=20.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Today is my birthday - happy birthday to me!

Looking over the blog roll on the right side of this page, I'm reminded that I've had the odd distinction of having two separate rock stars be shot to death on past birthdays. Bryan Kuntz memorializes Dimebag Darrell today at This Ain't the Summer of Love (he took the title for his blog well before I took it for my new book). I'd forgotten that Dimebag died on my birthday, now five years ago. I'm a fan of his playing and of Pantera, and the details of his death were notably freakish - isn't it every performer's worst nightmare to be shot to death on stage?

The big one, though, was John Lennon, who died on my thirteenth birthday back in 1980. That one I remember vividly, if only because my friend David Jennings (who would later rechristen himself Diq Diamond and try mightily to get a Chili Peppers-style band up and running) came to school that day wearing a T-shirt he'd redesigned to mark the occasion. It was a plain white T, and he scrawled something to the effect of "RIP John Lennon" or "John Lennon we'll miss you" in what was probably black and colored marker. I can't remember the exact message but I can remember that I'd never seen someone respond to a celebrity's death in such a way, and it was an eye-opener for 13 year old me (Elvis had died just three years before but I was too young then to fully appreciate it). I remember nothing else about that day, just walking to school with David, confused about what it meant to mourn someone I'd never met.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I was recently asked to offer up some reading suggestions to Smith alumnae, to be published in some forum sponsored by the Smith Friends of the Library (any friend of the library is a friend of mine, as they say). Here's what I gave them, short and sweet:

I like to think that I read more about music than 99.9% of the population (unfortunately, I often find myself reading more about music than listening to it). That may or may not be true, but I am never without a book to read, and most of what I read is music-related. Here are three recent titles I’ve read that should satisfy readers with a general curiosity about music.


1. Robin Kelley, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original. One of the most preeminent current historians of African American life and culture writes a biography about one of the great jazz musicians of the twentieth century. Kelley had unprecedented access to Monk family archives and the evidence shows throughout this impressive work.


2. Jon Savage, The England’s Dreaming Tapes. One of England’s best music journalists, in the early 1990s Savage wrote England’s Dreaming, the near-definitive account of the Sex Pistols and British punk rock in the 1970s. This book presents transcripts of many of the original interviews that Savage did for his earlier work. As much an oral history of 1970s England as a book about punk, it is full of great stories and details you won’t find anywhere else.


3. Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Don’t be dissuaded by the deliberately provocative title. The subtitle is more accurate: this is an effort to rethink the history of pop from the late 19th century to the present, by a journalist and historian who has remarkable command of such a broad subject.

Monday, November 23, 2009

This year has been full of changes in the circumstances under which I listen to music. In January I shipped all the records I had kept for years at my parents' house in California back to my home in Western Mass. Having all those old records to listen to anew was great, and after some 20 years of having my collection split across a whole continent it was gratifying to have it all in one place.

And so it was until some time in September, when one day my turntable decided to die on me. I hadn't had it for all that long - I think I bought this particular turntable, a moderately priced Technics (paid around $200 for it), about 5 or 6 years ago. The problem seems to be with the motor, since it just stopped turning, but I'm no mechanical expert so I have no real idea why it broke.

I knew that I couldn't live for long without a turntable. But I was surprisingly indecisive about what I wanted to do about the situation. My dilemma was straightforward enough: I wasn't sure if I wanted to try to get the broken turntable fixed or just buy a replacement for it. Within the first few days after it stopped working, I explored my options. I went to the local high-end audio store, where I found some really nice looking new turntables that were much more expensive than any piece of stereo equipment I'd ever bought. And I went to the more cost-effective store where I bought the turntable that broke several years earlier, where they had a pretty lousy selection of new turntables but said they could probably fix the old one.

(As a side note, neither of these places are big chains, and I'm lucky that living in a town as small as Northampton, I actually have a choice as to where to look to buy a new turntable without going online.)

Then, I froze. For two solid months I remained undecided as to what I wanted to do. The dilemma became complicated because it somehow transformed into a lifestyle choice, not just a practical matter. Did I want to save money and fix my serviceable old turntable, or did I want to splurge on a new piece of equipment that was probably better than I need for my listening purposes but that would be of higher quality and (hopefully) more reliable? I could afford the more expensive turntable without any great financial strain, but it still seemed an extravagance, and yet at the same time, given that listening to music is both my greatest pleasure and integral to the work I do, would this really be a frivolous expense?

As those two months went by the inconvenience of not having a working turntable at all became more and more apparent. Every time I looked at my records I felt a pang of regret that I couldn't play any of them. It also became a challenge to prepare for my classes, since much of the music I've been teaching this semester is stuff that I own on vinyl. I found myself having to bring things to my office on campus just to listen to them, rather than listen in the comfort of home (one of the perks of being a music prof is that I have a full stereo set-up in my office, including a turntable, courtesy of Smith College).

I finally resolved my dilemma and reached a decision a couple weeks ago, and I kind of surprised myself. I decided to go high-end, after years of resisting the notion that stereo equipment needed to be more than serviceable. So, I bought a Music Hall MMF-5.1 turntable, highly rated by all the audiophile sources I've been able to find, and got it for the princely sum of $800. It's a nice piece of equipment, and there are times when I'm able to convince myself that I can in fact hear a difference listening to records with it compared to my old $200 machine. But I'm playing it through my old, cheap JVC 30 watt receiver that I got back in 1983 (it was my 16th birthday present from my parents), so I'm sure I'm not hearing it at its optimal level of clarity. And there's the rub - it's hard to go just a little high end; one good component deserves another.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I'm getting ready to teach a solid two weeks about the Beatles in my course on American Popular Culture, so it's about time to follow up on one of my previous posts, concerning my trip to Liverpool this past summer and my tour of Beatles-related spots. (For my earlier post go back to August 31 of this year).

For those who don't feel like traipsing through old posts, I took the "Magical Mystery Tour" during one of my afternoons in Liverpool, a bus tour that takes you around various Beatles landmarks, mostly houses where the individual band members grew up and the like. But, the tour ended just across the street from the famed Cavern Club - or rather, the current restoration of a club to appear like the old Cavern Club, since the original club was closed by the city back in the 1970s to make way for a transportation project that never materialized.

Because of its non-original character I wasn't so excited to go into the current-day Cavern. But I found the area surrounding it to be quite interesting in its own right, and snapped a few pics that hopefully capture something of its peculiar character. It's sort of like a block-long memorial to the Beatles early career, housed within a winding downtown alleyway, and couched among a collection of slightly cheesy current day clubs (including the Cavern itself, which seems mostly to play host to a succession of tribute bands).


When you're entering the alley where the Cavern resides - which I believe is called Mathew Street - this is one of the first things you come upon, a more or less life sized statue of John Lennon in '50s rocker garb.


Walking a bit further down the street, you come to the Cavern Wall of Fame, where all the bricks surrounding the pictured plaque have the names of bands who played the Cavern in its original incarnation.


Here's the entrance to the restored Cavern Club. Based on all the drunk people I saw wandering down the street in the middle of the afternoon, I'd have to guess these guys have their work cut out for them.


This shrine is on the wall opposite the Cavern Club (same wall as the Cavern Wall of Fame), but raised about 25-30 feet above the ground.


This is the plaque that accompanies the sculpture/shrine above.


And last but not least, this is a marker for the original entrance of the Cavern Club. The restored club is in a location just down the street.

Now, for those who really want a tour through some of the most interesting areas of the Beatles' early history, here's a link to a site I just stumbled on recently. Great resources for photos of the Beatles in their early years, and links to many of the most prized bootleg recordings of the group's early music.

http://www.beatlesource.com/savage/main.html

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I just finished reading a new book on the California Bay Area punk scene, called Gimme Something Better, by Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor, two writers I know nothing about. The book is okay, and the scene it documents is definitely worthy of attention - especially the late '70s SF scene which, like the L.A. scene of the same era has typically been overshadowed by happenings in NYC and the UK. The book details that era in a good bit of detail, and also covers much that came after, leading up to the big success of Bay Area bands Green Day and Rancid (and somewhat later, AFI).

I'm not interested in doing a full-scale review of the book, at least not here, not now. But I do want to comment on the form of the book, because it's the latest representative of what has become a genre unto itself: the punk rock oral history.

Many people seem to think that Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain pioneered this particular approach with their popular account of the New York punk scene, Please Kill Me. While I think they definitely popularized oral history as the dominant mode of punk rock chronicle, they weren't the first. Clinton Heylin beat them to the punch a couple years earlier with From the Velvets to the Voidoids, and those two books cover an awful lot of the same ground, although Please Kill Me is definitely the more lurid of the two and thus a more fun read.

Since then (PKM came out in '94), oral histories of punk have proliferated. We have We Got the Neutron Bomb (Brendan Mullen and Marc Spitz, on LA punk), Lexicon Devil (Mullen, Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey, on the Germs), Dance of Days (Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins, on the DC scene), American Hardcore (Steve Blush, on - you guessed it - hardcore). Even John Lydon/Johnny Rotten turned his autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, into an oral history. And now we have Boulware and Tudor's book, and I'm sure there will be more to come.

I like a lot of these books, and have found them valuable for piecing my own research together. But at the same time, I'm skeptical of the motivation behind a lot of them. For one thing, this way of representing punk has become standardized - each oral history that comes out seems more like the one that preceded it, even though the locations and the interviewees vary from one to the next. One really unfortunate result of these books is that they all focus on the most sensational aspects of punk: the drug addiction, violence, the squalor of the so-called "punk lifestyle." And as they do so, they define punk as something that ultimately has very little to do with the music that punk bands have made, because none of these books - none of them, with the possible exception of Blush's book on hardcore - have anything interesting to say about punk music. I'm willing to grant that for many people punk is a lifestyle and an identity, not just a musical genre; but without the music punk would mean shit. And the music is the thing that these books most fail to discuss adequately, because the authors get too caught up in playing "connect the dots" between the stories told by their informants to really dig deep into anything, and it's a lot easier to piece together an oral history of people staking out their sides in the East Bay vs. West Bay feud than it is putting together a string of mostly disjointed observations into something that speaks to the complexity of the creative process. Despite the romantic assumption that the punk creative process is spontaneous and unreflective, punk music is as much the product of calculated effort and applied creativity as any other form of really great music.

There's another thing that bothers me even more about these books, though, and it's something that is made explicit in Gimme Something Better. In the introduction to the book, former Operation Ivy frontman Jesse Michaels claims: "The oral history format has the great advantage of eliminating The Rock Writer ... The stories that follow are the real thing."

This, quite frankly, is bullshit. Does anyone really think that piecing together a 470-page oral history is not an act of WRITING? Does anyone actually believe that the authors do not ultimately exercise their own judgment in deciding which interview excerpts to include and which to leave on the cutting room floor, let alone deciding which questions to ask in the first place? The fact that in all of these oral histories the author's questions are omitted from the text is to me not a sign of the "realness" of these books, but a sign of their fundamental dishonesty. They mask the conditions of their own production. They try to make it appear as though there is just one big flowing conversation happening amongst all the informants, when in fact the whole thing is choreographed and arranged by the people whose names appear on the cover of the book.

These books are the product of a lot of labor and they show it. There's good reason why people enjoy reading them. But why is it that I have rarely read any of the above books and come away having any genuinely new insights into the things they discuss? I think it's because in allowing their informants to theoretically do all the talking, the authors abdicate their own responsibility to actively, explicitly interpret the material they work with. And while I appear to be most decidedly in a minority, I would so much rather read a book in which an author offers an original interpretation over one that pretends to let its subjects "speak for themselves."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Media alert: I was interviewed yesterday on WRSI, The River, one of the more cool local radio stations. My interviewer was Monte Belmonte, the morning show host, and he did a nice job of editing our wandering 25 minute conversation into a series of three short segments that mostly speak to the peculiarity of my position teaching rock history at a prestige school like Smith (which I don't find all that peculiar at this point, but I guess it still looks odd to the outside world). It's a nice counterpart piece to the one I did earlier this year for WFCR, the local NPR station, a link to which is archived in an earlier post.

Here's the link to The River interview:

http://www.wrsi.com/pages/3243131.php

Thursday, October 1, 2009

This is a completely unpremeditated post (which I realize is not an unusual thing in the world of blogging but it is sort of unusual for me, since I'm still relatively new at this), prompted by having just quickly skimmed Pitchfork's list of the the best albums of the 2000's, from #200 to #21 (the top 20 are still to come). I have mixed feelings about Pitchfork. I'm not an "indie rock" person, but a fair bit of the music I like falls under the indie rock category; and Pitchfork's reach in their review section, while narrower than I'd prefer, is broad enough to encompass enough music that I might at least potentially like that I find it worth reading. How's that for qualified interest.

Still, I'm such a compulsive reader of things about music, and even more so, one of my big guilty pleasures is that I can't resist a good list. I've only included one list so far on this blog but I can assure you that more will come (see below). Lists can be completely trivial but they can also force you to exercise your own critical judgment in a visceral way. There's something about seeing music or movies placed into a list - especially a "best of/top 10" list - that immediately makes me want to figure out how much I agree or disagree with the rankings, even if I think the overall enterprise is sort of dumb (for instance, if Guitar Player magazine offers a list of great rock guitarists I'm a lot more likely to take it seriously than if the same list were offered by Rolling Stone, but either way I'd be inclined to go through it and see what I think).

Lists of records especially feed into my compulsive side because then it becomes not just a matter of, do I agree or disagree; but becomes also a game of, how much of this stuff do I own? And that's exactly what I fell into with the Pitchfork list. How many of Pitchfork's choice for the top 200 (minus 20) albums of the 2000s do I own? The reveal is below, but first a further word on why I care.

In this case, I was especially interested to check the list against my own music collection because I'm well aware that my tastes lean in a decidedly retro direction. When I'm shopping for music I always favor older material over more current stuff; and one of the main reasons I read music magazines is so that I can better force myself to buy the occasional newer album rather than only feeding my desire for more 1970s hard rock or 1960s free jazz. Seeing that Pitchfork had assembled such a list, I saw it as an opportunity to test just how much my consumption habits are completely stuck in the past.

As it happens, they're not quite as stuck as I thought, although overall I only have a small proportion of what's there - but then again, I don't like everything Pitchfork reviewers like anyways so I'd guess that half the stuff there is stuff I could easily live without.

So far, I own - get ready - 20 out of the 180 albums listed so far. I'm guessing I'll have at least a few of the top 20 since I always find that as lists get higher I'm more likely to have more of what they feature, since the things at the top of any such list are the things that have tended to get more attention and to be more universally appreciated - and while I pride myself for going against the musical grain much of the time, good reviews do get my attention.

Now, to make this whole thing really meta, here's my list of the albums I own that are featured on the Pitchfork list, sans anything that might be in the top 20 (I've noted the ranking of each album in parentheses, from low to high):

Lightning Bolt, Wonderful Rainbow (#157)
My Morning Jacket, Z (#146)
Fiery Furnaces, Blueberry Boat (#145)
TV on the Radio, Dear Science (#140)
No Age, Weirdo Rippers (#136)
Sleater Kinney, The Woods (#127)
Mastodon, Leviathan (#126)
Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP (#119)
Jay-Z, The Black Album (#90)
No Age, Nouns (#78)
The White Stripes, Elephant (#74)
Portishead, Third (#71)
The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America (#64)
Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend (#51)
Deerhunter, Microcastle (#50)
The Streets, Original Pirate Material (#36)
Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes (#32)
Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (#29)
Kanye West, The College Dropout (#28)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell (#24)

And now, to get even more meta, here's my own ranking of these same albums, from high to low:

1. Sleater Kinney, The Woods
2. Mastodon, Leviathan
3. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America
4. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes
5. The White Stripes, Elephant
6. Fiery Furnaces, Blueberry Boat
7. Jay-Z, The Black Album
8. My Morning Jacket, Z
9. The Streets, Original Pirate Material
10. Kanye West, The College Dropout
11. No Age, Nouns
12. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell
13. Portishead, Third
14. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
15. Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP
16. TV on the Radio, Dear Science
17. No Age, Weirdo Rippers
18. Deerhunter, Microcastle
19. Lightning Bolt, Wonderful Rainbow
20. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend

A caveat: several of the albums above are very recent purchases for me (I just bought the Portishead album a few days ago, and TV on the Radio I just got a couple weeks before), so my opinions will likely shift as I have more occasion to listen to them. That's the final point I'll make about lists: they are not permanent, but capture a momentary opinion that poses as something more enduring.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I'm leaving tomorrow to give a talk at Oklahoma State University, where my good friend Carol Mason invited me to speak under the auspices of the Gender and Women's Studies program there which she's now chairing. On the off chance that anyone is reading this who lives near Stillwater, OK, come to the talk this Friday afternoon, 4:00 pm in the Noble Research Center, Rm. 106. I'll be speaking about the Runaways, and apparently the flyer for the event has been stirring up a bit of dust on campus because of the photo it uses, pictured below, which is one of the favorite of the photos I included in my book.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Since my last post detailing some of my Beatles tourism in Liverpool recently, we had a veritable Beatles holiday with the release on 9-9-09 of the Beatles Rock Band video game and reissues of the whole official Beatles catalogue in newly remastered versions. It's easy to be cynical of such an event, market driven as it so clearly is, but I don't think cynicism alone goes so far in explaining why there's such a sense of occasion surrounding something as apparently banal as the release of a new video game. I was especially surprised to see the supposed arbiters of all things musically hip, Pitchfork.com, go to the trouble of devoting three whole days worth of review space to the whole reissued catalogue and even include a review of the video game.

http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/13425-stereo-box-in-mono/

Probably says more about Pitchfork's target demographic than anything else, but it also shows that even the musically hip are not immune to the excitement of getting access to the Beatles catalogue in a new form.

I, on the other hand, hip or not depending on your perspective, am sort of immune - for one thing, Beatles albums fall into the category of things I'd rather own on vinyl. I don't own their whole catalogue, but I do have a good bit of it, and all on vinyl. Moreover, about half the Beatles albums I own I acquired for free when a friend disposing of a bunch of old vinyl let me have my pick of the litter. I picked up Please Please Me, Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper's from that stash, not a bad score at all.

In the flurry of publicity that surrounded the Beatles consumer holiday, I got a call from a reporter at the Abilene Reporter News, which resulted in the following article that quotes me a surprising amount given that we spoke for all of five minutes:

http://www.reporternews.com/news/2009/sep/08/rockband-beatles/


(I still plan to post some more photos of my Liverpool trip, but those will wait until next time.)

Monday, August 31, 2009

A little over a month ago now I was in Liverpool for the first time, and of course when in Liverpool, any self-respecting rock scholar like myself would have to do some Beatles tourism. I should admit up front that I'm not the world's biggest Beatles fan, far from it. I like the Beatles fine, but saying you like the Beatles is kind of like saying you like chocolate - it's an obvious thing to like, which doesn't mean it's less good, but the tastes I hold most dear are the tastes that are a bit less obvious (although I will admit, I hold chocolate to be very dear indeed, but that's another matter).

Lately, though, I've been reevaluating my relative indifference to the Beatles. Given my (over)intellectualized approach to music, my impulse to reconsider their value was stimulated by reading - specifically, reading a provocative recent book on the Beatles called Magic Circles by a writer named Devin McKinney, about whom I know very little except that he does a very good job in his book of drawing attention to the darker, weirder, more unsettling aspects of the Beatles' music and their place in the cultural history of the 1960s. One of the longest chapters in the book is about the band's career during the single year of 1966 and it's a pretty great piece of writing, taking in the infamous Beatles butcher cover and various of their recordings, but also addressing their decision to stop performing in public in a way that recognizes the real boundary-breaking nature of Beatles' popularity as they performed concerts to stadiums full of people when stadium rock as such was a distant reality.


I'm going to be teaching McKinney's book in one of my classes this coming semester for the first time, and so it was an opportune time to travel to Liverpool and get to see some of the places that have become so hallowed through their association with the Beatles.

There are a lot of ways to be a Beatles tourist in Liverpool, but one of the longest established is the Magical Mystery bus tour that takes you around the city to various Beatles-related locations. The tourist material I'd read name-checked this tour so I figured I'd give it a go. In the end, it was fun but I appreciated it almost as much for the opportunity it gave me to see some of the less well-traveled parts of Liverpool than for what I learned about the Beatles. Nonetheless, like any such tour it presented many a photo op, and so here are a few of the highlights.


The row house pictured at an angle in the distance of this shot is the house where Ringo Starr grew up. I took this from a moving bus so it's an awkward shot. The neighborhood was all boarded up and on the verge of being razed; Ringo grew up in the roughest, most low-income area of all the Beatles.

This image probably speaks for itself. The fabled street after which the Beatles named one of their most buoyant songs. Moving down this street, one was moving through a much more comfortable, middle class district of Liverpool from where Ringo had lived.

This was George Harrison's childhood home, another row house but quite a bit nicer than Ringo's and not currently boarded up. Located close to Penny Lane. The street is an ordinary residential street and the house is currently inhabited by some regular folks unrelated to Harrison. A little girl who lived across the street was fascinated with our tour group (one of probably at least a dozen that passes through every day) and did all she could to draw our attention away from the fabled house. Quite an extrovert, she was.

Two photos of Strawberry Field, the location that gave its name to one of the trippiest and to my mind greatest of Beatles songs. This was probably the highlight of the tour for me, the one place that truly had the aura of something cool and slightly surreal surrounding it, whereas most of the rest was remarkably ordinary save for the fact that it was all about the Beatles.

Speaking of which, this was the house where John Lennon spent much of his childhood, living with his aunt I believe (?). Unlike the homes of Starr and Harrison, this one has been turned into a historical landmark held by the British National Trust. Unfortunately for plebeian tourists like myself, that meant you had to take a separate tour to see the house up close; this photo was taken from on the bus since they wouldn't let us out for this particular attraction.


Last but not least, Paul McCartney's childhood home - by now you're probably sensing a trend. Like Lennon's this is also held by the National Trust, although we were actually allowed to get out of the bus for this one, but we had to stand outside of the front yard.

Actually the last stop of the tour was in the neighborhood in downtown Liverpool near the Cavern club, where the Beatles played many a show in the earliest years of their career. The alleyways surrounding the Cavern club are like a Beatles museum unto themselves but in a weird, not entirely pleasant way - lots of drunk locals mingling with lots of awkward tourists. Still, 'twas interesting in its own right, and worth a post of its own.

To be continued...

Monday, August 24, 2009

This past Friday Holly and I went to see Quentin Tarantino's new movie, Inglorious Basterds. It's not my favorite of his films by any means but it made an impression on us both, and since seeing it we've talked about it far more than we do the average Friday night movie.

Among other things, the film seems to strangely dovetail with the book I'm currently reading, Jon Savage's The England's Dreaming Tapes. Savage is one of the great rock-critics-cum-cultural-historians, and his book, England's Dreaming - first published in 1992 - is my pick for the single best book ever written about punk rock (if you check the archives of this blog, I posted my list for the best books ever written about rock music some months ago, and it's one of the chosen few). The new book is a belated companion volume composed of edited transcripts of several of the interviews that Savage conducted in writing his earlier cultural history. There are lengthy, detailed interviews with all of the original members of the Sex Pistols (no Sid Vicious, since he was long dead when Savage was doing his research) and many other musicians connected to the British punk scene. But many of the best interviews are with lesser known figures who provide a different sort of insider perspective - my favorite thus far is Savage's interview with Roger Armstrong, a former record store shopkeeper and indie record label figure who sheds considerable light on the musical tastes that drove the early punk scene, which he knew inside out because he sold records to many of the movement's key players.

So what does a book on punk rock have to do with Tarantino's new film? Well, Inglorious Basterds is a movie in which Tarantino constructs a wild fantasy about a Jewish resistance force put together to fight the Nazis in the most brutal way possible. The film flaunts Nazi imagery every chance it gets, most luridly in a completely over-the-top climax during which a film screening designed to be a Nazi rally becomes instead an inverted death camp. Hitler and Goebbels are major characters in the film, and the leader of the resistance - played by Brad Pitt - gets great pleasure from carving swastikas into the foreheads of those few captured Nazis that he and his comrades choose to let live.

One of the distinctive features of the mid-to-late 1970s punk scene, of course, was its appropriation of the swastika and other fascist imagery (this tendency characterized punk in both the U.S. and England though was more prominent in the U.K.). In The England's Dreaming Tapes, Savage repeatedly asks his interviewees why they thought the swastika became such a common icon during the punk era and what they thought it meant at the time. Many of those interviewed offer what have become stock answers - it wasn't meant to be taken seriously, it was more a means of provoking the older generation than it was anything to do with sympathy for Nazism, etc. Savage makes his own opposition to the use of the swastika clear but never really provides anything like a definitive explanation for what its use meant, and what stands out among many of the interviews is a certain defensiveness about its use, as though nobody really wants to dig too deep into why it proved such a compelling symbol for so many young (and not so young) people at the time.

Siouxsie Sioux was one of the punk-era figures most known for sporting swastikas as part of her visual aesthetic, and her response is characteristic of many cited in the book:

"It was always very much an anti-mums-and-dads thing. We hated older people. Not across the board, but generally the suburban thing, always harping on about Hitler, and 'We showed him,' and that smug pride; and it was a way of saying, 'Well I think Hitler was very good, actually.' A way of watching someon like that go completely red-faced. We made our own swastikas."

Tarantino's use of the swastika and his effort to draw upon the power of Nazi imagery in his new film seem to me to have a lot of similarities to the swastika's use in 1970s punk. Like Siouxsie and many of her punk compatriots, Tarantino seems fascinated by the swastika's power to shock, and he wants so badly for his film to have some of that same immediacy. It's one of the paradoxes of his film - as it was one of the paradoxes of punk - that its fundamentally anti-fascist politics are only possible to represent through an appropriation of fascist imagery that basks in its most sensational qualities.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

R.I.P. Les Paul. One of the great innovators in the history of popular music, Paul (born Lester Polfuss) did not invent the electric guitar as many people think, but he refined its design and made it into an instrument with a much broader range of sonic possibilities than it had previously had. He was also remarkably inventive in his use of recorded sound, pioneering multitrack recording techniques years before they became standard practice in the music industry, and making some of the great instrumental guitar records in the process. Until his death he had been playing every Monday night at the Iridium nightclub in Manhattan, and I had the honor of being the keynote speaker last November at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's American Music Masters conference honoring Paul's legacy (this due to my having written a lengthy chapter on Paul in my first book, Instruments of Desire). It wasn't clear that Paul would be well enough to attend that event, but he not only attended, he participated in a great Q&A with the audience and then played a nice 20 minute set with his current group at the big tribute concert, where he stole the show with his endearing, dirty-old-man wit.

In the obituary for Paul posted on the PBS Newshour website, they include an excerpt from an interview I did with Jim Lehrer back in 2000 when Instruments of Desire came out. My effort to replicate the first few bars of Paul's "How High the Moon" is pretty weak but otherwise I think it holds up:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/

Saturday, August 8, 2009

It's been a month since my last post, during which time I've been to Liverpool and back, and have been working on way too many little projects that have forced me to put the blog on the backburner for a while.

I just learned yesterday that one of my favorite Northampton haunts, Dynamite Records, will be closing its doors on Sunday, August 9 (which is tomorrow as I'm writing this). I am majorly bummed out. Followers of this blog might remember that I did a reading in connection with my new book there back in early April, which was one of the highlights of my year so far.

Dynamite has been around for a long time, and its current owner Ronnie Kwon has had it for over a decade I believe. Just last year they moved from their longtime location in the basement of Thorne's shopping mall in downtown Northampton to a new location right on Main St. The more visible location seemed to hold a lot of promise, but apparently the economic downturn combined with the general trend of people shopping for music online rather than patronizing actual physical stores was too much for the place to bear. As a result, the Pioneer Valley loses one of its best local resources for music, especially for used vinyl of which they always had a good supply.

The store is having a big closing sale right now - yesterday everything was 50% off, and I wouldn't be surprised if the discount grows by tomorrow, the final day. So if you're in downtown Northampton, visit the store, pay your respects, and get some good music at a good price while you're at it. Peace to Ronnie, Willis, Jay and the rest of the Dynamite crew!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

For those who were wondering, Anvil! The Story of Anvil was not a letdown. Hell, I'd say it was the feel-good movie of the summer. Who knew a movie about two 50+ year old heavy metal musicians could be so touching? But it was, and thanks to the audience who turned out for the event and had such good questions and comments to offer.

I am about to leave for Liverpool, England, to go to the biannual IASPM (International Association for the Study of Popular Music) conference. Should be a good time, though of course, I'm also a little nervous. I'll be giving a paper (Tuesday morning), chairing a panel (sometime on Thursday), and I'll be taping a BBC Merseyside radio show where me and a few other folks from the conference will be speaking to the subject of popular music, in front of a small live audience. A busy week, but I should be able to fit some Beatles tourism in there somewhere.

The blog will likely be silent while I'm gone. But in anticipation of my silence, here's some of that unpublished writing on the New York Dolls that I promised a couple posts ago.

* * *

Writing about the Dolls in 1978, after the group’s demise and in the midst of the more widely recognized “punk” explosion, Robert Christgau paid homage to Johnny Thunders as one of the key elements of the band that made their music run with an almost unnerving energy. According to Christgau, Thunders’ main contribution to rock was “buzzsaw guitar charismatic enough to vie with heavy-metal fuzz in the hearts of rock and rollers everywhere,” and this buzzsaw quality was something that Thunders derived in large part from Ron Asheton of the Stooges and Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5. Christgau went on to contrast the approach of these guitarists to that of heavy metal musicians who often were “simply responding to the call of the vocal line with a neat, standardized electroshock phrase that incorporated both factory-approved sound effects and natural feedback. Not that there was no galvanic spillover --” Christgau continued:

"amplifiers were molested until they screamed in conspicuously unpredictable revolt. But for Asheton and Kramer and Smith [and Thunders] spillover was the be-all and end-all. Exploiting their own continuous, imprecise finger action a lot more than the fuzzbox, they threw together an environment of electric noise with which everything else had to contend, replacing the deracinated call-and-response of heavy metal with music that was pure white riot."

By 1978, the Dolls had been elevated to principal precursors of the musical and cultural eruption that had been instigated by the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and a host of others, which will be the subject of the next chapter. Christgau clearly perceived the Dolls through this lens, and uses Thunders to construct a genealogy of out-of-bounds guitar style that not only paved the way for the later crystallization of something like a punk musical style, but also significantly deviated from the established terms of early 1970s heavy metal, which he defines as more standardized, more streamlined, less permissive of genuine musical chaos.

This perspective is, to my mind, too much informed by hindsight. Christgau is right to suggest that there was a difference between the guitar styles of Thunders, Asheton, Smith and Kramer and those of, say, Tony Iommi or Jimmy Page. Where I part company with him is in the significance he assigns to that difference. While Christgau would emphasize that the “buzzsaw” approach is a countertradition to metal that paved the way for punk, I would stress that Thunders et. al. were coterminous with the emergence and early development of metal, and that they are as much of that moment as against it. In this sense I would join with Chuck Eddy, who lists the New York Dolls’ debut album as the number six best heavy metal album of all time in his willfully obtuse survey of the genre, Stairway to Hell. Eddy’s explanation of his choice perhaps overstates the case, but is worth considering for the combination of insight and sheer contrarian wit. By his account, “there’s less Never Mind the Bollocks” on the Dolls’ debut “than [Prince’s] Dirty Mind, less Iggy than Madonna, it’s that kind of ├ępater les bourgeois; the sex kind, not the violence kind. Which is to say that though punk-rockers listened in, punks would never have this kind of intestinal fortitude.”

Moreover, for all that Thunders’ guitar style was characterized by something like the “galvanic spillover” emphasized by Christgau, the combination of Thunders and Sylvain also produced some moments of more straightforward but eminently potent and driving force. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Jet Boy,” the song that closes the Dolls’ debut. Combining a comic book scenario lyric about a boy who flies above New York City and stole the singer’s “baby,” background vocals and sound effects reminiscent of nothing so much as early 1960s surf music, and one of the most elaborate “buzzsaw” riffs the Dolls would ever commit to record, “Jet Boy” was a motley whirl of sounds and symbols, the band at their polymorphous best. The song is further propelled by the rapid, powerful beat of Jerry Nolan’s drums, which pushes the band into territory where, as Robert Duncan has noted, the “too loud” of heavy metal was added to “too fast, the heavy metal disintegrating under the impact.” And, which makes the break that occurs after the song’s second chorus all the more disorienting.

“Jet Boy” has a continual start-and-stop dynamic, the verses chugging along at a consistent clip, the chorus temporarily slowing the song’s progress, only to regather momentum for the next verse. Following the second chorus, however, the song grinds more completely to a halt. Into the ensuing quiet, Johansen sings an unaccompanied “My baby” that is full of ambiguity as to the nature of his object of desire; and then the guitars return to the song in hyperdrive. Sylvain leads the charge, playing a terse riff built around a basic set of gestures: the open A string of the guitar pounded with an even, repeated motion, to be interrupted at the start of each bar by a quick shift to a barre chord at the fifth fret. Harmonically, the riff is tinged with uncertainty; the barre chord is voiced in C but the open A string sounds over it, conveying a short-lived sense of irresolution. Rhythmically, though, it is intensively consistent, all the more so after the remaining instruments return to the song following two unaccompanied repetitions. What had been “too fast” during the verses becomes even faster during the break. Meanwhile, Thunders’ guitar plays off the insistence of Sylvain’s core riff, entering with a full-fledged Berry-esque double-stop in A, and mining similarly constricted melodic terrain for the first several bars. Eventually he doubles Sylvain’s throbbing A string, creating a two-guitar attack that is far less directed towards spillover than unity of purpose. Breaking away once again, Thunders plays a simple two-note melody that alternates between G and G flat and rings out over the other instruments, creating an added touch of melodic tension that signals the end of the instrumental break and a return to the chorus. The combined efforts of Thunders and Sylvain throughout the midsection of “Jet Boy” turn the song into one of the transformative statements of early 1970s rock, a song in which the ragged musicianship of the Dolls was put in the service of a more streamlined sort of musical power. Neither metal nor punk in any exclusive measure, “Jet Boy” was heavy rock reinventing itself through the inverted logic of New York glam.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Me, you and Anvil!

Tomorrow night (Tuesday, July 7) I'll be appearing at Pleasant St. Theater here in downtown Northampton as a guest speaker for the 7:00 PM showing of Anvil! The Story of Anvil. Come one, come all! I'll be giving a short introduction to the film and then will be leading a discussion/Q&A afterward. It should be fun.

I've been waiting to see this movie so long, not because I'm the world's biggest Anvil fan - which I'm not - but because I'm always eager to see a new rock music film, all the more so when it's one as well-reviewed as this one has been. If you haven't been paying attention, Anvil! has been getting almost universal praise as one of the best documentaries of the year, much of it coming from film critics who seem to have no affinity for heavy metal and find it surprising that they actually care about the fate of a couple of aging metal musicians. Here's hoping that with all the advance rave reviews, the film itself won't be a letdown.

Here's the event listing from the Amherst and Pleasant St. Theater website:

https://amherstcinema.org/?q=films-and-events%2Fanvil!-story-anvil

To sample some of those rave reviews and learn more about the film, check out the film's entry on Rotten Tomatoes, where the film has a 98% rating (100 positive reviews out of 102 surveyed):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/anvil_the_story_of_anvil/

Friday, June 26, 2009

It's been a busy 24 hours.

First off, R.I.P. Michael Jackson. I've never been the hugest fan of the self-titled "King of Pop," but it's hard to deny his sheer massiveness as a cultural icon. As much as he's become an object of ridicule over the last several years - and rightfully so, far as I'm concerned - it's made him all the more tragic, and his end was so sudden I can't help but feel a pang of loss.

There's no shortage of news circulating around about his death, but the Daily Hampshire Gazette did a story detailing local reactions in which I got quoted for a few short paragraphs. Here's the link:

http://www.gazettenet.com/2009/06/26/news-shock-local-fans-predictable-boost-sales

Last night was also the night of the New York Dolls show at Pearl Street, which was pretty great all in all. Opening act Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears were solid, high-energy R&B-infused rock and roll, good stuff. The Dolls played a set that was curiously heavy with new material, which means a lot of songs that much of the audience - including myself - probably didn't know so well. The new material was good, though, and it made it that much more exciting when the old nuggets from the band's early 1970s heyday came to the fore.

Highlight of the evening to my mind was the final two songs before the encore: "Trash" and "Jet Boy," two of the best from the band's first album. "Trash" was especially intriguing in performance, as the band changed up the second half of the song quite dramatically, shifting from its basic proto-punk style to a slowed-down, calypso beat and harmonic progression during which singer David Johansen briefly drifted into a skewed version of the 1950s Mickey and Sylvia tune "Love Is Strange," before the whole band finally moved back into the more straight-up rock of the original recorded version and brought the song to an exciting finish, made more exciting by the fact that "Jet Boy" came next.

"Jet Boy" might be my favorite of the old Dolls songs. It has weird comic book style lyrics about a boy who flies around New York, but what makes it so great is its killer main riff and even more so, the song's mid-section, where the band accelerates the tempo and the guitars rush into overdrive. The 1973 recording is one of the landmark songs in rock music, the band almost veering towards a sort of early speed metal with the power of the riff that plays during that midsection. In concert last night they did a great job with it but stretched it out a bit more than necessary, so it lost a bit of its punch. Still, it was great to get to see them play it, with Sylvain doing all the scene-stealing guitar posturing he could fit and Johansen wearing a goofy grin as he did through much of the evening.

I promised some unpublished writing on the Dolls in my last post; I'll keep it in reserve for my next post since this one's already running on the longer side. For now, here's a great old clip of the Dolls - the real Dolls - in action back in the 1970s playing "Jet Boy" (from the video All Dolled Up, which has amazing old video footage of the Dolls shot by photographer Bob Gruen):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAf0o6xZ_l8&feature=related

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Good things are coming!

Two quick notices.

The New York Dolls are playing tomorrow night (Thursday, June 25) at Pearl Street here in Northampton. The Dolls are one of the great rock and roll bands of all time. The fact that 3 out of 5 original members (plus one other member who joined later) are dead is a major bummer. But David Johansen is one of the best front men in the history of rock and Sylvain Sylvain, the other remaining original Doll, is one of the most underrated rhythm guitarists in rock and roll history. Apparently tickets for this show have been selling slowly but anyone who reads this and lives nearby should get their asses to Pearl Street for what should be a killer night of live rock.

I will post something further after the show, which might include some unpublished thoughts on the Dolls that were once upon a time slated to go into This Ain't the Summer of Love but wound up on the cutting room floor.

On a more personal note, the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil is finally going to be opening locally at Amherst Cinemas and if all goes well, I might be speaking at one of the screenings. It's supposed to be an absolutely great rock documentary, and if you don't know, Anvil was one of the most crazy, over-the-top heavy metal bands of the 1980s, a band that laid the groundwork for thrash metal but then was overshadowed by the likes of Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer. Stay tuned for more information.

Friday, June 19, 2009

As a brief follow-up to my last post, I've noticed that some reviewers, in describing the details of my book, draw attention to the cloth/hardbound edition rather than the paperback (and in the case of electronic sources like PopMatters, have also included links to the hardcover edition on Amazon). I know that reviewers often have a preference for cloth-bound books, but I find this frustrating nonetheless because U.California Press opted to issue This Ain't the Summer of Love in simultaneous paper and cloth editions, which means the cloth version is basically made for libraries - it's overpriced at $65, and it has no cover art because they didn't produce a jacket for it. The paperback edition is reasonably priced and you get the cover art, which is a plus.

I mention all of this because when I recently went to Amazon to check the sales ranking of the book - which I do with neurotic frequency - I noticed that the sales ranking of the cloth edition was higher than that of the paperback, and I suspect some of the reason why is the way that reviewers and other sources have highlighted the cloth edition over the paper.

So, if you happen to be reading this blog and happen to be interested in buying a copy of my book, unless you really have a thing for cloth-bound editions, do yourself a favor and buy the paperback. I get less royalties but you get a book that you'll probably be happier with for reasons of both expense and design.

Thus ends my public service announcement for the day.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Back in January, I started this blog in conjunction with the publication of my new book, This Ain't the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk. Since then, the blog has taken on something of a life of its own, and so has the book in a manner of speaking. For the most part I've avoided using this space as a simple publicity mechanism for the book, but after 5 months I thought an update was in order, since the book has generated some good reviews and commentary (including my contact with the folks at National Day of Slayer, the subject of my last post).

For starters, I just did a nice interview with the local NPR affiliate, WFCR, about the new book. Of course the interview is heavily edited compared to the full conversation we had, but it's edited well, so that it actually makes me sound smart (almost too smart, some who've heard it have said - lots of "big words"). Luckily, WFCR has the interview available on its website as streaming audio; here's a link:

http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wfcr/news.newsmain/article/0/0/1515774/WFCR.Local.Features/Smith.Professor.Explores.the.Tangled.History.of.Metal.and.Punk

I have to give big props to Tina Antolini, the 'FCR reporter/host who did the interview. She's a former student of mine who has quickly proven herself to be a big talent in radio and is rapidly moving up the ladder; it won't be long before she's receiving national exposure for her work.

For those who are interested, This Ain't the Summer of Love has been reviewed or received notice in the following publications:

Popmatters.com
City Paper of Baltimore
Valley Advocate (our local alternate newsweekly)
Reason magazine
Music Industry Newswire
Svenska Dagbladet (Swedish daily newspaper)
The Independent (UK daily newspaper)
The Wire

I'm especially happy about this last one, because I'd rate The Wire as one of the best monthly music magazines out there (I mentioned it briefly in one of my earlier posts). They reviewed my first book, Instruments of Desire, many moons ago, mostly postively although with a lot of caveats. The review of the new book was very positive, as have been almost all of the above with the exception of the Independent review, which was of a type I would have hoped had become outdated by now: rather than review the substance of the book in any considered way the reviewer mainly commented on how odd it was that an academic writer chose to concentrate upon subject matter like heavy metal and punk. Seriously? I mean, how long ago did Dick Hebdige's Subculture come out? (30 years ago, to be exact.) I don't know why daily newspapers have to continue to act as though cultural lines in the sand that most of us long ago stopped paying attention to are still of any consequence.

But I won't end on a note of frustration. So far, so good.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A few weeks ago I was contacted by someone on behalf of an organization, or a movement, or something, called National Day of Slayer, wanting to interview me for their website. I had not heard of this National Day of Slayer, but it sounded peculiar enough to pique my interest so I looked at the website. And became all the more intrigued.

As the name would suggest, the folks at National Day of Slayer want to establish a holiday commemorating the great, foundational, uber-heavy band Slayer. To a considerable extent they pursue this goal with a good amount of tongue firmly in cheek, which is a plus. At the same time, there are some serious undertones to the endeavor. National Day of Slayer, as a phrase, is a deliberate play on the National Day of Prayer, and the website and organization seem bent on using Slayer's well-established antipathy towards organized religion as a launching point for their initiative. They also seem to be legitimately concerned to promote the notion that heavy metal constitutes something like a culture unto itself that is worth taking seriously.

All of this became much more clear to me when I got the interview questions over email. These were not easy questions. When I read the first one I almost felt like I was back in graduate school taking an exam: "Are elective cultures, or those which are chosen and not born into, legitimately cultures in a pluralistic society?" Not what I was expecting, but a pleasant surprise. The rest of the questions followed suit, so I gladly replied in kind, though a part of me was still wondering whether there was a joke or a hidden agenda behind this exercise.

The interview went live on the internet a couple days ago, and I was glad to see that there was no hidden agenda - although I didn't know that I was one of three "experts" they had interviewed for a piece dedicated to discussing heavy metal culture. The other two interviewees are Keith Kahn-Harris and Martin Popoff, so I'm in good company and it's an interesting read apart from the typos that mar a couple of my responses. Here's the link:

http://www.nationaldayofslayer.org/slayer/experts/

Sunday, May 24, 2009

For academic folks like myself, May is always one of the cruelest of months, especially when your school year ends on the earlier side as it does at Smith. So it is that I haven't posted anything here for nearly three weeks. But now the semester's over and I'm back in my home town of Simi Valley, CA, visiting my parents. And I have nothing but time on my hands.

A while back I blogged about how happy I was to have shipped all the remaining records I had kept at my parents' house to my home back in Northampton. It has indeed been great to have all my records living under one roof. But now that I'm visiting my parents for the first time since then, I'm having to face the flip side of the situation: aside from my parents themselves, I have very little stuff at their house now that I feel connected to. Even though my parents still live in the same house I grew up in, it feels a lot less like home to me than it ever has.

Simi Valley was a place I needed to escape from the time I was a teenager. That's pretty much one of suburbia's main functions, culturally speaking. While for some people the suburbs is the place to settle down, for others - and especially for those like me who grew up there - suburbia is the place to get away from. I got away a long time ago, when I left for college at age 18 and headed north to the hip(pie) atmosphere of U.C. Berkeley. But my parents have continued to live in Simi Valley and so my escape has never been complete. I come back here once, maybe twice a year and when I do I invariably relive some of the mixed emotions that I felt when I was growing up here all those years ago.

Back then, my records were one of the things - along with my guitar and my books - that made living here bearable. Indeed, as I've grown up it's been hard not to think that my principal passions in life - music, learning, writing, intellectual analysis - largely developed out of the isolation I felt growing up in such a culturally stifling environment. And that recognition has led me to think that the suburbs, however awful, are not all bad. They can stimulate all sorts of creativity, even if the stimulation often takes a negative form, a reaction against the environment. That's the flip side of the desire to escape: if you can't get away you have to figure out how to deal.

For the last several years before I shipped my records back east, I hadn't actually had a way to listen to them. My parents have never been hi-fi people. At an early age I pretty much appropriated the main home stereo system in our house as my own and soon moved it into my bedroom from its less cloistered position in the living room. After I moved out of the house my parents never got a stereo for themselves; my old one stayed around but in a deteriorating state and after a while it inevitably died. I actually went to the trouble of replacing it a few years back because the thought of visiting my parents and not being able to listen to my old records was intolerable. But as luck would have it, the cheap-ish (but overpriced given its quality) Sony turntable I bought at Circuit City stopped working just a couple years after I bought it and I took it as a sign that listening to my old records at my parents' house was no longer meant to be. Thus, the decision to move my records back home.

Even when I couldn't listen to them, though, having those records at my parents' house provided a sort of anchor. It was a sign that this was still familiar emotional territory, that there was something here that made my parents' house feel like my house too. That feeling hasn't entirely evaporated, but it's diminished, and I feel a little more like an alien in this Southern California suburb than I have in years past.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

As I'm writing this I'm watching American Idol. I've been a regular Idol watcher for some time now, and am unembarrassed about it. It's a fascinating exercise in establishing what the mainstream of American popular music is understood to be, and shaping some very raw talent to fit the production standards of the music industry in its most blatantly commercial manifestation. I rarely like the music that's sung on the show, but it's really not a show about music per se, it's a show about cultural production.

Or at least that's how I justify my interest in it.

But tonight's episode is a trip because it's a full-on rock episode. Slash (!) is the guest mentor, and the first song performed this evening was Adam Lambert - he of the ridiculous high range that he likes to show off every chance he can get - doing a pretty decent version of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." Apparently this was the first time that a Zeppelin song has ever been done on American Idol, and it didn't completely suck. It was followed by Allison Iraheta - the only female singer left in the final four - who did an okay-not-great version of Janis Joplin's "Cry, Baby" (which they kept referring to as though it was "Cry Baby," so not the connotation of the song's lyric).

Idol has always had a strangely ambivalent relationship to "rock." I didn't watch the show much in the first few seasons, and part of the reason why was that its version of "pop" was pretty clearly non-rock, sweet vocal ballads and modern R&B having been the main idioms at first, neither of which get my mojo working. That began to change in season 4 (I had to look this up on Wikipedia) when Bo Bice, a "southern rocker" who was fairly lightweight as rockers go but had a decent bluesy rock voice, made it to the final two, only to lose to country singer Carrie Underwood. Since then the rock quotient has grown modestly but steadily, with the biggest breakout of course coming from Chris Daughtry in season 5, who made it to the top 4, was unceremoniously booted but then had a bigger album by far than any of his competitors. Last year, David Cook won with a sound markedly similar to Daughtry, and this year two of the final four (the aforementioned Adam and Alison) seem to be as much "rock" as anything else, stylistically.

What I find fascinating about all this is how the show, even as it absorbs rock more and more into its fabric, still maintains a significant element of the "rock" vs. "pop" binary - as though rock were not just another version of pop rather than its antithesis. Of course, rock fans have long had much invested in this binary, since it upholds their belief that rock is something of greater value than pop, more authentic, more real (Simon Frith, one of the founders of academic popular music studies, has spent much of his career analyzing these distinctions). But the pop industry has usually been quick to absorb the rebellious veneer of rock every chance it can get. That American Idol has often been more cautious in its approach to rock is, far as I can figure, the result of two factors:

1. It's on TV, which means it has to shoot for a more conservative notion of "mainstream" than, say, Top 40 radio, because TV as a medium (or at least, network TV) has always been defined by a decidedly middle American version of the mainstream.

2. The show began in the era of the high-gloss super-manufactured likes of Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and N'Sync, and its initial target audience - I gather - was the young audiences of those artists, for whom rock was deemed too "edgy." As those artists have lost much of their luster (Justin Timberlake excepted since he completely reinvented himself), Idol has redefined its own sense of the mainstream by incorporating more and more rock into its fabric.

Of course there are still limits to all of this. The decidedly non-rock Danny Gokey, another of this season's final four and one of the clear favorites, just murdered a version of Aerosmith's "Dream on." Not all artists can do rock well and American Idol still needs folks like Gokey to appeal to its non-rock fan demographic, which is almost certainly still a bigger part of its audience than its rock fan contingent.

And, strangely, rap music is still largely beyond the pale of Idol even though there's no doubt that in strictly commercial terms it's been the biggest thing going for the past 15 years (since Kurt Cobain died). I'd need a whole other post to try to make sense of that.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

ItalicI’m long overdue for another blog post, so I think it’s time for another entry elaborating on one of my best rock books of all time (for the full list check my entry for Feb. 18, 2009).

This time around it’s Chuck Eddy, Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe. I’m talking about the original 1991 edition, not the updated edition released a few years later that had an additional 100 entries on best metal of the ‘90s. I’m sure that one’s good too, but I wasn’t going to spend another round of cash for another 100 reviews.


Besides, part of what made the first edition of Stairway to Hell so great was precisely its focus on metal in the 1970s and 1980s. These were metal’s key years after all, the years when metal recreated the terms according to which rock existed as a form of mass culture. From the early 1990s forward, however great metal has remained musically, it has fundamentally changed in the breadth of its appeal, having been segmented into increasingly specialized micro-genres that hang together loosely under the rubric of extreme metal. While some good metal histories have been written that link the different phases of the genre’s development together from beginning to end (Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast probably being the current standard-bearer in this regard), post-1990 metal really occupies its own sphere, whereas the 1970s and 1980s contain a more continuous thread between them.

Disguised as one of the most tried and true of rock critic conceits – an extensive “best of” list, the likes of which have become the bread-and-butter of VH1’s musical programming, of various Rolling Stone special issues, my own list of best rock books ever written, etc. – Stairway to Hell is actually a series of overlapping arguments put forward in the form of a series of record reviews. Eddy says as much, in a characteristically sardonic way, in the last line of his acknowledgments: “Read closely, and you’ll be able to tear my thesis all to hell. If you can find it, that is.”

Well, I think I found it, and here’s what I think it is:

1. Heavy metal is best when it’s good time rave-up party music. All those bands that wear black leather and display an infatuation with symbols of power and darkness are really boring and have pretensions that don’t belong in heavy metal, and that drag the genre down. Yes, Chuck Eddy is talking to you, Judas Priest, and you, Iron Maiden (both of whom I actually really like, but Eddy makes a point of excluding both bands from his list).

2. Following from the above, heavy metal has the hidden potential to be great dance music, which a few select artists have recognized over the years and that will be the genre’s great salvation. How else to explain the inclusion of Teena Marie and Jimmy Castor albums among Eddy’s top ten heavy metal records of all time? Or all those Funkadelic albums strewn throughout the book? But hey, Eddy is open about this one. One of the final sections of the book is entitled, “Reasons Disco-Metal Fusion Is Inevitable in the Nineties.”

3. Heavy metal may have achieved its greatest commercial successes in the 1980s, but its artistic peak came in the 1970s. As he says in the books introductory overview: “1970-73 were the Years of Sludge … This was a time of snowplow quagmires and speed-freak excesses, with major labels snatching up every trio of un-haircut degenerates whose stink they could sniff out … By the time I entered high school in late ’73, metal was kinda sorta already over.” Of course, it wasn’t actually over at all, but Eddy’s celebration of the early 1970s as a key era of musical creativity went a long way towards reclaiming the significance of that previously much-maligned period.

4. Perhaps most importantly, heavy metal mattered way more than people thought it did, and punk conversely didn’t matter as much as people thought it did. Eddy messes with musical categories throughout his book, but one of the primary streams of thought running through the reviews is that the best metal did everything that punk was supposed to have done and more. Thus, the following from his review of Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic, which ranks at #4 on his list: “Five skinny guys speed off New England’s streets with the sleaziest and sassiest set of sex-swagger ever assembled, hauling in almost a million dollars a month in the process. From the startgate the frustration and fury dash so dang fast; after this, punk couldn’t possibly have mattered, no way.” That Eddy places several albums by punk or proto-punk bands high up on his list (New York Dolls, Adverts, Dictators, MC5, Stooges, Sex Pistols all appear in the top 30) suggests that his vision of metal isn’t shared by all, but it also suggests that the boundaries between metal and punk are far more porous than many would like to acknowledge.

I rate this book so highly for two main reasons. First, I’ve bought a ton of great music based on Eddy’s reviews in this book, music I probably wouldn’t have discovered so readily otherwise (it’s Eddy who led me to the Dictators after all). Second, while I disagree with quite a lot of what Eddy says, no book I know demonstrates so well that music genres are subject to all varieties of interpretation, and that it’s precisely the capacity of a genre like “heavy metal” to encompass so many different sounds and definitions that makes it something worth caring about.

(And if you want a good laugh, check out the reviews of Eddy's book on Amazon, where angry metalheads rant about his rankings.)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

This summer will be the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock. I've put together some thoughts about the anniversary which the folks at Smith are planning to send out as a press release, to try to stir up some further attention for This Ain't the Summer of Love. Given the book's preoccupation with the end of the '60s and what it meant for rock, and given how much time I spend thinking about rock in general, I think I'm in a good position to hold forth. In the spirit of sharing, here's the text of the press release. It's only the beginning of a conversation on the subject - anyone with some thoughts on the matter should feel free to share them here.


1) What is the meaning of the anniversary?

The anniversary is an occasion to look back on the connection between rock music and the counterculture of the 1960s. In part, it’s an opportunity to recall a lot of great music and musicians, some of whom are no longer with us anymore, such as Jimi Hendrix, and some of whom are still very much with us, such as Carlos Santana and Neil Young. But it’s also an opportunity to think about the ways in which rock music, or any form of music, can create a sense of collective purpose. To what extent did the roughly half a million people who attended Woodstock share a common social or political vision? To what extent was their connection grounded in something more than rock music itself? These are questions about which it’s easy to be either nostalgic (“We were all one, man!”) or cynical (“Just a bunch of hippies getting high and listening to rock!”). The real answer to those questions, though, is not a simple one, and it’s something to take seriously, because it has a lot to tell us about how music shapes our values and maybe makes it possible for us to relate to each other in ways we wouldn’t otherwise.

2) What was the significance of Woodstock?

The late cultural critic Ellen Willis described Woodstock as the culmination of a dream of mass freedom that had arisen in the years after World War II and was connected to rock and roll. Mass freedom meant that people believed they could best achieve their fullest freedom in the context of a group, rather than isolated, as individuals. At Woodstock, it was precisely the coming together of so many thousands of young people that gave the event its power, and that power was at once symbolic and real. People there felt a sense of connection, and felt that the connection was tied to something bigger than the fact that there was a big rock festival going on. It was tied to youth, above all, but it was tied to a particular image of youth as a part of the population who could transform the existing cultural and political order, could potentially create the basis for a culture in which peace was valued over war, in which pleasure was valued over productivity, and in which rules and conventions were not to be followed if they were found to be corrupt.

At the same time, Woodstock also showed, in a less utopian vein, that one could gather enormous crowds of young people together at once and not have a catastrophe follow. This was an important lesson for the music industry, which at the end of the 1960s was still trying to figure out how best to capitalize on the enormous audience that existed for rock. After Woodstock, rock concerts grew larger and larger in size; there was less need for festivals after a certain point, because concerts were routinely happening in arenas and stadiums that held thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people. So Woodstock also contributed to the further incorporation of rock into the profit-making structures of the music industry.

3) What happened to rock music in the years that followed?

Well, most immediately, about four months after Woodstock came Altamont, the large festival outside San Francisco organized by the Rolling Stones, which was marked by some bad vibes due to the presence of a row of Hell’s Angels in front of the stage, and culminated in the widely publicized death of a young black man, Meredith Hunter. Altamont made the achievement of Woodstock seem to many a fluke, and made crowds of young people seem dangerous again. The shift from festivals to arena and stadium concerts that occurred in the 1970s was in many ways driven by concerns over crowd control as much as by concerns over profit. It’s easier to maintain order in a space that’s enclosed and has clear boundaries around it, where people sit in rows.

More broadly, rock’s connection to its young audience changed. This was partly because some of rock’s audience was no longer so young; people who had come of age through the countercultural years of the late 1960s were now entering their twenties and were looking for music that was still rock but that was more “mature.” Meanwhile, younger fans were looking for something they could call their own, and so a generation gap of sorts began to emerge within rock rather than between rock and other styles of popular music. This is where new genres like heavy metal and punk come into play, as forms of rock that are still very much concerned with the relationship between rock and youth, and that try to reimagine what kinds of communal or collective identity rock might create in the wake of the sixties counterculture. That, in effect, is what my new book, This Ain’t the Summer of Love, is about.

***

My reading last night was awesome - great turnout, great vibe, many books sold. Thanks to all who came, and thanks to Ronnie at Dynamite for allowing it to happen there. I hope to have some pictures to post soon.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

My reading is tomorrow, and I'm still trying to figure out what parts of the book to read. Holly says I shouldn't try to show off by playing guitar during the reading, and I guess she's right although it's still a tempting thought to throw a little "Eruption"-style finger tapping into the mix. But, doing so would mean having to drag my guitar and amp to Dynamite Records, and that's not something I want to try to deal with, so I'll probably keep things a little less demonstrative.

Today in class I had one of those odd moments that only happens when you teach a History of Rock course at a school like Smith. One of the college's big benefactors, who has donated a lot of money to the music department, was visiting campus today, and I had been told that she might be coming to my class. I don't know this woman, except that I gather that she's a classical pianist, and also presumably quite wealthy, two things that don't immediately suggest someone who's going to find a session of rock history the most amusing pastime (excuse me for generalizing). Sure enough, just as class was starting, in walks the benefactor, accompanied by a man whose connection to her I didn't catch and someone from Smith's advancement office, leading them on their tour of campus.

All of this is fine, but today happened to be the day that I was teaching about disco. That means I spent most of the first half hour of class talking about gay liberation in NYC in the late 1960s and early 1970s and how early dance clubs in the city were tied to the sexual politics of that moment, and similar such things. I have no idea what the visiting benefactor and her posse thought, but I know they left after only half an hour. I was relieved they left, though, especially since I was poised to play the full 17 minute version of Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby," the song during which Summer spends half of her vocal simulating orgasm (I actually only played 11 minutes, much to the students' relief).

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

NEWS FLASH! For those who might be paying attention, my reading previously announced for Friday, March 27, has been postponed a week to Friday, April 3. Location remains Dynamite Records, 33 Main St., Northampton. Start time: meet and greet begins at 6:30, reading starts at 7 pm. I'll be reading a few choice excerpts from the book and also probably playing some musical selections.

Meanwhile, here's my favorite music quote that I've run across of late, from the January issue of The Wire. Briefly praising the most recent album by Athens, GA heavy rockers Harvey Milk (which I just bought today, haven't yet listened to), the writer Joseph Stannard calls the record "a persuasive restatement of the idea that, while the riff belongs to everyone, it's perhaps safest in the hands of disheveled, hirsute males in plaid shirts."

I suddenly feel so validated.