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:

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!