A blog about Bloomsbury Academic's 33 1/3 series, our other books about music, and the world of sound in general.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

More on Alex Chilton

One more post from Bruce Eaton's book - I love the way this passage captures such an intense moment for the author and shines a little more light on Chilton's attitude towards music and performing.


When Alex arrived from Memphis the afternoon of our show, he was affable and we immediately felt at ease. We had a few matters to deal with — a proper rehearsal being at the top of our list. Alex immediately nixed the idea, spelling out a musical philosophy that went something like this. Whenever you play something for the very first time, there’s a chance that it will sound better than anything that could be rehearsed — and those highpoints are worth all the mistakes. In other words, Let’s go out, make some music, and see what happens.

Alex was confident and articulate — he won us over even though we really had no choice but to go along for the ride. We whiled away the time up to the show, sitting around a friend’s apartment while Bill and Alex got deep into a freewheeling conversation that the rest of us drifted in and out of. Alex in the present proved to be a very interesting guy — it never crossed my mind to ask him about his past. I wouldn’t ask him a question about Big Star until nearly three decades later.

McVan’s was a once swank, now dank nightclub that in its heyday had hosted Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, the Inkspots (with a young guitarist named Jimi), Frank Sinatra, and Gypsy Rose Lee. In 1979 it was the place to go in Buffalo if you wanted to hear punked-up garage rock in rapidly decaying surroundings (beyond repair, the building was torn down a few years later). We arrived in the middle of the opening band’s set, noted that the place was packed (I’d all but forgotten that I was also the promoter — having put my own money up for the show) and headed straight for the dimly lit, seemingly once luxurious dressing room.

You could almost see the ghosts. For about 20 minutes we stood in a circle, guitars unplugged, Joe beating his sticks on the arm of a musty velvet-covered club chair (had Jimi once sat there?), running through the songs on the set list, Alex quickly teaching us the chords to the few we hadn’t been able to track down on record. As we got ready to go on, Alex told Joe not to be afraid to “kick his ass” to keep him from lagging behind the beat. With a sly smile, Joe assured him that wouldn’t be a problem. Then, before we had another moment to ponder the absurdity of playing with Alex Chilton totally on the fly in front of friends and spectators half-expecting us to crash (some even relishing the prospect), we heard Bill onstage revving up the crowd — “Here he is, the mad man from Memphis . . . . Alex Chilton!!” — and we headed out toward the lights.

First up on the set list was ‘Bourgeois Blues’ — a Leadbelly song from the Panther Burns repertoire that Alex had taught us a just few minutes prior. A simple riff twanging off low open strings, Alex counted it off and we ripped into it with abandon — our nerves melting into pure adrenaline. Joe laid into the beat like a human cannon, I worked the bass strings as if they were rubber bands, and Pete and Alex traded progressively unhinged solos. For those five or six minutes we were the best band on the planet. Alex had been right — we could have rehearsed for a thousand years and never come close. The crowd cheered loudly as we rumbled to an end. Alex seemed pleased, the band exhaled a collective sigh of relief, and we set about our work for the evening.

The rest of the show went by in a flash as we dutifully whipped up the “psychedelic r&b mania” that the posters around town had promised. We successfully negotiated the curves of ‘In The Street’, lost the Bolan-boogie beat in ‘Telegram Sam’ for a bit and were suitably atmospheric for ‘Kangaroo’. And then late in the set came ‘September Gurls’ — a bit ragged but suitably majestic — and the clock slowed down. How many times had I listened to that song? And here I was, playing it with the guy who wrote it. Somehow I was able to pause and take in the moment. We finished up the set and headed down the hall to the dressing room with the audience shouting for an encore. Alex turned to Pete, “Do you want to play the ‘The Letter’ or should I do ‘Love Me Tender’ solo?” Greedily we all chimed in for ‘The Letter’ — Alex singing Elvis would have been a great moment and we still kick ourselves over that call.

I woke up the next morning with the kind of pinch-me feeling you have when your first date with someone you’ve had your eye on for a long time goes impossibly well. On the way to the airport I felt confident enough to ask Alex how we had done compared to other bands. “Best yet,” was the reply. I later found out that he said that a lot — a steadfast refusal to be weighed down by the past. Joe asked Alex if he’d written ‘The Letter’. “You think I would have been playing with you last night if I had?” was the reply — a one sentence lesson in where the real money in music lies. Alex got on the plane back to Memphis and I figured that was the end of a really good story.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alex Chilton, RIP

Genuinely sad news yesterday, about the death of Alex Chilton. When we published our 33 1/3 book about Radio City just a few months ago, we couldn't have imagined that Big Star could be gone so soon - the box set was just coming out, the band were playing shows...

The book was a truly collaborative effort. It was authored by Bruce Eaton, who was helped in so many ways by John Fry, Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens, Richard Rosebrough, John King, Larry Nix, David Bell, and Alex Chilton himself. (And many, many others.) It contains large segments of what turned out to be Alex's last significant interview. Here's an extract from it:


Chilton worked against the tide of audience expectations from the outset. As thousands discovered Big Star, they immediately faced the reality that there was no one on the other side of the footlights who wanted to share the love. Chilton - by then synonymous with Big Star - didn't care about being the object of their affection. At least not on their terms. It would have been easy for him to give the people what they wanted - just the success of "In The Street" as a television theme song makes it easy to imagine that if he'd been a careerist and diligently worked at the Big Star franchise until it reached critical mass, the hits would have come and he'd now be a mid-level headliner on the summer festival and casino circuit, crisscrossing paths with Blondie and the B-52s.

People who weren't Alex Chilton had a hard time understanding why he didn't want to follow the script they had in mind for him - one they imagined that they themselves would have eagerly followed if only they were in his shoes.

Virtually every critic or fan would give up their black Converse sneakers and redundant box sets to be a rock star - why didn't Chilton seem to care? (The whispered sub-text: "The spoiled little brat, how dare he? What's wrong with him?") Here's my own arms-length guess. Every musician has a choice: you can either be in the music business - trying to maneuver through a toxic swamp in search of an elusive pot of gold that has probably already been looted - or in the business of making music - finding a way to make a living at playing the music you feel compelled in your soul to play. Chilton had already had a big gulp of the music business with the Box Tops and Big Star. The Box Tops had a bunch of hits and toured like crazy but comparatively little money actually reached their pockets. Big Star as a formal band made two great records with serious commercial potential within a completely supportive environment and garnered heaps of critical acclaim but had little to show for their effort in their time. By that point, Chilton had spent his entire postadolescent life in the music business - playing music that, however worthy, was ultimately rooted in someone else's vision. Why wouldn't he, then, if he were a pure musician at heart (like his dad and his uncle), just flip the music business the bird and start making music his way, on his terms, come what may? If you need it spelled out: "Big Star was one thing. I was another thing." It took some time for that "another thing" to take full shape and be honed into sharp relief but the rough sketches were there for all to see for a long time.


Bruce has also written an obituary of Alex for Salon. You can read it here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Henry Jenkins, Eno, and Geeta Dayal

Part One of a two-part interview between Henry Jenkins and Geeta Dayal was posted on Henry's blog today. Geeta discusses Another Green World, Oblique Strategies cards, and a whole range of things. You can read the interview here.


Part of what made the book interesting, I think, was that I didn't base the book around a big interview with Eno. Instead, I did a lot of archival research; I read thousands of pages of interviews and reviews. I read dozens of books, from topics ranging from the history of cybernetics to gardening to visual art to British experimental music. I spoke to a lot of Eno's friends and collaborators, past and present, who were very open in talking with me. I wanted to meet everyone, not just his collaborators on Another Green World. I wanted to talk to people along the entire spectrum of Eno's life. I was interested in collaborators, assistant engineers, ex-girlfriends, friends. In that way, you create an outline of the person that might be more nuanced and surprising than just going straight to the source.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

David Toop - Sinister Resonance

We're really looking forward to the publication, in May/June, of David Toop's new book Sinister Resonance.

You may be familiar with one or two of David's previous books - Ocean of Sound, Rap Attack, Haunted Weather, and Exotica. This new work is an astonishingly wide-ranging meditation on and exploration of the concept of listening: it's genuinely a beautiful book. Here's a little taste:


There is a conversation between place and person that is articulated through sound, in much the same way that the same or similar conversations are visible as buildings, hedgerows, landfill sites, illuminated signs, motorways unspooling into night or plastic bags floating in the ocean. The relationship of person to place is more straightforward, perhaps, in the reading of such material signs: evidence of their history is easier to track through written records, oral history, photographs, film, a shock of sudden disappearance or the lingering sight of decay. Then how can we listen to sounds never before noticed, sounds long vanished, or sounds that are not sounds, exactly, but more like the fluctuations of light, weather and the peculiar feeling that can arise when there is a strong awareness of place? Sounds can linger as vital presence, an intervention that existed for a time to reconfigure environment, and whose absence makes us pause for thought or deeper feeling, in our walking, working and waiting; our agitated, ceaseless inner thoughts; our shopping and drift; our anxieties, pains and pleasure.

What goes unnoticed in the general run of life still exists, in its colouration, its echoes, its affects, its atmospheres and definitions of place. An unnatural silence, a bell in the night, the dizzying flight of swallows, a sharp cry across the river whose audible flowing is a constant and so would be missed if it ever froze or dried up, the murmur of a quiet pub, wind rippling through grass and at the far edges of hearing there is the scoot of a dry leaf caught in the breeze, the bringing of the milk and the emptying of the bins, a particular street in the hush of early morning, and maybe the name of that street, rolling around in the imagination with the patina of its age and the mystery of its sound.

A few years ago an e-mail arrived, via my website, through which I learned about Steve, previously unknown to me, a man in Havre, Montana, walking through the drizzle and listening to a CD on his Discman (already the story is dated by this technological detail). The CD is Fennesz Live In Japan, by the Viennese musician, Christian Fennesz, and as Steve walks, his CD skips and glitches of its own volition. The technical breakdown adds to the allure of the music, he says, apologising for sharing such a modest story. “Plus,” he adds, “who else am I gonna tell about it in Havre?”

Modest the story may be, but I like it for a variety of reasons. Steve is out there, in the rain, walking through landscape and the elements with his hearing transported to a live show in Japan. Fennesz performs on a laptop computer, but his starting point can be a guitar, building a song on his first instrument, then transforming it through a computer software program. He creates glitches, hitches, loops, distortions. Listening to his records seems to me not unlike eating Japanese natto, those pungent fermented soybeans that extend out into thin strings as you lift them to your mouth. Fennesz pulls his melancholy tunes in all directions without totally working them out of shape.

Then Steve’s Discman has something to say about this, adding another layer of glitch and skip to the mix. Steve enjoys the accidents, though his pleasure in technological imperfections may be a little esoteric for his friends in Montana. Never mind; he can contact a stranger on the other side of the world, elicit a response, and so feel that bit less isolated with this very personal, and perhaps slightly eccentric experience.

Penetrating to the smallest details of hearing, whether as a listening practice or methodology of sound making, may seem to be an entrancement with silence, peace, meditation, all those religious and quasi-religious practices that fall under the rubric of spirituality, but really, it’s an engagement with the noise that exists at all levels of the dynamic spectrum. In his book Microsound, Curtis Roads has described transient audio phenomena and microsounds as ubiquitous in the natural world. Some of these may be what he calls subsonic intensities, those sounds too soft to be heard by the human ear such as a caterpillar moving across a leaf; others are audible but in their brevity as microevents, their infinitely subtle fluctuations, or their placing at the threshold of audible frequencies, they lie outside the conventional notion of pitch, tone and timbre. They are difference; the differentiation of one voice from another, or the activation of one instrument from another. “One could explore the microsonic resources of any musical instrument in its momentary bursts and infrasonic flutterings,” Roads writes, “(a study of traditional instruments from this perspective has et to be undertaken).”

In the springtime at night, I sit outside in my garden sometimes, waiting quietly in the dark until I can hear the tiny chewing sounds of slugs and snails eating the leaves of my plants. I have to allow every part of myself to slow down, to forget what has happened earlier and what might happen later, to use the ‘emptiness of attention’ that I learned from Anton Ehrenzweig when I read The Hidden Order of Art in my late teens. To use a spatial analogy, it’s like descending in a slow lift, moving down through the floors and stopping somewhere near the basement of hearing, where the tiniest of sounds seems amplified. Once down at this level, sounds that are normally considered quiet can shock the system. As snails move from leaf to leaf, snail’s pace of course, the leaf they vacate snaps back into its unburdened position with a bang. This is more disturbing than peaceful.

On a still night in spring, in the darkness, there is little to see other than the static design of my garden, obscured by a shadow world. What I hear is a dynamic sonification of the animate life hidden within that shadow world, eating its ways through hosta, iris, and other succulent leaves, and so the experience of being within that particular place, also hearing the atmospherics of late night traffic noise, spiked by drunken shouts from distant streets and the occasional wailing police siren, contains endless variety at a level of perception so remote as to demand attention that is both focussed and relaxed. Detail is picked out from a low noise floor that I can only describe as air sound – a sound that evades analysis or recording because it combines the sound of our internal functioning, the body sounds we would hear in the total silence of an anechoic chamber, with a blend of near-field and distant-field atmospherics. This undifferentiated background can be comforting, in the immediate present as an indication that life is perpetuated, the world still turns, and at the level of emotion and memory, a reminder of the sonic presence of loudspeakers, amplifier hum, recording noise, ear sound and human presence – the sound of a person sleeping, for example - but it acts also as a grainy context in which detail feels spatially settled.