Monday, October 31, 2005
The 2006 Experience Music Project Pop Conference
Seattle, WA, April 27-30, 2006
What forces are at work when we like something we “shouldn't”? What role does shame, either shame succumbed to or shame resisted, play in the pleasure we as fans and interpreters take from the music we love? Is loving music passionately (collecting it, critiquing it, fashioning one’s identity around it) itself becoming a guilty pleasure, i.e. something increasingly rare and in need of explanation, something self-indulgent or questionable? To what extent do these issues reveal hierarchies of taste, transformed subjectivities, the effect of politics on culture, or other lines of contestation permeating popular music?
For this year’s Pop Conference, we invite papers, panels, or other presentations on these topics. Related questions include but are not limited to:
--In what terms do “guilty pleasures” operate beyond the U.S. experience? How do different genres define the inappropriate?
--Who are the performers, the issues and the hidden pleasures, that you have wanted to write about but never dared, or who you loved and then forsook?
--What happens when you center your focus on “minor” histories?
--How do the desires for novelty and permanence, diaspora and roots, or for that matter extremity and conformity, play out against each other in music?
--Can we think in less whiggish and salutary ways about pop and progress, or how music functions in dark times?
--Does doubt affect the creation of musical works, and not only reception? What guilty pleasure do performers feel about their own social impact?
--How does technology and futurist rhetoric affect distinctions in pop fashion between the sublime and the ridiculous?
--What are the connections between pop shame and “passing”: sexual, racing, class, nationality?
The EMP Pop Conference first convened in Spring 2002 and is now entering its fifth year. The goal has always been to bring academics, writers, artists, fans, and other participants into an all-too-rare common discussion. Most presentations are of the 20 minute panel talk variety, but unorthodox suggestions are our favorite kind and we can support a wide range of technological experimentation. Previous year’s conferences have resulted in the anthology This is Pop (Harvard, 2004), the current special issue of Popular Music (“Magic Moments”), and a second anthology that is under preparation. This year’s program committee includes Drew Daniel (Matmos), writer Jessica Hopper, Jason King (New York University), Michaelangelo Matos (Seattle Weekly), Ann Powers (Blender), David Sanjek (BMI), Philip Schuyler (University of Washington), and Karen Tongson (University of Southern California).
Proposals should be no more than 250 words, should be accompanied by a brief bio and full contact information, and are due January 16, 2006. Proposals are judged by liveliness of prose as much as pertinence of topic. Email them, as well as any questions about the conference, the theme, your topic, or the application process, to organizer Eric Weisbard at EricW at emplive.org. For more information on previous conferences, including a full range of participants and abstracts, go to: http://www.emplive.org/visit/education/popConf.asp
Friday, October 28, 2005
Kim Cooper's nearly-printed book about Neutral Milk Hotel is the first in the series to contain a decent selection of photographs. (The Pink Floyd book has a couple, but that's about it.)
Here are a couple of them. The one on the bottom (courtesy Laura Carter) is a live band shot; the photo on top shows a place that was affectionately known to the band as "Grandma's House" in New Hyde Park, NY, where they spent several weeks rehearsing, writing, and hanging out in 1996. The "Grandma" in question is Julian Koster's maternal grandmother who, as Kim writes in the book, "was so hard of hearing that it didn't matter how much noise Julian's friends made."
Thursday, October 27, 2005
DEC 2 - Dallas, TX @ The Cavern
DEC 3 - Lawrence, KS @ The Jackpot Saloon
DEC 7 - New York, NY @ Mercury Lounge
DEC 8 - Waltham, MA @ Bentley College
DEC 9 - Cambridge, MA @ PA's Lounge
DEC 10 - Washington, DC @ Warehouse Next Door
DEC 12 - Atlanta, GA @ Lenny's
And thanks to Michael Schaub for mentioning the series again on the Bookslut blog today.
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
"This elevator only takes one down", she said,
"this place, this hotel lounge
it's my daily bread...
but I'm underfed"
"are you living in the night?
cause I can tell you have a lousy imagination
and as a matter of speaking
I hate this situation...
but it happens to be one of my pickin'"
"Cause it's so hard
to keep the dream alive
Cause if it all comes down to this
You move me, you move me
You move me around around, I guess
Take it back your analogue
It's on the other side of this (x2)
Cause if it all comes down to this
And then she said:
"and have another cigarette"
I tend to forget (but anyway I don't smoke that shit)
And hoisted the flag
but it keeps hanging down
"You know this place, this hotel lounge
It's my life, it's my choice
And I'm in love
with Ricky Lee Jones' voice"
Cause it's so hard
to keep the dream alive
And if it all comes down to this
You move me, you move me
You move me around around, I guess
Take it back your analogue
It's on the other side of this (x5)
How will glamour survive? (x4)
And if it all comes down to this...
"This elevator only takes one down", she said,
"this place in this same old town"
"Do you see that man
in the left-hand corner
Do you see that woman
their love-story's famous"
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
The springtime air is moist and pure along the byways of western Oregon, with gentle rains giving way a couple times a day to a cleansing sunshine. The Willamette River valley gets so much rainfall, in fact, that all the suburban yards and gardens nearby burst with flora in impossible pinks, purples, fuchsias -- all the colors of a makeup kit. That means they burst with pollen, too, and Charles Thompson says the area was known by the Indians as the "valley of sickness." Could have been a Pixies song.
Driving out of Eugene in his Cadillac, with my tape recorder rolling by his side, Thompson keeps his eyes straight on the road as I begin my interrogation. Which of the songs were written first? When did you record the slow version of "Wave of Mutilation"? Why save the UFO songs for the B-sides? Before long a strip mall appears on the other side of the road, and glancing over at it Thompson says, "You know, you probably don't have to sit down and listen to it, but we should probably go pick up a copy of Doolittle." But surely that's not necessary, I say. I have a copy right here in my --
Too late. We're in the record store, one of those unnecessarily spacious pseudo-Sam Goodys that seems to stock more video games and CD storage wallets than actual CDs. Thompson goes straight to the P section and pulls out Doolittle and the Pixies' Complete 'B' Sides, explaining that for the upcoming leg of the reunion tour, some concerts have been billed as B-sides and rarities shows, and he needs to bone up. He scans the racks and makes two more quick grabs, an Iggy Pop album and Leonard Cohen's I'm Your Man. At the register, he hands the discs and his credit card to a sandy-haired indie girl who looks about twenty. She clearly doesn't recognize him, nor the name on the card. The incident is uncomfortably familiar: the same thing happened a year before while Thompson was in Portland with a writer from GQ. I wonder if he is deliberately showing off his anonymity.
Back in the car he tears the plastic wrapping off Doolittle and slides it into the stereo. The machine bleeps rapidly as he flips through the tracks. Landing on "Hey," he nods deeply and says, "That's a big one. That one is the sleeper song. Over the years I've discovered that people love that song. They love that song." He sounds almost confused.
Though it comes near the end of the album, "Hey" is an arresting midpoint. Everything drops out as Black Francis, naked and vulnerable, cries out -- "Hey!" He waits a brief eternity for an F-sharp on the bass and then continues: "Been trying to meet you/Mm-mm-mm-mm-mm." For a moment it's a poetry slam, with a why-am-I-so-shy-around-girls lyric, a walking bassline, and a delicate guitar lick that sounds like a two-second sample of Steve Cropper circa 1965. But all too quickly the song turns into a frightened, paranoid rant. "Must be a devil between us," he sings, "Or whores in my head/Whores at the door/Whore in my bed." All around him "the whores like a choir" writhe and grunt in a grotesque chain that stretches from the conjugal bed to the maternity ward. It's the Violent Femmes' "why can't I get just one fuck" recast as a Danteic scene of never-ending agony and lust.
"People are clapping along, they just love that song," Thompson says. " 'Whore in my head, whore in my bed.' What the fuck? Don't you guys find any of this a little abrasive or something?" I offer him my interpretation, a psychological profile of the narrator: sexually inexperienced and fearful, he yearns for what he also finds threatening and repellant, the thought of bodies copulating wantonly. Thompson entertains this "armchair analysis," but he's not totally buying it. "If that is a right-on analysis," he says, "then you’re probably going to have to get at it by talking to other people, because if that is correct, you’re not going to bring it out of me. I wouldn’t intellectually arrive at the same conclusion. I’m more like, I don’t know what it means." He says that in part it may be about his father and his mother, though he does not elaborate.
Then it hits him. "There’s something to be said for how it’s all about sex and death, or whatever. Maybe that’s why people like the Pixies. Because even if they don’t get it, they pick up on the sex and death vibrations. They relate to that. They go, 'Yeah, sure, I know what you mean, dude.' But I think they do, actually. They’re kind of on the same page, even if they don’t totally get what you’re saying. I would say that because, maybe at some point I should return to it. For whatever reason, whether you don’t want to become a parody of yourself, or because you run out of steam, or because you can only take it for so long."
"But whatever it is," he continues, "I think my sex and death vibrations were strong when I was with the Pixies, and it was a good thing. And they were real sex and death vibrations. They were maybe a little bit put on, a little bit of pretension. But it wasn’t fake."
Monday, October 24, 2005
Another of the new books we'll be publishing in the spring is There's a Riot Goin' On by Miles Marshall Lewis. If you don't want to know the result, look away now:
The first thing Sly Stone ever did with a major paycheck — issued by Autumn Records when “C’mon and Swim” went gold in ’64 — was to put a down payment on a home for his family, moving them from Vallejo into a huge house on the outskirts of San Francisco, 700 Urbano Drive. Freddy lived there with their parents; Big Daddy Stewart was able to retire from janitorial work. (A money green (booty green?) Jaguar XKE roadster was another early baller purchase.) The Family Stone first convened at 700 Urbano the day after Cynthia walked out on the Stoners. The group: Sly Stone (organ, guitar, harmonica), Freddy Stone (guitar), Larry Graham, Jr. (bass), Cynthia Robinson (trumpet), Jerry Martini (sax), and Gregg Errico (drums). Jerry and Gregg were Italian-Americans, Cynthia female. Rose Stone would join shortly after the commercial failure of A Whole New Thing, on electric piano and vocals.
“It was deliberate,” Martini later said. “He told me about it before we even started the band. He was so hip on that. He was so far ahead of his time. He intentionally wanted a white drummer. There was a shit-pot full of black drummers that could kick Gregg’s ass and there was a lot of black saxophone players that could kick mine. He knew exactly what he was doing: boys, girls, black, white.”
Another notation on Sly’s connection to hiphop concerns the dress code. Performing a six-song set on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in 1973 — including, tellingly, no songs from There’s a Riot Goin’ On — Sly wears a big ol’ SLY belt buckle, a decade before the name-plate became a hiphop fashion staple. Don’t think for a minute that Afrika Bambaataa and his Zulu Nation missed that. Notice as well, if you get the chance, the B-boys in the audience of the show, popping and locking their arms in syncopation just like the late Fred “Rerun” Berry (a/k/a Mr. Penguin) on any given episode of What’s Happening!!.
And while we’re halfway talking hiphop, note that the sartorially adventurous André 3000 (not to mention Lenny Kravitz and Prince) has absolutely nothing on Sly Stone, and he no doubt knows it. Gold lamé shirts with flower-print trousers; orange Edwardian ruffled shirts and leather pants; assorted crocheted hats and suede vests with dangling buckskin fringe; jumpsuits and rhinestone-studded tops; velvet boots and brooches; goggles, scarves, and sequined cowboy hats—Sly didn’t fuck around. Freddy and the Stone Souls challenged fashion, even for the wigged-out sixties, and Sly encouraged carrying that revolutionary spirit over to the Family Stone. The group’s look—boys, girls, black, white, and those crazy threads—got them noticed as much as their musical blend of psychedelic soul.
Sly and the Family Stone started out playing covers of popular tunes like “Try a Little Tenderness” and “Shotgun,” then moved onto their original material during sets. The nascent band used to segue Otis Redding’s popular “I Can’t Turn You Loose” into their own “Turn Me Loose,” soon to be on their first album. The group’s first public performance took place in 1967 at the Winchester Cathedral, a Redwood City venue run by their first manager, Rich Romanello. They developed a following in the Bay Area, cutting their teeth at Winchester Cathedral, the Losers, Frenchy’s. By June ’67, Sly had moved on from deejaying at KSOL, later taking a new daytime shift at their competitor across the dial, KDIA, in October. He’d resign two months later.
Sly and the Family Stone cut “I Ain’t Got Nobody” for the local Loadstone Records, which created a regional buzz. David Kapralik signed Sly and the Family Stone to Epic Records out from under an interested Atlantic Records in late 1967, after hearing about them from Epic promotions man Chuck Gregory and taking in an early show at the Winchester Grill. Kapralik shot from the Columbia Records sales department to their A&R (at 29), and soon had the reigns of sister company Epic’s A&R as well. He was lateralized out of the department for attempting to fire John Hammond, the legendary A&R guy responsible for signing Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Billie Holiday. Technically an independent producer, agreeing to give Epic first dibs on any acts he found, Kapralik took Sly to the International House of Pancakes and offered him a record deal. New Columbia Records president Clive Davis immediately reinstalled Kapralik to head up Epic A&R, where he could apply the full force of marketing and promotion to break Sly and the Family Stone.
Kapralik finessed the sextet a three-month contract at the Pussycat à Go Go casino/stripclub in Las Vegas. The group began cutting A Whole New Thing in Cali on days off. James Brown caught the band there, brought his entire entourage along. Bobby Darin was a big fan; the 5th Dimension too. The six soon had to hightail it out of Vegas with a police escort; the owner of the Pussycat à Go Go got into beef with Sly over Nina, a (white) girl he was seeing, threatening him with a blackjack. (But not before Sly could announce to the audience, “We are going to pack up and leave because I can’t have my woman here and we are being racially persecuted, so rather than do what they tell us, we are going to leave,” to uproarious applause.) The group would soon pack their bags again, for New York City.
Friday, October 21, 2005
So far, we have people wanting to write about albums by Bjork, Pulp, the Grateful Dead, Marvin Gaye, Tim Buckley, Jean-Michel Jarre, Laurie Anderson, Steely Dan, Genesis, Kanye West, Blur, Captain Beefheart, Lucinda Williams, The Fall, PJ Harvey, Metallica, A Tribe Called Quest, and many many others. I can't believe nobody has offered to write about these people yet.
If you're in the London area, you shall have the pleasure of listening to John Niven talk about his Music from Big Pink book on the Robert Elms show on Wednesday next week, the 26th. If you're not in London, you should be able to tune in via the internet, somewhere around here. John is scheduled to be on between 1pm and 2pm British time, so between 8am and 9am on the East Coast over here.
I'm assuming John won't actually be reading from the book, since I can't find a single page that doesn't have at least five extremely bad words on it.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
However many titles finally appear in Continuum's commendably ambitious 33 1/3 series, it's unlikely any author will volunteer for a task as thankless as the one which American critic and sometime musician J Niimi has accepted here. Attempting a book-length companion to, and deconstruction of, R.E.M.'s fantastically vague, wilfully incoherent 1983 debut was always going to be akin to lassoing a cloud. Inevitably, Niimi doesn't succeed, but it's considerably to his credit that he doesn't make a complete clown of himself trying.
Niimi gets off to a bad start with a convoluted essay apologising in advance for everything the book isn't. This is not, he assures us, a biography of R.E.M., or an attempt to explain Murmur. Yet the subsequent two sections of the book are, essentially, a biog of R.E.M., or at least up until that primordial stage of their development, followed by a lengthy attempt to explain Murmur. Niimi even includes an appendix of his own best guesses at interpretations of the LP's famously indistinct lyrics.
Despite largely writing the book he started by promising he wouldn't, Niimi does quite well. The portrait of a young R.E.M., dedicated and ambitious and sharing rooms in a Charlotte flophouse, is endearing and empathetic. The song-by-song analysis, fleshed out by extensive interviews with producers Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, is full of fine anecdote, if possibly unnecessarily laden with detail about who used which amplifier when. Though Murmur never quite explains what Murmur is - as the author concedes, that's all but impossible - the book goes a considerable distance towards explaining how this enduringly astonishing album happened.
Another instalment of Continuum's 33 1/3 series, in which writers ramble at length across the musical and lyrical topography of favourite albums, the danger with such expansive examination is always that the critic might read more into the work than its creator wrote into it.
Happily, US critic and musician Franklin Bruno never quite out-clevers himself. It helps that he's approaching an album with more formidable depths than most. Armed Forces, Elvis Costello's third LP, was released in 1979. It was intended to make Costello a superstar in America, and nearly succeeded, reaching the Billboard Top 10 before the infamous fracas in which Costello made disobliging remarks about Ray Charles to some elderly American musicians, who raised a witch-hunt that (probably mercifully) scuppered Costello's chances of becoming the next Elton John. Bruno, like many before him, over-examines this incident, failing to contemplate the possibility that a tired, drunk, and preternaturally belligerent young man just said something stupid which he didn't really mean.
The working title of Armed Forces was the less subtle "Emotional Fascism", and Bruno's structure of alphabetised instalments allows him to pursue the romantic and political brutality explored on Armed Forces far and wide: Cromwell, Mosley and Churchill appear alongside more predictable references to Jake Riviera and Nick Lowe. He loses points for repeating the canard that the piano on "Oliver's Army" was lifted from Abba's "Dancing Queen" - it's actually much closer to "Dance (While The Music Still Goes On)" - and for misspelling the name of the editor of this journal [on p.41 - my bad, Franklin. We got it right in the bibliography, though], but this is otherwise the intelligent, slightly feverish companion that Armed Forces deserves.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
When I finished the book, I had interviewed several people who participated in the making of the Let It Be DVD. It was supposed to come out in 2004 and then 2005. It hasn't come out in 2005 because there is so much about Lennon's 65th birthday and the 25th anniversary of his death. Also, Paul's new album and tour is happening. On top of all this, there is the DVD of The Concert for Bangladesh just coming out. Further still, there is also the issue of the trial, which involves the stolen tape reels of the film sound from Let It Be. The DVD could still come out this year, but my guess is 2006 for sure...
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Reading Alex's manuscript took me back to the spring of 1989, when I went out and bought the album on the strength of the NME's review. Not that it was a great review, by any means. They gave the record 7/10, and Jack Barron declared, in his normal flowery prose, "This is quite good. Just." (I must have had a lot of spare cash in those days.) What I don't remember reading is Bob Stanley's euphoric review in Melody Maker (from which the title of this post is taken). He concludes, "simply the best debut LP I've heard in my record buying lifetime. Forgot everybody else. Forget work tomorrow. Forget the football on telly. Leave it all behind and listen to The Stone Roses. Once. Twice. Then you'll know why I've made such a fuss. You'll understand. This is the one, this is the one, this is one…" I think Bob got it right.
Anyway, here's Alex Green, on the Roses' infamous Late Show TV appearance:
In November of 1989, The Stone Roses were set to perform on BBC2’s The Late Show where they were slated to play “Made Of Stone.” A perfect vision of coiled greatness, the band stood blurry behind host Tracey MacLeod ready to strike. Brown, locked in a cold stare was crouched in a catcher’s stance on the ground; Squire posed loose and languid over his guitar; Mani, his hair tied back in a ponytail, wore a bright red sweatshirt and held his Pollacked bass thoughtfully, while Reni, clad in a leather jacket and matching leather beanie sat relaxed and assured behind his kit. The band were in fighting shape and “Made Of Stone” was a straight-up pop suckerpunch, so the stage was set for the kind of melodic mastery that would only reinforce the growing reputation of the band.
MacLeod, whose black blazer, white blouse, big earrings and suburban blond haircut made her look like a sexy school principal, summed up the Stone Roses’ recent groundswell by explaining their recent sellout of the 7,000 seat Alexandra’s Palace the week before came “purely on the strength of word of mouth.” She went on to say, “Seemingly Manchester’s The Stone Roses have overnight made the leap from promising cult band to the hottest musical phenomenon of the moment.”
Then the band kicked in and they sounded great. Squire got things going with a dreamy chord progression; Reni snapped to life with light play on the cymbals; Mani’s lone bass sprouted the trail leading to the vocals, while Brown, though a bit off key, tore right in. Prancing in place during the first verse, by the time he got to the second you could feel the chorus about to break like a runner set to kick into a new gear and pass everyone on the track.
Inexplicably, midway through the first chorus the power in the studio went dead and, aside from Reni’s sheepish grin and light laughter, the band looked stunned. Especially Brown, who stood there, dumbfounded. "What’s happened?” Brown asked, holding the microphone with both hands, clearly not about to let it go. Pissed and pacing back and forth like a prizefighter waiting for a decision, he is the perfect picture of patience dissolving. Turning to what appears to be a cameraman, Brown exclaimed, “You’re wasting our time, lads.”
Although the flustered MacLeod promised, “We’ll do it, we’ll sort it out,” she followed that by moving on to the next segment—a doubtlessly riveting piece on English photographer Martin Parr—and it appeared to have dawned on Brown that the moment was ruined whether it was sorted out or not. Now visibly angry, Brown started having a conversation with someone off-screen, presumably one of the technical crew; unsatisfied, he then stood on Reni‘s drumkit and, hands cupped to his mouth, chanted, “Amateurs, amateurs.” What is most striking about this scene is not Brown’s outburst, but that The Stone Roses have all the appearance of unfed, circling sharks; hungry, predatory and loaded dangerously with energy.
It depends who you talk to, but the story goes that The Stone Roses were playing far too loud and blew the circuits out in the studio. A spokesman for the band at the time suggested they knew this was a possibility but also were aware of a red light warning (which for some reason never came on) that would allow them a quick period of time to turn things down. The BBC wrote a story which quoted an unnamed source from The Late Show as saying, "What happened was that power circuits blew because they were playing too loud. My own notes say ‘… too many decibels here.’”
It’s not clear if the technical problems would indeed have been sorted out, but The Stone Roses didn’t stick around to find out and left the set immediately. At the end of the program a video for “Fools Gold” was aired and that was that. But Gareth Evans, the band’s manager at the time, still maintains the whole thing was rigged and that he had come up with the idea as a publicity stunt meant to come off like the Sex Pistols’ infamous profanity-laced appearance on Bill Grundy’s Today program in 1976. Thinking The Late Show was too middle-class and stuffy for The Stone Roses, Evans claims he tried to give it a jolt and in the process, create a moment that people would still be talking about years later. Reni’s knowing laugh does have a certain conspiratorial look to it, but Brown seems positively shocked and clearly fuming, so it’s difficult to tell what the truth is. Maybe Evans did set the whole thing up, but if The Stone Roses were too cool to appear on the program, one wonders why they agreed to do it at all, because even orchestrated sabotage doesn’t change the fact that they were there in the first place.
"John Niven took me back to a place and a musical time I'd only ever visited in my head, recreating the dazed bucolic idyll of The Band's Catskills and making the times and people uncannily believable. A brilliant fictional treatment of a landmark album. This man can write."
Although I'm tempted to put an exclamation point at the end there!
Friday, October 14, 2005
We'll end up our week of extracts from Bill's new book I'll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence with the following (very moving) passage about Johnny Cash. I hope you've enjoyed reading these segments from the book as much as I've enjoyed working on it. As an author, Bill is an absolute pleasure to have on board. I hope we can do his book justice.
Johnny Cash spent much of his life standing in solidarity with the suffering, forgotten likes of Ira Hayes and the inmate in “Folsom Prison Blues.” And not just at arm’s length, but by visiting people in penitentiaries, hospital wards, and on battlefields and reservations, as well as through spontaneous acts of kindness and generosity. Cash’s brother Tommy often tells the story of when, before a show at a high school gymnasium back in the 60s, he found his brother alone in the boys’ locker room, peering into the mesh-wire lockers and holding a rolled up one-hundred-dollar bill between his thumb and forefinger. He was looking for the “dirtiest, rattiest” pair of sneakers, figuring that the owner of the locker in question could use the money the most.
Another time Cash is said to have stopped his car to help an old man with a crutch who was hobbling along the shoulder of the road in Nashville. Without telling the man who he was, Cash put the stranger, who was homeless, up in a hotel and arranged for a car to take him to the hospital the next morning so that he could be fitted for a prosthetic leg. “Those are my heroes: the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the disenfranchised,” Cash told me in an interview, his own health failing, a year before his death. “I just heard a new song by Guy Clark called ‘Homeless,’” he went on. “It’s really a good song. I’m going to record it. ‘Homeless, get out of here / Don’t give ’em no money, they just spend it on beer.’”
“Ain’t no end to street people,” Cash continued, short of breath, his eyesight fading from the effects of glaucoma brought on by diabetes. “There’s no end to the people on the margins. There’s no end to the people who can relate to that, people on the margins of economic situations, and of the law. How many people have we got in prison in the USA now, 1.3 million?” The figure at the time was closer to two million, but numbers aside, Cash knew that it was vastly larger than it should have been and, just as urgently, he knew that whatever the number was, it certainly would grow.
Johnny Cash’s attunement to such things—his identification with the lonely and the oppressed, as well as the stubbornness with which he took their side—is the very thing that made him the “Man in Black.” In the comments that he made to me the day that we spoke, he might as well have been paraphrasing his hit single of that name, a statement of vocation that, besides citing all of the classes of people that he mentioned during our interview, includes those going through crises of faith, those who are aging and alone, and those whose lives have been laid waste by drugs. Invariably, the song reaches beyond them as well. Listening some fifteen years on, Marc Almond heard and adopted the line, “Each week we lose a hundred fine young men,” as a requiem for the legions of people who were dying of AIDS. Explaining in “Man in Black” why he always dresses in somber tones, Cash, in a rumbling baritone, sings, “I’d love to wear a rainbow every day / And tell the world that everything’s okay / But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back / Till things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.”
Just as it was for Curtis Mayfield, Cash’s was essentially a prophetic and eschatological orientation toward the world. His was a posture rooted in empathy, but ultimately one that went beyond his participation in the suffering of others to call the rest of the world into account. Cash’s was a world in relation to which it was and still is impossible to remain neutral, just as the monolithic specter of his lanky frame draped head-to-toe in mourner’s black cannot be ignored, even now that he is gone. Like the outsized and outwardly quixotic gestures of some of the Hebrew prophets—like, Hosea, who married a prostitute to demonstrate divine love, or like Jeremiah, who, to convey hope, bought a plot of land just as it was being seized by invaders—the force of Cash’s witness to what is and what could be remains undeniable. Born of the poverty that he knew as the son of Arkansas sharecroppers—and later, of the tyranny of his addiction to drugs—his vision of dignity and justice compelled him to stand unwaveringly with oppressed, beaten down people and to bid others to join him. His sometimes dour persona and the priority that he gave to the lives of downcast people might not radiate the positivity of Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner” or “Move On Up,” yet Cash’s witness offers a powerful word of uplift just the same. Throughout his embattled life he lent a voice to those without one and, with it, a glimmer of hope, a glimpse of transcendence.
Like Mayfield, Cash was a man of faith, one with deep roots in the Baptist church who, despite periods of dissipation and doubt, remained a Christian throughout his life. His identification with people on the margins, though, tended to stem more from his hard-fought inner struggle than it did from a theologically grounded vision of transcendence like that of the beloved community or train to glory that inspired Mayfield. Cash’s striving was rooted in faith, certainly, and its implications for human community are many and far-reaching. Yet more than anything, his hunger for transcendence was tied to his ongoing fight for self-integration, to his basic but far from simple urge for wholeness. Only from there did his struggle seem to open outward—and prophetically—onto the larger world.
Nowhere did Cash articulate his quest for wholeness more indelibly than in “I Walk the Line,” the follow-up to “Folsom Prison Blues” that became a No. 1 country and Top 20 pop hit for him in 1956. He wrote the song as a pledge of fidelity to his first wife, Vivian Liberto, while he was stationed in Germany with the US Air Force. Over the years, however, his vow to keep the ends out for the tie that binds took on much greater existential significance. His message driven home by the obdurate beat of the Tennessee Two, Cash seemed to be confessing just how desperately he wanted to unite the disparate strands of his conflicted self.
Thursday, October 13, 2005
Today's extract from I'll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence by Bill Friskics-Warren is from the section of the book about prophets. In this case, Curtis Mayfield:
It was not only Mayfield’s barely masked encomiums to equality that carried his message of uplift and transcendence. Even a putative love song like “I’m So Proud,” the Impressions’ swooning Top 20 pop hit from 1964, is a paean to black pride—in this case to black womanhood—much as Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” celebrated African American masculinity the previous decade. The word “soul” in the Impressions’ 1965 single “Woman’s Got Soul” likewise is code for blackness (and righteousness), just as it is in “Talking About My Baby” from the year before. “Need to Belong,” a 1963 hit that Mayfield wrote for former Impressions lead singer Jerry Butler, turns on the line, “It hurts to be known as no one.” Here, in a brooding baritone, Butler pines not just for a soulmate. He longs for the day when he can claim his place as a first-class citizen in the nation that his forebears did so much to build. Butler is aching to do what Mayfield would do in “This Is My Country,” where, over one of the bluest chord changes ever, he avers, “I paid three hundred years or more of slave-driving sweat and welts on my back,” before asserting, that blue chord modulating right in time, “This is my country.”
Virtually everything in the Impressions’ catalog can be decoded in this way, all of it steeped in Mayfield’s roots in the church yet all of it very much of its historical moment. A record like “Meeting Over Yonder” might sound like an old tent revival hymn, but it does not paint a picture of some sweet hereafter so much as speak to things in the here and now. In the tradition of the best black spirituals and preaching, it concerns hope for the future and for the present. Whatever its theological import, when the horns resound and the Impressions sing, “The best thing for you, you, and me / Is going to the meeting up yonder,” it doubles as an inducement for people to organize and to march, much as similarly transparent calls from the era like Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” did. Similarly with Mayfield’s allusions to the River Jordan in “Amen,” its horns paraphrasing the melody of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and in “People Get Ready,” references that serve as much as metaphors for historical freedom as they do for some otherworldly afterlife. Thus does Mayfield’s multivalent message, his blurring of the lines between the sacred and the secular, speak, as the writer Ernest Hardy put it, “both to the avid churchgoer and the person whose faith is drawn solely from what he or she has seen in the ‘real’ world.”
Nevertheless, it was in church, at the Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church where his grandmother Annabelle served as pastor, that Mayfield first witnessed how the gospel tradition of call and response could inflame and unite people. It was also in church that he learned to sing (he adored Sam Cooke) and where he met Jerry Butler, with whom he would form the Impressions. Mayfield’s grandmother’s congregation was located on the South Side of Chicago, the focal point for Southern blacks who migrated to the North during the 30s and 40s in search of a better life. The Impressions’ music spoke chiefly to this audience, certainly at first, and mainly of hope and encouragement, even though to many, the North’s promise of social and economic freedom increasingly felt, as Langston Hughes so indelibly put it, like a dream deferred. The Impressions’ records were born of this tension and predicament. Still, as Ernest Hardy observed, “there’s never even the suggestion of defeat [in their music], though there’s frequently sadness and between-the-lines admissions of heavy prices paid.”
“Faith is the key,” the Impressions exhort, in three-part harmony, in “People Get Ready,” and harmony was key, as much to the trio’s social ideals as it was to how their vocal arrangements came together. “There’s hope for all,” they go on to sing, and by “all,” they mean everyone, even white people. As Craig Werner observed, writing in his wonderful book, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, Mayfield articulated “a deeply held vision of redemption that accepted white presence while insisting on the beauty of blackness…. Amid the rapidly polarizing racial climate of the late 60s, [records like] Choice of Colors and This Is My Country held out that hope that Black Power and democratic brotherhood were, however unlikely it sometimes seemed, profoundly compatible.”
By the late 60s, however, with Martin Luther King gone and the civil rights movement beginning to fragment, the glory-bound train of “People Get Ready” had begun to derail. Mayfield continued to resist separatism, and his vision of community remained as open and inclusive as ever. Yet increasingly—and much as Marvin Gaye did with What’s Going On and Trouble Man—Mayfield painted a darker, more turbulent picture of America. “Sisters! Niggers! Whiteys! Jews! Crackers! Don’t worry! If there’s hell below, we’re all gonna go!” he shouts sardonically to open his 1970 solo debut. The seismic rumble of bass guitar that follows conjures images of an abyss yawning beneath the nation’s feet. Much of the music on Mayfield’s early and mid-70s albums sounded a similarly tumultuous note. There were exceptions, notably the bromidic—and, if saccharine, then at least earned—likes of “Miss Black America” and “The Makings of You.” Predominately, though—even on visionary, uplifting tracks like “Beautiful Brother of Mine”—Mayfield’s arrangements were built around fuzz-toned bass, wah-wah guitar, and aggressive, percussive rhythms. And they often were driven by pungent horns and strings. His music reflected the malaise of a country stuck in a war that it could not see its way out of, and of deteriorating race relations at home, where for many in the inner city, “moving on up” had devolved into a venal distortion of the gospel impulse to “get over.”
Superfly, the 1972 movie for which Mayfield provided the soundtrack, was all about getting over, and not by way of Jordan or the mountain top, but by means of a treacherous underworld of greed, drugs, and betrayal. Gordon Parks Jr. directed the film, which sensationally depicted the very real desperation of ghetto life and became, along with the likes of Shaft and Sweet Sweetback's Badaaass Song, a touchstone of the then-emerging subgenre of “blaxploitation” movies. Mayfield, however, would have none of Parks’s proto-gangsta glamorization of sex, guns, and cocaine, no matter how much the “Pusherman” might have served as an archetype of black male ascendancy after the fashion of Staggerlee or Railroad Bill. Yet true to dialogic form, and much as he had been doing since his earliest days with the Impressions, Mayfield did not attack the premise of Parks’s story outright, but instead created an album’s worth of music that functions as a “masked dialogue” with it. With the sobering, string-washed disco of “Freddie’s Dead” and “Little Child Runnin’ Wild,” Mayfield exposes the pusher’s false promise of transcendence and speaks, as Robert Christgau wrote, “for (and to) the ghetto’s victims rather than its achievers.”
Not that moviegoers heard words of judgment like “His hope was a rope / And he should have known,” which Mayfield leveled at the murdered drug dealer Freddie. Mayfield included just an instrumental version of “Freddie’s Dead” with the music that he submitted for the movie, only later releasing the take with the lyrics on the soundtrack album that he put out on his Curtom record label. Yet in a move as streetwise as that of any pusher, he released the record three months before the film opened, the upshot of which was that audiences had internalized Mayfield’s anti-drug message long before they saw Parks’s sympathetic portrayal of the dealer’s underworld on screen.
“Freddie’s Dead” went to No. 4 on the pop chart in 1972, enabling Mayfield’s message to get over like never before. Not only that, on the closing vamp of the album’s title track, which also made the pop Top 10 that year (the Superfly soundtrack reached No. 1), Mayfield reclaims the gospel notion of getting over, vindicating the movie’s protagonist, who, despite his season in hell, stays true to himself and gets out alive. Even this, though, was but a qualified sort of uplift. Getting out alive certainly was a long way from the train to glory of “People Get Ready,” but with the idealism of the civil rights and Black Power movements giving way to cynicism, materialism, and fatigue, survival seemed like all that anyone struggling to get over could hope for. Mayfield drank more deeply of the blues, where transcendence has more to do with keeping on, with just living to see another day, than with the gospel promise of getting over. With Back to the World, the album that he released after Superfly, he took a hard look at the black experience in Vietnam. On his soundtrack to the 1977 movie Short Eyes, a record that was anchored by the chilling “Doo Doo Wop Is Strong in Here,” he ventured into the depths of prison life, which increasingly had become an alternate ghetto for the urban black males who populated Superfly. That is, at least for those whose number did not come up in the lottery for the draft.
The list is fun to play with: pick seven bands in a row, alphabetically, for a one-day music festival. (To take place, shall we say, at the ballpark in Coney Island.) I'd go for this line-up:
Godspeed You Black Emperor!
Gorky's Zygotic Mynci
Guided By Voices
Half Man, Half Biscuit
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
One of the things I love most about I'll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence is Bill F-W's inclusion of several artists who wouldn't normally be associated with the more 'spiritual' side of pop. Tricky, the Stooges, Eminem, and others. In the following extract, from the chapter entitled "The Great Wrong Place in Which We Live", Bill writes about the music of Joy Division. (It's followed in the book by a knockout piece on New Order.)
The music of England’s Joy Division is among the gloomiest and most influential of the post-punk era, anticipating everything from industrial noise and dance-oriented rock to death metal and grunge. The group’s dystopian brooding might not be as transgressive as the digital barrages of Nine Inch Nails, or as suffocating as the thrumming beatdown of Tricky, yet if anything, Joy Division’s unremitting urban Gothic is darker than either, and a precursor to both. The band issued only a handful of singles, an EP, and a pair of bracingly grim LPs during its three years together. This body of work turned on the doomed romanticism of its lead singer and lyricist, Ian Curtis, a depressive soul who suffered from epilepsy and ultimately hanged himself, presumably over his failing marriage, just as Joy Division was on the verge of achieving wider acclaim. It would be a mistake, though, to attribute the band’s doleful, ominous droning solely to Curtis’s emotional malaise. To do so would not only reduce the group’s music to personal psychology, it would divorce it from the larger economic and cultural morass from which it emerged. “Coming from the industrial desolation of Manchester,” wrote Steven Grant in the first edition of the Trouser Press Record Guide, “Joy Division expressed, in uncompromising terms, the angst of the great wrong place in which we live.”
Personal and societal miseries were linked inextricably in Joy Division’s universe, each informing and illuminating the other and contributing to a vision of the world as a cruel, chaotic place in which isolated individuals entertained scant hope of transcendence. The name Joy Division itself—a ghastly phrase that the Nazis used to describe the female prisoners whom they forced to work as prostitutes in the death camps—conjures so bleak and dehumanizing a picture as to suggest that Curtis’s resignation and despair just might qualify as nihilism. Allusions to fascism and totalitarianism crop up elsewhere in the group’s music and iconography, yet as the critic Mikal Gilmore has suggested, the band’s name also could be giving voice to the conviction “that no horror, no matter how terrible, is unendurable. Maybe that sounds as joyless and morose as everything else about Joy Division’s music, but it shouldn’t. In this case, it’s nothing less than a surpassing testament to the life force itself.”
This is not to say that the negation that reverberates throughout Joy Division’s monuments to isolation and estrangement—throbbing “No’s” to intimacy, trust, safety, and perhaps redemption itself—is not so intense at times as to be overwhelming. Abandoning himself to the free-falling rush of “Disorder,” the opening track on 1979’s Unknown Pleasures, Curtis sings of things being all but hopelessly out of hand. To the menacing lurch of the song that comes after it, he paints one forbidding scene after another, only to howl, “Where will it end?” in an aggrieved monotone. “I don’t care anymore / I’ve lost the will to want more,” Curtis concedes to the flogging beats of “Insight,” before adding, “I’m not afraid anymore / I keep my eyes on the door.” An oblivion-like din of squalling guitar and synthesizer closes the track, suggesting that the door for which he watches, and the insight to which he aspires, is death, likely as not by his own hand.
Monolithic titles like “Wilderness,” “Interzone,” and “Shadowplay” chart the desolate spiritual and emotional terrain of Unknown Pleasures, evoking a subterranean region in which souls are adrift, or are lost or in limbo, and never benignly so. Martin Hannett’s glacial production heightens this sense of being cut off and in danger, his stark settings clarifying Bernard Albrecht’s scraping guitar figures, Peter Cook’s cascading bass lines, and Stephen Morris’s scourge-like, often grooveless drumming to chilling, though gripping effect. The sound of glass shattering or the occasional siren going off only makes the perils portended by the music seem that much more real.
Things take an even more forbidding turn on Closer, Joy Division’s second and final album. The ruinous proceedings begin with “Atrocity Exhibition,” a macabre sideshow named after J. G. Ballard’s dystopian novel about the dissolution of the planet earth. “This is the way, step inside,” Curtis beckons, herding a crowd of spectators into an asylum to gawk at a man who is being tortured. “You’ll see the horrors of a faraway place / Meet the architects of law face to face,” he goes on, hawking the carnage over noxious guitars and tribal drumming, before adding, “Take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be.” As Morris’s heart-of-darkness beat mounts, it is clear that the mayhem that Curtis promises is much closer to home than advertised, and that it has been wrought not by alien hands but by those within the sound of his voice.
This air of apocalypse pervades all of Closer, where dogs and vultures feed on carcasses that symbolize decaying relationships, where swarms of screeching guitar noise evoke clouds of locust, and where dirge-like cadences invariably grind to a lifeless halt. “It all falls apart after it’s touched,” Curtis utters ominously to the inexorable march of one track. In another he proclaims, “The present is well out of hand,” and, amid the relentless pounding of “Twenty Four Hours,” he moans, “Just for one moment / I thought I’d found my way / Destiny unfolded / I watched it slip away.” “Decades,” the dissipated, almost static track that closes the album, evokes Curtis’s interminable sentence in this moral and spiritual gulag.
“Why bother…with music so seemingly dead-end and depressing?” Mikal Gilmore asked, writing in Rolling Stone during the early post-punk era. Gilmore’s is a valid question, and one that applies not just to the music of Joy Division, but to the work of any artist who conveys negation in uncompromising and often repugnant terms. “Maybe,” Gilmore went on, “because in the midst of a movement overrun by studied nihilism and faddish despair it is somehow affecting to hear someone whose convictions range beyond mere truisms. Maybe because Ian Curtis’ descent into despair leaves us with a deeper feeling of our own frailty.”
These intimations of a shared experience, and the promise of community, no matter how broken, that they hold are not the only salutary by-products of Curtis’s despair. His struggle also witnesses to the dangers of false claims to transcendence—to the lure of easy paths out of the pit—as well as to the persistence of a desire for something beyond degradation and despondency. At one point Gilmore even asserted that the group’s most transporting music “seemed almost spirited enough to dispel the gloom it so doggedly invoked,” only to back off that claim and conclude that “Joy Division never really aspire to transcendence.” And yet, as lines like “I tried to get to you” and “I was a fool to ask for so much” attest, it is not so much that Curtis and the rest of the band do not express an urge for transcendence. It is more that their striving for it has been eclipsed, a frustration, Curtis’s suicide notwithstanding, that does not make their hunger for release less real.
Joy Division’s recordings often confirm as much. From the rocket propulsion of “Interzone” to the ecstatic chants in “Transmission” of “Dance, dance, dance to the radio,” the band’s music frequently conveys a qualified, if gallows-bred, sort of uplift. Just the “expression of [these] feelings is a victory over obliteration,” wrote Evelyn McDonnell in 1995. “Joy Division aspired to heaven even when trapped in hell,” she went on, and nowhere is this more evident than in “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the band’s biggest and final single. Issued just two months before Curtis hanged himself in 1980, the record might lament love’s inevitable dissolution, but its churning dance rhythms and intoxicating, if dissonant, synthesizer lines bespeak transcendence in spite of themselves, seeming, as McDonnell wrote, “to hurl the burden conveyed by Curtis’ voice and lyrics heavenward.” Even at its most dour, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” bears witness to an aspiration, however much it might be thwarted, that endures as much in Curtis’s haunted droning as it does in the record’s indomitable grooves.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
The second extract from Bill Friskics-Warren's new book I'll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence is taken from Chapter 2, "Sexual Healing, or Somethin' Like Sanctified" - in which Bill looks at Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Madonna and, in this particular passage, PJ Harvey. Here's Bill:
Harvey’s gift for mythopoeia is virtually unrivaled in pop music, certainly in the post-punk era. Over the course of a half-dozen albums she has donned myriad personae, from male and female to phantasmal, reinventing herself as everything from a whore and an agent of God to a fertility goddess and a she-Godzilla. Harvey has drawn some of these guises from the Bible and from her native Anglo-Celtic folklore, others from the images of surreal creatures that she gleaned from her parents’ blues, Jimi Hendrix, and Captain Beefheart records. All, however, are sensual and mystical to their core. Take, for example, the salacious “Long Snake Moan,” a “cock rock” update of the blues that dwarves even that patented by Led Zeppelin, a band whose monumental stomp-and-swagger Harvey’s music sometimes evokes. “Hell’s door, God above / All drunk on my love / Now won’t you hear my long snake moan,” she roars over a gargantuan guitar riff, before exulting, during the orgiastic maelstrom that closes the track, “It’s my voodoo working!”
Harvey’s is a music of excess and extremes, of relentless tension and release that turns on heart-stopping screams, caterwauling guitars, and abrupt shifts in volume and tempo. Sometimes these torrents convey the ecstasies of sex. More often, though, they betray pain and discomfort, whether it is born of Harvey’s feeling of being trapped in her body (a recurring theme, and likely the root of her perpetual makeovers onstage and in photos) or of her straining against the constraints of a repressed, misogynistic society. “Must be a way that I can dress to please him,” she broods in “Dress,” her churning debut single. “It’s hard to walk in a dress, it’s not easy / Spinning over like a heavy-loaded fruit tree / If you put it on / If you put it on,” she continues, “investing the act of adornment with both a threat and a dare." Harvey takes the opposite tack on the record’s thrashing follow-up, “Sheela-Na-Gig,” throwing her paramour’s sexism back in his face by spreading her labia at him in scorn. In “Rid of Me,” seething at the lover who has spurned her, she warns, “You’re not rid of me / I’ll make you lick my injuries,” before unleashing waves of crashing noise that sound like they could swallow him whole.
Harvey’s mystical predilections often enable her to transform pain into a vehicle for transcendence, something that is especially pronounced on her serrated early albums. “I’ll make it better / I’ll rub it ’til it bleeds,” she vows on the quasi-transgressive Rid of Me, while on Dry, her chafing debut, she sings, “I’m happy and bleeding for you.” There is a measured quality to Harvey’s vocals, and to the looping guitar figure that she plays here—a serenity even—that belies any irony that her claim might possess. Something similar is at work in “Ecstasy,” one of several lacerating blues pieces from this period. “Harvey takes for granted that eroticism hurts, that nothing pretty comes of giving over to love’s irrational pull,” wrote Ann Powers in “Houses of the Holy,” her marvelous essay on Rid of Me.
Powers went on to place Harvey and her rapture-induced shape-shifting, most notable in the likes of “Man-Sized” and “50-Ft. Queenie,” in the tradition of the female mystics who, trying to break free of their bodies and of their body-reviling societies, underwent startling transfigurations to satisfy their hunger for the divine. “Holy women of the Middle Ages typically experienced their faith in terms of bodily transformation, partly self-induced, but ultimately mysterious,” she wrote. “Stigmata, elongation or enlargement of body parts, levitations, and catatonic seizures proved the union with Christ that these women attained, although such symptoms rarely visited men. Accounts of these miracles …suggest that women could actually change form, if only momentarily, and so push through the limitations of their traditionally scorned and feared female bodies.” Harvey, Powers continued, “cultivates that same shape-changing power.”
The object of Harvey’s yearning might not be the conventional deity embraced by her medieval foremothers—or, for that matter, by her predecessors Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Harvey’s is more of a postmodern quest, much as it is for Madonna, for self-transformation through sensuality—indeed, for sexual liberation—than a striving to be united with a personal deity (or even a transpersonal one). Yet there remains, as large portions of To Bring You My Love and its successor, Is This Desire? attest, a pronounced spiritual, and at times theological dimension, replete with images of heaven and the divine, to Harvey’s eroticized vision of redemption. More than just an end in itself for her, sex possesses the power to transport body and soul, temporarily satisfying her transcendental urges and bringing a measure of peace, as she sings in “Dancer,” to her “black and empty heart.”
Is This Desire? is more ruminative than To Bring You My Love, its music more ambient and subdued. Harvey’s protagonists and their meditations on the question that the record poses, however, are just as obsessive. In “Angelene,” invoking a virgin-whore dichotomy akin to the one that Madonna has employed, Harvey plays a devout prostitute who, with a mix of tranquility and longing, confides, “I see men come and go / But there’ll be one who will collect / My soul and come to me.” Sounding a more desperate note over the barren title track she wonders, “Is this desire enough / Enough to lift us higher / To lift above?” In the ironically-titled “Joy” she mourns for a solitary woman of thirty who is leading “a life un-wed.” This reference is not to marriage per se, but to a life bereft of faith, hope, and joy, a life in which unfilled desire is an abiding and crippling condition.
Harvey has cautioned in interviews against reading details about her love and sex life into her music, but given her career-long obsession with desire and its discontents, it is hard not to hear her talking about herself in the likes of “Joy.” Most of her records in fact sound like they were made in the wake of romantic break-ups. Whether or not this is the case, 2001’s Manhattan-inspired Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea brims with a sense of spiritual and sexual rebirth hitherto unheard from Harvey. Rumor had it that she made the album during the first blush of newfound passion, and from rooftop waltzes at midnight to blissed-out epiphanies like “I can’t believe life’s so complex / When I just wanna sit here and watch you undress,” the feelings of renewal that she conveys here border on wonder. Yet even on this latter track, a throbbing anthem called “This Is Love,” there remains a current of doubt. “This is love I’m feeling,” Harvey sings. “Does it have to be a life full of dread?”
Dis-ease returns with a vengeance on 2004’s Uh Huh Her. The music on the record ranges from dirty guitar noise to brooding murk, with an occasional swatch of melody to part the gloom. And the likes of “The Desperate Kingdom of Love” and “The Darker Side of Me and Him” still find Harvey plumbing the meaning of desire, however much it might be in retreat. In “The Slow Drug,” its title an allusion to that elemental longing, she seems to view this undertaking, for all its sexual and spiritual worth, as her vocation. “Headlights burning / Looking out for something / Something that we’re needing,” she muses evocatively to the restless cadences of what sound like a synthesizer and a violin struck with a bow. “Still,” she goes on, “the question lingers / I twist it round my fingers / Could you be my calling?”
Monday, October 10, 2005
It's a wonderful piece of writing, looking at spirituality in the works of Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Madonna, Polly Harvey, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the Mekons, Marvin Gaye, Tricky, Nine Inch Nails, the Stooges, Public Enemy, U2, Sleater-Kinney, and many more. I'll post individual passages on a few of those as the week goes on, but today we'll start with Bill's prologue. Enjoy.
Prologue: I Want to Take You Higher
About the time that I began writing this book, the local department of public works started putting in a dog park behind the community center near our house in east Nashville. Piled up on the basketball court behind the field house were several mounds of dirt, each maybe five or six feet high, that the workers had dug up to pour the forms for the sidewalk. One of the mounds sat directly in front of the backboard and rim at the south end of the court. Each afternoon when I cut behind the community center on my run I could count on seeing a few kids around the age of nine or ten dunking basketballs from that elevated station. It was a natural enough thing for them to be doing, an impulse, born of their impatience with the limitations of their age and stature (and, no doubt, of visions of NBA glory), to reach higher than they otherwise could have. Seeing that mix of kids striving, day after day, to grasp what was beyond their normal reach stuck with me. It also struck me as an apt metaphor, however prosaic, for our innate hunger for transcendence, and for how that hunger is expressed by the musicians discussed in this book.
Talking about pop music in the same breath as transcendence might strike some people as high-minded or over-earnest, if not as altogether quixotic. Such a reception almost certainly would have greeted this book during the irony-clad decade that preceded this one, and this, despite the unabashed striving for transcendence evident in the music of tragic pop icons like Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur. Or, for that matter, in that of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin a generation before them. Yet spirituality—and that is precisely what the language of transcendence refers to—has lately made a comeback. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the heightened sense of global insecurity with which we now live, people seem increasingly conscious, certainly in the persistently narcissistic United States, of the brokenness that pervades our world. Perhaps due to this keener awareness of our vulnerability and finitude, more people are reflecting on things that point beyond the quotidian or the everyday; more are preoccupied, as the theologian Paul Tillich put it, with things of ultimate, as opposed to penultimate, concern. This even is true of pop music, where recent recordings as disparate as rapper Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” and Hoobastank’s modern-rock anthem “The Reason” not only resonated spiritually with listeners; they topped the charts, sold millions of copies, and won Grammy Awards.
Pop music perennially has been viewed as disposable—or worse, as spiritually bankrupt. Yet from “A Change Is Gonna Come” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” pop records long have given voice to an urge to “move on up” or “get higher,” regardless of how that striving is understood by the musicians who express it. This talk of elevation or “higher ground” notwithstanding, this book is not a work of philosophy or theology, at least not in any strict academic sense. Entire portions of what follows do not even, for example, refer to God, and many make more of the absence or inscrutability of the divine than anything else. Nor is this an apologetic for the convictions of any of the musicians under consideration. More than anything this book is a volume of criticism that looks at the different ways that people seek, express, and, however fleetingly, experience transcendence, a definition of which I unpack in the introduction that follows. Drawing on various philosophical and theological frameworks, as well as on different types of social analysis and arts criticism, this book attempts to expand the ways in which we understand not just the spiritual impulses of the musicians in question, but our own as well.
This is a book, in other words, about spirituality with what might be termed a small “s” instead of spirituality as it tends to be promulgated by organized religion, which, being a human construct, often codifies spiritual impulses and suppresses them. In contrast to that religious inclination, this project seeks to push back the horizon of what people commonly view as spirituality. Part of this simply involves making room for manifestations of spirituality that typically are not understood as such by recognizing the spiritual impetus at work in, say, eroticism, negation, and resistance. Part of it also has to do with seeing the continuity between these commonly unacknowledged expressions of spirituality and more overt embodiments of it like prophecy, contemplation, and empathy. Ultimately this means engaging the music discussed in these pages—most music, in fact—as inherently spiritual rather than as merely incidentally or accidentally so. In this way, and in what I hope proves a transcendental move of its own, I hope that the eight chapters that follow do for you something akin to what the music of the artists discussed in the book does for me: take you higher.
What follows, though, is not an attempt to lay out a systematic understanding of what is, perhaps uniquely, a human urge for transcendence, or even to chart the contours of human spirituality in general. Despite its overarching conceptual schematic, and despite the fact that it seeks to elucidate an encompassing array of ways that popular musicians express a striving for something deeper and more abiding than the everyday, this book is not a systematic undertaking at all. Nor is it an attempt to ascertain, in any definitive way, what the artists in question intend or might be trying to “say.” Or, for that matter, to unearth religious nuggets from their work or to serve as an apologia for the “hidden” Christianity, Buddhism, or whatever else might be mined from their recordings. This book instead is an attempt to understand what the artists discussed here are trying to convey, as well as to explore how their outpourings illuminate the hunger for transcendence at the heart of human experience. As much as anything, it is a response to and way of entering into dialogue with these artists and the bodies of work that they have created.
My interest lies in popular music, rather than in gospel, “contemporary Christian,” or other types of religious music. This is not to disparage the latter, the examination of which I happily to leave to others. My concern is with those epiphanies, if only for their power to unite people across faiths and cultures, that have in some way broken into or out of the cultural mainstream. My interest lies with those articulations of the urge for transcendence that have found their way into the popular zeitgeist without recourse to dogmatic or sectarian agendas. It is not only because of that, though, that pop recordings form the backbone of the discussions that take place in this book. As far as Western popular music goes, the so-called secular expressions of spirituality with which I take up in this book have, with the exception of the black and Southern gospel genres, accounted for vastly superior music than those that have come from, say, contemporary Christian circles.
I also have chosen to explore the work of some thirty individual artists, as opposed to clusters of recordings made by a much broader array of musicians grouped together under certain rubrics. As listeners we relate to and identify with individual musicians and bands and follow their careers in the press. Looking in depth at the larger bodies of work of particular artists thus lends the book’s discussions a familiar, or at least discernible, trajectory. Examining entire careers also affords a better glimpse of the way that the artists’ expressions of the urge for transcendence change over time, which many invariably do. Finally, pursuing this tack helps uncover how the broader social, historical, and cultural contexts from which the artists emerged gave rise to both their music and their striving.
The discussions that follow are not, in any case, artist profiles or reportage. Compared with most contemporary writing about pop, rock, and hip-hop, they might seem a little light on biographical material, relying more on the analysis of artists’ recordings and on the examination of the larger contexts from which their music arose. And by recordings, I mean just that—words and music. This book seeks to gainsay the logocentric tendency, which is all too prevalent in writing about pop music, of privileging a record’s lyrics over everything else. The unfortunate effect of that practice is to reduce recordings to works of “poetry” backed by beats, guitars, or what have you instead of treating them as potentially rich arrangements of notes, rhythms, silences, and effects that “say” more than the words that come from the singer’s or the MC’s mouth. I have sought, with considerable diligence, to avoid falling into this trap.
In much the same spirit of inclusion, the exegeses that follow constitute what I hope is an encompassing constellation of manifestations—from rock and rap and industrial music to country and electronica and soul—of the urge for transcendence in contemporary pop music. I have focused almost exclusively on musicians who emerged or made their mark in the past three or so decades, the era, loosely speaking, of rock, soul, and rap (as opposed to rock ’n’ roll). Part of this has to do with the fact that these artists share many social and cultural reference points with the vast majority of people who might read this book. Just as crucial is the fact that whether we are talking about Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, or Robert Johnson, or about Hank Williams, James Brown, or the Beatles, the artistic and spiritual outpourings of many early or transitional figures in the pop, jazz, blues, “hillbilly,” and rock ’n’ roll genres have been scrutinized exhaustively elsewhere. The work of some of the artists discussed in these pages has been considered at length as well. None of it, however, has been looked at primarily in terms of how it gives voice to a hunger for transcendence. Certainly none of it has been examined as part of a larger undertaking like the one that this book represents.
I chose to include some of the artists, and in what is perhaps quintessential postmodern fashion, because they best helped expound the categories that I use to examine the urge for transcendence in popular music. In most cases I could have selected other artists, and they might have served the book’s purposes just as well—the Clash, for example, instead of the Mekons, Ani DiFranco instead of Sleater-Kinney, the Coup or Rage Against the Machine instead of Spearhead, Prince instead of Marvin Gaye or Madonna. This, however, is not a book solely about first-generation punk bands, post-feminist rockers, leftist agit-rappers, or pop artists of a sensualist bent. I had to make choices, not only to keep from repeating myself, but also to account for a sufficiently broad range of articulations of spirituality in popular music. Such is the heretical imperative, or burden of choice, inherent in any project of this scope. Less crucial, in the end, is exactly which artists I included—someone else could have written a comparable book using other exemplars—but whether my engagement with the work of the musicians that I have selected adequately illuminates my subject. And again, my concern is with popular music, which explains why, with maybe a handful of exceptions, the artists discussed here will be familiar to most readers who follow pop music, rather than just to cultists or critics.
Some of the musicians discussed here might not be able to articulate exactly what it is that, driven by their spiritual restlessness, they are searching for. Some of them might not even be able to see beyond the antipathy that colors their lives and music to envision what might satisfy that striving. Ultimately this does not matter. The fact that these artists are reaching at all, and that they have the presence of heart and mind to express their restlessness through music, is evidence of their desire to participate in something greater than what they know and thus is transcendental. This is not to say that these artists do not know what they are talking about or feeling, or in any way to patronize them or their work. Nor is it, once again, to ascribe philosophical or dogmatic aims to what they are trying to say. It is merely to acknowledge the transcendental impulse that the striving of these artists, as conveyed by their music, betrays.
Some musicians might be conspicuous in their absence from these pages. For example, the Velvet Underground, who, while in some ways perfect exemplars of the negation that I explore in Chapter 4, were just too hedonistic and thus uttered too loud a “Yes” to life to fit there. Pere Ubu, Captain Beefheart, and Parliament-Funkadelic are other cases in point, all of them far too mercurial, and inscrutably so, to lend themselves to the fairly circumscribed discussion at hand. All of which is to say nothing of Bob Dylan, who simply towers over the field. Dylan was the wedge who cleaved the hitherto hermetic universe of pop music, a world that still clung to ill-fitting distinctions between the sacred and the profane, the eternal and the mundane. Even if such claims for Dylan’s legacy might overreach somewhat—Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, after all, shattered their share of assumptions during the 50s and early 60s—Dylan at least blew open the aperture, forever altering the pop landscape and how we survey it. Even devoting a chapter to his music and the tectonic shift that it set it motion would seem trifling in this context, especially with so many attempts to do some version of this already in print; plus, you can’t do it all.
My decision to focus on some musicians and not others nevertheless is not, in the end, a subjective one, as if there were such a thing in a world that is as interconnected as ours is. If nothing else, the shared nature of how we engage popular music makes my choices profoundly intersubjective. My decisions are informed not only by the myriad conversations in which I have taken part, either with other writers or fans, but also 0from my immersion in the cultural currents from which the music and the conversations that surround it have sprung. None of which is to deny that personal taste is reflected in my choices, but there is no disgrace in that. “To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself,” wrote Susan Sontag in Notes on “Camp.” “Taste governs every free—as opposed to rote—human response.”
Finally, I have chosen to look at articulations of the urge for transcendence in the work of musicians, instead of, say, film directors or playwrights (although I’d warrant that similar treatments of movies and theater still might go begging). I have concentrated on pop music in part because, as a critic, it is what I follow most closely, but also because it has served, along with fiction, as the most profound point of convergence between art and spirituality in my life. Pop music functions this way in the lives of a great many people, and it played this totemic role long before the advent of modern recording technology. Everything from the Anglo-Celtic ballad tradition to the centuries-old art of West African drumming and storytelling has shown us that. All of which is not to privilege the likes of PJ Harvey, Curtis Mayfield, or Public Enemy over, say, Robert Altman, August Wilson, or Jean-Luc Godard. It merely is to acknowledge that of the various founts of pop culture from which I have imbibed, I have drunk at the well of popular music more deeply, and have gotten higher there more often than anywhere else. This book examines the work of some of the artists whose music has taken me to that place, much as those mounds of unearthed dirt did for the kids on the basketball court behind the community center in my neighborhood. My hope is that some of what follows will take you a little higher as well.
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
Monday, October 03, 2005
"Usually reading about dope, dopers and dope dealers is unrelievedly boring: this isn't. It's an amazing piece of work, as powerful as it is ugly. And the ending is perfect."