Monday, January 26, 2009

If there's one thing I can't stand (and there are many things, but if there's one) it's '80s nostalgia. The '80s were pretty horrible, far as I'm concerned. Here's the main thing I remember of the '80s:

I was an awkward, intelligent, alienated teenager growing up in one of the most politically conservative towns in Southern California (Simi Valley, now home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential library). I was not, nor am I now, politically conservative, far from it, and I could not stand some of the overt right-wing nuttiness that surrounded me. Like, a kid in my high school in ROTC who actually wore a shirt to school that said, "Kill a Commie for Mommy." In, like, 1984 - it may as well have been 1957. Or, a debate that was held at my high school between the head of ROTC and one of the school's history teachers, about whether war was a good or a bad thing. Hats off to the history teacher, Jim Huchthausen (not sure if I've spelled his name right), because if I remember correctly he was a veteran of Vietnam and he had the nerve and good sense to get up in front of that conservative student body and say some straight-up things about why war is hell. But the head of ROTC was as hawkish as you'd expect, and the responses he elicited from the crowd were scary. Basically, I spent the 1980s convinced that Reagan was going to reinstate the draft to fight the war I was sure he was going to start in Nicaragua, and the only really serious fight I ever had with my parents was over whether I would register for the draft (I did, but only after they assured me that if I were ever drafted, they would help me escape to Canada).

All of that said, there was some damn fine music that came out in the 1980s, some of which I write about in my book. I developed my taste for metal at an early age - bought Kiss Alive! in second grade and went from there. But it was only in high school that I really started listening to punk, and I have to admit that I belong to that group of folks (Gina Arnold is one, based on her book Route 666: The Road to Nirvana) who believe that 1984 was some kind of crazy golden year for great alternative rock music. That was when I discovered the Minutemen and Husker Du, among others, and my listening habits were never quite the same, even though I still happily listened to my Ratt and Van Halen albums as well.

The '80s are on my mind now, partly because we just got rid of a president that rivals Reagan for worst president I've experienced in my lifetime - there are a lot to choose from, and Nixon was probably worse than Reagan in real terms, but Nixon was president when I was ages 1-6, and Reagan when I was 13-21. Needless to say, my political sensibilities were a bit more attuned during the Reagan years and I hated him; but damn if Bush wasn't as bad if not worse. (Ford and Bush Sr. were also lousy but too ineffectual to ultimately be worth hating quite so much.)

The '80s are also a big part of the great recent movie, The Wrestler, which my partner Holly and I went to see the other night. The main characters in the movie, Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) and his love interest, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), both long for the 1980s, a time when they were young and hot and felt like they could conquer the world. The movie uses the heavy metal music of that time to great effect, and not just obvious songs: sure, there's "Sweet Child o' Mine" and "Metal Health," the latter of which is The Ram's theme song when he enters the wrestling arena, but there's also Accept's "Balls to the Wall" and a couple songs by the Scorpions (strangely, both from Animal Magnetism, which I just listened to today for the first time in a long while). Cassidy, a stripper, dances to 1980s metal just as Randy enters the ring to it, and they're both aging metalheads who never stopped chasing that one good time that might be just a little bit better than the last good time. But the movie doesn't let them have their 1980s nostalgia without conflict. Granted, the fact that metal stands as an emblem of their delusions of past grandeur fits too easily with cliches about metal as the music of the uneducated, hedonistic underclass. But more to the point, their nostalgia for the 1980s is shown to be a lie - it wasn't the period when life was better, it was the period when people like Randy and Cassidy were encouraged to pursue their escapist, materialist dreams to the detriment of everyone around them.

Still, it's pretty hilarious when, in one of the movie's best scenes, Randy dances and serenades Cassidy to Ratt's "Round and Round," and he and Cassidy - who wears a Motley Crue shirt - agree that the eighties were awesome, but the nineties, they sucked.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The cover of This Ain’t the Summer of Love has a great, iconic photo of Iggy Pop surfing the crowd at the Cincinnati Pop Festival, 1970. I love this photo, as it captures a perfect 1970s rock moment. Large crowds like the one that gathered that day at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium were becoming more and more common at the dawn of the Seventies. The age of arena rock was upon us and most observers took that to mean also the age of the rock superstar, whose larger-than-life persona towered above the crowd. But in this photo, and at this concert, Iggy towered above the crowd in a completely different way. He wasn’t a superstar and never would be in the sense of Mick Jagger or Robert Plant. Rather than take his place above the crowd for granted, he tested it, messed with it, and made it tangible rather than an abstraction. Lester Bangs captured it best in his great 1970 article on the Stooges that appeared in Creem:

“Iggy is like a matador baiting the vast dark hydra sitting afront him – he enters the audience frequently to see what’s what and even from the stage his eyes reach out searchingly, sweeping the joint and singling out startled strangers who’re seldom able to stare him down. It’s your stage as well as his and if you can take it away from him, why, welcome to it. But the King of the Mountain must maintain the pace, and the authority, and few can. In this sense Ig is a true star of the rarest kind – he has won that stage, and nothing but the force of his own presence entitles him to it.”

Since my publisher and I decided to put Iggy on the cover of my book, my sense of connection to the Stooges has grown even stronger than it used to be. I’ve dug their music for years, although I came to it later than I would have liked. Back when I was a teenager, I went through a phase when I used the Rolling Stone Record Guide as my main source for navigating through the back history of rock records. Even though the Guide was co-edited by Michigan rock refugee Dave Marsh, the Stooges were nowhere to be found in there because their records were out of print at the time (late 1970s). I read about them elsewhere but it wasn’t until the early 1990s when their original albums were being re-released on CD that I finally had my first hearing of Fun House, which definitely blew my head open. By that time I’d been listening to varieties of hard rock, metal and punk for years, and had also heard my fair share of avant-garde and experimental music, especially free jazz. Fun House was one of the few albums I’d encountered that seemed to combine the two and I took to it immediately.

For obvious reasons, Iggy gets the bulk of the attention and acclaim for what the Stooges accomplished. But as with any great band, he didn’t work as a lone figurehead. The team of brothers who played first guitar and drums, then bass and drums – Ron and Scott Asheton – were the true heart of the Stooges sound. All you need to do for proof is listen to “TV Eye” from Fun House, which gets my vote for best Stooges song ever and one of the best, most pounding, unrelenting and downright intense rock songs ever released. Ron’s guitar and Scott’s drums drive the song forward from start to finish, and Ron’s main riff is a stunner, working the powerful combination of an open throbbing A string with some crashing barre chords, brutal and basic three-chord rock but with added rhythmic crunch and a touch of dissonance to boot.

I was back in Simi Valley, California, paying my annual winter visit to my parents, when I heard the news that Ron Asheton had died, now just a little over two weeks ago. He will be missed. Rather than a moment of silence he deserves a moment of unreserved noise, the most suitable tribute for a true metal/punk pioneer.

Here’s a link to some thoughts by Mike Watt on the Stooges and playing with Ron:

Saturday, January 17, 2009

This blog should start with a bit of full disclosure: I'm starting this blog because my publisher says it's a good way to generate some informal publicity for my new book. I'm happy about the book's publication, and also not shy about doing what I can to pitch a book of mine, so here I am.

For those who can't read the small print on the mini book cover to your right, the book is called This Ain't the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk, and it's published by University of California Press. Here's a link to the book's webpage at the UC Press website, where you can see a table of contents and even read a sample chapter:

The title of this blog - The Metal/Punk Continuum - is a term from the book and was actually meant to be in the book's subtitle (This Ain't the Summer of Love: Rock Music and the Metal/Punk Continuum was my working title for a long time). The publisher thought it sounded too nerdy or something, so they made me change it. Maybe they were right, though I still like the ring of "metal/punk continuum" and it speaks to the main argument of the book, which is that heavy metal and punk are two genres that are best thought about in relation to each other. Rather than treat them as polar opposites the way they're often portrayed, I try to show that metal and punk have an enormous amount of common ground and that they arose from a number of shared concerns, most notable being the issue of how to maintain a sense of meaningful participation in a medium - rock - that was undergoing some major changes at the end of the '60s and beginning of the '70s.

At this point in time it may not seem so radical to think of metal and punk as having a lot of common ground, and I think a lot of fans of both genres are aware of the connections. But when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s there was also a lot of conflict between them, and it was easy to think that metal and punk were competing camps that represented genuinely different ways of relating to rock and the world at large. I don't try to gloss over those conflicts - thus my current subtitle, conflict AND crossover - but I try to put them in a bigger historical context where we can see that even when pitted against one another, metal and punk shared a lot of underlying concerns.