Sunday, December 26, 2010

With a Heart Like a Fist: The true beauty of anger

Art pimps passion.

For this I use the word pimp advisedly. (Generally I hate our cultural habit of neutralizing offensive words through overuse. Pimp is only one of the lessor offenses.) I use pimp in the sense of procurement through some form of hardship or abuse. In that sense some of our greatest art indeed comes from a kind of pimp transaction. Passion is a requirement for great art, certainly, and though misery may not be, it just seems to work better that way.
Exhibit A: Buffy Saint Marie. Buffy began as something of a folk prodigy, having established a successful career as a solo performer by her early twenties. This performance of "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying" is from Pete Seeger's short lived show from 1965, Rainbow Quest. (I describe the show briefly here.) Hear the tearful rage in her voice barely contained and the soul-freezing mourn in her eyes. Now, 46 years later the song still resonates: Today, Indians may have the tragic Americanization of Native Americans (note the irony of the title itself) policies behind them but still live in nation capable of naming its capital's football team "Redskins" among other offenses. Clearly, Thy people's work is not done.

James Baldwin famously wrote in his essay "Many Thousand Gone" (also "No More Auction Block's" original title) that through song Americans are "able to admire [the history of Black America] because protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it... [It is only in song] that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story... a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear."

Exhibit B: Uneasy truths couldn't wish for a better vehicle than Paul Robeson's voice. Robeson's genius and general prodigiousness are the stuff of legend. Not least for his passionate work in the cause of civil rights, a cause for which he'd suffer in both career and life. For this, his version of "No More Auction Block for Me" may be the most profound and poignant, if not most definitive, ever recorded. (The fact that most of us know the song at all, though, is a debt owed to Dylan.) The song's origins are mysterious. It's vintage is the nineteenth century and was composed by an unknown and almost certainly illiterate slave. (How a song of such of humble origins becomes canon has to do with its acceptance into church repertoire.) The song served as a kernel for a number of other popular folk and spiritual tunes including "Blowing in the Wind" and "We Shall Overcome." (A side note: The picture of the whipped slave featured in the video is described in a Harper's article from 1863. Learn more about "negro GORDON" here. The pic is also one of the top ten most requested photos in the National Archive.)
Back to the premise: Perhaps the words art and passion should be interchangeable. If extremes of heat and pressure produce the diamond then bloodless art making, however skilled, might barely warm the egg. Mediocrity may be the enemy but sometimes the only difference between mediocrity and the merely good is the degree of heart the artist chooses to leave out. Renowned marketing egghead Seth Godin suggests that the merely good rarely changes minds. It's like pimping hugs.
Passion always elevates. Godin says you could run a church exceptionally and still be an atheist. The product is less important than the process. If you're passionate about doing your best work, whatever it is, then the non-believer is as capable as the believer. I've my own theory: It takes more than just passion. It takes the right kind of passion. Misery will work, abuse, hardship, and general suffering, but it's not the experience itself so much as what it leaves behind: Anger.

Now, Godin also suggests that "anger only makes us smaller." That's true. It's toxic, and like most toxic substances when used carelessly, it can be dangerous. When I say anger I don't mean pissy frustration or blinding rage, but profound anger that makes us want to go to war; Not just for truth, justice, and the American Way but to war against the passionless: The assembly line vampire editions, the licensed remakes, the "rock and roll" cruises, the celebrity picture books, and all manner of cynical derivatives and mercenary hackism. The secret is to go to war for a new vision, even if that only means digging deeper into your own. Which is, ultimately, the best thing we can do.

Exhibit C: Odetta. This is an excerpt from the Scorsese-directed Bob Dylan interview doc "No Direction Home" (highly recommended, whatever your taste for Dylan). The performance is from 1959. Robeson took his pass at this song too, and though I haven't heard it, I can't imagine his version is even up to the standard of this one. Dylan admits a debt to Odetta and her's is a rage to be reckoned with: It rings harder than the hammers striking the rocks of the song. This is anger served on a silver platter. Every stroke of her guitar is echoed in the grievous look on her face. This is a song that projects far beyond the singer; this song suffers for the damnation of generations.
"There ain't no sweat boy/that's on a-this mountain/that runs like mine, boy/that runs like mine"
Exhibit D: 16 Horsepower. A band from Colorado whose musical DNA is a mix of traditional country, Appalachian folk, hymns, murder ballads, early Bob Dylan as well as Joy Division, Creedence Clearwater, and The Gun Club. The band is led by David Eugene Edwards, a man who spits truth from a chemical mixture of fire and brimstone. The truths of his narrative aren't mine but in his deepest moments of fervor and intensity, when his work dons the devil-shaped wings, he makes his truth mine. See here:

Anger is what puts the crack on the whip. The truth of
anger is that it isn't about taking power so much as losing it. Anger, done right, is our humanity at its most vulnerable. Love is our higher aspiration but anger, for better or worse, is what we're best at —if only because we're most familiar with it. Most of the performances posted on this blog are the pearls of such resonant anger.

Exhibit E: There are a few versions of Tom Robinson's "Glad to Be Gay" on YouTube (here's an earlier version with slightly different lyrics), but this one gets closest to the heart. Note how he encourages the audience to sing along before the first chorus and by the third the audience kind of retreats into stunned silence. (It begins in the second verse when he gets to the line "see how disgusting we are in the press." Something breaks behind his eyes and we're there with him.) This performance is from an evening of otherwise comedic performances, The Secret Policeman's Ball from 1979. Kudos to Tom for the courage of launching this flaming arrow into an otherwise lighthearted evening.

Said Picasso: We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth. And this, Picasso didn't say: Truth is found when experiencing one another’s passions. So, it's all about emotions: The more honest the work of art, the more emotional the truth. Art may be subjective and political and egotistical and jealous and envious; it is, to misquote Kerouac, the grey film that catches the actual pink juice of human kind.
Whatever else, this we know: Art without passion is art not to be trusted. And for better or worse, anger is often the truest path.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Rockschool (not to be confused with Gene Simmons' Rock School) was a short lived television series produced for the BBC somewhere in the dark musical ages of 1983 - 1985 (depending which source you believe). A cursory viewing immediately reveals the show's hoary '80s vintage and Anglo-centrism. It's a cultural time capsule of oversized hair, passed-expiration performers and gear, reggae infatuation, and worst of all, those sickly sounding cotton-candied synths. (I defy anyone to wax nostalgic on 80s synth sounds.) But even worse, according to the show's prognostications a cotton-candy synth epidemic was all but poised to devour all guitar, bass, and drums from pop music. (Thank heavens this Satanic plot was thwarted!) And then there are times the show is just plain naive as when it always seems to err on the side of old school, e.g. choosing Genesis' Tony Banks over, say, Brian Eno for a synthesizer demo. But then, it's these same lapses that make the show's retrospective impact both laughably featherweight and such a juicy guilty pleasure.

Here, one of the better episodes featuring funk bassology from the thumbs of Larry Graham and Bootsy Collins:

I discovered Rockschool around 1990 on New York PBS station WNET, the show's only American outlet
. Much of the trove now available on YouTube reveal episodes with Herbie Hancock. These episodes were a retooling designed exclusively for American audiences. Otherwise, it's all thick beans-on-toast accents of the anachronistic house band interspersed with Brit-pop curiosities of the era and a few legitimate masters thrown in. The result: An Extreme Remedial "Rock" for Non-native Dummies.

Like most academic tours into the ghettos of pop culture, the show's emphasis is mostly on the banal mainstream. Case in point: A segment on vocals by way of Midge Ure and Graham Bonnet (!?). You'll notice there's also a fan-boy zealotry for the era's dated technology (pretty much anything digital). The program on Funk is legitimately good (Brits have long lurved American R & B) while the Heavy Metal segment is deliriously naive. Rockschool asks you to believe the bible of metal was actually the illuminated word of Foghat. (Motorhead, a basically funnier, drunker, and sloppier version of Foghat, gets some face time.) The better done reggae segments may've something to do with the music's proximity to the British heart. (For American audiences it may seem like over-representation.) There's also an awful lot of gear info the show would've been better without (do we really need to know how to tune a drum?). And then there's the cachet degrade that happens every time the house band plugs in: Even The Wiggles would've passed on this ultra-lite electro-fusion.

The meat of the show, the reason for watching, is in the commentaries from the show's celebrity cameos. Seeing drummers like Ginger Baker and Omar Hakim demonstrate polyrhythmic techniques only possible from drummers with four brains is awe-inspiring. (Squandering Omar Hakim behind a Syndrum, on the other hand, is criminal.) Jools Holland's encyclopedic knowledge of rock and roll piano styles happily knotted up my boxers. And Funk from the likes of Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, and Tony Maiden would be top drawer by any thinking person's Funk cabinet.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I Love You, You Big Dummy

Captain Beefheart, 1940 - 2010

I don't sleep so well these days. There may be number of reasons for this. (My guess is middle age and finances are the leading candidates.) Side effects include disappearing library books, losing reading glasses left on the top of the head, and surreal retellings of bedtime stories.

About the bedtime stories: Reading aloud during these sleep-starved periods often has me dropping into a light sleep mid-sentence. Interestingly, the sleep doesn’t stop the reading. Instead, the manuscript switches from the page at hand to the one in my head. The result: A Dada-esque cut-up word game that leaves my daughter bewildered.

E.g.: As Hansel and Gretel follow the trail of bread crumbs home, the narrator interjects with "No, Mr. Stewart, I didn’t study for the Geometry final and, yes, I did forget to wear pants.” And, “is that my girlfriend from 9th grade wearing Margaret Thatcher's head?"

It’s a fairy tale as retold by Captain Beefheart.

The late great Captain, born Don Glen Vliet (later changing "Glen" for "Van" for the stage), passed away last Thursday, December 17th, at the age of 69. If you've never heard the music of Captain Beefheart, well, you probably wouldn't have liked it anyway. His particular genius was an acquired taste. He was the James Joyce of Rock and Roll: A pioneer who the snobs of outre´ culture insist we should all know but few of us can actually abide.

Lyrically, Beefheart was not unlike my dream:
It's like a white onion-fleshed pumpkin tiny black eyes and round paper hairs laughing white collars minced muted in the huffing dry morning wind that jingled like fish bones. (Doped in Stunned Mirages, 1982)

As for his sound, one critic's description as "pure primeval stomp" seems reasonable enough. I'd prefer "deep fried atonal catfish on a sugar-dusted hacksaw of blues." The Captain himself describes it this way:
"I don't like doing music. I like doing spells. Because music is just black ants crawling across white paper... I don't like hypnotics. You see, I'm doing a non-hypnotic music to break up a catatonic state. [And society] is in a catatonic state."

You see, he was saving us from ourselves.

To Beefheart, mainstream rock rhythm was the enemy: For him, the basic “heartbeat” patterns of rock were dull as muddy water. His models were on the margins: Late Coltrane, early rhythm and blues, Howling Wolf, post-tonal composers, surreal poetry, and abstract algebra. As a character and artist he stood among an exclusive club of geniuses; A club whose roster might include Van Gogh, Syd Barrett, John Kennedy Toole (“A Confederacy of Dunces”), and outside artist Henry Darger, masters who could straddle sanity and its opposite to good effect. Like them, Beefheart also had a vision that was unschooled, defiantly stubborn, and utterly convinced of its own righteousness. In a Rolling Stone interview he said, "I don't spend a lot of time thinking. It just comes through me." Only an artist with complete trust in his choices and a complete indifference to general conceptions of "failure" could claim such a thing. Is it hyper-confident boasting when you have the imagination to back it up?

By his own admission Beefheart was “an only child, a tyrant, irascible" and his work reflects that. High school friend Frank Zappa described the young Beefheart as an indulged teenager whose parents exerted little authority over him. (Their role limited mostly to keeping him plied with Pepsi and art supplies.) He also had little interest in academic methods or institutional learning. "If you want to be a different fish you got to jump out of school," he would say.

One analyst described Beefheart’s as "a diffuse undifferentiated consciousness that children have." If so, the condition served him well. His influence proved widespread: From the obvious — Sonic Youth, White Stripes, Tom Waits — to the less so — Beck, Blondie, Joan Osbourne. His ardent fans have ranged from The Beatles (who wanted to sign him to a precursor of Apple Records and whom he’d later decry in "Beatle Bones N' Smokin' Stones") to Julian Schnabel and Matt Groening. I saw Captain Beefheart and the last version of The Magic Band ca. 1980 at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. It was vintage Beefheart in all his abstract gesticulating and wild-eyed glory. He combed a fireman's helmet cradled in his arms and he blew intermittently into a soprano sax. I say blew because to call it playing would be an overstatement. His Howling Wolf yelp was still resplendent. The grating rhythms, serrated harmonies, and battered guitars had smoothed (slightly) with age but were none the less for power. For anyone else this all may've easily appeared as pretense or pose. Not so for Beefheart: This is what he was. He wasn't capable of anything else.

The Captain addressed downloading 30 years before it happened:
"I don't want to sell my music. I want to give it away because where I got it, you didn't have to pay for it."
Love has no body
I love you, you big dummy
No body has love
No body has love
Breathe deep
Breathe high
Breathe life
Don't breathe ah lie
I love you, you big dummy

Love to you, Captain.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Rhiannon you never knew

Mick Fleetwood often raved about the talents of Stevie Nicks. One of the most intense performers I've ever seen, he'd say. (Initially, the band took a pass on her but Lindsey Buckingham refused to join without her.) Considering the caliber of musicians Fleetwood has played with over the years (incl. George Harrison, Rod Stewart, Stevie Windwood, Alvin Lee, Peter Green, et. al.) you'd think he might know what he's talking about.

Still, you're skeptical. You're reminded of Nicks' 
airy-fairy canon, the teen girl fascination with legends, dreams, and visions (the ones she'll tell you she can't tell you). You imagine she writes in bubble letters with lavendar ink. But she has that precious up-turned nose and privileged California Girl complexion so you forgive her. Then there's that girly insouciant voice with its tone of half velvet, half burlap, and a vibrato like a power tool. She was the college boy dating cheerleader from your high school and the Juliet in your school play. On stage, her wardrobe was always deliriously behind the times. She was a pirouetting cloud bank of abundant sleeves and guazy skirts and Masterpiece Theater hair. Critics described her as ethereal and mystical. The New York Times called her a satin-clad pop ballerina. But you thought of her more like a Celestine Parody: cloying at best.

Yes, you might've thought that. But then, you saw this:

The song starts where you'd expect, a slightly more caffienated version than the one on record. The song takes a meditative breath at about the four minute mark. It's the breath you take before attempting to pull the barbell up to your chin from the floor. Then begins the dreams unwind, love's a state of mind refrains. Trite, sure, but it doesn't even matter. The words are secondary. They're just a conduit to push out the sound and sound is the master here. She steps away from the mike for a moment and returns as something else entirely. The airy cheerleader's face now impaled on the sharp guitar line behind her. It's as if the audience disappears as her eyes kind of crawl inside her mind to dig up what will follow. And what follows is something much more animal and real, a white hot minute of studied rage. It's a voice that rages for every woman whose power wasn't understood, loved, or respected enough. It's the rage of the Rhiannon of legend (a goddess who surrenders her power to marry a mortal). It's also the face of the betrayed, the face you'll see as she throws your clothes out the door. Musically, it's a face that probably doesn't exist outside rock and roll. For me, it's what I love most about the artform. (See these posts for other examples: Here, here, here, and here.) The video has no date but I suspect it's somewhere after the release of Rumors (ca. 1977), though it could be pre-Rumors (1975). The band is clearly on edge. There are no easy smiles or casual comaraderies between them. They're responding to each other through the senses and they're clearly feeding on it. Here's another version of the song done around the same time for television. The video quality is superior and the performance is respectable, but it's nowhere near the above. That performance would certainly have to have been unsustainable. 

Buckingham was generally considered to be the brain trust of Fleetwood Mac, writing the bulk of the material and helping to mold everyone else's with his assertive guitar. Yet it was Nicks's solo career that would prove to be by far the most successful. Her twirling mystical style of pop had its legions of adoring fans. Few mainstream pop artists are capable of her kind of intensity on display here (including her, as you'll see in a tour of her other performances on YouTube). What's above is a rare captured moment. Anyone with the resources and inclination to deliver such a performance deserves our utmost respect. Mick may've been right after all.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cowboys Get the Blues

It's been said the term "cowboy" might first have been coined for African American cow-punchers. It makes sense as Americans have always been on the leading edge of derogatory term technology. What you may not know (I didn't) is that country music, that music we may consider the whitest of musicsor at least the one with the whitest of audiences – may indeed have some interesting lineage in the woodpile, as it were.

Check this story from NPR and learn that Anglo folk songs, Black Southern blues, and songs brought up by Spanish speaking Vaqueros may've come together in a kind of musical orgy on the dusty trails where cowboy and frontier songs were first sung. Of the songs posted, "Tom Sherman's Barroom" (a lyrical half-brother to "Streets of Laredo") was for me the most interesting (see above). Certainly, it's the bluesiest. It may be the "Danny Boy" of the lonesome prairie. Its deathly minor key plaint gives the proper "beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly" ambiance to what may be the high standard of the cowboy lamentations.

From there, follow the snaking branches of the family tree for 150 years and off drops the GMO-ed fruit of Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift? Be that as it may, this is yet more proof American music has the fingerprints of many all over it.

(Thanks to Anne Riddle Barrow for the heads up.)