Friday, May 22, 2009
One song that always haunted me is BMX Crash by Isaac Brock. It is only about 25 seconds long and has a mere two lines, but after several listens it really sticks to your sides like soul food, and by the time it has been digested it is rattling around in your head for the remainder of the day, trip, experience, lunar cycle. There's not much to say about the song itself, there is not much to it. But my God does it follow me around.
It was recorded on Isaac's answering machine as part of his Dial-O-Song he had as his outgoing message. I believe the songs would rotate or it would play a different song off a small library each time. All of these 30 second or less demos got tacked on to the end of Modest Mouse's Sad Sappy Sucker album. This was their first recorded album, but it was shelved and later released with these early demos tacked on to it.
The only lines are, "Trailer park bike racing, Goddamn didn't we go fast? Trailer park bike racing, oh no at night we'll crash." Yet some how everything about growing up poor in a wooded hick town rings through those two lines. You can not really even make out what he is saying, but the same meaning still comes across. Surprisingly, a lot of profound feelings come from those two lines.
Trailer park bike racing could mean any sort of ridiculous game him and his friends came up with when they were bored living in the woods. It's the next part that gives the line its value. Goddamn didn't we go fast? I mean it's a lot like childhood. When it was happening you often thought this sucks, man I wish I was older, bigger, a grown up. Looking back it is always gee, I wish I could be a kid again, not a care in the world. But Isaac is referring to more than that. It's a sort of admission, almost lack of self worth of yep we're trailer park trash, I've got no future in this town, but man did we not have a good time that one time? Goddman didn't we go fast? It's a sort of nostalgia or creating a sweet memory out of a bad time. Finding the beauty after the fact, when you don't always have time to appreciate them as they unfold. Creating a permanent artifact better than the actual experience.
The lyric is a lot like Elizabeth Cotten's - Shake Sugaree. Shake Sugaree is about a person losing everything they ever owned, flat broke, cold in hand. Yet reflecting back as everything is being taken away, they think but didn't we shake sugaree? In other words, didn't we live it up one last time? Didn't we have one last celebration that they can't take from us? Similar to Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Picking cotton as a slave in the middle of a blazing Alabama afternoon of sweltering heat and little rest is nothing to ever rejoice about. Yet Swing Low Sweet Chariot is full of rejoice as well as sorrow. It's psychosomatic hope. It's knowing there isn't any real hope, but you'll have a heart full of hope anyways. The time singing that song was awful, but the song is beautiful and that is what's remembered. Goddamn didn't we go fast?
Then next line, Oh no at night we'll crash, has the courage to face what lies ahead. You know the future is bleak. You took a chance to have an exciting escape from reality, but as it's ending you know you're going to pay in the end. It's like when poor people blow it all in Vegas because they want to fill alive and like a powerful rich person for once in their lives. Or when Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke keeps trying to escape from prison even though he knows he's going to eventually get shot and killed in the end. That slim chance of a short amount of freedom is better than a lifetime of imprisonment. That little bit of hope one person has can carry everybody else through. You ride it as far as you can, hoping you can avoid the inevitable. But deep down inside you know that a certain fate is waiting for you. You have to crash at some point. Just enjoy the ride while it lasts.
Modest Mouse/Isaac Brock - BMX Crash
Daniel Johnston is a singer I have known about for some time but have not gotten the chance to actually listen to some of his recordings until about a month ago. I even went to Austin and saw one of his famous murals before listening to his music.
"Walking The Cow" is the song that really stuck out to me upon first meeting Mr. Johnston. The song is simply haunting. Simply haunting. I heard so many other artists' songs when listening to this, that I realized how influential he really has been. I do not see how it is possible Isaac Brock started making music with out hearing Daniel's early recordings. I mean it is exactly what Isaac was doing on his Dial-O-Song demos. When I first heard Walking The Cow I immediately thought of the BMX Crash song. The similarities are striking to me so that is why I am posting these two songs.
It is child like, to say the least. Unlike many songs that hit the listener with a powerful dose of nostalgia (like the above song), Daniel is pure innocence and naivity. With his pre-adolescent like high pitched singing and Mel Bay like amateur keyboard melodies, one can imagine a thirteen year old boy playing this song. However, he sings with too much pain and experience for a little boy. "Lucky stars, in your eyes" just seems like such a fantastic lyric when Daniel sings it that one can make so much sense out of it. He does this by using a very simplistic approach that keys in on basic feelings and childish desires values we all share. Yet can only come from the intelligence and issues that an adult Daniel has obtained.
I am unaware of how much he is conscious of all of this. Whether any of it is meditated. Whether it is all due to his illness, how much of it is from his medication and illness advancement, is it due to his inability to create more complex art, or if he is merely that simple thinking, but with an uncanny ability to relate in matters of the heart. What ever its reason and motivation, it works well in very short doses.
Daniel Johnston - Walking The Cow
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Give me that Black music
The 1970’s brought a pivotal point that sent Rock and Roll spinning and then landing on its feet again in several new directions that have forever changed how Rock and Roll is made. In the 1950’s it was mostly kept simple and a few cute genres spun off like surf rock. For the most part, it was still directly influenced by black music like R&B, Soul, and Doo Wop. In the 1960’s white people really started to make Rock and Roll their own, as bands like The Rolling Stones and The Who put their own stamp on Rhythm and Blues by truly understanding its roots and respecting where their music came from when making it their own (at least for a while). Mod and Garage music formed because of the success of Rock and Roll and was the beginning of that sense of, “Hey, we understand this music. We don’t know how to play, but we can add something of value.” These genres were often filled with amateurish musicianship and/or approach but with plenty of heart and soul. However, they were typically “novelty” genres that did not see any lasting day light outside of a few national hits. The Sonics were not known outside of the Northwest, The Standells were one hit wonders, and The Who quickly denied its roots as Peter Townsend starting eating his own shit.
Rock and Roll For All
The remainder of the decade brought the expansion of the genre into many creative avenues by ground breaking artists. Bob Dylan took Folk and made it into Rock and Roll. Miles Davis took Jazz and made it into Rock and Roll. Psychedelic music was born. Soul music was beginning to smell Funky. It was an exciting time. Culturally, the country was filled with optimistic views of utopia, peace, and newly found consciousness. Unfortunately, the day dreams would not last for long.
The Refusal To Wipe Its Own Ass
The 1970’s came as the 60’s ended on a bad note. Nixon, the everlasting war, oil shortages, and the Altamont Speedway quickly soured the party and brought society back to the reality that life still sucked after all those creepy good vibes. Musically, the experimentation turned into a lackluster bloated mess. Jerking your instrument off in the studio for weeks at a time replaced honest experimenting, and corporate giants really started to find the rope around the industry. CBS bought and nearly ruined Fender. The Eagles became popular. Egos were huge and self-indulgence was rampant. The genre evolved into a stale mess and the birth of really generic Rock and Roll was born. I still believe that even today’s really generic Rock music is rooted in the 70’s and a misguided worshiping of corny Classic Rock. There was bad Rock and Roll before then, but it could always be linked to the fickleness of Pop music and the record companies chasing the dollar. Pop music has always been filled with guilty pleasures and ridiculousness, but this was the first time the bones, the core, the soul of Rock and Roll began to rot. Sure there was Can, but that genre practically started and stopped with them. Proto-punk was alive and fantastic but it was so popular that it did not even have a legitimate name until its successor was born. Finally, Glam was a minor saving grace, but its appeal was mostly British and it too began to eat itself like everything else by the mid 70’s.
”Punk Is Coming”
Like most revolutions, enough people grew sick of the bad times and changed the way of doing things. This revolution was unique because it was not a revolution at all. The self-consciousness of the 70’s was changed by a conscious effort to not be self-conscious. Rules were broken under the new rules being formed. The great paradox of “Punk” was born. Musicians were simply going back to the basics. A&R man Danny Fields said it was just a return to the two minute song. There was no great evolution in the sound coming out of their amplifiers as Garage music had already swam these same waters before. The difference was the perspective. This time is was not about shaking your hips, having a good time, and getting laid. But it entirely was. They were angrier, rawer, street wise. This time the sound was stemmed from the kids being tired of being lied to, seeing Rock “Gods” shake their wieners on stage for three hour concerts, and living in the aftermath of a once innocent, turned phony hippie culture. They could not go home to Connecticut if life on the street got hard. They were the streets. They were telling you how it really was. But at the same time it was not about this.
This description may sound confusing, but that is exactly how it was. “Punk” had been around forever. It was in the 1920’s from Jazz cats. It was alive in well in the 1930’s from blues artists. Bo Diddley, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and The Tielman Brothers were about as Punk as they come. Avant-garde Classical composers were beyond Punk at the dawn of the 20th Century. Nothing new was happening at all. This time was unique because it struck a larger nerve than ever before. Mainstream music became awful enough that more people took notice and the music became loud enough for the rest of the world to pay attention.
What was also different was the extreme paradox of it all. This is still very prevalent in today’s hipster culture and you either “get it” or you do not. If you have to try to be cool, you are automatically not cool and can easily be spotted by someone who “gets it”. However, the whole idea of this is fucking stupid and ridiculous, yet I preach it all the time. Richard Hell was a pioneer to this idea and the phony genre/culture called Punk music. A lot of the punk aesthetic came from him wearing holey shirts, not washing his hair, and generally not giving a fuck. He was effortless. He was worthless. He was classic. At the same time he was conscious of not giving a fuck. My favorite example of this is his use of using the lost, hopeless, puppy dog rap to get chicks. He was complaining to some friend he was trying to screw and crash with while sitting on a curb outside of some club. He moaned man I just can’t get my life together, I have no money, look even my shirt has holes in it. To which the girl replied Richard you put those holes in your shirt on purpose. This idea works and can be true and pure, but only for a moment. The exaggerated UK version of Punk was a direct rip off of Hell and Johnny Thunders. Mass conception will always ultimately ruin it. It ruined Hippie culture, it ruined Punk culture, and it ruined Indie music. Once it attracts someone who does not understand the roots they will try to mimic it without understanding it, or even caring to understand it. This is where the gross and sticky line between “getting it” or not is born and now happens to every counter-culture movement that gets exposed. I cannot say anymore on this without sound like a complete douche bag.
What About The Music?
Richard Hell was in about every early influential New York Punk band there was, The Neon Boys, Television, and The Heartbreakers. Dee Dee Ramone had a failed attempt of joining one of his bands before The Ramones ever formed. However, he did not actually make an album until he was finally able to lead his own group called Richard Hell & The Voidoids. But what an album it is. Their debut album, Blank Generation, came at the apex of Punk and to me is the defining point of the whole scene. Hell is not a naturally gifted singer, but he is extremely charismatic and sings with a smug sneer that folds his intelligent lyrics into the brashness of Punk music. Although, the music itself is not simply shallow like The Ramones music was. Lead guitarist Robert Quine is the unsung hero of Punk guitarists. He achieved this because like Tom Verlaine, he brought a lot more to his guitar work than banging out two chords and fudging one string solos. They both added a cerebral aspect to their guitar playing. Unlike Verlaine, Quine is more technically adept at his instrument. His playing style is very unique and still stands out today after 35 years of “Punk” music. His solos are extremely angular and frantic, similar to what Nels Cline often does today. However, his playing is much more dangerous than Nels’. He is also unique because of his clever use of playing chords during his solos. When Lou Reed saw them play for the first time he was so impressed with Quine that he cried what are you doing playing with this band? You are so much better than them. Quine later went on to play guitar on several Lou Reed albums.
What stands out the most are the lyrics. Richard Hell is always a writer first, musician second. Betrayal Takes Two contains my favorite Rock and Roll lyrics. His use of street smarts brings acute observations to relationship break ups like,”Betrayal takes two/Who did it to who? / I mean not to be cut/ By your dull point of view.” And “We’re changed now for good/I try to insert/ My face to appear/ When you love when you flirt.” Love Comes In Spurts also has witty perspectives on youth, “Love comes in spurts/ Oh no it hurts!” Here he uses an analogy of sex literally “cuming” in spurts, while revealing the fickleness of short relationships in your 20’s and the painful heartbreak that comes with lusting over crushes. Other notables are Blank Generation, I’m Your Man, and the Sinatra cover, All The Way.
Just listen to it.
Richard Hell & The Voidoids
1977 (320 kbps)
Friday, May 1, 2009
The reigning queen of the avant-garde, Diamanda Galas has one of the most bizarre vocal presentations around. She uses her four octave vocal range to extrude shrieks and howls that awaken all the terror and demons from hell. Her voice and imagery are the epitome of darkness.
In a strict Greek Orthodox home in San Diego, Diamanda grew up in a musical family that envisioned her becoming a classical piano virtuoso. By her teens she wanted to start singing to accompany her piano playing, but this was frowned upon by her father. So what does an intelligent artist being oppressed by San Diego do? She doesn't cry about being beat up by bros everyday like the Wavves drummer. She goes to UC San Diego in the 70's and takes lots of LSD. Tripping on LSD, Diamanda would lock her self into the sound booth practice rooms on campus and just scream for eight hours straight, arousing every sort of possible sound out of her soul. Through this drug induced screaming she unveiled a huge vocal range and developed her unorthodox style of singing.
After performing locally for a few years in her teens and college years, avant-garde composer Vinko Globokar heard her perform and wrote an opera for her to sing based on the Amnesty International report of the arrest and torture of a Turkish woman. Her debut was made singing the lead of Globokar's opera in France, where she quickly gained critical admiration.
In the 1980's she developed her sound as a recording artist and created extremely dark and difficult sounding albums. She tackled issues about the injustice of AIDS victims around the world and the torturing and suffering of innocent peoples. A lot of her focus has been narrowed to the crimes and pains against the Greeks of her heritage and of the Armenian genocide. Despite being American born, she relates to the Greek people and her singing style is filled with distinctly Greek characteristics. Her voice bubbles with the howls and cries of traditional Greek singers, expressing the pains and sorrows unique to the them. Comparisons have been made to Maria Callas, the Greek Opera singer whose legends are unparalleled in the realm of singing. However, due to the rawness of Diamanda's voice, comparisons could be equally argued towards Greek folk singers such as Marika Papagika.
One key to the sound of Diamanda is her use of quadrophonic performance. Quadrophonic sound was attempted to be brought to the public in stereo equipment, but its flawed design to the public led to its failure before it could be corrected and succombed to 5.1 surround sound. Diamanda uses a similar concept using several microphones during her performances. Some of the microphones are used simultaneously, each one having a different effect on them. The mastering of this technique and her extraordinary vocal presentation allows her to get a live sound that no other singer could achieve without the help of a studio or a giant mixing board altering the live voice. This is a large reason why she is so highly regarded, no other singer in the world is physically capable of duplicating her performances.
The closest thing I could compare her to in Rock and Roll terms for you readers is to The Birthday Party. I see a lot of similarities between Diamanda and Nick Cave. Both had a manic and overwhelming vocal style. Both crush the listener with a sonic assault filled with spastic bursts of noise and disturbing imagery. In the 80's you could find either of them flailing themselves around the stage barking and howling into the microphone with a relentless fever. Nowadays one would most likely find either of them behind a piano performing.
With the ripening of age comes a calming of the soul, as is the case with Diamanda's music. The last decade and a half has seen her divulge into blues music. Her latest album, Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! finds her performing a collection of standards live. Although she isn't just rolling over and cranking out standards albums like Rod Stewart's abysmal Great American Songbook releases. Diamanda makes these songs very much her own with great renditions of blues classics like Long Black Veil and Heaven Have Mercy. This is a great introduction to her and is miles more accessible than her early work.
Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!
Mute 2008 192 kbps