Category Archives: What I’m Listening To

Punch, Annie

It went down like this: A friend I was going to see in North Carolina happened to mention that Esperanza Spalding was playing in Asheville. I said, Esperanza who? I toggled over to YouTube, and before I knew it the night was old and I was on Amazon, ordering CDs. A few months later, seeing another friend in Baltimore, I played him my favorite track from Emily’s D+Evolution (2016), “Ebony and Ivy.” He noted that her voice, at least on this song, sounded like St Vincent’s. I said, Saint Who? (Cue “ignorance” leitmotif.) He put on “Black Rainbow,” from Actor (2009).*

One thing about friends: they know your taste. They know the chinks in your armor, your Achilles’ heels. They know the things that’ll make your cochlea sit up and beg. I could blame my friend here, either, or both, just as much as I could blame Esperanza, or St Vincent herself; but pretty soon we’d be having a philosophical debate about efficient and effective causes, free will and determinism, and so on, rather than talking about music.

If you don’t know “Black Rainbow,” or Actor, or St Vincent, let me describe the first for you, and use it, as it was for me, as a gateway to the other two. The song is built around a single four-minute-long crescendo, but it feels more like a giant sucker punch. An innocuous beginning, led, as is so much of St Vincent’s music, by her musing, quietly seductive voice, accompanied by a sort of minstrel troupe of string players, and something that sounds like a carny organ. The troupe is only active when she’s not singing, that is, as commentary; when she is, the organ carries the harmony in a fretting ostinato. The chorus, again like much of St Vincent’s music (and many pop songs besides), comprises two parallel phrases and a tag, the whole repeated once. In hindsight at least, one recognizes it as a harbinger: the voice tumbling forward and pulling back, the tag pitched higher, unresolved. But then the whole song looks forward in this way; the sense of expectation has been building from the first note. New sounds appear, multiplying layer by layer: in the second part of the first verse, a peep on every second pulse, tracking between channels before lodging itself in both; a fuzzbox dud on every fourth pulse of the first chorus, every second of the second chorus; and something that sounds like a saw (a theremin, perhaps?) follows the melody through both choruses, and then pursues her into the bridge. The minstrels introduce more and more shades of dissonance into their commentary. And all the while, the dynamic level has been rising almost imperceptibly.

Thus, while the song cycles through a typical verse-chorus-bridge structure, all the other elements ignore it, pursuing their own linear objective. Whatever the garden in which things started, whatever clouds were there to begin with, the day has certainly gotten darker.

The bridge is a small masterpiece of rising tension. Still there is no resolution; the last word, fittingly enough, is “louder.” Had I been interrupted here, I probably would have ended up intrigued, and filed St Vincent away, to come back to at some later date (or not, as so often happens). But oh, that ending, or outro, or whatever. The word “louder” having rung out, the fuzzbox pulse suddenly (and noticeably) steps up in intensity, and the song never looks back. Pounding, ascending absurdly stepwise, the strings getting at once louder and more strident, the bass crunchier, heavier. An analogy I made a few years ago on this blog to try to describe the sound of High on Fire’s early records (see “Arcless,” 12.29.14), particularly Surrounded by Thieves, applies equally well here: that movie of the bridge being shaken apart that so many of us watched (gleefully, it must be said) in our high school science classes. And indeed, while it’s true that metal forms one lens through which I hear all my music, the feint to metal—the reason the sucker punch really connected with me—is hardly out of place: he (my friend) knew what he was doing, though he slunk around the kitchen as though he didn’t, just as much as she (St Vincent) did. To my ear, it sounded like the heavier parts of the bridge of Metallica’s “Phantom Lord,” or “Master of Puppets.” But it wasn’t just the incredibly overdriven sound that grabbed me, or the pounding of it; it was the relentlessness of the repetition, the daring of saying, We’re going to do this for like two fuckin’ minutes, longer than these little songs are supposed to do anything, longer than many pop songs themselves—it’s gonna feel a whole lot longer—and heavier than half my fans might care to hear; and then some, and then some, and then some. It sounded like heavy artillery against pop’s aesthetic logic, in particular that cliché of transposing the chorus up a step at fade-out. Sure, I’ll transpose, just like I’m supposed to; and then I’ll keep transposing, one step at a time, louder instead of softer, until you choke on it. And right when I’d begun asking myself those Burkean-sublime questions—when does it end? does it ever end? were the brownies “special”?—it ends, drops—no fade out—it has to; there’s nowhere else for it to go.

The best musicians, I’ve noticed, have an intuitive grasp of how to manage excess.

My love for St Vincent was born at that moment, in the moment, that is, the song relinquished me. Not just because the first half of “Black Rainbow” is quite good in its own right, but because the second half—the black part, as in sabbath, as in fade to—rewrites one’s expectations about what this particular artist is willing to do with form and sound. When it works, it can make a pinhole in your carefully-groomed generic identity; and, if you fall through it, you find yourself in a wonderful new universe, like one of those sea caves under the ocean floor. All of this is not to say that St Vincent can do no wrong. Rather, because of said initiation, she becomes that rarest of artists: the sort to whom one always gives the benefit of the doubt, and in whose darkest clouds one always looks for the outline of a (black) rainbow.


It’s indicative of the strength of St Vincent’s catalog that I came to this post wanting to write about “The Party,” another song on Actor that I find remarkable, and ended up wanting to write about everything, at least everything I’ve made time to dig (into) so far.

I should begin, as she so often does, with her voice.

It’s a voice that achieves a paradoxical balance between distance and intimacy. Raw, naked, direct; it groans, cracks, gasps, drags; it is half-spoken, breathy, gravelly, and sometimes sounds so lethargic that the music, with its usually static pulse, feels like the only thing pulling her along. She sings as if she had just turned over in bed. It’s a voice firmly lodged in the body, like the slurs and smears of a jazzing horn. And yet, particularly as one moves forward from Actor through Strange Mercy (2011) to St Vincent (2014), it’s a voice that seems to be at its most confessional when it’s most produced: a processed intimacy. You can reach out and touch it … and then again you can’t. A voice that seems unable to exist except in extreme close-up, an intimacy that can only exist because of technology. Think those nature programs where the actions of flora and fauna, invisible to the naked eye, are slowed down and magnified. There is a J.G. Ballard story about a scientist who does what those nature cams do with the audio recording of a kiss: to the colleague for whom he plays it, it is unrecognizable, horrific. So the “intimacy” of St Vincent, the seductiveness of her voice, of her music. Even as she invites us closer and closer, until we can hear every pore, she remains inaccessible; our contact with her always mediated. We never quite feel the eros of the artist who has flayed herself for our delectation and catharsis. The power dynamic runs the other way. (Is this the paradox of pop stardom, of stardom period? Perhaps St Vincent has merely crystallized this.) “Rattlesnake,” the opening track on St. Vincent (2014), is a great example: at once so hooky, so sexy (almost the first thing she says is that she takes off her clothes), and so mocking (the post-verse/pre-chorus). When she says that the only sound she hears (“out here”) is her own breath, it’s hard not to think of her mocking even her own style—here, the choruses (“running, running, rattle behind me”) are half-gasped, or hiccoughed. And yet, for all the anxiety of this frenetic plena, and whatever she might say, she never loses her teasing poise, never allows herself the overwroughtness of a Kate Bush, whom she sometimes seems to emulate, or the tantrums of a PJ Harvey (especially on Rid of Me), who lets us hear the violence her emotions do to her (admittedly rougher) voice. Anyway, unlike PJ, St Vincent doesn’t bring her love to anyone: it’s you—all of us—who have to bring your “loves” to her, enthroned on the eponymous album’s cover.

At the same time there’s something girlish, something sweet and thin and too-pretty about her voice; like the intimacy, it verges on caricature, on the grotesque. This is where the guitar, in all its textures and timbres and odd phrasings, becomes so crucial. Because there’s a danger that such a voice—and sometimes such melodies, as I’ll discuss shortly—could become insipid. But then she’s holding that guitar behind her back like a fuggin’ lead pipe, ready to club the shit out of you. Just one more step. Right there. She keeps it always with her, shadowing her voice, or vice-versa, guitar and voice working in tandem to propel the music, though often running in opposite directions. In this way the guitar reinforces the fractures in the voice, exposing the rough, wounding edge of that “sweetness.” So “Dilettante,” perhaps my favorite track on Strange Mercy, shuttles back and forth between the enormous seductiveness of her voice, accompanied only by alternating bass and snare drums (and those words: “Don’t make me wait …”), and a heavily overdriven guitar riff, cluttering that space, or opening a canyon around her each time it pauses. The guitar follows, commenting, like the minstrels in “Black Rainbow,” and is eventually brought into sync with her voice. Perhaps she’s domesticated it, or perhaps she’s let its roughness possess her—or perhaps it’s a little of both. It’s not just the caricature of intimacy, then, but the danger of it. For the straight male listener, there may be something of the misogynist Rousseau here, the desire to be courted and resisted. And yet, hers is not the fait accompli of affected weakness stroking the male ego, but rather strength masquerading as / mocking weakness—the sucker punch again. I wonder if something of all this is intimated in the images on her records as well: the starkness of the photography on Actor, at the same time that the album title calls attention to a faux intimacy; the cover resembles a head shot, like she is auditioning for our ear, eager (in this weirdly ‘50s way; is it the colors?) for our attention. Or the open (screaming? biting?) mouth teething the milk-white plastic (?) to which it is half-molded on the cover of Strange Mercy

That guitar, is it the violence of the bared soul, displaced from the voice? Or is it the force of recoil against us, the voyeurs who would presume to have access to that soul—presume that the role of the artist, above all the female artist, is just such an emotional disrobing? I think the latter. After all, the guitar is just as artfully crafted as the voice. An unlikely guitar hero to be sure, if only because of the way the label has been traditionally conceived.† There she is, thin as a flapper, coaxing this enormous sound out of her guitar—not to mention any number of bizarre, monstrous timbres, and gobs and gobs of Frisellish noise. A pixie riding a dragon; David with a Goliath strap-on. The list of guitarists bundled into her sound is eclectic and impressive: here Bill Frisell (and John Scofield), there Mark Knopfler (I’m thinking of the fourths and open strings on “Neutered Fruit” vis-à-vis “Money For Nothing”); she has cited Adrian Belew and Mark Ribot, fairly enough (what couldn’t she do with Tom Waits?); and of course Hendrix, Hendrix, Hendrix. For even more than the lovely riffs, St Vincent is about making the guitar sound like anything but a guitar. And yet, just as her voice manages a paradoxical combination of distance and intimacy, so in the guitar, no matter how drowned in effects, we can, in all but a few cases (the very blue fuzzed-out distortion on “Rattlesnake,” reminiscent of Hendrix’s sound in some versions of “Red House,” and maybe “Bring Me Your Loves”—both of these on St Vincent), hear her, hear the contact between body and instrument. Her sound is all attack, a perfect word: the violence inherent in sound-making, the rending of air. When she really unleashes it, when she goes all PJ on our asses, as she does, say, in the second half of “Huey Newton” … watch the fuck out.

It’s to the guitar we owe the dirtiest, heaviest textures; but it’s also just one (albeit the most central) element of her music’s overall density—although with the sounds she gets, and all the layering and processing, it’s not always easy to tell what’s guitar and what isn’t. Amazing, too, how much each brief little song packs in—not in terms of development or melodic fecundity, but in sheer quantity of sonic resources employed, serially and simultaneously; the breadth of her sonic palette, built from deep reconnaissance into music history’s musty warehouse: moogs and wurlitzers (that cheesy run filling out the absurd exotic on “Year of the Tiger”); sequences of tones like cassettes used to make at the end of the lead (“Digital Witness” … analog noise); clicks and beeps and whistles (think R2D2 going apeshit); pings and blurps, chimes, blocks, blips … I’ll stop before I end up sounding like a brawl in the old Batman TV series. Some songs can remind me of standing in the middle of a video arcade circa 1985, as though the music sought to re-create the primitive wonder of the time such sounds became the part of our everyday aural environment, and the property of composers. As my discussion of “Dilettante” suggests, the sense of density also arises from contrast between moments of fullness and emptiness. What has been noted about tempo—that shifts are more effective than a steady pulse for creating an impression of speed or slowness—is as true of dynamics and texture. So, in “Strange Mercy” (again), at that beautiful “Ten Years Gone” iteration of the verse at its climax, the Page-inspired strums, already big, are rendered God-huge by contrast with what comes before and after. It’s just these sorts of contrasts that a “Black Rainbow” or “Huey Newton” capitalizes on; their second movements are rendered that much fuller by the relative thinness of their first. The same thing can happen between choruses and verses: “Save Me From What I Want”’s pause to all but the barest pulse (and a wonderfully unsettling chime) for the second chorus’s prayer; or conversely, “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood,” her voice alone in the midrange, like on “Mercy,” the keys providing intermittent splashes of color, before giving way to a heavy guitar in the chorus. And then in so many songs she appears alone—that is, her voice—wearing only a soft halo of noise: the choral synth accompaniment to her quiet torch-song crooning in “Prince Johnny”; or the ambient, reverberant ballad “I Prefer Your Love,” sung through a haze, her voice set off with pings: the contrast appears not within the songs, but between them.**

The heaviness and noisiness, amplified as they are by contrast, do make a nice scratching-post for this old metalhead. But it’s also the eeriness of her sound that attracts me. In fact, like the guitar and voice, the two often work together to create the music’s dark ambience. If this is, as noted, pop with a (pleasantly) abrasive edge, created and perpetuated in no small part by her cat’s-tongue guitar sound, it’s also some of the most gothic damn dance music I’ve ever heard.§§ Sometimes it’s the synths alone that do it (“Champagne Year”); other times, the keys and guitar work together, even bleed into each other. In “Marrow,” for example, her dissonant, clanging guitar goes hand-in-hand with the grisly textures, overdriven production, eerie synths; a dry bass thuds along at mid-tempo, too heavy to lift your feet to. In “Cheerleader,” it’s the combined keys-guitar snarl of the choruses (but how do you really feel, Ms Vincent?). (The guitar and synths can stand against each other, though: e.g., in “Cruel,” the synths give the song its sail, the guitar its punch.) Her voice, too, can be enlisted in producing this eerie atmosphere, sometimes floating over the music like Miles’s horn, sometimes becoming absorbed in the overall texture: so “Chloe in the Afternoon,” where the throttled, metallic, percussive guitar line and wub-wubbing heartbeat, all the noise of the verses, empties out—that contrast again—in the choruses to just her ghostly voice and synth line, and this other, sludgy, trailing thing. Or “Save Me”: the aforementioned chime as a bass riptide pulls her away, and she cries, teasingly, her voice doubled, “Save me … save me … save me from what I want.” Those four words, like the whip-epigram at the end of a sonnet, are another sucker punch, and another reversal, from the desire of finding something wash-away-able in the verses to the fear/desire of being washed away in the choruses. But the tag can’t dispel the unsettling feeling of that cry; even the top-down cruising of the verses seems infected by it, starts to sound like a bad trip.

Although the shifting, sculpted textures contribute enormously to the appeal of the music, it’s worth noting that she almost never abandons herself to ambience as an end in itself; there’s always a groove, a pulse, just as she always fleshes out that groove or melody with her arrangements. (The sole pulseless example that comes to mind, “The Sequel,” is more coda to Actor than stand-alone tune.) Sometimes it’s the mellow H-band groove and/or slow clop/loop beat/steady funk plus synths of a Portishead, though her range is greater, her voice, as noted, closer-up (“Save Me” jumps to mind, as do “Champagne Year,” “Surgeon,” and “Mouth of Blood”). Sometimes, though, it’s the floored accelerator of “Actor Out of Work,” a song that matches Radiohead’s “Bodysnatchers” for sheer forward momentum. But here, as with “Black Rainbow” and so many others, texture—the “Live and Let Die” feel of the strings on “Actor”—combines with pulse and dynamics to amp up the song. All these elements similarly work together in the crescendos, catastrophic endings, and edge-of-the-earth silences that form the predicates so many of her songs—songs that get thicker and thicker, heavier and heavier, and meaner and meaner, before ultimately blowing themselves apart.

I promised to say something about melodies before moving on. So: particularly in the verses, they tend to be short, constrained in range, and repetitive: music boxes, children’s and campfire songs. But every melody, no matter how slight, is also an opportunity for excursion into noise, for her voice or axe or laptop or God-knows-what serrated tool to hack it up into lit-tle pie-ces, to bleed some darkness from it we didn’t know was there. I’ve made much of contrast and tension as the motor of St. Vincent’s music, and this one—between melody and noise, earworm and Conqueror Worm, pop and anti-pop, nodded to in my initial discussion of “Black Rainbow”—seems to me the generative one, the one that sets her at odds with all the labels to which music critics and customers-who-bought algorithms might unhappily marry her (and that makes of the label “alternative” a sort of basin to catch everything that falls through the cracks). One last example should suffice, from “Cheerleader.” The title, not surprisingly, is undermined in the choruses: over the snarling keys-guitar combo, set off by four hard punches on a stuttered “I” to knock the staid choruses flat, her pouting “I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more.” I love the narcissistic high drama: the world is just as big as her room; her “no” is earth-shattering. This is St Vincent: “Hey, Mickey … Go Fuck Yourself!”


Not a bad segue into “The Party,” if only because the two songs share melodic material in their verses, even as their choruses pull in opposite directions. “The Party” is like “Cheerleader” without the “go fuck yourself”; and, as I’ve noted, it’s the go-fuck-yourself that first grabbed me about St Vincent. But “Black Rainbow” had to grab me because of the way it jives with what I already love. I think that if an artist is to have sustaining power, it’s going to have to be because something about his or her music captures you that is different from what you traditionally listen to, something about his or her own identity as an artist. “The Party” is that song for me. It is comparatively quiet, comparatively spare—compared, that is, to the guitar-driven noisiness I usually covet—yet still very much within the idiom I’ve tried to describe above. Her voice is at the height of seductiveness, delightfully strained, tempo rubato, either dragging a fraction behind the beat, or entering on beat but sliding or cracking to the melody note (think bent guitar strings, false harmonics). How small that voice is, spare, half-spoken, for our ears only; and yet, how much sonic space it occupies, how much of our attention.

As for the melody itself, the verses, it’s in the slight, simple mold of so many others, though with an interesting twist. The 2 + 1 structure is based on a fulcrum note around which its two parts seesaw. The whole sequence is transposed down, and then this whole is repeated once, with the small (but significant) variation of a sharper leap, her voice cracking at the high note.†† The piano then repeats the vocal melody, though only the two higher parts. (I.e., if we describe the vocal melody as A-B-A’-B, the piano plays only A-A’. Interestingly, when this song first subjugated me, I would hum the piano melody, but hear her voice in my head; my brain elided the lower part.) The opening interval is the same as “This Old Man,” and in fact it’s the sort of thing that would sound lovely sung in imitative polyphony (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat”).

Unlike, say, “Black Rainbow,” where the chorus continues the work/walk of the verses, amping up the tension, “The Party”’s chorus provides the answer “Black Rainbow” never does; and the song as a whole is a beautiful example of antithetically-constructed parts joined in a magical synthesis. Where the cadence of the verses is half-spoken (aided by the talky lyrics), the choruses, sung in falsetto, abandon words entirely, and showcase the voice as an instrument; where the melody of the verse zig-zags around a fulcrum, repetitive and playful, the chorus is two long rolling sequences, much more complex and ornate than the verses. There is a parallel shift in the use of the piano: rather than repeat the A-A’ of the vocal melody, in the choruses the keys become a romantic background swirl that further ornaments the vocal melody. Finally, the rhythm of the chorus shifts radically, from an easy 4:4 into waltz time. It’s as if the voice had suddenly grown up between verse and chorus (and then regressed again at the next verse); or perhaps better, had dreamed of growing up. The choruses pull us out of the draggy lethargy of the verses, up, into an ideal haze … precisely the opposite of “Cheerleader,” whose similarly antithetical choruses drag us down into the grunge, negating the verses (“I don’t wanna …”) instead of sublimating them.

Given the myriad differences, how are the two parts made to fit together so well—again as opposed to “Cheerleader,” which quite deliberately leaves a gaping wound between its verse and chorus? I’m not sure, but a couple of possibilities. First, the opening note of the chorus resolves the sequence of high notes of the vocal melody, rising first a step (from A to A’), then a step and a half (from A’ to the first note of the chorus); we are thus primed for it by the logic of the melody in the verse. Second, despite the rhythmic fracturing of the song, even as the rhythm is completely altered, the tempo of verse and choruses is identical: the pulse, as so often in St Vincent, stays even.

After the second chorus the song pauses; a densely-layered arrangement of voice and instruments enters, reprising the chorus, over and over; they are soon joined by a stuttering snare and flubby bass drum, retarding, retarding. “The Party” ends like a carousel winding down, as though we were slowly moving away from it, or it from us; our vision of it seems to become more obscure, or blurred, as though we were looking at it through a mottled pane. This is the slow braking/ breaking of the night, St Vincent’s aurora. Rather than building to that “Rainbow” zero-point, here the density seems to weigh the song down rather than amp it up. Eventually it will stop it entirely, releasing us from the retarding cycle of the choral melody on a lydian #4, a note that seems more to suspend (and does, in fact, only slowly fade) instead of resolve. For once, we’ve been brought gently down; the sun’s come gently up. But where has she left us? And how on earth do we get back?


With 2014’s St Vincent St Vincent seemed to arrive at a crossroads. As per the title, this should have been her coalescing moment, the record that brought together all the elements that make her her. But if my reading is correct, it actually does the reverse: it separates out those elements, foregrounding the dissonances between them; it is an anti-coalescing record, an exercise in self-analysis rather than the intuitive construction of a new whole … perhaps even the sonic equivalent of the sloughing of skin. That is: even as it veers more fully into pure dance/pop than its predecessors, it is also—as if in compensation—the most crunchy, dissonant, distorted, guitar- and riff-heavy of her records. When she is able to synthesize these competing drives, the result is some of her best material. The album opener, “Rattlesnake”: unlike “The Strangers” or “Chloe in the Afternoon” (the opening tracks on the preceding records), it is a dance tune through and through, though, as noted above, an awesomely mean one: frenetic, mocking, seductive, violent, and paranoid. “Bring Me Your Loves” is another dance-floor anthem, complete with breaks (“I took you off your leash”), synthed out, her voice quasi-autotuned … yet once again, an eerie, gothic dance tune, with a hyper-distorted touchstone melody and a Phantom of the Opera organ competing with the dance-floor feel; at its peak, it sounds like an overworked motor flying to pieces. There’s “Birth in Reverse,” with its strummed dissonances, and the much-discussed “Huey Newton,” which a little like “Black Rainbow” analyzes the (in this case) dance-funk and metal elements into separate movements. More generally, there’s an interesting new fracture between vocal melodies and music, which, on the earlier records, tended to work in lockstep, distinguished more via rhythm and timbre (cf. “The Party” above; hear also “The Strangers”).

But then there are a number of songs that seem to delight in pure pop, with little else for the ear, at least mine, to crunch on: “Northern Lights,” “Every Tear Disappears”; “Hysterical Strength”’s Berlin-sounding 80s; “Psychopath”’s warm and fuzzy choruses (the title is the only hint of darkness left, and perhaps the words, but words are always (almost) off the table for me) and any-rock-song guitar sound. Well … okay. Maybe it’s time to move on, or rather continue to mire myself in what I’ve got, and even go back and listen to Marry Me (2006). Maybe, as so often happens when artists move in directions we don’t care for, I’ll find someone to fill her shoes. She did this much for me, after all. PJ Harvey left a gaping hole in the early ‘00s. Is This Desire? (1998) was for me the end of her great period, the counterpart to (though so different from) the ineffably brilliant Dry (1992). (There are a few great tunes on Stories of the City and Uh Huh Her and White Chalk as well; after that I lost track.) As far back as Desire her trajectory was similar to St Vincent’s, into more electronica, dance, and ambient music. So I admit it, STV is my long-awaited PJ surrogate, differences be damned. I’m only sad that, unlike with PJ, whose Dry I got on a tape from a friend the year after it came out, and whose career I was able to follow until we parted ways, with St Vincent I seem to have discovered her at the cusp of her dropping over my aesthetic horizon.

Or perhaps not. After all, the eponymous record has grown on me. They all have. And I haven’t even delved into her new (2017) one … though what little I know (reports, a video) suggests the needle has moved in the direction of the less-Helldriver-friendly material on St Vincent. Here’s the rub: I could have listed “Digital Witness” among those weak tracks … except that it’s not. It’s so perfectly pitched and so grabby that I like it, quite helplessly; and who’s to say but that a track like this, like “Black Rainbow” did a couple of years ago, might be the next pinhole, the cave under the cave under the ocean, the song that pulls me so far outside of my original aesthetic universe that I never find my way back? When do I run out of air? I should add that this is partly a function of age: the older one gets, the more difficult it is to find the pulse of the present (or any pulse at all!); one compensates, I think, by being more reflective, which implies greater and more consistent retrospection. In this sense, the “wisdom” of old age develops not so much as a positive attribute (synthesized knowledge) as something to fill the temporal lags created by a decelerating biology (if I can’t be now, I might as well be then). Then again, this might also be a function of a historical moment (today) when the present seems to have lost all duration, has shrunk to a fleeting instant, and all reality, pace Faulkner, something we watch receding behind us from the window of a train. In such a time, such a moment, the only way (it seems to me) to construct a durable present is retrospectively.

A post like this one is a clear expression of love for a musician, and a labor of love it has been—more than any in recent memory, perhaps because I’m working in a genre with which I am largely unfamiliar, and perhaps because, the longer this blog goes on, the more I feel the need to account for absolutely everything, and so posts bloat like drowned corpses, until the body they once pretended to be becomes unidentifiable. Whatever the case, I bring my love(s) to these musicians by going through the excrutiating, and always ultimately dissatisfying (this one, once again, moreso than most), process of trying to find correlates in words for their persona in sound. It’s similar to a painter painting his or her beloved—trying to find the posture, color, expression, tone, etc. that will speak them—or a poet writing a sonnet. Or perhaps the opposite is true: I love musicians the most about whom I can find the words to speak; about whom, when I listen, something in my (linguistic) imagination is set going; and this sense, a sort of premonition, is what compels both my love for them, and for writing.***

I should probably touch on gender before calling it a day. I’ve written around 90 posts about music since this blog started, many of them idiotically long, with perhaps two-thirds of these about individual artists or bands, and precious few women among them. There’s one about Linda Oh somewhere back there, another about Kazzrie Jaxen; there are a few female classical pianists, such as Helene Grimaud, bundled into concert reviews, as well as mixed-gender ensembles, and one “hidden” woman (in “Dreaming American,” the unnamed jazz pianist is Mamiko Wantanabe). All in all, a negligible percentage of the whole. There’s notes for an extended piece on Irene Schweitzer, and a fantasized magnum opus on Dry … but these are two among myriad prospective pieces, many of which will never be written. And now that I’ve added another actual post about a female artist, it seems I can’t refrain from speaking the language of eros. Not that I’ve ever been shy about expressing love for music and musicians throughout the history of this blog; but I don’t generally resort to such language to do so. In fact, the only other time I can think of that I spoke in such unabashedly erotic terms about an artist, it was … Goatwhore.

Okay. I’m going to call my analyst now. Or a priest?


* My friend disputes this anecdote, claims he never plays individual songs, only whole albums. This sounds like him—the album as integral work. It’s possible he put the whole record on and “Black Rainbow” was simply the first song that caught my ear. Still, that’s not the way I remember it. Anyway, my version makes the better story.

§ Like St Vincent but moreso, Harvey tends to make herself the subject of her album covers, which tend to the grotesque and/or to Cindy Sherman-like stagings.

† But then she seems as radically unfit for the label of singer-songwriter, or, for that matter, pop diva, again, as traditionally conceived. These categories do evolve. Anyway, have these sorts of mismatches become part of women’s alternative today? I’m thinking of Mitski, by the way, who I discovered poking about (me, I was the one poking) on Ben Ratliff’s 2016 top ten list.

** This is perhaps most clear on the eponymous record. Take, for example, the move from the end of “Huey Newton,” which achieves as heavy and distorted a climax as “Black Rainbow” does, to the bubbliness of “Digital Witness.” The feels between the guttural “you know”s at the end of crunching “Newton” couldn’t be more opposite from the leap to falsetto and horns that opens “Witness.” “Newton” is rendered that much more heavy in hindsight, “Witness” that much more bubbly.

§ In case there’s any question about whether this is me projecting something onto her music, watch the horror anthology XX (2015), to which St Vincent contributed the second, and stand-out, segment—too snarky for my taste (though that aligns quite well with her music), but wonderfully dark, and with a memorably horrific ending.

†† I don’t know but that STV would disavow any interest in Pearl Jam, but I have to pause to note some melodic similarities: the A-A’ of “The Party” with “Better Man,” and “Strange Mercy,” less perfectly, with “No Way,” from Yield.

*** I’m reminded of a wonderful moment in a Gary Giddins interview (recorded in the book Jazzing, by Thomas Greenland, which I should be reviewing presently): “Oh, I could really go to town on this!” Giddins is talking about how the decision to write about a particular artist or work presents itself to him. He doesn’t explicitly state that his love for an artist presupposes his ability to access them in language, but the excitement of finding an artist whose music makes the synapses start firing is palpable. His enthusiasm strongly resonates with me.


Some months ago, on my way home from the animal shelter where I volunteer, I was listening to Boris and Robyn, the morning DJs on my local classic rock station, WPDH. With the way I’ve paid out on classic rock radio in the Pit Stop recently (“Classic Rock Radio,” 1.27.18), and on classic rock more generally (e.g., “The Unwearable Leatherness of Loverboy,” 1.11.18; “Dry Hump,” 7.3.15), you’d think I could find something more congenial to listen to. But the truth is I like a fair amount of classic rock, and I like radio, too, and there’s precious little of it that’s even halfway decent once you move outside a certain radius of New York. There are actually two classic rock stations almost back to back on the dial, and a meh alternative rock station a little further down. In the upper-eighties ghetto there’s an excrutiatingly dull classical music station, and a “jazz” station that plays something that sounds more like adult contemporary. There are a few bright spots, of course, in the borderlands of the low nineties: 90.7 WFUV plays a decent assortment of pop, though it goes out the closer I get to the Hudson; and there’s Vassar College’s station, 91.3, whose eclecticism almost makes up for how mediocre-to-bad everything else is. One day, in the parking lot of the Adams Fairacre Farms store on Route 9, I tapped into a crackling signal playing … death metal. It was like a beacon from another world; I’ve never been able to find it again. WBAI actually comes in a few places, but the signal is more fickle than FUV’s, and anyway, BAI’s, political programming feels about as realistic in upstate New York as stories of kidnappings by space aliens. I love driving down the Taconic and, when I get past Peekskill Hollow, WKCR and WSOU and WFDU start to peek around the corners of the hills, their signals growing in strength with every mile covered.

Years ago, on a cross-country trip, I came up with the following formula for civilization:

FM/AM > 1

If the ratio of FM to AM is less than one, you know you’re in the middle of nowhere. If it equals one, well, proceed with caution: the barbarians may be at the gates, or the zombies at the sandbags, or the real estate tycoons in the White House, or whatever your preferred metaphor for the decline of empire happens to be. That said, with the hindsight of age and six years upstate, I must admit that any such attempt to quantify civilization, appealing as it might be to a budding young technocrat, ultimately falls short. Quantity may be a necessary precursor, but it’s hardly sufficient, at least for what I think of when I think of civilization.

Anyway, like I said, I was driving home that morning listening to The Boris and Robyn Show, which, if you’re reading this anywhere in the United States, sounds pretty much like every other morning DJ team on a classic rock station. They play juvenile call-in games with listeners for prizes, manage the local news and traffic reports and weather, quip about strange goings-on in the world (read: Hudson Valley), and take care not to be too controversial (this is New York). They also recite advertising jingles and make guest appearances at local events and businesses for charity. The show’s producer and sometime-game participant is called Meat Sandwich; he also “reviews” new movies by reading from the Rotten Tomatoes website. The traffic report is brought to me by some fabricator of chips, potato or micro. Believe it or not, all of this makes for good company during my near-daily twenty-minute jaunts to shelter, hike, café, supermarket, or train. What with my hearing going out like those NYC radio signals around Peekskill Hollow, and what with how loud my old Corolla is, particularly now that the bearings are shot—it sounds (and feels) like I’m driving a dryer with a cinder block in it—listening to human voices, however snarky, silly or reactionary, can be more tolerable than muddled music, at least until the commercials start pummeling. Oddly enough for someone with my politics, I’ll take The Boris and Robyn Show a million times over the nasal autotune of NPR; a mere five minutes of exposure and I feel like buying a pick-up truck with a gun rack, and flying a bedsheet-size American flag off the tailgate.

I know I’m going pretty far afield, but hey baby, I’m broadcasting.

On the thrice-mentioned morning in question I was (as noted) driving home listening to Boris and Robyn and the phone line was open for requests. The caller was a construction worker or day-laborer of some sort. Boris asked him where he was calling from. “Newburgh,” the man said. This is the town right across the Hudson from Beacon, where I volunteer; I believe it still has the distinction of having the highest per-capita murder rate in the state, though recent reports suggest crime is down somewhat. Following on the art-ification of Beacon (which now houses Dia), there has been some development around the Newburgh waterfront; but such gentrification projects, as all of us who have lived in New York know, do much more in the way of relocating poor people than solving issues related to poverty.

It turned out the caller wasn’t a Newburgh resident. He was working a job there. As he put it, he was “in the ‘hood” for the day. Boris asked him for his exact location, which the man gave—the corner of two streets. “Oooh,” Boris sympathized. “Not a good area.” And what did he want to hear? Def Leppard, “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”

A fascinating exchange, yes? And in so many ways. Music-oriented as it is, I thought this quasi-public venue a fit place to unpack it, or perhaps lance it, if I may borrow Martin Luther King, Jr.’s metaphor about Birmingham boils.

First, there is the quite obvious racial text—you can’t really call it subtext. The caller, like the vast majority of classic rock listeners, was quite obviously white. “The ‘hood,” the place where he was working and, apparently, taking his life in his hands, was not. If I could remember the names of the streets at whose dangerous crossroads he was meeting the devil that morning, I could verify this assertion … but do I really need to? That race was never explicitly mentioned in the conversation only made it more present.*

And so the purpose of the call, the request, during which conversation the caller felt the need to answer the question “Where are you calling from?” the way he did: What was Def Leppard (and by extension, “classic” rock) to this man but a shield, a magic circle of whiteness, that the dangerous blackness of the ‘hood could not penetrate? What was cranking Def Leppard there but an act of sonic flag-planting—the white standard borne by the army of an invading culture, an adjunct to the police siren? No wonder composer and soundscape studies-originator R. Murray Schafer called it sound imperialism. “A man with a loudspeaker,” he wrote in The Soundscape, “is more imperialistic than one without because he can dominate more acoustic space” (77). And so a man with a radio … not to mention a Caterpillar, a backhoe, a jackhammer, a concrete mixer, etc.

All, that is, the artillery of gentrification. How is a ghetto blaster (or whatever it’s called today, whatever its current incarnation) supposed to compete? I will not be forgiven, perhaps, for extending this scenario imaginatively. But like The Who, authors of the greatest classic rock song of all time, I don’t need to be forgiven. I think back to the gentrifying neighborhoods I have lived in or near—Bushwick ’02-‘04, the fringes of Sugar Hill ’04-‘12—and about the fledgling gentrification of Newburgh. It’s not hard to imagine the white construction worker engaged in just such a project. Blaring classic rock, the first sonic shockwave that razes some buildings, guts others, leaving just their shells standing. It is the pre-soundtrack of gentrification, the prow before the Tiny Desk Concerts of the genteel class arrives. It reminds me of those pioneer log cabins that precede the respectable middle-class farmers in Hector St John de Crevecoeur’s vision of the settlement of America: the underclass that logs, hunts, and moves on, pushing the Indians back and back as they go.

That this task, to be the prow of oncoming civilization, should fall to Def Leppard is … is … well, if you laughed when you read the title of the song requested, then we’re probably operating on the same wavelength. I mean, it couldn’t even be decent Def Leppard, could it—you know, the better hits on Pyromania, or “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” at least before they added that dud keyboard riff? No, it had to be the most sugar-pop cotton-candy shit Def Leppard.

I remember the bodybuilder who used to manage the community pool where I lifeguarded walking around singing this song; he looked like Hulk Hogan without the mustache. Today, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” makes me think of burly construction workers standing underneath dumptruck chutes pouring the sweet white stuff all over the streets and the people living there, all over themselves. My brain automatically toggles to that Simpsons where the Duff (Leppard?) workers douse protesting feminists with beer; when the spray vanishes they’re wearing bikinis and their signs say “Get me drunk.”

Need I add that this lunkheaded anthem finds its perfect architectural equivalent in the White House, as it is molded to fit its current occupant?

I digress, again. But I write to digress. In case no one’s ever told you, all writing, down to the tiniest metaphor, that vibrating quark of language, is controlled digression. The vehicle of a metaphor is a digression from its tenor. A sentence is a digression from its subject, a paragraph from its topic. Face it, without digression, we would live dull lives encased in substantives. There would be no movement. No music!

Okay. This is not a post about how the Leppard lost its spots. Or perhaps it is. Because in some ways, the whole dynamic of this call-in story simply recapitulates the history of rock, and of popular music in the twentieth century: the whitewashing of jazz for downtown audiences, the white “blues scholars” who made the blues palatable to white audiences as rock, not to mention profitable for themselves. All these are acts of cultural gentrification. And so with Def Leppard. We might call their devolution from hard rock/NWOBHM to pop metal to pop pure and simple a process of refinement. The irony is the way that, by the end of this process, the origins, even this band’s own origins in the blues-infused classic rock of the British ‘60s and ‘70s, had become so obscured, or so repressed, that the product can now be turned back like a firehose against the population whose culture birthed it.

At this juncture it’s impossible not to cite what Henry Louis Gates (I believe it was) called “the most reviled poem in the African American canon,” Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” Here is the closing couplet of this notorious octet: “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain/ May be refined, and join th’angelic train.”

The blackness of Cain; the blackness of cane. The raw stuff, the stuff the slaves picked. Mingus’s Wednesday night prayer meeting, Coltrane shrieking for God’s attention, work songs and spirituals and dirty brass.** It’s the stuff of rock, too, it has to be, the tether that makes even the most classical-inflected prog still worthy of the name. Some of us like our tethers longer, our orbits wider, comets instead of asteroids, Pluto not Mercury, the competing pull of other great masses, breathing their own unrefined life into our music. But that dark sun remains the same.

One wants to ask Wheatley, “But will there be anything left of these Negroes? What is the price of your refinement?” Perhaps the answer is in the poem. After all, to join th’angelic train, one must lose one’s life, the blood must all be drained. Those Christians to whom she appeals, they’re like Aylmer, Hawthorne’s mad scientist, trying to remove his wife’s birthmark, her only flaw, and finding out too late it’s called humanity. The mark of Cain: not a patina that contact with white civilization can buff out, but the core of one’s humanity. And not, finally, the beating wild heart of darkness, but one’s culture, one’s … civilization.

Considered this way, th’angelic train starts to look like a loaf of Wonder Bread, each tasteless slice a seraphim. Hark—aim your ear at the sky! What are they singing! Yes, it’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me”! The ultimate in processed music!

(Thank God rock is haunted by its origins. It’s always had the power to renew itself at any number of generic wells, whether it consciously acknowledges them (and pays them) or not. Something of it always manages to escape the corporate stranglehold.)

The problem is that I live in an area now where people don’t seem to understand that refinement isn’t bleaching. It’s a coloring process. And that means grabbing your radio dial and turning it, turning it and turning it, ever more finely, until you find the heart of the radio’s ‘hood.


* A few disclaimers are in order. (1) I don’t mean to minimize the problems of economically depressed neighborhoods, or the struggles such communities routinely face with drugs and violence and environmental quality. I simply question how we respond to these problems as a society. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow—a book I wish every American would read—puts it eloquently: “It is perfectly understandable that some African Americans would be complicit with [as opposed to supportive of] the system of mass incarceration, even as they oppose, as a matter of social policy, the creation of racially isolated ghettos and the subsequent transfer of black youth from underfunded, crumbling schools to brand-new, hi-tech prisons. In the era of mass incarceration, poor African Americans are not given the option of great schools, community investment, and job training. Instead, they are offered police and prisons” (210). (2) I understand, of course, that I am privileged to be volunteering on a Tuesday while this man is earning his bread and butter, and that my sneering tone in this post bespeaks a life of privilege and Sundays spent grading papers. I have no good answer for this. Oh, wait, I do: UNIONIZE. (3) I also understand that, at least initially, I am in danger of reifying the binaries through which black music has been understood, and what made it historically attractive to the white middle class: black music as wild, primitive, libidinal, authentic, etc., and white music as civilized, sophisticated, desexualized, corporate, etc. I’m even calling in the old gendered rock-pop binary. Though I draw on this binary to understand the role of race here, I do hope the end of my analysis manages to see beyond it. While I’m hoping, I’ll quote, at loving length, my beloved James Baldwin. This is from The Fire Next Time, another book every American should read (and that I would guess quite a few more have read since I Am Not Your Negro): “In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged … White Americans do not understand the depths out of which [singer Big Bill Broonzy’s] ironic tenacity comes, but they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word ‘sensual’ is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread … [Baldwin goes on about lousy bread, then:] Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves as the fountains of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone the elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can only be oneself” (55-7). You can say we’re living a half-century after Baldwin wrote these words. I would answer, yes, but we’ve just made America great again.

** I’m riffing on Geoff Dyer’s chapter on Charles Mingus here, from his beautiful But Beautiful (North Point Press, 1996), yet another book every American et cetera.

Crash Course in Auto-Drumming


Hello! Thank you for purchasing product number 99A/ToyCo, Crash Course in Auto-Drumming for the Toyota Corolla. My name is Helldriver, and I will be your instructor for this brief introduction to the fine art of auto-drumming. Before we embark on our journey together, let me tell you a little about myself, and about the philosophy of the course.

I come to you today with more than two decades of experience in auto-drumming. Each of my cars—the ’73 Firebird where I began my studies, the ’81 Citation and ’77 LeSabre where I came of age, and the two Corollas (2005 and 2015) where I achieved mastery—had a profound impact on my development; and each had as unique, as characteristic a sound as if their hood ornaments had said, not Chevrolet or Toyota, but Tama, Pearl, or Paste. I am, if I may be so bold, the consummate auto-didact: everything on offer in this crash course comes by way of yours truly, the fruit of my twenty-odd years driving and drumming, drumming and driving.

Before going any further, an important admission. I’m not a drummer; I’m an auto-drummer. Put me behind an actual kit, and quite probably your little brother, who plays in his junior high school ensemble, would wipe the floor with me. But put me behind the wheel of a car, and I’m Neil Peart, Lenny White, and Dave Lombardo all rolled into one. In fact, were any of these Hector-sized heroes to bum a ride on my horseless chariot, and then have the audacity to challenge me in this, my domain … rest assured they’d arrive at their destinations with new assholes well-torn.

Of all the myriad technologies that inundate American culture, the car is the one best understood as an extension of the human body. (If you have not read J.G. Ballard’s Crash, I would recommend you do so concurrently with taking this course.) So it’s little wonder that I, like many of you no doubt, began by drumming on my body, or that I continue to do so, sometimes in lieu of anything else to drum on, sometimes out of sheer pleasure. For what is the body, but a hide stretched over a bony frame? And what is the chest, but a resonating chamber, a sounding-box for the voice? It is thus but a small step—and a giant leap!—from yourself to your car.

Just as there are many of you who would not publicly admit to deriving pleasure from drumming on yourselves, so there are a fair number of you out there you who hide, as best you can, your proclivity to drum while driving. I understand. But consider, if you will, the central, indeed, the godlike place of the car in our auto-saturated culture of gas-guzzling individualism. How can there possibly be any shame in being an auto-drummer? At least, there should be far less shame in being an auto-drummer than there is being, say, an air-guitarist. At least in auto-drumming one makes actual physical sounds analogous to the instrument emulated, rather than just imitating the gestures of playing that instrument (cf. that embarrassing Journey video). Think of it as percussion karaoke, done in one of those private rooms with only a few people present … perhaps only you. Or like singing in the shower. You may be performing just for yourself, if you’re the sort that showers alone, but make no mistake: you are performing. Once you acknowledge these things, I think you’ll see why auto-drum-shaming should go the way of fat-shaming, second-hand-smoke shaming, and relentless-gutter-ball shaming.

In establishing my credentials, I should note that, in confronting the many obstacles I faced on the road to becoming a master auto-drummer, I have only had one serious at-fault accident. It was more than twenty-five years ago, and it came from screwing with the radio, NOT from drumming. On the contrary: I have found that drumming actually helps keep me time with driving, imparting it a rhythm, making the driving, too, part of the art; making driving itself musical, like those bartenders who juggle glasses. (Yes, I’m aware they occasionally drop them.) I learned to drum by driving; I learned to drive by drumming: for me, both statements are equally true.

Okay. Enough tooting my own horn. Are you ready to start? Good! Vroom vroom! Let’s do some preliminary exercises together, and then touch on our route and destination before calling it a day.

First things first. Get comfortable. That’s the first key to being a great auto-drummer: comfort. Ahhhhh. There. Let’s do some ergonomic, ambiental exercises. You should consider beginning every practice session with them for the entirety of the time you are taking this course. Put on your choice of music, by which I mean your choice of prog rock, hard rock, heavy metal, or heavy alternative, and not some lame shit I can’t take seriously (if you need to consult your brochure for examples, please pause the podcast to do so now). Pick a song you’re comfortable with, that you know every beat to, that you’ve drummed a thousand times, on kitchen countertops, on school desks, on close friends, on lovers, on yourself, in your head. But don’t go anywhere yet, and for God’s sake, don’t beat on anything! Move the seat up or down, backwards or forwards, until you achieve what feels like an ergonomically satisfying distance from the key elements of the car interior. Distance to the steering wheel is of particular importance; it may be slightly different from the distance you use for driving. That’s okay. We’ll come back to this in Lesson One. Run your hands over the console, the wheel, the dash, the mirror, and the side window; shuffle your feet on the floor. Touch every part of the interior of the car that you can reach comfortably from the driver’s side seat. Use the different parts of your hands to do so: nails, tips, knuckles, balls (i.e., the top of the palm, directly beneath the fingers), palms, and heels. Pause this recording until you’ve done so. Back already? Okay. Now, put your right elbow on the armrest between the seats and your left one on the armrest of the door. Move your forearms up and down; feel the way your elbows become pivot-points for your forearms and hands. Close your eyes. Consider the immense possibility of timbres around you. Visualize a common route in your head; visualize yourself, driving, drumming, along this route. Take a few deep breaths. Smell that? That’s the cairn of mouse shit on the air filter. The mouse piss, soaking it.


Do these preparatory exercises at least three times before attempting Lesson One. Next up: the anatomy of the interior; or, I didn’t know you could make that noise here!

Honk! Honk! I’ll see you there!



Hello! Thank you for continuing to listen to me! I intuit by your continued interest that you have not had a massive accident, your sternum impaled on the steering column, your ribs and spine ground like peppercorns in the mortar of your hips, yourself pinned together like a dinosaur skeleton, with a bevy of nurses making a gamelan on your poor plaster frame!

But then you haven’t even made it out of the driveway, have you? There’s still time! Ready to move forward? No? Good! Terrified? Think how the other drivers must feel!

Today, we’re going to go through the parts of the driver’s-side interior for their common analogues to the traditional drum kit. Lesson One is parts.

Paaarts! Paaaaaaaarts!!!

Like our bodies, the interior of the average automobile provides manifold opportunities for different resonances, a plethora of timbres that mimic the variety available on a drum kit, a rich palette of possibilities. Even the shittiest tin-can of a car is thus the equivalent of the greatest prog rock drummer’s bloated surround-kit, imaginatively speaking.

It will hardly surprise you to learn that the steering wheel is the main place where auto-drumming happens. The wheel is thus much as Neil Peart once described the snare: no matter how big your kit gets, the snare remains the center, the focus. Keeping in mind the analogy to the automobile, we might call the steering wheel the point of departure and place of return: no matter where our hands putter off to, the wheel calls to us back, like a beacon from home. The journey to and from the wheel is thus the equivalent, perhaps a microcosm, of the journey we make in our car, played out many times in the course of a single voyage.

Unlike the snare, however, which in rock drumming is often used for a single, steady timbre to hold the beat, the steering wheel presents multiple possibilities for mimicking different parts of the kit; indeed, one can become a proficient auto-drummer without ever looking outside the steering wheel. This is one advantage of newer cars over older ones, whose single-piece, instrumentless wheels (such as that in the Firebird of my novitiate) tended toward a poverty of timbres, and had little resonance. The drum-gods have clearly smiled upon auto designers and manufacturers since then. That said, the number of timbres available is partly due to the wheel itself, and partly to the hand that strikes it, since, unlike the kit, auto-drumming is done entirely by hand (unless, that is, you would like to imagine someone driving using sticks, mallets, or brushes: a frightening proposition, a horror movie on wheels). Just like when we drum on our bodies, sound is not just a matter of where we strike, but what part of the hand we use.

So, let’s drive thru the parts of the wheel and the timbres they best approximate when struck with different parts of the hand.

The TOP RIM OF THE STEERING WHEEL, roughly between the proverbial ten and two o’clock of the conscientious driver, struck with the ball of the hand, produces a dry thud perfect for mimicking toms, including the floor tom, as well as the bass drum(s). This is so because of the way the wheel shudders when properly struck. Bear in mind that, the closer one plays to the wrist, the deeper the resonance. As such, fingers are better for higher-pitched toms, heels for bass drums. Even struck with the fingers, however, the top of the wheel can make an adequate bass thud; it can even, in some cases, serve for a snare. We’ll consider the ramifications of these multiple uses in just a moment. In the meantime, please note that, in order to strike the top of the wheel properly, you will have to raise your elbows from the aforementioned pivot-points on the arm rests.

Properly struck, the PLASTIC HOUSING AROUND THE HUB, which in newer-model Corollas extends and widens bilaterally into two spokes that serve as a second instrument panel, produce a flat, “clacking” tone that makes for a gratifying snare-equivalent. The most effective way to get this snare-like timbre is to hook your thumbs around wheel at the end of each spoke (e.g., three and nine o’clock); this stabilizes your hands (and, potentially, the car), and gives you a powerful base from which to slap the back of the housing with the tips of your index and middle fingers. As you get more comfortable, first with making a good snare sound and then with drumming while driving, you will find yourself lifting your hand (usually the left) entirely off the wheel to smack the rear of the housing, only hooking the thumb back around when it is absolutely necessary to stabilize the vehicle. Generally, the right hand will be used for accenting beats off the main one. Alternatively, for a snare you can play the top of the housing with the outside of the first knuckle of the thumbs, or with the ends of your middle three fingers, here again lifting the hand entirely off the wheel. In all cases, remember to keep your elbows locked on the arm-rests.

Finally, the BOTTOM RIM (roughly five to seven o’clock) struck with the tips of the fingers creates a rather neutral tone that can go in many directions: not as resonant as the top of the wheel’s shudder, but not as flat as the plastic console in the middle. This is useful, since it can represent any number of percussive sounds, measured against the other timbres of the wheel. Think of the bottom rim as a “wild card,” or perhaps a wilder card than the other standard sections of the geography of the wheel.

This last point re-raises a key issue: any and all analogies—between car and kit, imagination and song—will be decided by the exigencies of the individual song, and occasionally the exigencies of the road, so that the same strike on the same part of the car with the same part of the hand may stand in for different drums in different songs, or different parts of the same song. This, too, is part of the invention, the imagination, the improvisation that is behind all true auto-drumming. An example: we can and often must mimic double-bass runs with both hands on the top rim of the wheel; as such, tom rolls and double-bass runs can only really be distinguished by the musics against which they are set. Although we’re getting ahead of ourselves—these crossovers will only really come to fruition in Lesson Three—the point bears mentioning now, if only to avoid future confusion.

By the way, this is NOT to say that any timbre works to represent any drum. For example, one would never mimic a bass drum with a nail on the window, or, conversely, mimic a ride or hi-hat by striking with the heel of the hand. (Would you ever play “Iron Man” on a piccolo? Seriously? I thought not.) What it IS to say is that, in light of the limitations imposed by the automobile and by the act of driving, more closely-related timbres have a certain interchangeability. Or, put differently: one must always consider not only the sound of the individual part, but how it stands in relation to the other resonances one seeks from the car’s interior.

The next and most obvious component available to the car drummer is the DASHBOARD over the wheel—that is, the horizontal surface under the windshield, or its near edge. The dashboard actually presents fewer possibilities for tone-colors than we might imagine. (Note that, for passenger-side drumming, the dashboard directly over the glove compartment presents an entirely different scenario. See product 99B/ToyCo, which can be purchased at a discount with proof of purchase of any of my other auto-drumming products.) Like the bottom of the wheel, it produces a flat, neutral tone that can go in a variety of directions when struck with the fingertips (e.g., toms). When struck with the nail of the index finger, for example, I have found it most useful for mimicking either the snare (with the top of the wheel used as a bass drum; see “Blast Beats” in Lesson Two), or the hub of a ride cymbal or closed hi-hat.

Given that we’re in 2018 and you’re not a cavedweller, I am going to assume you drive an automatic; and if you don’t drive an automatic, you should consider the negative impact this has on your ability to achieve anything like minimal proficiency as an auto-drummer. For the sole purpose of your left foot should be to play the bass drum. (I should note that I owe the independence of my feet, one from the other, and the dexterity of my left foot itself, often the less-developed one in kit drummers, to auto-drumming.) The right foot is generally trapped on the accelerator or brake, and so is much less mobile. This does not rule it out entirely; it’s okay to create off-beat accents, and the occasional bass-drum roll leading into a hard left-foot kick, or a snare hit. You can do this by lifting your foot off the pedal and smacking the toe down, lightly enough that the car doesn’t spurt forward or screech to a halt. But that’s just the problem: you can’t get much volume from a light tap; and the pedals are actually less forgiving than the wheel, for which, after all, you have two hands. Thus, the effect of the right foot remains almost inaudible, and tends to interrupt auto-drumming by forcing the brain to focus overly much on the act of driving. But the left foot is free to drum to your heart’s content, and I suggest you content your heart as much as possible in this regard. Here I must say I find the newer-model Corollas to be somewhat deficient, as in the older models the FOOT REST or so-called DEAD PEDAL was a corrugated plastic pad lifted at an angle from the floor, which, though the timbre is a bit too dry to mimic a bass drum, was quite more audible than the flat, carpeted version of the same in the newer model. (Perhaps this is one reason I have sometimes dreamed of an ideal auto-drum interior, one which combines features of the several cars I have driven.) To get the requisite left-foot sound, again, simply lift up the toe and slap it down again. As you practice this while driving, you, too, will gain independence in your left foot, and be able to carry on relatively more and more complex bass-drum beats without interrupting the subtle gradations in acceleration and deceleration of the car with the right foot, any more than the hands interrupt the changing of the car’s direction.

These three components of the interior—steering wheel in all its manifold possibilities, the dashboard above the wheel, and the dead pedal—will, or should, occupy about 95% of your auto-drumming attention, with the steering wheel itself occuping roughly 70-75%, the dead pedal 15-20%, and the dashboard 10%. The upshot: Get to know the wheel!

And the remaining five per cent? Here are a few other, minor components that are also occasionally useful, and that I would be remiss not to mention.

The ARM REST (the one located between the driver’s and passenger-side seats) presents some interesting possibilities, since the STORAGE COMPARTMENT located beneath it makes a natural sounding box, and the sound produced can vary depending on the objects stored inside it. Newer Corollas have the advantage of an added CHANGE TRAY just under the lid, so that, for example, a handful of coins jump around when the lid is struck, like the beads in a snare, or the spangles on a tambourine, while the bottom chamber gives the whole a powerful resonance. If the change tray is empty, the compartment itself produces a low thud more equivalent to the deeper toms, particularly when struck with the heel of the hand or the hammer of the fist. Treating the arm rest as a sort of prepared piano by manipulating the contents of the aptly-named change tray can add exciting new timbres to one’s auto-drumming palette. The problem: reaching it is ergonomically challenging, since, as noted above, the arm rest is the ideal place to stabilize the right elbow. It is actually much more useful for the passenger-side auto-drummer (again, see 99B for full details).

The dry clack produced by the SIDE WINDOW when struck with the nail of the index finger or with the tips of the middle and index finger also makes a viable ride-hub or closed hi-hat (passengers will sometimes use their window as a viable snare-substitute, since they do not generally want to beat on the steering wheel when someone else is driving). The REARVIEW MIRROR, again struck with the fingernail, also makes a good ride; just be aware this can jar the mirror, and so require repositioning. But then you’ve seen this happen to actual drummers with their cymbals, even when they put strips of carpet under the stands.

Cymbals present a perplexing difficulty for the auto-drummer. Simply put, nothing in the car comes close to the timbre or sustain of an unmuted cymbal. Nothing rings, and if anything does, I would suggest you take your car to a mechanic. As a result, even though auto-drumming is not “airing,” the occasional cymbal crash is (regrettably) best approximated purely imaginatively, that is, by the hand striking an invisible object somewhere above the wheel, in the place an “actual” cymbal would hang. Better this, I believe, than ruin your whole auto-performance with an unsuitable timbre. I might add that it helps that cymbal crashes are often coupled with bass drum or other drum strikes easily achieved on the wheel or dead pedal.

There is, of course, the possibility of hanging an actual cymbal from the rearview mirror, as some people hang, or perhaps used to hang: fuzzy dice; disco balls; air fresheners; dream catchers; plastic gnomes; et cetera. It would be no more obstructive, and quite possibly the police won’t know what to make of it. But in this I would suggest you take my advice: avoid the temptation to hang an actual piece of percussion from the mirror, or anywhere else in the car. Why? Because its reality would clash with the rest of the automobile’s timbres, which only function analogously, as representations of the pieces of a drum kit. Quite possibly, the actual cymbal would make the rest of the car sound like exactly what it is: a car. It would say: Hey asshole. You’re not Bill Bruford. You’re not even Meg White. Put both your hands on the wheel. That’s what the cymbal would say. It would mock you, just like that.

Whew! Okay. That’s a lot. To conclude this lesson, I want to say a quick word about “dropped” beats. Then, to the homework.

As you speed toward proficiency in the coming weeks, you will probably ask yourself more than once: What about driving? What, that is, about having to pay attention to the road, other vehicles, and pedestrians? Will I not have to occasionally “drop” a beat to readjust the alignment and trajectory of the automobile? And the more skilled I become, won’t the occasional necessity of missing a hit to attend to the quotidian tasks of driving become all the more frustrating?

Here is a somewhat philosophical and forward-looking answer: In mastering the fine art of auto-drumming, the difficulty is not missing occasional beats—that’s a given—but moving in and out of the beat to attend to the necessity of driving in a natural, artistic way; as though it were not some distraction of driving that mattered, but your own whim about when to drum and when not to; as if, that is, it were a matter of choice rather than necessity; or, to think of it differently, as if the necessity were the pre-scripted, God-plan of the universe to which your individual will-to-expression perfectly conforms, so in tune are you with the music of the spheres. This way, whether part of the Plan or Muse-toodling whim, it becomes, not a miss, not a “dropped beat,” but a break. And this way, too, your performance becomes not a perfect reproduction of some drum recording (it never was that to begin with) but a conversation with said recording.

Alternatively, you can simply imagine you’ve dropped your stick, as even the best drummers do from time to time, and the show must go on, at least the snare beat, until you or your roadie can finagle another. You are a professional. Smile at the crowd. Wave. Elicit enthusiasm.

As your ability improves and drumming in the car becomes second nature, the goal is to alternate steering and drumming hands without dropping the beat, or with only the most deliberate decisions about when to do so. For example, you might be hitting the snare with your right hand, steering with the left; but in order to move the car in another direction, the left hand must momentarily take over. Or, you might steer with your thumbs and drum with your fingers on the back of the wheel. The drumming is now a natural part of the driving, and the driving a natural part of the drumming; they are a single, continuous effort, so that the one always augments, shapes, and speaks to, rather than interrupts, the other. Of course, these are masterful moves not to be attempted by the novice; they represent some of the most exciting achievements in the form, the endpoint of decades of practice. But once you realize such possibilities exist, such achievements possible, you will also overcome the temptation not to steer at all, or to steer with some ridiculous part of your body. A friend of mine’s brother, for example, could drive for many miles with his knees—he had quite long legs and bony knees. It is true, of course, that the whole ten o’clock-two o’clock thing is hugely overrated, and that, the sooner you realize this, the better auto-drummer you will become. Indeed, you will advance by leaps and bounds, accident by accident, with every fender-bender finding you a more proficient percussionist of the horseless carriage variety. But let’s not confuse the freedom and artistry of the auto-drum master with clownish and needlessly dangerous spectacles, shall we? Besides, what did my friend’s bony-kneed brother do when he needed to play the bass drum?

Okay. Homework! Homework!!! Ready? One hundred practice hits per day per each above-mentioned part of the console on the wheel, dash and floor for one full week before moving on to Lesson Two. I can’t be your backseat driver here—promise me a hundred! That number again is one hundred! 1-0-0!!! Ten raised to the second power! A ton of pounds! A Benny! Make sure to try them out against a variety of soundtracks, too, as this will begin to get you used to to the way parts of the console can take on different meanings for different songs.

And once you’ve begun to get comfortable with the hits, it’s time to put on that choice cut and take this puppy out for a spin. Just around the neighborhood; you might even drive in circles around your son’s or daughter’s high school parking lot, if it’s a weekend. Don’t leave your vicinity, and for God’s sake, do not attempt to head out to the highway. And yet … don’t just stay still! Drive! Drive!!! It all means nothin’ if you don’t get out and DRIVE!

Good luck! Break a leg, preferably someone else’s!

* * * * *


LESSON TWO: BEATS AND COMBOS. “Beats and Combos” takes the learner through four basic patterns familiar to rock listeners, common variations on these basic beats, and beginning polyrhythms. Each beat comes with suggested song pairings for both the novice and the more experienced auto-drummer.

LESSON THREE: FILLS AND VARIATIONS. “Fills and Variations” guides the journeyman auto-drummer through fill patterns combining different parts of the car interior (such as the rim and hub of the wheel), fills using alternating parts of the same hand (heel-fingertips, thumb-fingertips), tremolos (rolling finger strikes), and composite strikes with the same hand (such as the dashboard struck with the fingertips and the wheel with the heel). Move beyond those endless, annoying tom-rolls along the 10-2 axis of the wheel’s top rim! These are the sorts of fills all true auto-drummers must master, and without which you will continue to suck utterly!

LESSON FOUR: FLOURISHES AND “DWD” PROTOCOLS. Combinations and added technical flourishes for the advanced auto-drummer—intended only for those who feel ready to head out to the highway—as well as basic protocols for the would-be professional. Suggestions for ways in which auto-drummers may develop their own unique voice and style, and translate their Corolla-based skills to other vehicles. Also contains auto-drum tabulature for “Red Barchetta,” “Raining Blood,” “Fool in the Rain,” “Headin’ Out to the Highway,” “Helldriver,” and 10 other acknowledged auto-drum classics!



DISCLAIMER: By purchasing, downloading, reading, or coming into any sort of contact, deliberate or accidental, with this product (“THE PRODUCT”), you have agreed to absolve HELLDRIVER of any and all liability for whatever accident or injury might be incurred. Please note that HELLDRIVER has never been successfully sued, whether by personal injury attorneys over the accidental or intentional damage to vehicle or person, or for the maiming, crushing, or killing of passengers, other drivers, and/or pedestrians; or by divorce attorneys for any relationship strains which might be produced as a result of using THE PRODUCT.



“I know that when you’re looking to buy a car, you’re supposed to care about things like sight-lines and handling, safety ratings, resale value, comfort and roominess and trunk space and, of course, gas mileage. But for the auto-drummer, that only gets you so far. Because once you’ve narrowed your choices down to a few viable models, when you go to test drive them with the salesperson, the only question you should really be asking yourself is: How good is it for a drum? Me, I’ll drive the car slooooowly out of the lot, and after a block or two I’ll say, “May I turn on the radio?” or, “Can I put on some music?” Then I turn it slightly louder than what would be considered comfortable for conversation, at least with someone who didn’t make their living in sales. Every once in a while, as discreetly as I can muster, I’ll smack the steering wheel, dash, or window, or stomp the floor with the toe of my left shoe. The salesperson probably thinks I’m testing the car to see if it’s solid, like the proverbial used-car salesman kicking a tire. It’s okay: your salesperson has seen customers do much weirder things …”

Classic Rock Radio

An Epic in Verse*


Boston.                                                                                                                                                        Foreigner, Van Halen, Steve Miller,                                                                                                        Boston.                                                                                                                                                          ZZ Top, The Who, Led Zeppelin,                                                                                                                 Foreigner,                                                                                                                                                   Boston.







The Rolling Stones, Boston.                                                                                                                         Billy Squier, Boston.                                                                                                                                    Bad Company, Boston.                                                                                                                       AC/DC, Boston.                                                                                                                                             ZZ Top, Boston.                                                                                                                                        Boston, Boston.                                                                                                                                       Boston, Boston, Boston.                                                                                                                          Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston.                                                                                                Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Bos                                                                                                                      The Who.

Van Halen, Foreigner.                                                                                                                                  ZZ Top, Foreigner.                                                                                                                                     Led Zeppelin, Foreigner.

Boston, Foreigner.

Boston, Foreigner, Boston, Foreigner, Boston, Foreigner,Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner

Foreigner                 Boston

Foreigner                                             Boston

Foreigner                                                                                             Boston

Foreigner Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner

Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner.

Boston             Boston             Boston             Boston             Boston             Boston

Boston. Foreigner.




Led Foreigner.                                                                                                                                            Bad Foreigner                                                                                                                                       Rolling Foreigner                                                                                                                                       Foreigner Foreigner

Van Foreigner                                                                                                                                             Van Foreigntop                                                                                                                                          Van Squiertop                                                                                                                                            Van Toppentop                                                                                                                                          Van Fuckyourself

Top Halen Van Billy Who ZZ Miller Company Tramp Bad Led AC Van Bostontop                          Zep Van Bostonsquier

Miller Van Toppentop

Billy Van Millercamp

ToppenCompany ZZ Van Billy Company BadTop HalenDC Foreigntramp

ZZ                                                       ZZ                                                       ZZ




Foreignton. Bosener.

Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton



Whobadbozzener Led ZanVVHalentopper

Bosled Zan vivvy doopspil ungletracken bongwasser spllindurnas












Commercial.                                                                                                                                            Commercial.                                                                                                                                            Commercial.                                                                                                                                                     Boston.

Commercial Boston.

Commercial Foreigner.

Van Commercial                                                                                                                                           ZZ Commercial                                                                                                                                          Billy Commercial                                                                                                                                          AC Commercial                                                                                                                                       Miller Commercial                                                                                                                                     Bad Commercial                                                                                                                                        Led Commercial                                                                                                                                       Who Commercial                                                                                                                                  Commercial Commercial                                                                                                                          Commercial Commercial Commercial                                                                                                   Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial                                                                             Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial           Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Co

























































* Besides WPDH, my “local” classic rock station, I should cite as an inspiration for this poem the random poetry generator developed by Dr Angus Forbes (early in his programming studies) at Metalab Communications, an internet start-up in the Tribeca of old (my old, 1997), where I worked as office manager. The most primitive version of the program simply asked the user to input words, and then randomly generated poems—no syntax, no grammar, just the words selected. It was hours of fun to play with, and produced some of the funniest poems I’ve ever read. (One other note: the formatting is wonky because the WordPress template does not match what appears published on the blog. I was reduced to using the space bar and toggling between template and preview to even get close. Argh! Talk about primitive!)


The Unwearable Leatherness of Loverboy

Consider, if you will, the heartbreaking immortality of Loverboy.

The catastrophic pathos of Loverboy.

Of being Loverboy in 2018. Of having been Loverboy for forty years.

Tennis thugs gesquozen into corsets of red leather, festooned with bandannas.

I set myself the absurd task of writing a thousand words about Loverboy. I quickly realized the only way to succeed was by negation.

Even brute Ajax had his fanboy in Ovid. But who will sing the praises of Loverboy? No one. So I will write the epic of Loverboy as an epic of negation, the only such record that can ever be made, adopting the voice of Odysseus taunting Polyphemus. (N.B.: Ovid distrusted sly Ulysses.)

I understand this mockery is directed at a monster who, even in his boulder-hurling tantrum, the high drama of his anguish, is really an actor only as big as the one playing Odysseus, which is why they can never appear together in the same frame, except via trick photography. Stardom works this way. We can only cut such monsters down to size via Odysseian wiles. Force them into the frame with us, as it were. Look them in the eye.


No thirteen-year-old’s infatuation with rock music will ever be predicated on first hearing Loverboy. Loverboy will never be anybody’s favorite band, not even their second- or third-favorite band, not even for a few weeks in early adolescence. No high schoolers past, present or future will ever cover their spiral-bound notebooks with Loverboy’s logo. No high-school senior will ever sum up their wonderful four years at Fort Something-or-Other High by quoting Loverboy under their yearbook picture. Nobody will ever come to a memorable climax in the backseat of their father’s car to a Loverboy song on the radio, etc. No girls will ever be knocked up to Loverboy; if they were, every baby so conceived would be aborted or miscarried; were any such child ever to be born, it would be left to die of exposure, or to be eaten by bears and/or jackals. No tobacco products will ever be consumed in post-coital lethargy to any ballads, power or otherwise, written by Loverboy. No one will play Loverboy at their wedding, not even for the strangely incestuous ritual of the Dance of the Father with the Bride; and no wedding band will ever include Loverboy in their repertoire. No groupies will reminisce about one-night stands with the members (ha!) of Loverboy, except as a blip between Darryl Hall and John Oates, or after sleeping with that really ugly dude from REO Speedwagon. Nobody will ever fondle him- or herself to frame-by-frame images from a Loverboy video. No animals will ever be harmed in the making of a Loverboy video, except those previously harmed in making their gratuitous leather wardrobes. No classic rock stations will endlessly loop Loverboy’s hits, except by some error in the algorithm according to which said rock station playlists are statistically constructed. No one will ever call in to request a Loverboy song; if they did, no DJ in their right mind will ever deign to play it. No rock stars will point to a Loverboy performance for the epiphany for their choice of careers. No rock stars will tearfully recount the importance of Loverboy to their artistic development during their induction ceremony into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, just as no bands will ever dress up as Loverboy to commemorate the latter’s induction. No rock critics will pause to recognize Loverboy. Nobody will go to the mat, so to speak, in defense of Loverboy’s contribution to the rock canon. There will never be a VH-1 retrospective devoted to Loverboy, nor a classic rock, leather apparel, or what-the-fuck-were-the-80s-anyway documentary that includes a clip from Loverboy, no matter how brief, or seeks an exclusive interview, unless said documentary is focused specifically on: Canada; Alberta; Calgary; or Uncle Fucker. No musicologists will find significance, musical, cultural, or other, in anything related to Loverboy. No one will call Loverboy the voice of the decade, except to deride the decade in question.  Millions of thumbs with flip by millions of Loverboy records in used record bins without pausing, first in the two-dollar bin, then in the dollar bin, the fifty-cent bin outside the store, the please-take-this-it’s-free bin, the dumpster. Yea, even at garage sales and flea markets, Loverboy’s albums will be passed over. No fashion designers will ever look to Loverboy for sartorial inspiration, not even those who devise the Halloween costumes sold at 99-cent stores, or the track suits for expensive Manhattan gyms whose clientele have an overdeveloped sense of irony. No one will proudly wear their old, torn, and/or faded Loverboy shirt to work, not even in jest. There will be no auctions in which Mike Reno’s nalgas-hugging red leather pants fetch obscene amounts of money, unless they are unearthed by a future civilization (cf. Belloq’s quip to Indiana Jones: “Who knows, in a thousand years even you might be worth something!”). No one will bid on a T-shirt from the band’s first headlining North American tour on Ebay, except ironically (cf. Eddie Murphy’s joke about white people voting for a black president). The singer and/or guitarist for Loverboy will never perform stool-bound acoustic versions of their hits at clubs founded by other washed-up rockers of their generation while their one-time fans munch pasta and drink Zinfandels and text their kids’ babysitters. No one will ever wish a Loverboy fan club had existed, or regret its demise. Loverboy will never appear in any rock festivals, except those driven and derided by nostalgia (e.g., the M3 festival, its “nine years of rock moments” suggesting said festival is already running on nostalgia about nostalgia, a perfect recycling of cultural energy), which is to say, all of them. None of Loverboy’s 232,000 Facebook followers will actually join them on the “80s Cruise,” for if even a tiny fraction of them did, the 70,000-ton vessel would explode, capsize, and then sink under the ballasted ordnance of their nostalgia. No charitable organizations will be founded by members or ex-members of Loverboy, not even anonymously; nor will members ever be included in telethons or pledge drives for public radio or TV stations. There will be no Loverboy tribute bands, except those from the most depressed neighborhoods of Tokyo: they will be villified by their own people; yea, their very neighbors will smite them. There will be no reality TV stints for members of Loverboy, except on satellite stations broadcasting from untraceable locations, encrypted to appear as though they emanated from Pittsburgh. No one will ghost-write Loverboy’s tell-all band biography, because no one would ever buy it, or could be imagined buying it; or, could they be imagined buying it, be imagined reading it, as all those who might be imagined reading it are functionally illiterate. Loverboy will never be the subject of scandals with superannuated supermodels, child pornographers killed in Amtrak derailments, grope-happy Hollywood producers, or on-line poker enthusiasts. The passing of Loverboy’s drummer will not be announced on Yahoo, etc., unless it involves mass shooting, white slavery, aspirated vomit, or all of the above. Loverboy’s Wikipedia page will contain no scholarly citations, rather it will be larded with warnings about a lack of credible sources: Loverboy will remain a spurious, apocryphal band. No one will ever understand how Loverboy came to have three multiplatinum albums, or to be one of the top five touring rock acts of all time, except when considered in the light of other absurd commercial phenomena, such as pet rocks and Beanie Babies. No one under forty-five will ever know who Loverboy is, except through a needle’s-eye afterlife of micro-cultural references on TV sitcoms and video games. No one will ever begin a discourse about Loverboy with the words, “Actually, they were pretty good.” As they will not die a natural death, and as their fans will continue to feast on the congealed blood of their own and each other’s nostalgia, they will have to be clubbed to death by nameless hordes of sadistic bloggers. No one will hum “Workin’ for the Weekend,” “Lucky Ones,” and “Turn Me Loose” endlessly as they blog about Loverboy, as I am doing right now, as I have been doing since I started writing this post, endlessly, helplessly, to the point of desperation and hampered sanity, writing, writing, trying to kill the Loverboy within me.

AIAI, Loverboy! And alas, Helldriver!

Seven Years in the Pit

Rather than spending the first paragraphs of this belated annual reflection flogging myself for the previous year’s scant output, wondering aloud whether this blog is still seaworthy, or is sinking under the weight of its own discursivity—if I am writing, as S.T. Joshi once wrote about Arthur Machen, around rather than about my purported subject (music, by the way)—if this is my comeuppance for asserting that, music being what it is, whenever one attempts to write about it, one has no choice but to write around it—that it is an absent center we drive toward, and as such the writing has to find a way of orbiting itself, of becoming its own center, for only by doing so will it find its way to the corona of the musical experience, that superheated margin, second only to the unassailable core, the thing-in-itself … but then you see I’ve written that paragraph after all. So I can move on to the topic of this year’s reflection: blogs versus books.

Over the past few years a couple of friends of mine, doubtless in an effort to humor me, have encouraged me to think about assembling the material on this blog into a book. It’s something I occasionally fantasize about: how it would be organized, what would be left out, whether some of these annual reflections might be assembled into a viable introduction.

Last fall I read Minding Movies, a book composed of selections from the blog Observations on Film Art, by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. I bought the book because, though I’ve long admired Bordwell’s work, I found myself rarely visiting OFA. Much as I love the blog as an opportunity to “publish” my musical thoughts unimpeded, I’m still much more comfortable reading on paper—a good reason in itself, I suppose, to think of the work here in The Pit as a quasi-book. It was also a good opportunity to see how a couple of veteran academic bloggers had managed the print transition.

That Minding Movies was rather a disappointment forced me to consider the differences between the two media with a minuteness of attention I hadn’t before. Reading the selections, I kept wondering why the book hadn’t provided Bordwell and Thompson with the impetus to dig deeper, consolidate posts, and re-think issues, rather than just re-present their writing from the web. Instead, the posts are printed with addenda, which generally present a little more evidence for a point argued (sometimes from a reader comment), qualify assertions, and/or rebut responses.

The choice speaks volumes about the way we conceive of blog-based writing: finished enough to anthologize, but ephemeral enough to necessitate addenda. Or at least, some blog-based writing. One section of Minding Movies is dedicated to criticizing the state of film reviewing. Lots of opinions, Bordwell gripes, but few ideas. He touts the critical essay as a nice middle ground between blurby review and scholarly exegesis; he thinks the web is a “hospitable” place for such writing, and wishes there were more of it out there; and he clearly sees himself working in this vein. His lovely conclusion to “In Critical Condition”: “Web critics could write less often, but longer. In an era of slow food, let’s try slow blogging. It might encourage slow reading” (61).

As someone who thinks of himself as working in a similar vein, I can’t help but agree with Bordwell. (The quote even serves to justify my output … though, admittedly, the ratio between dwindling number and growing length has not remained equal.) And it must be said that the best “posts” in Minding Movies, including many of those about individual films and filmmakers in the latter half of the book, fit nicely into that category: longish, thoughtful, erudite but not (overly) academic.

That said, Minding Movies also serves as a sad reminder that the web has actually failed to foster just the sort of writing Bordwell would most like to see.* Too many of the pieces anthologized feel like fluff. This is true less often of Bordwell’s than Thompson’s, which are by and large shallower in their examinations, and occasionally fall into a irritating “so-and-so said X, now I’m going to rebut that in [#] salient points” format. They are also more oriented toward the business of filmmaking than Bordwell’s, a topic which, handled well, can be enlightening, but otherwise can sound depressingly close to a speech at a trade luncheon.

Now, I would guess that the fluffier pieces actually read better on-line. But even something that feels relatively weighty on the screen may look scant transferred to the page. Print is a painfully unforgiving medium; a book—paradoxical as it might seem—is still a much larger pond.** (I should add that I encountered a surprising lack of sensitivity in Minding Movies to the way different media shape expression.)

In keeping with the hybrid nature of the critical essay, Bordwell and Thompson strive for a light tone, even as they treat some fairly knotty questions of film art and craft. The desire not to sound like stuffy academics goes hand-in-hand with a generally positive vibe about mainstream Hollywood cinema, something that I think is supposed to sound maverick, but strikes me as hegemonic in the pop culture-sodden world of the humanities today. So Louis Menand, in that stuffiest of stuffy journals the New York Review of Books, is taken to task for writing a disparaging article about action movies; “David” and “Kristin” “are forced to conclude that literary intellectuals and workaday reviewers do not have the inclination or expertise to think about cinema as deeply as their counterparts routinely reflect on the other arts” (xi). I’m not sure who “forced” them to conclude this. They do make a blanket assertion to this effect in the previous paragraph, and Menand is clearly supposed to be the representative “literary intellectual.” It feels like a cheap shot, particularly since they put him against Charles Rosen “dissect[ing] the intricacies of musical composition,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that if you gave Rosen a Judas Priest record, he would behave very much as Menand did with The Rock. (N.B.: Alex Ross, who they mention earlier, would be a better foil for this sort of thing.) The bias of some intellectuals against Hollywood per se may be unjustified, but to assert that “they” can’t think about “cinema” per se is as unjustified a generalization.

There are perils in the desire to keep a blog non-academic—perils inherent in being a blogging academic, which become (once again) that much more apparent between the covers of a book. The long post called “The Anatomy of the Action Picture” is most egregious in this regard. It wanders along with nary an acknowledgement that it is rehashing the sort of plot analysis English teachers (“literary intellectuals”?) spout in freshman-year courses. Chekhov’s gun gets a passing mention; but not until the conclusion (and then again in the addendum) does Bordwell note that Hollywood’s narrative conventions were adapted from the short story and the play. Nor does the post make any effort to engage with a century’s worth of narrative theory. It’s a missed opportunity; a writer of Bordwell’s acuity would be up to the difficult task of translating some of these ideas for a general readership and applying them to the plots of action films. In dialogue with said theory, this might make for a very interesting analysis. But in the limbo of the blog, it reads like Freytag’s Triangle (or whatever) fell on him like Newton’s apple.†

In the end, if the goal is to convince me that “the action movie needn’t be considered a mindless splatter of violent spectacle and CGI. It can have a cogent architecture” (122), I would answer, “So can tract housing.” So, for that matter, can the old 42nd-Street triumvirate of porn, slasher, and kung fu. That spectacle can advance plot without ceasing to be spectacle is hardly news, and is as true of episodic narratives as more “tightly-woven” plots (e.g., “You killed my master”). Action sequences are nominally integrated in order to give them a raison d’etre, but they are bloated far beyond what is necessary to merely advance the plot because, after all, they’re what we’ve paid to see. A minimal amount of horizontal movement is the penny paid to plot for the pound of vertical expansion that it is the logic of spectacle to maximize. Menand’s NYRB quip—that action movies alternate two minutes of dialogue with ten minutes of action—might be a rhetorical exaggeration, but it’s hardly a lie, as Mr Spock knew. Formulaic structures make wonderful vessels for just such mindless splatter, whatever the fluid in question. As always, it’s what you do with the formula, how you fill it and how you squeeze it, that makes the difference.

The “Anatomy” raises a related, and tricky, question. It’s the role of research, and the responsibility (if such can be said to exist) of the blogger, particularly the academic blogger, to draw on research in building his or her arguments. In fact, Bordwell himself calls for more “research essays” on the web. Let me inject my own experience as a blogger here. I’ve noticed that, as the blog has grown (and I’ve grown with it), the work on it has become somewhat less impressionistic, or at least that impressionism has been folded into a broader agenda. It has become more and more difficult to post before doing at least a minimal amount of reading. (This may be for better or for worse; I miss the innocence of some of those early posts; it was occasionally a strength.) But once again, the blog presents itself as an interesting hybrid: I don’t feel the need to scour everything that has been said about a subject, as would be my duty were I writing a book, at least an academic book in my field. Hence, again, the problem, or at least challenge: making the blog book-worthy would (for me) necessitate a great deal of revision based on yet-to-be-done research in the plethora of genres I write about. And that might end up tilting the writing out of the equilibrium both Bordwell and I seek.

That said, I’m in a somewhat different position from Bordwell and Thompson. They are film scholars, and as such an erudite flippancy sits easily with them. Whatever my issues and my wishes, they clearly know their shit. I’m not a music scholar; I just play one, pseudonymously, on the web. Matt Hills’s distinction between what he terms the “fan-scholar” and the “scholar-fan” (originally in Fan Cultures, Routledge, 2002; I came across it in Chris McDonald’s superb academic monograph Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class, Indiana UP, 2009) might be helpful here. The former category describes someone who produces work based on intensive research and deep familiarity with their subject, but who is without formal academic training. Their work has no currency in the academy. The “scholar-fan,” on the other hand, is an academic by training and/or profession, but presumably also a confessed inebriate of his or her subject of inquiry; such an assertion would flout the objectivity expected from academic writing, though, of course, it may be absent from, or only marginally present in, the academic work.

The kink in this model is that “scholarship” is too broadly conceived. I am an academic, but my degree is in a non-music field. (It is actually a hybrid doctorate, part studio (creative writing), part traditional English.) Nor am I a professional music writer, where my authority would be established based on that of the publications in which my work had appeared. Like the “fan-scholar,” I am driven to write about music because of my dilettantish passion for the subject, not my expertise. Yet, I’m not quite a fan-scholar, either: because I have academic training and an academic career; because my discipline is at least related to music under the broader umbrella of the humanities (i.e., I’m not a civil engineer); and because English itself has morphed under the pressure of something called cultural studies, that amoeba which, by turning everything into text, threatens to consume all humanistic fields of inquiry. It’s an odd position to occupy, at once inside and outside scholarship, somewhere on the continuum between scholar and fan. But it’s not necessarily a bad one. As I’ve noted here before, bringing other discourses to bear may be the only way to really grasp (at) music; a cautious interdisciplinarity might provide the key to some worthwhile insights.

And so we return to the idea of hybridity: just as the blog, as Bordwell notes, might be a “hospitable” place for writing that stands on the threshold between the popular and the scholarly, so the blog might also be a natural place for an academic to write about subjects on the margin of his or her field, and to create work that throws lines across boundaries and tests waters, rather than soldering up unsinkable arguments.

Turning a blog into a (successful) book, then, is not as simple as it sounds. What the experience of reading Minding Movies taught me, at least, was that the body of work on a blog is very much its own entity: a growing text that puts out branches in different directions. At their best, blog posts are passionate and thoughtful sallies at ideas that are revisited in time, forming an evolving network of linked ideas, not a coherent argument developed over a set number of pages. A blog may form the bulk of the material for a book; but doing so would mean finding a way to consolidate the output via research and revision. On a blog, ideas necessarily repeat themselves. Readers will come at them from different angles, in different orders, across wide swathes of time. I myself return to ideas from different angles; this difference of approach subtly modifies them, as does rethinking them over the space of possibly months or even years. (Maybe I should have read Minding Movies over the course of a few months rather than a few days.) It means that certain themes and ideas continue to obsess me, as they do Bordwell and Thompson; and as material builds up organically across the blog, I return to them. Considered cumulatively, they express a philosophy about one’s subject and the manner in which it should be approached. A book fails if it tries to function in this way. We may disclaim or revise some of the ideas contained there later in our lives; but that is at least an article … if not another book.


As per tradition, I’ll end this end-of-year reflection with some reflections and not-quite-addenda (ha!) on the previous year’s work.

Regarding, “Elastic” (5.16.16), I came across a quote in Miles’s Autobiography that might serve as an epigraph. About the Second Great Quintet, Miles says, “Instead of developing the new music live which we were playing on records, we found ways to make the old music sound as new as the new music we were recording” (279). My note about the prominent role accorded to tempo in “making the old music sound new,” at least the burners, has a funny contemporary resonance. In Ubiquitous Listening (California UP, 2014), Anahid Kassabian notes that the last couple of decades has witnessed a proliferation of new genres “according to all sorts of parameters, though most obviously beats per minute” (10). Thus tempo itself takes on the sort of genre-defining role traditionally accorded to melody, harmony, rhythm, and instrumentation, at least where the music itself is concerned. I would guess this is due to the diminished importance of harmony et al. more generally. On Four & More, the radical ramping up of tempo is partly responsible for attenuating the importance of melody and harmony, and heightening the role of timbre and rhythm, in Miles’s improvisations.

As readers might have noticed, race became a prevalent theme in half of last year’s posts (“Un/coiffed” and “Samson in old Kentucky”). Maybe it’s the last presidential election. I don’t have anything to add here, except to say that I will likely return to my provisional comments about race in jazz. (By the way, in case it doesn’t come though in the post: I really like Judge Priest. The fact that it’s such an endearing movie makes its racial politics that much more depressing.)

And what with the negatives in my titles? “UN/coiffed,” Left UNsaid”; even the original title of “Flesh Against Steel” was “NO Cowbell” … signs of the blogpocalypse? No clue. But while I’m on the subject of the cowbell, into which I read some pretty heavy symbolism vis-à-vis Carcass’s evolution: after posting, I remembered the cowbell in Pantera’s “Drag the Waters,” a song I described way back in the early years of this blog (“Deulogy,” 1.4.11) as “seedy and grating, a rotting wharf of a song, bottomlessly vile.” But what a different cowbell that is! The cowbell on Carcass’s “Rotting” is the clichéd upbeat heavy-rock break; on Pantera’s “Waters,” it’s anything but. (A manhole cover beaten with a lead pipe; a buoy tolling dully in the mist where men with shepherds’ crooks fish for corpses; etc.). As much as musical context, the difference might be in the tone of the cowbell itself, as I learned when I went to buy “a” cowbell (to play with a bass drum pedal) a number of years ago, when 48th Street was all that. I ended up staring at a wall of cowbells. Who knew there were so many sizes and shapes of cows?

I can’t leave this reflection without throwing in my few cents about the idea of reflection itself (jeez, Helldriver, how meta- can you go?), something I originally drafted as an endnote to the “Samson” post but deleted, cognizant of how much verbiage that poor post already had to bear. Reading around in film and popular music theory during this sabbatical, I’ve been struck by the way some recent writers (Bordwell and Thompson, but also Keith Negus in his excellent primer Popular Music in Theory (Wesleyan UP, 1996)) have frowned on the idea of a work of art reflecting the character of its historical moment, or Zeitgeist. As the argument goes, since the Zeitgeist itself is always an oversimplification of a historical period, which necessarily has many competing currents, and since audiences (of whatever) can’t hope to be representative of the populace as a whole, it’s impossible to draw a firm connection between social circumstances and the art of a particular period. As someone who is prone to make the occasional Zeitgeisty argument, and who has no deadlines to face but those imposed by my own conscience, I felt the urge to reply. Perhaps because he is trained as a social scientist, Negus is disinclined to commit to interpretation. He thinks it more pertinent for the theorist to analyze the how than the what. This seems to be because the how is more data-crunchable, more falsifiable, while the what always involves a certain amount of creativity and imagination—just sort of thing that makes social scientists anxious. As for Bordwell and Thompson: One can surely make a case for dominant or important trends in which a large number of people are involved, even if they do not involve everyone, or are not perfectly representative. Does the fact that a large number of Americans were revolted by the counterculture mean that the Summer of Love did not express something crucial in the nation’s psyche, and that the art produced in the late 60s didn’t reflect that? Does the Nevadan goat herder who never heard of 9-11 scuttle arguments that 9-11 deeply impacted American consciousness, and that this impact is, once again, represented in the country’s art? Hell, I’ve written stories that, only as I was completing them, or even after I was done, I realized (and I mean realized) were deeply impacted by 9-11. The fact that there’s a lot of lazy or glib Zeitgeist crit doesn’t mean that a well-handled argument for reflection can’t be deeply illuminating. Michael Wood’s America in the Movies is delightful precisely because he so imaginatively (and stylishly) constructs Hollywood’s vision of America from the plots and images of classic films. Clearly, there can be no myths without the idea of a widely-shared and identity-defining neurosis for the myth to respond to, “enacting an imaginary solution to an authentic dilemma” (xiii).

Wood is up front about a looseness of approach. Still, I’ll take his sort of graceful and creative floundering in the murk of interpretation any day over the parsing of weekend grosses. What’s the point of falsifiability if there’s nothing worth falsifying?


* “The net,” Bordwell writes in “In Critical Condition, “is just as hospitable to the long piece” (59) as to the short. But to say that the critical essay “can develop new depth of the web” begs the question of what forces within the culture would move us in this direction—or what about the technology itself would predispose us to it. It’s really a question of audience: that college-educated, curious public for which the critical essay is ostensibly written. Perhaps, in an age where even intellectuals complain about their shrinking and divided attentions, it’s quixotic to expect there will be a broad readership for the web-based critical essay. I don’t know.

In my assertion that the short (but not the fluffy) still dominates web writing almost a decade after “In Critical Condition,” I’m using a benchmark familiar to me: the word length limits for submissions to literary journals. The vast majority of electronic journals set very low word limits, and I’ve watched word limits in traditional journals (some of which have gone entirely on-line, others of which have added on-line content for shorter pieces) erode as well. There are of course exceptions that prove the rule: some journals have begun satellite publications sites for longer work, and scant few journals have been founded to provide a forum for longer work (many of them are print-only). The reasons seem obvious to me: electronic submissions have increased the overall number of submissions journal editors have to read; reading on-line is not the same as reading on paper; and, yes, it might just be true that the net has contributed to the shrinking and atomizing of our attention and ability to focus over long periods.

** I even came to wonder, based on how the book was produced, whether the publishers had taken less care because, well, it’s a blog anyway. But I think it’s less a matter of oversight than unclarity about how to transmute a blog into a book—as though the problem was the (mistaken) decision to retain something of the blogginess, to create a hybrid print form. So the font is wonky in the block quotes; some of the pictures are unclearly signaled; section transitions are unappealing, at least to my eye; the “David here” and “Kristin here” salutations from the web feel tacky. These are minor issues, perhaps, but seem symptomatic of the broader one. The decision to include urls in the addenda is also odd. Ah, maybe for the Kindle version they’re useful. Perhaps they figure the only people who buy this as a book rather than reading the blog itself will be pre-net dinosaurs, so they set out to make it look like … a TRS-80?

† 8. 11.17. Since posting, I’ve had some misgivings about this paragraph, and I thought it more logical to addend (?) than to revise. It could be argued that the classic models for analyzing plot are simply too much common knowledge to require a backwards nod. Likely true. I think what bothered me was the impression that (1) Hollywood’s storytelling “norms” are somehow indigenous to Hollywood, and (2) the addition of a “fourth act” to the three-act structure propounded by screenwriting guides is somehow without precedent. Exposition, Complicating Action, Development, and Climax, with an optional fifth part, Epilogue? This is almost identical in conception and language to the most traditional narrative model; the sole difference seems to be that the complication, which jump-starts the narrative in the classic model, is dilated. It would have been easy enough to add a qualifying phrase like “re-introduces and revises elements of classic narrative structure” or “elongates the complication of the traditionally-conceived short story,” or something like that. I should note that Bordwell mentions a couple of academic texts by he and Thompson where their ideas on narrative structure are more fully fleshed out; it’s possible that the fuller engagement with narrative models I’m asking for is included there. But it seems yet more important to provide such context for a lay audience. And so, again: blogs and books, books and blogs.

As for the tussle between episodic and “tightly-woven” narratives, Bordwell rightly notes the difference is one of degree, not kind; I have the feeling the argument would soon decay into haggling over the degree of the slope of the left-hand side of the plot triangle. For an author (a literary one) who has claimed spectacle must be nominally integrated into plot to have value, see Umberto Eco, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. (I think so, anyway. It must be twenty years since I read it, and I got rid of the book. Enschuldigung.)

Samson in Old Kentucky

One of the nicest things about that aspect of academic labor called sabbatical is the opportunity to re-connect with intellectual passions abandoned at the gates of the dark, Satanic mills of paper-grading that come to define one’s working life, at least at a community college. For me, this has meant time to go back to reading (among other things) film history, theory, and criticism, and to do so in a less focused, less disciplined way than the tenure-clock crunch of a decade ago had permitted.

Lary May’s The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago UP, 2000) was one of the first texts I pulled off the shelf. Here, May, a professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, argues against the prevailing view of classic Hollywood as a Frankfurt school-style machine churning out standardized product to “promote the ideals of liberal capitalism and classlessness, […] a false consciousness that took spectators’ attention away from issues of class inequality and cultural experimentation” (258-9). Instead, May proposes a cyclical, consumer-driven model, where “audiences at key historical moments … disrupt the production system and compel studios to alter their films in response to market demand” (260). The “key historical moment” here is the Great Depression, and a good half of May’s study is given over to analyzing how the ’30s created conditions that favored socially progressive narratives: as faith in the virtues of American capitalism reached a nadir, films reflected the new Zeitgeist by portraying a more democratic, cooperative, inclusive, and collectivist vision of the country. These conditions would in turn disappear around the hierarchical, paternalist, and individualist orthodoxy that emerged around World War II and McCarthyism; while the appearance of figures like Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando in the early-to-mid ’50s were harbingers of the ruptures of the following decade, when the industry once again found itself on the defensive (see, for example, Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls).

Perhaps the chief reason for the disparity between May’s conclusion and the “standard” reading of classic Hollywood is methodology. For the oft-cited Classical Hollywood System, for example, the authors (David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristen Thompson) examined “over a hundred” films of the period (in their case, 1900-1950)—a drop in the bucket of the total number of films produced in that half-century, and “not strictly a random” drop at that (Bordwell et al., qtd. in May 259). Such a narrow and selective pool, May notes, cannot hope to be representative. May opts instead for a broad examination of plot digests that appeared in the trade publication Motion Picture Herald. This allows him to get a more panoramic view of the period, and quantitatively analyze the rise and fall of particular ideological elements: “Films Featuring Big Business Villains,” “Films Featuring Progressive Reform of Society,” and so on, neatly encapsulated in the line and bar graphs that make up one of the book’s appendices.

If I am (politically speaking) ambivalent about May’s thesis—I am as satisfied to imagine a lost Marxist halcyon in the heart of the Hollywood machine as I am to imagine Tinseltown as a Sherman tank festooned with the skulls of Leftists—I am equally ambivalent about his methodology. Panoramic it is … but also, by necessity, so much the less detail-focused. For, just as one cannot confidently generalize about a historical period from a statistically insignificant and selective pool, so one cannot do any more than a car-window reading of a small percentage of the thousands of films canvassed for The Big Tomorrow. (May lists around 200 titles in his index, the majority of which get a passing mention.) This may be unnecessary to grab hold of the Zeitgeist. But it does make me wonder what got left out. The devil, after all, is in those details.

Not that I was expecting miracles. May himself concedes that “racist imagery, themes of liberal individualism, and backward-looking symbols [continued to] appear in major films” of the period (259-60). That acknowledged, I wondered just how much the progressivism May spotlights would shine through. On which issues might the challenges to mainstream American ideology be most thoroughly and radically expressed? On which would it remain shackled to the existing ideology? And how and where would the challenges as presented be neutralized or otherwise folded back into a narrative supportive of the ideology, as per Bordwell et al.’s thesis? (None of what follows, by the way, is intended to diminish May’s overall achievement. The Big Tomorrow is essential reading for anyone interested in the connections between twentieth-century American culture and politics. The chapter on the changing architecture of movie theaters alone is worth the whole book.)


The poster-boy for May’s 1930s is Will Rogers, on whom May lavishes a full and fascinating chapter. Rogers is a figure entirely lost, I think, to members of the post-baby boom generations of Americans to which I belong. Perhaps this is because he died in 1935, and never got to start a fast food franchise. Or perhaps the reasons are more political. Rogers, born to mestizo Cherokees in Oolagah, the Indian territory of Oklahoma, was an unabashed progressive and spokesperson for indigenous rights. From a modest beginning in Wild West shows at the turn of the century, the “Cherokee cowboy” climbed the vaudeville circuit to the Ziegfeld follies, and then went on to become one of the most powerful and beloved entertainers in the country—the sort who gave radio addresses listened to by millions of Americans, starred in some of the most popular Hollywood films of the day, and hobnobbed with the likes of FDR (May 24-5). One of his best-known quips, “My ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower—they met the boat” (qtd. in May 13), was actually emblazoned on a mural in the lobby of the Will Rogers theater in Chicago. If this seems incredible today, it is probably because we can no longer conceive of the vast majority of the “average men” Rogers championed recognizing its legitimacy.

Interestingly, biographers have often regarded Rogers as a regressive American mythmaker, one who “helped the nation’s fundamental institutions escape [the Depression] unscathed by the attempts to keep alive the myth and proverbial fantasy of a mobile and classless society” (Bergman, We’re In the Money, qtd. in May 13). May argues that Rogers was far more subversive than his biographers give him credit for. Invoking sociologist Craig Calhoun’s concept of “a radicalism of tradition”—one framed by the “effort to save institutions undermined by an untrammeled market and explotive power relations” (14)—May contends that Rogers “used th[e] backward-looking myth not to promote, but to undermine the status quo” (28). The chief “myth” here is the frontier, the image of the ideal American republic, “free of aristocracy and monopoly” (14). In addition, Rogers drew on Cherokee tradition to invoke a more inclusive vision of this “producers’ democracy” than the inherited Anglo-Saxon fantasy of an exclusively white frontier civilization raised up on land cleared of “savages.”

Based on my own small, biased sample of Rogers movies mentioned in The Big Tomorrow, I can certainly see May’s point, at least where social class is concerned. The pompous wealthy get skewered; the meritorious poor triumph; collective action by diverse characters saves the day. At the same time, it’s difficult not to think how easily these stories, at least considered in such broad strokes, fold back into the mythology of capitalism, which, it seems to me, celebrates democracy and the average man to the same degree that it undermines the one and destroys the livelihood of the other.

On the subject of race, these films, like other films of the period, are more ambivalent.* May hedges more here; he acknowledges that it strains credulity to figure Rogers’s films as progressive on race, given the prevalence of minstrel actors like Stepin Fetchit and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; but he still asserts Rogers’s films “undermined stereotypical goals and purposes, opening the way for alternative race relations” (35). Perhaps the issue is less about race in general than African Americans in particular. For, while it is true that Rogers’s underdog-oriented films would have appealed to the increasingly diverse populations of the cities, it is also true that these groups were paying the “wages of whiteness” as they found their way to the American middle class. The history of African American class mobility is more complicated.

Part of the ambivalence of Rogers’s screen persona vis-à-vis race surely stems from his own conflicted and complex heritage. In the mid-19th century, Cherokees—one-third of whom were of mixed blood—grew cash crops using slaves (May 19-20). Given the American government’s history of Indian relations, and the fact that the Trail of Tears was hardly twenty years old at the outbreak of the Civil War, it is hardly surprising that more than half of Cherokees chose to fight on the side of the Confederacy (20). Will, then, was the product of as contradictory an inheritance as the “Cherokee cowboy” he portrayed. Hence his ease at playing the white southerner or southwestern frontiersman: the captain in Steamboat ‘Round the Bend (1935), the horse trainer in In Old Kentucky (1935), the title characters in Doctor Bull (1933) and Judge Priest (1934). Though audiences would have been well aware of the “mixed blood” that Rogers often touted in his columns and radio addresses, he could “pass” for white in his screen roles.** Such was hardly an option for Fetchit, Rogers’s sidekick in Steamboat and Priest.

By and large these are Rogers formula films as May defines it. In Judge Priest, for example, young lovers divided by social class (Priest’s nephew Jerome (‘Rome), a newly-minted lawyer, and the beautiful but unsuitably orphaned “girl next door,” Ellie May) suffer at the hands of pompous aristocratic elites from the “best families” (Priest’s sister Caroline, a Daughter of the Confederacy; senator and prosecutor Horace Maydew, who May helpfully notes looks like Herbert Hoover). Rogers, as a beneficent widower, spends the movie playing matchmaker, working to heal a divided community, humorously throwing wrenches into the gears of privilege, and generally manipulating town affairs with Dickensian aplomb. When, at the film’s conclusion, defendant Bob Gillis is revealed to be not just a former chain-gang member, but also a hero of the Confederacy and Ellie May’s father (who has also secretly been supporting her education), the marriage is suddenly sanctioned—and Caroline, the main impediment to the union, descends on the girl with the words, “Can’t you see this child needs a mother?” So opposites are joined, balance restored, “alliances forged across groups” (33): genteel and working-class, dispossessed daughter of the Confederacy and Northern-trained lawyer, city and country.

Unlike Steamboat, however, in Priest race is difficult to ignore. Set in 1890, an apparently better, vanished time in the border state of Kentucky, it is a full-tilt sentimentalization of the Old South. Priest mourns for his dead wife and children; and given that he sees the former in a vision in full antebellum regalia, himself in an officer’s uniform, and that his deceased son is named Robert E. (Lee, that is, whose image graces the back wall of the courtroom), it is difficult not to see them as stand-ins for the Old South as a whole. (That the gilding is coming off their picture is a more ambiguous signifier.) In fact, the entirety of the narrative revolves around the War: from the chorus of cuddly Confederate veterans full of romantic pride in the Lost Cause—and for some of whom the war isn’t ended, let alone lost—to the veterans’ benefit that serves as the movie’s centerpiece, to the Memorial Day parade that ends it, Priest marching right out in front with the Stars and Bars waving over his head.

Not that Judge Priest is devoid of irony. Clearly, Caroline Priest and Horace Maydew are the main targets of the film; Priest’s slouch and stutter are their dramatic antithesis. But the vets, the “average men” of Rogers’s pantheon, are mostly buffoons—cuddly ones, but buffoons nonetheless. Nor does Priest himself, credited with being an exemplar of “tolerance and wisdom,” escape ridicule. He first appears in the pre-credit sequence hidden behind the funny papers, which he only lowers to bang his gavel and call order at the camera (settling, we assume, spectators talking or finding their seats). Later in the film, Priest scares off a potential competitor (the sleazy town barber) for Ellie May’s hand by hiding behind the bushes and faking a conversation between himself and Jeff (Stepin Fetchit) to make it seem the girl’s father is coming after the barber with a gun. While the captions “clarify” this as Priest alternating between “imitating Jeff” and using his “normal voice,” the latter is hardly normal: his caricatured “judge” is closer to Maydew’s voice than his own.

Of course, the humor about Priest and the “average men” of the jury is a good deal gentler than that used to skewer the local aristocracy: the funny papers, the spittoon, the practical joke, these are peccadilloes that presumably mirror the film audience’s. And that’s the point: insofar as Judge Priest grazes the myth of the Old South, or at least Old Kentucky, it does so, it seems, only to more firmly entrench it.

Like Caroline and the Maydews, Fetchit’s Jeff Pointdexter is the butt of almost every scene where he appears. Mumbling, bumbling, lazy and thieving, he effectively condenses every negative stereotype about blacks into a single screen persona, as Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro so powerfully reminds us. But there is an ambivalence about Fetchit here, too—and it’s not just that his brilliant physical comedy shines through the degrading persona. In the opening scene of the film, for example, Jeff is on trial for chicken stealing. While the prosecutor drones and Priest reads the comics, he sleeps. When the judge’s turn comes, Priest reminds the jury of veterans that they have stolen food before—during the war, when a corrupt officer denied them their provisions. Later in the scene, when Jeff mentions that he had been fishing, Priest invites him up to the bench. Fetchit tells him how he catches the biggest catfish; the scene fades to a bucolic image of Priest and Jeff walking off to go fishing together.

Clearly, Jeff as much as Priest is being used here to satirize Maydew, and the way the scene ends suggests an affinity beyond the bluster of the courtroom. But in his brief analysis of the film, May overstates the case when he claims that the judge’s “appeal to common oppression persuades the jury to let the black ‘criminal’ go free” (37). The jury of vets is in disarray, arguing (with Priest as well) about the finer points of battles, and whether there are even any fish in “Sleepy River” at all. It might be intuited that said jury is persuaded; but it is more their dysfunction that predominates than any argument about “common oppression.”

More to the point, Priest’s defense of Jeff is undermined by the narrative: Jeff can’t keep his hands off anything, be it the housekeeper Dilsey’s food, the judge’s raccoon coat, or the bass drum for the Memorial Day parade. The incident with the drum is particularly suggestive, full of subversive potential the movie just can’t cash in on. Though I would love to imagine Jeff sabotaging the Memorial Day parade, and thus the commemoration of the Confederacy (the shot where Fetchit appears with the bass drum directly follows a shot of men arguing that they “can’t have a parade without the drum”), the drum is then used by a group of black musicians to play “Dixie,” just as Priest had asked Jeff to do, and with even more fanfare than he could have expected. Of course, the parade goes on anyway.

The scene where Priest asks Jeff to play “Dixie” is another ambiguous moment, and one that May misrepresents in his text. According to May, Fetchit says that he doesn’t know “Dixie,” but he can play “Marching Through Georgia”: the song, May glosses, that accompanied General Sherman’s pillage of the South (37). Actually, Fetchit says he can play “Dixie” … and he can also play “Marching Through Georgia.” The mixture of deference and defiance is much more consistent with Fetchit’s role throughout the film, obedience spiked with a drop of rebellion, even as, once again, neither character nor narrative can act on it. (It is also much funnier.) Also neglected by May is Priest’s response: “I already saved you from one lynching. You play ‘Marching Through Georgia,’ I’ll join the lynchers.”

The lynching Priest mentions raises another issue. According to May, there should be a scene where Priest rescues Jeff from being lynched, but it was cut from the southern version (37).*** The matter of this missing scene gets knottier, however, as we look more closely at May’s text. May claims that in the censored scene Fetchit “articulates an African American view of history. This happens when the judge asks Fetchit if he can play ‘Dixie’” (37; my emphasis). But the scene where the judge asks Jeff if he can play “Dixie” cannot be the scene where Fetchit “articulates an African American view of history,” at least in the southern version. May’s “this happens” is unclear. Could he mean that Fetchit’s nod to playing “Marching” is his alternative view of history? Perhaps … but that seems to make a mountain out of a molehill. The other possibility is that the version of the film May used (in the Will Rogers Memorial Archives) contains not just a deleted scene, but material rearranged and even re-shot. For only this way can one make sense of May’s point, and even more of what follows. Apparently, a “Southern Lady” complained to Rogers that Priest would “ruin him with the Southern people” because it “portrayed a southern woman entering public life aligned with African Americans. In the past as well as the present, Negroes ‘kept their place as servants’” (38). I have a hard time squaring this criticism with anything that appears in Judge Priest: no Southern woman enters public life in the film; and the “Negroes” don’t just know their place, they positively embrace it. What’s more, one would presume that the “Southern Lady” would have seen the southern cut of the film.

The “Southern Lady” is perhaps indicative of how difficult it is see a film, any film, from the perspective of a different time and culture. While she’s worrying about uppity blacks, one of the few YouTube comments where the film has been made freely available says quite simply what most modern viewers would: “This film is incredibly racist!” Unless the southern version is much more radically altered than just the lynching scene, even in the most generous reading, it is hard to see how Judge Priest “advance[s] … the message” of “bringing black energies and voices into public life” (May 36). There is precious little in the film that suggests anything but a wholehearted embrace of the existing racial order, and never more than the most velvet irony about the War to Save Slavery. By making the chain-gang convict a Confederate hero, the gentility can come under the customary withering scrutiny and fall under the mythical American wheel of merit, progressive reform can be touted (think of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang only a few years earlier), all the while leaving the Cause unscathed … and the virtual re-enslavement of blacks via the chain gang from which Bob Gillis once rode to glory unacknowledged.


By this point, you must be wondering why, on a music blog, I’ve spent so much time talking about movies. Shame on you if you’re not. Not that I haven’t talked about music in film twice before (see “The Interrupted Nocturne,” 12.20.11, and “Silent Movie,” 3.25.11). And I did just mention “Dixie.” So keep your shirt on. This is a long wind(ed)-up, even if I can’t promise the pitch will be all that impressive.

Popular tunes from the parlor canon weave in and out of Judge Priest. A truncated “Dixie” plays over part of the opening credits; at different moments during the veterans’ benefit, snippets of “Dixie,” “Swanee River,” and “Camptown Races” can be heard in the background. This long sequence, however, opens and closes with two scenes where music is foregrounded: a quartet of black housekeepers singing in harmony. They are led by Priest’s housekeeper Dilsey, played by the wonderful Hattie McDaniel. The quintessential Aunt Jemima, Dilsey rolls her eyes and smiles a lot, and she dotes on the judge, at least when she’s not scowling at Fetchit. And she sings while she goes about her work, improvising verses to the tunes of hymns while she hangs the wash or dusts. Based on this profile, the scene-opening number is pretty much what we would expect: the women sing about Jesus “washing [them] white as snow though [they] be black as tar.”

But it is in the closing scene of the party that something else happens. This scene finds the women on the same porch as at the beginning, cleaning up, we might say, the white folks’ mess. As they work, they sing “My Old Kentucky Home.” It appears that the evening’s spoils are quite extensive: slice after slice of leftover cake, and even what appears to be an entire untouched cake, disappear into the housekeepers’ baskets while they sing. Given that they keep blankets over the salvaged food, and only lift them to show their fellow housekeepers, the sense is that there is something illegitimate about the takeaway: perhaps the sheer quantity is unseemly? (Interestingly, in the previous scene, black children can be seen sitting in and among the baskets.) This feeling is reinforced a few moments later, when Priest joins them: first the sound of his voice, then visually, entering the shot from the right. There is a brief moment of concern among the servants, conveyed by their expressions and gestures. And then Priest points to Rome, who he enabled to escape the clutches of the prosecutor’s daughter, enjoying cake with Ellie May. Dilsey responds by showing him what’s in the basket. His expression suggests a mixture of disapproval and collusion—a wink and a nudge. Just as the servants make off with the cake, so Priest gets away with bringing the class-crossed lovers together. Both are working around (and in Priest’s case stealthily upending) the social hierarchy. Of course, the very fact that he sings with the help at all, that he harmonizes with them (the only white character to do so), re-enforces this sense of solidarity and parallel purpose.

The scene yields yet more interesting possibilities when we consider the choice of song itself. It is the Kentucky state song, though apparently many Kentuckians remain unaware of its history. The lyrics, inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, portray a slave lamenting that they and their fellow slaves are to be sold down the river. It is an “antislavery” song … though one where, considered against the horrors of the sugar plantation, slaveholding Kentucky figures as a sort of paradise of benevolent Christian masters and obedient Christian slaves. (One reason many people today don’t know this is that the word “darkies” in the first verse was changed to “people.” In the film, it is “darkies.”)

Combined with the images, the scene is at once funnier and more ambiguous. Does the largesse of the white masters bespeak the paradise of well-fed servants and the stable social hierarchy of Old Kentucky, when the “tolerance and wisdom” of the common-folk white judge reigned? Or does the fact that the servants are singing an antislavery song—however unjustifiably framed—while making off with the spoils of a party meant to commemorate the war efforts of the slaveholding south trump this? I would tend toward the latter. The song itself cannot help but be ironized by the servants’ actions, undermining its pathos: “Weep no more,” they sing, in counterpoint to sneaking looks at all that cake under the blanket, and to the vision of the young lovers having their cake. When Priest’s voice joins the chorus, it sounds discordant—he hasn’t got their voices, and I’m pretty sure his mouth is full—and so he, too, undermines that Kentucky nostalgia which is the narrative’s main engine. Because this is the only moment in the film where Fetchit appears slightly “out of character” (his physical demeanor is different, his attitude more alert—even if he still reaches for cake and gets his hand slapped), I am tempted to say that in this scene, framed by music, Rogers appears as himself, that is, his public persona, not as the character of Judge Priest, and so is free to ironize more trenchantly the nostalgia and sentimentality on which the film (the lost war) and his character (the lonely widower) are based.

There is another possibility for singing together, one deeply connected to the African American song tradition: call and response. This brings me to another key musical moment, the one that made me want to write about this film in the first place. A little context: in the previous scene, Priest, moping on his porch about having been forced to vacate the bench, receives a nighttime visit from the town’s reverend. The latter is just beginning to divulge some great secret with pertinence to the trial when (of course!) we fade to the following morning: a closeup on an envelope with “Justice!” written across it. In the next shot we see Priest bent over a small desk in his foyer, screen right, writing. Dilsey, who we can already hear singing, appears on the left, bustling through, cleaning as she goes. She is not just singing her own pleasure (“happy darkies”), but to cheer up the judge, saying he “needs a toddy” to raise his spirits, improvising words on the melody of a spiritual. Cut to a medium close-up of Priest: without looking up, he chimes in, responding: “Yes, Lord! Yes, Lord!” Dilsey, now in the background, spins around at the sound of his voice, eyes wide. “Tomorrow he’s got to be like Mr Samson,” she sings; and the judge responds: “Saving Daniel [the accused Willis] from the lion’s den.” Dilsey hums the beginning of the verse and repeats the judge’s response: “Saving Daniel from the lion’s den.” “Yes, Lord!” shouts the judge, before returning to the original message: “The Judge sure could use a toddy right now.” “Yes, Judge!” she responds. “Yes, Dilsey!” he responds. And then together: “Soon as I get me some mint.” Dilsey exits; the judge calls Jeff over, and the scene about playing “Dixie” mentioned above ensues.****

What to say about this marvelous scene? There is much less to “read” here, in the traditional sense, than in the scene of the housekeepers singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” True, rather than joining in the singing of a racist state anthem, the judge joins Dilsey in singing a black spiritual. (It reminds me, though it is much less forceful, of that beautiful rhetorical move at the end of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, where he envisions blacks and whites joining together to sing, not a national anthem or patriotic song, but a black spiritual: everybody, James Baldwin might say, has been freed.) And yet, Dilsey is still the loyal, happy servant, the judge her satisfied master; the words they improvise express their ideal economic arrangement: “Dilsey, one toddy, please!” “Yes, Massa! Comin’ right up!” When Dilsey sings, where is the irony Baldwin heard in the blues? Where the undercurrent of sadness Douglass heard in every slave song? Can the white camera, any more than the white characters, hear them?

All true, all true. And yet.

That they sing this exchange makes it different, makes it more than the dialogue as translated into prose above. To say that the dialogue is musical means in part that form, structure, play a special role in creating meaning. In this regard, the order of the exchange and the repetitions are crucial: Dilsey begins; the judge responds; he joins her on the verses; each responds to the other; they conclude in unison. It is as though, in these few moments’ passage through the partially appropriated spiritual, a more genuine connection had been achieved, even a playful equality (yes/yes; unison). I know, that “as though” is a big fudge. And yet. It’s more even than the form or structure imposed by the musical dialogue; it’s the whole affect of the exchange that charges the scene differently, something we apprehend, as musicologists have recently begun to analyze, on a more physiological, less conscious level. Its power, that is, is more in the character and tenor of the exchange than its content. It is partly the sheer pleasure of hearing the two voices pinging off each other, improvising with each other—indeed, the freshness of this scene might be due to Rogers’s penchant for improvising on the scripts (see May 30), though it’s true the two would have needed at least an impromptu rehearsal to make it work. I should add that, on the judge’s end, it is purely carried by the singing voice: he never even looks up from his writing; only Dilsey’s gestures register the exchange.

In his discussion of the way Rogers’s films challenged racial stereotypes, May analyzes a scene from In Old Kentucky where Rogers, his face blackened by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to help him escape from jail, is forced to tap-dance by the sheriff. May notes that “no doubt white viewers had a laugh seeing Will Rogers recreate their old, demeaning racist stereotype. Yet … audiences [also] saw their populist hero subjected to the same class injustice as that faced daily by blacks” (36). Note here the way reactionary racist imagery and progressive class (and potentially racial) politics are fused in a single complex filmic moment. (No such ambiguity saves a blackfaced John Wayne in a similarly “comic” moment in The Spoilers, and I’m sure the examples could be multiplied.) Perhaps it is this “twofoldedness” I am seeing in the equally musical moments from Judge Priest, where once again music (and gesture, that is, dance) enables a second layer to appear, a constellation of meaning and feeling, over and above the story, over and above the spoken or sung content; one that subverts, either through ironic comment or culturally-proscribed affect. And perhaps, considered more broadly, the idea of performance can help salvage some of the other ironies in Judge Priest. If, as noted above, judge as much as prosecutor are unmasked as social roles, if Rogers can caricature himself as judge as well as Fetchit in dialogue … why not all the social labels that divide and hierarchize, race among them?


It can be hard going, watching a lot of classic Hollywood: the combination of wide-eyed naivete, grotesque racism, and misogyny can really wear you down. I wonder sometimes if the sorts of moments that attracted me to Judge Priest are enough to recuperate a body of filmmaking defined by contrived solutions to entrenched class disparities, thoughtless racism (is there another kind?), and the ability to turn strong women to quivering masses of jelly in under two hours. Moments of formal beauty that crop up in even the most negligible films, where the camera speaks in spite of the story, even perhaps in spite of itself. Moments of inspired performance. Things that can be separated, and held above, the flow of the narrative, and so undermine it, challenge it, put quotations around it, or breathe unexpected, unwarranted life into it. It is not at all surprising to me that music would have a role in constructing some of these transcendent moments. I think, for example, of the way music, or even just sound, irrupts into the realistic fabric of the novels of E.M. Forster, imbuing them with a spectral, irrational power—from the opera that bifurcates Where Angels Fear to Tread, his first and least accomplished novel, to the episode in the Marabar caves in his final, masterful A Passage to India. Where Hollywood is concerned, perhaps we could braid such moments together, and refer to them as an unofficial, secret history. Beauty. Hardly enough to redeem a culture, a nation. But enough to give a little hope.


* To cite one non-Rogers example: it may be true that Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) “challenged miscegenation codes” by having its white sailors intermarry with Polynesian women (93), and that Clark Gable’s “swarthy” features no longer relegated him to playing gangster roles, but rather the pre-eminent cinema hero of the ‘30s, now with a tinge of titillating darkness (83). (This latter point is a good demonstration of how May’s deep knowledge of the period adds brilliant nuances to his discussions.) But how far, finally, is the white men marrying Polynesian women of Bounty from the constitutive white male fantasy of the exotic, erotic other. Melville’s Typee jumps immediately to mind; even in the 1840s, the novel was attacked more for its anti-missionary digressions than its eroticism. (It was also a bestseller.) Needless to say, English women marrying Polynesian men would have presented a different matter entirely. The film is somewhat more suggestive in its treatment of social class, as the mutineers prepare to found a Pacific island utopia at the film’s end.

** I recognize that the question of how Rogers’s ethnicity was perceived and processed by audiences is complex, something I can’t really give justice to here, but I hope that some of the later comments in this post obliquely address this.

*** The Judge Priest page of Turner Classic Movies’ website sheds a contradictory light on the question of the widely available version. According to TCM, the lynching scene was cut from all versions of the release, because the studio felt it didn’t sit well with the tone of the film as a whole. Apparently, the scene included Rogers rescuing a falsely accused Fetchit from lynching, and then an anti-lynching speech by Priest. If this was indeed the only deletion, and the scene remains in the version held at the Will Rogers Memorial Archive, then my comments above remain. I should add that Ford made another film based on the Judge Priest character in 1953, The Sun Shines Bright, in which the issue of lynching is restored to the narrative.

**** Michael Rogin eruditely connects Judge Priest to the minstrel tradition and American history in Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (California UP, 1996). Rogin notes that “Dixie” was once played by black minstrel troupes “to protect them from white violence”; here, it is “enlisted for racial harmony.” The hymn about Daniel in the lion’s den is similarly re-appropriated, with the poor, white Bob Gillis taking the place of the oppressed slave. Given the depth of Rogin’s scholarship, it is all the more remarkable that he misrepresents the musical episodes discussed above: the scene of Priest singing with the housekeepers on the porch and with Dilsey at home are conflated (or Rogin doesn’t care enough to distinguish them), and the call-and-response scene is distorted. I have to acknowledge that Rogin, like May, is working to synthesize many more elements than I could ever hope to, based on a much broader knowledge of the period. He might argue that the mischaracterized and/or elided details are irrelevant to his argument. Indeed, it is impossible to do the intellectual work of synthesis these two scholars do without sacrificing an enormous amount of specificity along the way. And yet … I think a comment of Simon Frith’s from Performing Rites, which I also read recently, is partly applicable to film, and germane to this post: if we are to “understand” music in anything other than the theoretical perspective of key changes and intervals, description is absolutely key.

Flesh Against Steel

Carcass’s Surgical Steel is one of the best metal records of the century.

Man, it feels good to say that. So good, in fact, that I fret I am being too conservative. Instead, I should go the whole hog, and proclaim Surgical Steel one of the great metal albums of all time … ignoring the inconvenient fact that metal has only been around for the tiniest sliver of recorded time, let alone all time. In fact, were the entire history of the human species, represented by a hair’s breadth at the end of the 360-foot-long Cosmic Pathway at the American Museum of Natural History, expanded to cover the distance of the entire Cosmic Pathway, the history of rock music would amount to just ten times that—the breadth of ten hairs!*

Of course, this should hardly make rock feel small, or metal smaller, since Beethoven, Petrarch, and even Homer don’t do noticeably better measured against deep time. So let’s drop all time and get back to the quasi-human scale.

Once upon a time, in the latter days of the twentieth century, you were only allowed to speak in the arbitrary shorthand of decades—“the greatest albums of the nineties,” “the indispensible records of the seventies,” and so on. And in the first decade of the twenty-first, you couldn’t claim anything was the “best of the century” without tongue firmly in cheek. You could, of course, more circumspectly call something “the first great record of the twenty-first century,” as though you were starting a collection of the New Century’s Great Things, and you had just gotten to put your first shiny new Great Thing in your Great Things Box, while simultaneously jettisoning everything that came before.

We are, however, living in the latter half of the second decade of this new century. Why shrink back under the flaccid umbrella of decades, and, using the much-too-silly rubrics of the “oughties” or “teenies,” pick yet another list of best albums to match yours for the nineties et al.? Why, when you have a whole new century at your disposal, and sixteen years of it behind you? Indeed, what could be more sublimely brash, more brilliantly arrogant, than sweeping judgments about a century whose second half you will never even “see,” except maybe as a pickled head, or a microchip onto which your “brain” has been downloaded?

This is a golden window, my friends. An opportunity not to be missed. Think about it: in 2019, the fiftieth anniversary of Black Sabbath will poison any best-of-new-century claims regarding metal, because everything will have to be considered in terms of metal’s hemi-centennial. By 2030, everyone will have forgotten about Y2K (huh?) and how it felt when the millennial odometer switched from 1-9-9-9 to 2-0-0-0. Then, as the century rolls forward toward 2050 (gasp!), and we approach rock’s first centenary, all new records of whatever genre will be measured against Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Stones and Who—not Judas Priest, not Metallica; certainly not Cradle of Filth.

Ergo. It’s of the utmost importance to squeeze in the most grandiose claims you can about your favorite new metal records in the next two years or so, before the inexorable march of generic time renders them obsolete.


Having placed Surgical Steel in one corner of my Great Things of the New Century box, the time has come to admire it. Go ahead, pick it up. Turn it in the light; run your thumb along its edge.

Ah, but Carcass is anything but a new band, or any sort of flagship for a rising genre in a new century. They’re old hat. Vintage. Okay, putrescent.§ We should talk about this.

Where metal is concerned, a few spots in my Great Things box must be reserved for so-called “comeback” records. Metal, after all, is a comeback genre. 1995, as Carcass frontman Jeff Walker declared at the band’s Gramercy Theater show last August, was “the year metal died.” (An exaggeration; but then such a tendency to mythologize is the very stuff of metal.) While emerging genres fed on its rejuvenating remains, metal was recouping its un-dead energies by feeding on the blood of those genres (how insidious, pilfering the necrophage graverobber!), as well as the flesh and bones of dead ones … including its own (how repulsive, this necrophagy-as-autophagy, this masturbatory cannibalism!). If Simon Reynolds is correct that popular culture in the new century has been played entirely in “the key of re-” (to use my old lit theory prof Henry Staten’s mnemonic for the postmodern), the re-surgence of metal was inevitable—not simply because everything comes back, but because the conservatism and tradition-worship for which the genre has been both lauded and criticized would, in the context of today’s cultural retro-faddism, suddenly seem dorkily avant-garde (or arriere-garde, as Reynolds quips).

Of course, valorizing the intrageneric past is only one part of the equation; the other parts—a scissors-and-paste attitude toward the past-as-text, and the ironic distance that accompanies it—have traditionally sat less easily with the genre. But then metal is a different genre today than it was twenty years ago, and the past is a different past: less a series of begats than an amorphous blob which, Reynolds cautions us, threatens to gobble up the present … and future.

Regardless, as a new generation of fans has taken advantage of the opportunity to explore metal’s back catalogs, so they have provided the opportunity for a number of older bands to reboot their careers. Metalographer Ian Christe traces metal’s return to the Black Sabbath reunion at the end of last century. The reappearance of some of the more successful extreme metal acts from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, however, probably owes more to the galvanic shock provided by the thrash revival that peaked in the mid-to-late oughts. That the window of the revival appears to be closed† (occasional drafts notwithstanding) has hardly deterred a resurgent old guard from continuing to release records and/or tour with a relentlessness reminiscent of their peak years.

Among comeback records, Surgical Steel is something of an anomaly, and not only because it arrived so late in the game, after much hemming and hawing on the band’s part. With few exceptions (e.g., Anthrax’s Worship Music), comeback records tend to carry a whiff of formaldehyde, some faint, some strong enough to knock you down. And the revival stuff, good as it sometimes gets (Municipal Waste’s Hazardous Mutation and Art of Partying are probably the most lasting), still can’t help smelling a bit like something just taken out of the shrinkwrap. But Steel is all fresh maggotry: evidence of flesh well-ripened, as though the band were waiting, like forensic entomologists, to see what exactly would crawl out of their putrid hearts and jellied brains after almost two decades of delicious decay.

As much a mystery is why it landed in my lap, because this old-fart metalhead/one-time Fangoria intern never listened to Carcass in their gorelicious heyday. Even though my interest in underground metal peaked just as Carcass were appearing, they never made it onto my radar. Then, when Metallica shat themselves and the genre blew itself into shrapnel, I—like so many of the faithless in that apostate time—moved on: greedily lapping up Pantera and the occasional strong offering from Slayer and Testament, but otherwise listening to grunge and Tool and other Lollapalooza-sanctioned alt-musics, when I was listening to new rock at all. The deathiest I ever got was “cusp” bands like Demolition Hammer, and a few Deicide songs on a mix.

“What is the sword compared to the hand that wields it?” James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom.

But such is the logic of the retro-century that Carcass and I would cross paths in our respective middle ages. I bought Steel on a whim, mostly because I saw it on somebody’s year-end best-of list (year, as opposed to decade, century, or planetary lifespan): somebody with more time, energy, new-music ADD, and/or record-industry freebies than I’ve ever had or wanted. And it was the great strength of Steel that hurtled me headlong into the flesh of early Carcass, as though to test Thulsa Doom’s great axiom, “Steel is strong; but flesh is stronger.” And if such a counter-temporal history feels twisted, I wonder how twisted it really is, in this age when so much old music is so readily available, when crowds at metal shows tend to run the gamut of generations, and when chronology, history, and to a certain extent community have been replaced by business-dominated algorithms of marketing and consumption. What follows, then, is partly about Carcass, yes; but it is as much about this Borgesian encounter with a parallel musical past, and what such retroactive discoveries mean for the way we hear and value music.


Seeing Carcass at the Gramercy last August was anything but a typical clubgoing experience for me. In general, for the much-loved older bands I go see in their various reunited and resurrected guises, I can put on the thousand-yard stare and talk with other old fans about having been in The Shit (= the pit at the old L’amours) back in The Eighties (= the decade which is to metal what the ‘60s is to rock as a whole; in the terms of the old Scholastic Aptitude Test, rock:’60s::metal:’80s). This is true even when part of the bill is occupied, as it so often is, and was, by a band or bands whose music I know/knew only tangentially—songs on a mixed tape someone made for me, or songs that got radio play on the college metal station WSOU (Jer-sey!), or even a video.

Given my age, then, I should have been the old Carcass fan getting his new live Carcass fix. This would have been the assumption made by most people seeing me, bald and Voivod-T’d. But by actual knowledge of the band, I was much closer to the people there half my age, whose contact with the older material would more likely be mediated by the “comeback” record. But then again, I would not hear Carcass like they did, since my formative experiences with the genre would have been much closer to those of the people there twice their age. A weird, twinned position to occupy, like I’d been split it two, but belonged nowhere: to both “halves” of the crowd, I was a fraud, a … poseur.

And yet. Still and all? It’s nice to see the good people of the kingdom of metal, even when you feel like something of an exile.

The Gramercy show was at least Carcass’s third time in the U.S. since Steel’s release. St. Vitus had sold out, as usual, and the second time around they had skipped New York. This tour, dubbed “One Foot in the Grave,” was supported by younger’uns Ghoul and Night Demon, and old-schoolers Crowbar. Jesus, Crowbar! Even they were closer to me than Carcass, if barely; I remembered a few sludgy tunes from back in the day, and pictures of a girthy man in big shorts and high-tops. And there he was! the girthy man of my youth, just grayer and maybe balder, with a second girthy man right beside him, as though from meiosis, both of them sporting Duck Dynasty beards (I know, too easy) and stomping around the stage like Japanese movie monsters. They played exactly the sort of plodding, pummeling, tuned-down music for which I vaguely remembered them; a sort of literalization of their name, so that name, look, performance, and music all cohere and flatten around the same blunt-force ethos.

At the merch tables after the set—what with four bands, there was merch spillover into the lounge—I noticed that Crowbar’s frontman (Kirk Windstein) actually has a Crowbar tattoo on the back of his neck. The placement suggests he understands the connection between the back of his neck and mortality; for it is true that I could have told his age by counting the rolls there, like tree-rings. But then on a tour of fogeys dubbed One Foot in the Grave, headlined by a dis- and (fondly) re-membered band named Carcass, mortality is by default a central theme. All those stale jokes about getting old, for example: as metal ages, and the retro-generation gives more and more old bands the opportunity to re-enter the circle, such comments are bound to become as much part of a show as headbanging. Of course, this being metal, bands tend to dramatize aging’s effects on the body in a way I just can’t imagine, say, the Stones do. Windstein, for example, bitched about (a) baldness and (b) shitting himself (not that he had shit himself, but he figured it was coming down the pike). Later, Carcass’s Walker, to goad the crowd louder, used the old saw that his hearing wasn’t so good anymore. And when, after steaming through a raft of great new material, he announced that they were going back to the early ‘90s, he dubbed it “granddad music.”Ω Again, such feints to the vicissitudes of the flesh are of a piece not just with Carcass’s music, but the genre as a whole: since bones are reverenced and tradition venerated in metal in a way that always set it apart from many other rock genres (at least, used to)—since “dinosaur” means not “passe” but “awesome”—all such comments, while apparently self-deprecating, serve as backhanded appeals to authority, just as much as Crowbar’s announcement that they had been on the road for thirty-six years.

For all the digestive angst and inverse-ironic nods to aging, Carcass were pure presence. A convincing metal act has to appear larger than life—to find a language of the body consummate with the sublimity the music aspires to—and Carcass does this with an effortlessness few bands can match. While Crowbar leveled imaginary skyscrapers, each member of Carcass stayed rooted in his particular quadrant; rather than moving, he expanded to fill it. Walker, front and center, encircled his mic in classic bassist/vocalist horse-stance (think Lemmy, or Ron Royce of the old Swedish thrashers Coroner), pointing his axe at us now and again in emulation of Father (Steve) Harris. He even turned it upside-down, like a pistol in a Tarrantino movie. I only wondered at the fan that blew on him for the duration of the show, occasionally turning him into a travesty of Fabio, or a transvestite Pippy Longstocking. From the sublime to …

I spent as much or more time watching Steer (Steer! what choice did the man have but to become the guitarist in a band that would one day sing the horrors of the abattoir?), Carcass’s other founding half, thrashing away to Walker’s left. A Perpetual Thrashing Machine he was, and the perfect complement to Walker’s Colossal Pyramid. It wasn’t regulation headbanging, but rather that horse-head-swinging that even better communicates the abandon of the music: face obscured by his blond hair, shirt half-open, skinny arms working away … it is older and deeper than thrash, older even than metal, though for me it finds its iconic representation in my memory of Ozzy’s Jake E. Lee.

At one point during the show, Walker informed security that it was okay for people to take pictures. “We don’t wear corpse paint or make-up,” he said. On the one hand, the typical metal appeal to authenticity. And yet, what was Walker saying but we look our age? He might as well have quoted that old quatrain, “Remember me now …” for those younger fans looking into the mirror of the music.‡ There was neither the urge to cheat death nor to represent it as a mask.

To be death: that is a different thing. That is Carcass.


But art defeats death, time’s handmaiden, does it not? I could, and probably should, write about Carcass’s career backwards, beginning with Steel, which, in my inverted listening history, acts as a template for everything that came before it, with every other Carcass record refracted through it. After all, a comeback record is only a comeback record if one comes to it with the expectations created by earlier fandom. Perhaps this helps explains why Carcass felt so present to me at the Gramercy, beyond, that is, simply the mechanics of putting on a great show, and despite the plethora of icons through which I was helpless but to see them.

With the exception of Steel, though, my impression of each individual Carcass record is contaminated as much by the ones that followed as the ones previous. Versus the one-to-two year wait between records that generally characterizes a band’s output in their historical moment, I heard Carcass’s entire early ouevre for the first time almost concurrently, and without consideration as to their historical order. To me, though they are differently dated, they are all contemporary with each other, embedded together in a spatial matrix, like coffins in a graveyard. Or, to use a better (if less Carcassian) figure: a wheel, with Steel at the hub, and the earlier records at the ends of the spokes. As such, while acknowledging that Steel acts as my hidden lens, I could, like a good historian, re-impose chronology, try to trace causes and effects, untangle threads of development, and so on. Thus:

Listening to Carcass’s early records in chronological order is a little like watching silt settle in a pool. At first you can barely make out the objects beneath the surface; little by little they resolve themselves, until, by Heartwork (1993), they have achieved a pristine clarity. No, wait: I’ve fallen out of genre again. What on the early records sounds like a mess of undifferentiated organs—a sound that finds its visual analog in the collage that adorns Symphonies of Sickness’s (1989) record sleeve (the collage, that staple of metal record sleeves, which usually features pix of the band on stage, hanging out with friends, etc., shows instead mangled flesh and body parts: flesh-as-collage), becomes, with Necrotism (1991), autopsy and anatomy lesson. By Heartwork, the technologies of the body and of death, the body-as-machine and machine-as-body, have replaced gore as the band’s overarching metaphor, a shift captured in both tighter music and scrubbed production. From charnel house and churchyard to the dis-assembly lines of the pathology lab and abattoir, Carcass’s breakneck evolution reads like a history of Western attitudes toward death and the body. This is also evident in the albums’ cover art: from the cartoonish flesh-orgies of Reek and Sickness to Heartwork’s eerily bloodless conflation of the surgical, prosthetic, and anatomical. In this regard, Steel’s abandonment of the body for an aesthetic of the instrument, captured in its disturbingly devotional cover (pic above left), completes the trajectory begun in the late ‘80s—one reason, perhaps, that Steel is sometimes regarded as the long-deferred “true” follow-up to Heartwork, with Swansong (1995) indicative of the band’s—and the genre’s—demise.

How to define Carcass’s early sound? On Reek through Necrotism, gruelly and tinny on the high end, sludgy on the low; more grate than crunch, more Exodus or Megadeth than Metallica, yet much more tuned-down and unpolished than American thrash had deigned to be. Reek stands on the cusp of impenetrability, and even Sickness is in constant danger of slipping into its own murk. These first two records actually sound filthy, like the aural equivalent of trying to look at something through dirty glass. The vocals, which split thrash’s mid-range into the extremes of high-end hiss and incantatory guttural accompaniment, sound unnervingly close to an imagined black liturgy; at other times, like somebody retching—an absolutely nauseating sound. But to lump the two together is a disservice to Sickness, which expands Reek’s one-to-two minute blurts into three-to-five minute statements—and highly unpredictable statements at that, with shifting tempos and riffs metastasizing from riffs. The overall murkiness of production probably abets Sickness’s unstructured, chaotic feel, like the effect of poor light on a pattern: part bleeds into part, and recapitulations become difficult to recognize.

The eeriness and brutality of Sickness remain largely intact on Necrotism—vocally, in the guttural voice that shadows Walker’s, and in the ranting of Walker’s own, which obeys less a song’s rhythms than its own rabid logic; musically, in an even greater reliance on riff-metastasis and rhythmic instability. But Necrotism is a much more musical album than Sickness, balancing excess with greater precision (both instrumental and in terms of production), and expanding song structures into rambling suites that sometimes top the seven minute mark. They are full of false doors and non-endings; songs seem to be rising to a conclusion, with the (unexpected) re-introduction of an earlier theme, say—and then another riff will appear, another lead—the rhythm will shift a few times under said riff—and then, boom, the whole thing abruptly collapses. Thematic inventiveness and quasi una fantasia (oscura!) organization are not the only ways Necrotism broadens Sickness’s palette; there is also greater attention to texture and color: (brief) passages of undistorted guitar and effects-massaged production, and guitar harmonies redolent of the NWOBHM that Carcass had written off in the late ‘80s.

The shift from Necrotism to Heartwork is generally regarded as the most dramatic in the band’s history: a reversal of aesthetic priorities, a right-angle turn from the linear development of the first three records. Many of the songs are whittled to traditional verse-chorus-bridge structure, with introductory themes returning to fill one or another role. They also have more (and more obvious) hooks; this is a Carcass album you walk around humming. The tendrils reaching back to NWOBHM and thrash are more obvious; the sound is crunchier; and the guttural vocal accompaniment has disappeared. But as the words “more” and “many” in much of the above signal, the difference is—like the difference between Sickness and Necrotism—more one of degree than of kind. While overall slower and more controlled, Heartwork shares with its predecessor rhythmic flux (less intense, but present), athletic musicianship, and melodic inventiveness. Conversely, it is possible to see in Necrotism (if perhaps only through the lens of Heartwork) the beginnings of both a tighter melodic imagination and a more disciplined compositional style, the latter directed toward the development of a central theme rather than the willy-nilly appearance of new ones. Lesser bands have been undone in the attempt, and some greater ones as well: many of the bridges on an album as canonical as And Justice For All, for example—like Heartwork, a fourth effort—are dull precisely because Metallica seemed unable to vary or extend their central riffs imaginatively.

As noted, Swansong, while another step in Carcass’s evolution, is mostly a step backwards: the sound of a band in retreat. The lyrical subjects, so much outside Carcass’s typical obsession, sound weirdly incongruous with Walker’s vocal style; and some of the titles, at least, suggest, rather than the reckless fun of children rioting in an open cadaver (intestinal sandbox?), a tired ironizing of their earlier themes (e.g., “Keep On Rotting in the Free World”). Right from the opening arena-rock drum break, and, a few minutes later, the interjection of a cowbell—yes, cowbell—one gets the impression that this is Carcass fiddling while the genre burns. (It’s true that drum breaks are no stranger to Carcass; they go all the way back to Sickness. Perhaps, by analyzing each in turn, they might serve as a microcosm of the band’s development? Some other time, perhaps.) And while the tracks that bookend this record sound most like capitulations to the major-label powers-that-be courting some of the more successful extreme metal acts at that time, it is difficult not to generalize this feeling to the whole. With few exceptions, the record ambles along at a genial mid-tempo clip; little remains of the rhythmic variety or structural openness that gave the early records so much of their punch; songwriting and arrangements suggest a bit less the ‘80s influences that had crept into the band’s music beginning with Necrotism, a bit more ‘90s parallel afterlives (such as Rob Halford’s Fight) and ‘70s hard rock (and, in one happy instance, Sabbath). Even Steer’s solos sound watered-down, though perhaps only because he is attempting to infuse a blues-rock feel that was muted on the previous albums, to go, I presume, with the more streamlined sound.

That Swansong is sometimes regarded as a bloodless version of Heartwork points, once again, to the general consistency of Carcass’s oeuvre amid the differences. The album is certainly not without the occasional inventive bridge, strong melody, or heavy break. I want to be able to say that, if Carcass’s decadence is symbolized by Swansong’s cowbell, Surgical Steel doesn’t just get rid of the cowbell: it dismembers the very steer that rung it. But such a baby-and-bathwater take on Steel is simply incorrect. If it is indeed the album that redeems Swansong, and so Carcass’s recording history, it does so, at least partly, through inspired imitation. Particularly for the listener time-warping back from the future, some of the best material on Swansong is highly “reminiscent” of Surgical Steel, as though drafts for ideas that would come to fruition on that record. Walker has noted that Swansong represents only part of the original seventeen tracks written at the time (seventeen tracks, seventeen years: numerologists, take note!), and has claimed that some of the material not recorded for Swansong was stronger than what ended up on that record. Given the clear parallels, I can’t help but wonder to what extent Steel represents a reworking of unrecorded material from that time … and so even more that true, missing fifth album that 1995, “the year metal died,” left Carcass fans craving.


Considered thus summarily, the pace at which Carcass evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective) over their original seven-year run is startling. They are generally credited with helping found two sub-subgenres: goregrind (a subset of grindcore featuring gory lyrics, often replete with medical terminology; see my “Thesaurus Metal,” 9.4.10) with their debut and sophomore efforts, and the seemingly oxymoronic melodic death metal (an offshoot of death metal with more pared-back song structures and hookier themes reminiscent of the NWOBHM) with Heartwork. As such, for some goregrind purists, true Carcass ends with Sickness, while Necrotism represents the sort of bloated excess more appropriate to prog and classic metal. More commonly, Necrotism is regarded as the peak of the band’s discography—not just an early-career capstone or transitional record, but their magnum opus. According to this narrative, Heartwork is sometimes regarded as a “sell-out” record, an about-face into the more melodic, traditionally-structured, and slickly-produced music that would bottom out on Swansong. Conversely, for fans of melodic death metal, something like Sickness (let alone Reek) is beyond the pale: Heartwork is the masterpiece, the moment when Carcass managed to fuse death metal excess with tighter, grabbier songwriting. And for those fans who appreciate all phases of the band’s brief career, there is always the relatively disappointing Swansong to signal decline. Since it is partly posthumous—the band had broken up by the time it was released—it can be fairly easily dismissed from the “authentic” discography. Once again, this creates a wound that it is all the more necessary for thrusting, stabbing Steel to retroactively fill.

A certain factionalism about Carcass’s fanbase is only logical: since founding new subgenres is generally perceived as an act of violence by adherents of the parent genre (involving, as it does, the importation of elements foreign to said genre, whether instruments, rhythms, themes, etc.; hence my preoccupation with the cowbell above), at least Reek and Heartwork would have been a sort of coup d’genre in their day. And yet, browsing through fan reviews on the web (on and the Encyclopedia Metallum), what stands out is the general high regard in which the band’s whole catalog is held. This is also logical, once the dates of the reviews are taken into account: the earliest ones on Amazon only go back to the late ‘90s; in the Encyclopedia, the early ‘00s. What would have appeared as a rupture in its historical moment is, once the subgenre has established itself and the new sound has found its niche in broader generic history, reabsorbed into a narrative of development; hindsight blurs what was disruptive, or at least balances it with what remains constant—as should be apparent from my own rearview sketches above. On Amazon, for example, all of Carcass’s records rate above four stars (out of five); with the exception of Reek, more than 90% of reviewers give the albums four stars and above; and scathing reviews are very infrequent. The Encyclopedia’s reviews are a bit more fractious: out of a possible 100, Sickness and Necrotism rate in the 90th percentile, Heartwork eighty, and Swansong and Reek in the mid-seventies. I will consider this difference presently. For the moment, suffice to say that, in hindsight, all pre-Steel Carcass is canonical.

In some ways, the weird new-old hybrids called “comeback” albums are even more freighted with conflicting expectations than new ones—and all the more when a band’s aesthetic is as protean as Carcass’s. The reception of Steel bears this out; perhaps it even suggests the fractiousness with which the band’s earlier records were once received, the ruptures we can no longer fully hear. In the Encyclopedia, while by and large the album receives high marks, a significant minority respond with visceral dislike, pulling the overall rating down equivalent to Swansong and Reek. The key word here is visceral. Browsing reviews of all three poorer-polling Carcass records, one finds about a third of the ratings at 50% and below. But only Steel’s reviews dip down into the single digits; one person even gives it a 0%. At least today, then, Steel is the band’s most contentious album. Perhaps this is (once again) logical: just as time would have muted and smoothed over the dislike of the other records as fans reconciled themselves to generic shifts, Steel is fresh, is now. It is almost as though one function of the “comeback” record was to give an opportunity for the earlier factionalism, so long buried, to rear its head again.

Interestingly, this is not true on Amazon, where Steel’s overall rating is the highest of any Carcass record for which a statistically significant number of reviews exist. Obviously, there is an enormous margin of error: rating systems are without a standard rubric, and on Amazon it is hard to disentangle different editions and packagings, so that negative reviews sometimes wind up being about consumer expectations rather than the music. But they are suggestive. To explain the disparity, I would guess that the reviews on Amazon include more first-time, young, and casual listeners than the Encyclopedia, many of whom would be hearing Carcass’s oeuvre from a certain distance, and perhaps (like me) mediated through a first-time encounter with Steel.

The fan-reviewers on a site like the Encyclopedia, on the other hand, clearly position themselves as connoisseurs, a metal critical elite. (This is surely also true of a subset of Amazon reviewers; they are just more diluted. Put differently: there are no blurbs in the Encyclopedia, only more or less exhaustive analyses.) And the negative reviews of Steel published there are admittedly among the best-written and most thoughtful, while the strongly positive reviews occasionally tend toward the geysering one associates with amassed teenyboppers and/or severed major arteries.

So, what are the naysayers’ chief arguments against Steel? Lack of authenticity is the big one: they accuse Carcass of pandering to fans. Why, that is, didn’t Carcass surprise us with their new record, put out something entirely unpalatable, something we were going to respect but not love, at least for the next few years? Why didn’t they once again rewrite the generic playbook? Rather than trying so hard to sound like themselves—and the point of the critique is all contained in that word like—the most authentic Carcass would sound like anything but the Carcass of old. Of course, as some of the reviews also note, the entire genre of the comeback record is compromised in this regard. As usual, Simon Reynolds captures the dilemma brilliantly: “When fans buy new albums by reformed favorites of their youth, at heart they’re not really interested in what the band might have to say now, or where the band members’ separate musical journeys might have taken them in subsequent decades; they want the band to create ‘new’ songs in their vintage style”: they want them, that is, “to cover themselves” (Retromania, p. 39).

Ironically, then, what made early Carcass good is precisely what makes new Carcass bad. Well, sort of. Because if the answer is not simply that comeback records per se are a priori crap, then one must make distinctions, judgments that show the new material at a disadvantage compared to the old. In other words: Sure, it sounds like Heartwork, BUT … it’s unmemorable, unimaginative, clichéd, you can tell they’re just phoning it in, etc., etc. It lacks, that is, those three great intangibles: a heart, a brain, the nerve.**

It’s quite possible that the way the band marketed Steel influenced how both its proponents and detractors heard it. In an interview published on Invisible Oranges the day of Steel’s release, Walker was quite candid about their approach to both the new record and their fans. Deliberating about whether to record, they had decided to see if they would come up with something that “sounded like Carcass.” Walker goes on: “We know what people want […]. We’re not stupid. We went into the rehearsal room and the studio well aware that people would have been quick to put the boot in if we didn’t deliver, you know? And at the same time we don’t want to shit on the Carcass legacy. So it’s not a cash cow. We went in using our own money. So if we weren’t confident that we could deliver on that, we wouldn’t have bothered. We weren’t going to gamble all that money away.” And, regarding how to deliver: “Play to your strengths”; “try to avoid the dumb shit and clichés”; and “give a nod [to their early career] without plagiarizing.”

Plenty of ammunition there for the aspiring cynic, to be sure. To me, though, Walker sounds more pragmatic than pandering. No matter how many powers to which the “sub” in “subgenre” is raised, it’s naïve to think that a band’s aesthetic choices are innocent of their audience’s expectations. Why would Walker divide “giving people what they want” from “avoiding the dumb shit and clichés” when, as he suggests, Carcass fans are thoughtful and discerning? Or is this flattering of the audience’s powers of discernment meta-pandering? It’s hard to tell, so much of what Walker says is generic and vague, like an athlete cornered post-game (e.g., “We just played our hardest and tried to keep a positive attitude,” etc.). As for “sounding like Carcass”: it’s true, as Reynolds says, that (most) fans want their favorite old bands to “create ‘new’ songs in their vintage style.” I am just not sure this means the comeback record as a genre is innately depraved. Clearly, Carcass took the challenge of sounding like themselves seriously: the emphasis on distinguishing self-plagiarism, for example, from the overall style and sound which, regardless of the band members’ “individual journeys,” their collective identity (in this case, Walker and Steel) gave rise to. Perhaps the comeback record should be considered a genre unto itself, one that cuts across the standard popular music genres, and is judged according to its own rules of self-performance and pastiche.

Of course, part of the point of dismissing Steel as “inauthentic” is to create a sense of the reviewer’s authenticity (hence authority), and the inauthenticity (hence ignorance) of the album’s proponents: I knew and loved the band pre-Steel; all of you who actually like this record can’t hear that the true Carcass has been replaced by a brainless, heartless, nerveless forgery. Note the implied ethics: Steel isn’t just bad music; it is cynical, manipulative, ultimately dishonest.§§

I don’t fault Steel’s detractors for dealing in intangibles. Feel, swing, inspiration: words like these pepper this post, and other posts on this blog. Anyone who writes about art is damned to deal in intangibles all the time, while desperately trying to ground intuitive judgments about such things in sensory data and paratextual materials. That said, judging Steel comes back, if I may beat the horse carcass a bit more, not to questions of taste, but of time, personal history, and perspective. Were I an old Carcass fan, maybe I, too, would smell the formaldehyde I’ve smelled on many another comeback. I might even find myself joining the small chorus of naysayers on my blog: “Ah, it’s just warmed-over Heartwork! How disappointing! How cynical of them! And look at the sheer number of times Walker mentions money!” That I am, alas, only old; that, for me, Steel is not a comeback record; that I cannot hear Necrotism or Heartwork the way they sounded when they were released—and yet, paradoxically, cannot hear them the way someone half my age does, given my experience of the milieu from which Carcass emerged: all these elements converge to influence the way I hear Steel. As is likely obvious, to these old-new ears the riffs are just as memorable (and as copious), the songwriting as snare-tight, and the technical excursions at least as impressive as the best of Carcass’s early work.†† And if it sounds like Carcass “covering themselves,” this might be because Steel, more than any other Carcass album, reminds us that early ‘90s Carcass was forging ahead in part by forging together elements from generic history: from the open letters to NWOBHM stalwarts Priest and Maiden (“1985,” which opens the record, should have been called “1982,” after Judas Priest’s “The Hellion,” the opening instrumental on Screaming for Vengeance, which it mirrors, right down to the ending gong), to the heavy, structuring, dolefully beautiful harmonies of Testament and Megadeth.

One is never without reservations. The propensity to break for a new riff on one guitar, then harmonize it in thirds, for example: it’s the sort of thing that would get old fast, if the raw material wasn’t so strong. The album isn’t perfect. So what is? When it hits its stride—as it does on the middle five tracks, with additional high-points on the earlier and later tunes—I can’t think of any metal I’d rather be listening to. And that’s saying a lot.


In Retromania, Reynolds blames today’s instantaneous, unlimited access to recorded music for stunting listening habits and creativity, both of which which have tended more and more toward the archival and ironic. A confessed “futurist zealot,” Reynolds despairs for the pop-music future, a future which seems to have become “unimaginable”— though he does end the book on a note of wistful hope. There is much in Retromania with which I deeply sympathize (gushing review forthcoming, someday). And yet, for those of us whose ears are relatively conservative, whose processing speeds are stuck somewhere in the dial-up era, whose adaptability to changing trends is challenged at best, and whose habit of listening recursively is deeply engrained—in fact, is affirmed to be the very stuff of what it means to listen at all … for those of us, having easy access to the plenitude of recording history is an important part of how we make sense of a recent history that seems to go by in an always-accelerating whirlybird blur.ΩΩ

I lost touch with metal as a young adult, just as it began toward the noisiest of extremes on the one hand, and toward pop musics that mostly bored me on the other. Re-discovering said genre in my mid-thirties as a dynamic new form was thrilling. But just as thrilling was the ability to go back to that lost decade and try to connect the dots with the contemporary. Mastodon’s first few records, for example, at least one of which would most certainly go in my Great Things of the New Century box, are inconceivable without Carcass’s early ‘90s records. (N.B.: Having grown up in a household where everyone we listened to was dead, I am comfortable with the idea of listening as an act of exhumation.)

Just as thrilling, however, is finding retroactive merit in things I was not prepared for at the time they appeared. I never could have enjoyed Sickness, and perhaps even Necrotism, back when those albums were released. I probably couldn’t listen to them now, were it not for the decade-long sojourn I took through free jazz, modernist classical, the postwar avant-grade, and other things often labeled non- or anti-music. (And then there was salsa, which helped break down the barriers to at least some of the pop I had once dismissed as merely frivolous.) Even Metallica had initially been a tough sell for my classically-formed ear, more comfortable with the complexity, virtuosity, and melodicism of prog rock and classic metal. My taste would have been much too orthodox, and likely too America-centric, to be able to digest the noisy assaults of the early death & grind bands from Britain. Still today I find a good deal of it unpalatable. Which is to say that the aesthetic breach dividing me from other people my age at the Gramercy show was as real as the generational one dividing me from those who could have been my kids. I want to believe that I somehow “missed out” on hearing Carcass in their prime, and mine. The truth is I was not the person that I sometimes want to imagine myself to have been (cf. “Vinyl Pasts,” 2.6.11).‡‡

So: flesh or steel? Were the person I am today to travel back in time: flesh, Necrotism, the hand that wields. But how can I, who was born into Steel, see Necrotism but as it is reflected in Steel? And yet, to give Steel absolute primacy and stability—the hub of the wheel—that isn’t entirely correct, either, because my impression of it necessarily changed after my contact with the earlier records. I can’t simply impose the logic of history onto autobiography, and by doing so efface my initial emotional response to the music. Desire and understanding are never entirely congruent. I can superimpose one upon the other, as I have tried to do here … but I cannot join them into a single, cohesive image. I know, or think I know, that Steel is closer to Heartwork, and to Swansong, than to Necrotism. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting Steel to be what Walker says it is: a union of Heartwork’s tightness and Necrotism’s riff-mill; what Gary Giddins so beautifully called the “elusive grail” of music, a form that is at once open-ended and contained; the dialectic between chaos and order, spontaneity and composition, wildness and civilization, that gives music so much of its power.***


* De rigeur exclamation point for scientific fact meant to provoke awe and wonder. Italics optional. This thought experiment brought to you by the AMNH’s Powers of Ten exhibit.

§ Since this is an extended consideration of Carcass, it will be swollen, even to bursting, with analogies to/puns about violent death, decay, and exhumation. It is the chief rule of the microgenre (practically an idiogenre) to which Carcass commentary belongs: a sort of spinoff of the band’s lyrics, as though all comments about the band were already sewn up inside the band. It is not just that I have no intention of breaking said rules; I do not think it is possible to write about Carcass in any other way. I may believe I am being clever when I say Carcass is “putrescent”; but it is actually the inexorable tendency of the discourse to search out images of and language about evisceration, laceration, contusion, etc. as soon as one begins writing about Carcass.

† Invisible Oranges dates its end to 2012. See their excellent “Re-Thrash: a Postmortem.” Regarding the 1987-or-so fetish: “At its peak, thrash was not just crossing over [with hardcore punk], it was also producing arena rock ballads and progressive rock epics while mutating into death and black metal. Thrash moves forward, literally and figuratively. It was foolhardy to try and trap that lightning in a bottle by going backwards in time.” (See my “Glee Metal,” 3.17.12, as well as “Burnt-over,” 8.3.11, for some echoes.) And this, which I blathered about in “Two Quixotes” (5.11.14): “The re-thrashers dealt in escapism, not history. If everyone in Black Tide was 20 in 2007, there is no way the members themselves remember the ’80s. Their music recalls the ’80s the way those boys have been exposed to it: through the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and SOD records. It cannot authentically recall the cultural zeitgeist of that time.” Then again: “Fantasy’s been a part of metal since the beginning—I see no objective difference between romanticizing previous lives in the viking age or in the 1980s.”

Ω This comment recalled for me one of the most endearing moments at 2013’s Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference. One participant, who had taught a class on heavy metal to undergraduates, said that one of his students had taken the class because he wanted to understand his father better! (Is one function of the growing number of geriatric rock acts that the window of time suggested by the adage “Too old to rock ‘n’ roll, too young to die” shrinks to the merest crack, until it is only at the moment of recognition (“My God, I am too old to rock ‘n’ roll. Am I—”) that death strikes?)

‡ “Remember me as you pass by / As you are now, so once was I / As I am now, so you must be / Prepare for death and follow me.” This quatrain, which is not uncommon to see on old gravestones, is quoted by Megadeth in “Mary Jane” (on 1988’s So Far, So Good … So What?).

** Critics of Steel also point to some “cringe-worthy” lyrics, with the chorus of “Thrasher’s Abattoir” held up for particular contempt: “Hipsters and poseurs I abhor / Welcome to the thrasher’s abattoir.” Yep, bad. But I am trying to decide how this is more cringe-worthy than any of the nonsensical (but often hilarious) gibberish (replete with misspellings) that makes up the grotesquerie of early Carcass lyrics. In his defense, Walker claims said lyrics were intended to be “lighthearted”: a Pythonesque playing with gore. I’m with it. But then the same could be said about the risible couplet from “Thrasher’s Abattoir”—Steel being (according to Walker) a return to the early lyrical style that was partly abandoned on Heartwork, and entirely on Swansong. At other times, however, Walker can’t seem to decide whether he wants his lyrics to be taken seriously or not. Too much, he claims, has been made of the band’s vegetarianism; they are not trying to proselytize anyone (for which he condemns Barney Greenway of Napalm Death, Carcass’s Oedipal rival). Then what precisely is “serious” about the lyrics of Heartwork or Swansong? It doesn’t help that he is utterly disinclined (at least, within limits) to stop anyone from reading their own meanings into the lyrics—such as the I.O. interviewer’s suggestion that Surgical Steel’s lyrics are “sad,” rather than horrifically “celebratory.” It goes back to metal’s fraught relationship with politics: most try to stay out of it (grindcore as a whole and a few other individual bands excepted), while politically-charged lyrics tend toward the ambivalent (see Robert Walser’s excellent analysis of Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye,” Running With the Devil (Wesleyan UP, 1993), ps. 163-4). Walker’s caginess is thus par for the course. And yet, sometimes that caginess can sound like irresponsibility. Perhaps better not to read interviews. Perhaps better to ignore lyrics altogether.

§§ For more about the relationship between ethics and aesthetics in judging popular music, see Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Harvard UP, 1996) ps. 70-74. Perhaps most germane is his discussion of authenticity, which he defines as “a perceived quality of sincerity and commitment” (71). Judging sincerity, Frith notes, “is a human as well as a musical judgment. And it also reflects our extra-musical beliefs.”

†† A few picks, so as not to clutter the text. Memorable riffs: “Noncompliance to ASTM F 899-12 Standard,” “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills,” “Unfit for Human Consumption.” Copious riffage: the outro to “Mount of Execution”: we added this on at the end, the band seems to say, because we could. Technical brilliance: the intro to “Noncompliance” and bridge of “Captive Bolt Pistol.”

ΩΩ I am not being quite square with Reynolds here. He is most concerned (as am I) with the sort of shallow and one-dimensional toggle-listening encouraged by the web, and so would likely second my call for recursive listening and slowed-down processing. (Hilariously, with the exception of Reek, all my back-catalog listening to Carcass was on compact disc!)

‡‡ There is something about metal that aligns it with extreme sports and horror movies, fight clubs and jackass movies, drug culture, and other boy-heavy endeavors: the question “how much can you take?” looms over them all. The metal devotee is expected to push himself to listen to less and less palatable music; the less palatable, the more “heavy,” the more authentic, and the more authentic an acolyte one proves oneself to be, with the genre ideal measured against a vanishing point of volume, speed, and/or weight. And so it has always been difficult, for the metal devotee, to admit to not liking extreme metal. As per food writer Michael Pollan, it is like a French person saying, “Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t like really stinky cheese …” (And as long as I’m footnoting, here is Greil Marcus’s perfectly apropos definition of nostalgia: “the desire to reach back and touch the person you never were” (qtd. in John Street, Music and Politics, p. 156).)

*** The tendency away from the spontaneous in metal finds its expression in the overly processed, mechanically synchronized sound of too much of the music today. Against it, the metal of thirty years ago must sound either disappointing or exhilirating, depending upon one’s age, listening background, and orientation within the genre. To this older pair of ears, the relative looseness of much early metal—not the self-conscious amateurism of punk, but the desire to push tempo and musicianship to a breaking point, and to capture rather than correct that on recordings—is where much of the power of metal derives from. I think of Lombardo’s double-bass in early Slayer (e.g., the break in “Angel of Death”); the bouncing stick on Perry Strickland’s (of Vio-lence) ride, leaping a fraction ahead just to keep tempo, and so creating an inadvertent swing; the extra beat given to Away’s fill in the reprise introduction of Voivod’s “This Is Not an Exercise.” I wonder if the virtuoso double-bass/guitar synchronization that ends Slayer’s “Mind Control” in 1994 (on which you can hear veteran drummer Paul Bostaph and the rest of the band slip out of time with each other) marks one of the last such instances where failure-as-power was allowed to remain intact. In all of the above examples, it is as though trying to run the machine full-throttle overloads it. The ultimate demonstration of power, after all, is not decibels achieved, but amplification blown: pure overload, total distortion.


The therapeutic use of distortion, particularly of the infrasonic, Crowbarian variety, begs study. Who knows but, some day, a future Dr. McCoy will run his tri-corder over some sick soul’s thorax, and instead of that little machine chirping, what will come out is … Crowbar? – Baciyelmo

Left Unsaid

What to do when, returning from the restroom after the early set of Dave Holland’s quartet at Birdland, you find Mr. Holland himself occupying the bar stool next to yours? Sit there and fidget, of course. Allow the window of opportunity to close, and the guy sitting on his other side to grab his ear. Then, sulk into your coffee, thinking about all the things you could have been saying to Dave Holland.

There sat I, preparing those few, perfect, penetrating words, those well-sifted nuggets of wit, those giant squids of wisdom—things that would reveal me as neither nerdy starfucker nor blithering idiot. Things that, upon hearing them, Holland would grab my shoulder, and look deep into my eyes, and say: “Helldriver. You get it. Of all the pathetic rabble here, typified by this guy on the other side of me yabbing my ear off, you’re the only one who understands my music. And not just understands: you’re able to articulate it in such a pithy, tuneful way. The Bard could do no better.”

And so, writing and erasing phrases and sentences in my head, my time, my historic opportunity to actually speak to Dave Holland, slipped away.

Bars are for raconteurs. And blogs? One can always aspire. Which is why, rather than talking to Holland at Birdland, I find myself sitting at my computer, talking to the Holland in my head.

There he is, in his black leather vest and blue buttondown, elbows resting on the bar, shoulders hunched. His white beard is trimmed to the length of his hair, his energy bespeaks a man well younger than his years. The bartender, miraculously nimble, shakes and mixes. Ice tinkles; the maitre d’ stalks by. A couple of men rise and tug on their still-wet rain jackets. Holland’s drink arrives. Staring into my coffee, I wait for the right moment to elbow him softly in the ribs.


H.D.: “Dave? Dave Holland?”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Man, that was a hell of a set! You weren’t kidding when you said you guys’ve been having fun!”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “You know, there’s two things I associate with Thanksgiving: turkey, and you. No relation, obviously. You’re what Broadway Danny Rose called a perennial.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Well, I beg to differ. Turkey may be better or worse from one year to the next, but you, you just get better. You know what, though. This year? I think you might’ve painted yourself into a corner. Seriously. But then all those cats you bring back with you—Potter, and at least one of the Eubanks brothers, and anybody near as good as Eric Harland—they get better every year, too. [Sotto voce] Hey, just FYI: you’re almost the only reason I drag my ass to Birdland. Their programming sort of sucks, if you’ll pardon moi. What can you do, with all these Broadway theaters around.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Doubtless. You gotta feel the love, though, if people are coming out to hear you in this weather. Of course, you’re from England, this is probably dry for you …”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “They do look like cats in the rain! Speaking of cats: I see you traded Robin for Kevin, and mixed Chris back in. You know that Extended Play: Live at Birdland disc you put out maybe a dozen years back, with Robin and Chris on it? The title is spot-on. If you could wear out a CD like a record, just by playing it over and over, I swear, that thing would be trashed. It would sound like a car driving on rims! Sometimes I feel like running that disc up and down a cheese grater, just to make it show how many times I’ve listened to it. Crazy, right? If only discs would wear properly!”

D.H.: “???”

H.D.: “Yeah, but I like the hard copy. Sounds better. Looks nice. Listen, Dave. How does this sound: joyous noise. I mean, to describe the sound of this band. Joyous noise! Eh? And this … wait, let me look at what else I scribbled on the back page of my little book here …”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “I know, remember this? It was huge in the ‘60s. Just a few years before you started playing with Miles. Miles going electric was probably as much a part of the Zeitgeist as McLuhan was.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Well, he’s basically saying that new technology, by changing the patterns and pace of life, changes the way people process the world. In the electronic age, people stop thinking separately and serially—words across a page—and start thinking simultaneously. And collectively. He’s sort of guru-y, I mean, he kind of relies more on repetition than making a logical argument. Maybe he’s trying to dramatize his own thesis. But, you know, I’ve started to wonder if he’s right, if that’s why nobody reads anymore …”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “I guess it is sort of like jazz. Everyone in the band linked to everyone else, thinking together. He’s imagining a whole society that way, ‘wired’ together by radio, TV … and now the net. But yeah, he’d probably make a similar argument about the changes in music post-World War II. Like the stuff you were playing tonight: it was definitely more static than other stuff of yours I’ve heard—more like electric Miles in some ways. And the band feels leaderless, in a good way. Like everyone’s contribution is on the same level. Potter and Eubanks aren’t any more prominent than you are, or Obed for that matter—he certainly didn’t wait to step into the spotlight! Guy’s a freight train. Makes Tain look tame.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Sorry, you’re right, the whole jazz-as-democracy thing has been done to death. Hey: do you remember saying once, on this very stage, that you hoped people were going to support Obama? Were you early that year? I was wondering … is that why you only said a few words at the beginning of the set? You were afraid you were going to let loose about the election?”

D.H.: “@#$%&!!”

H.D.: “Easy, Dave! Don’t make me say Brexit! Brexit Brexit Brexit! There, I said it!”


H.D.: “Man, they’re going to throw us out of this place! And you still have another set to play! …. Seriously, though—I love that you guys played straight through like that, with only a few pauses, no words. I’m sure the Birdlanders appreciated it, too—you know, us Amer’cans want to make sure we get our money’s worth! More bang for the buck! No, really, it felt very organic. That’s part of what made it seem so totally cooperative. Well, maybe not entirely …”

D.H.: “???”

H.D.: “I’m thinking of that blues lick Kevin came up with. He didn’t have to move his left hand at all to play it, right? But you were jumping halfway across the neck! Which you did effortlessly, by the way, or it sure seemed that way. I thought it was only horn players who could mess with bassists that way, not guitarists. You’ve played with enough of ’em to know.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “That’s funny, I didn’t think of him at all. You know who I did think of, listening to you tonight? Jaco. I’ve never thought of Jaco before, listening to you. Maybe it was all the harmonics—you know, ‘Portrait of Tracy,’ ‘Onkonkole y Trompa,’ that stuff on his first solo record. Beautiful. But it wasn’t just you; Kevin, he sounded like Hiram Bullock! Maybe partly because this band, like you said, sans Potter, was originally a power trio, I thought of those ‘punk jazz’ recordings from the late ‘80s, N.Y.C., with Jaco and Bullock, and Kenwood Denner on drums. Man, I really love Eubanks’s sound: hyper-distorted, breathy, lots of noise; and then, out of this ambient cloud of distortion, he’ll just strangle out these runs that cut you. I like how he’ll shift between sludgy power chords and funk progressions. The tunes are all really open, too, so they gave him plenty of room to wail.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Oh, c’mon, what’s wrong with ‘power trio’? It’s a compliment. I’m a power-trio junkie. I could live on nothing but power trios. Well, power trios and Nanaimo bars. I already wrote it down, anyway, so there. Hey, what about this: Holland’s band plays a rambunctious world music. (It’s good I read this shit back to myself—half the time I can’t read my own handwriting later on. Club’s too dark to be writing in anyway. Pencil’s dull, too. And look at how shitty the paper is, you can’t even dog-ear a page without breaking it.)”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Okay, okay, ‘world music’ is sort of a cop-out term. But there was something so … primal about it. I mean, some of what Potter was playing? They weren’t runs; they were calls. I could almost believe he was gonna make it stop raining. And Obed …!”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “I guess I’m trying to capture what seems different about this band’s sound. Usually, your compositions sound like—now don’t take this the wrong way—sound like really sophisticated cop-show music …”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Yeah, I like Streets of San Francisco, too, but I was thinking more The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3. The original, obviously, with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. Like, if Pelham was directed by Michael Haneke. No, wait: scratch that. I hate when arts writers do that shit—‘it’s like so-and-so baking a cake with so-and-so in an oven made by so-and-so, and then running it over with so-and-so’s SUV’ … man, I hate that shit.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Oh, I’m glad you hate that shit too!”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “You know, for a figment of my imagination, you can be remarkably uncooperative. And I resent the suggestion that I’m throwing out names as a smokescreen for my own critical inadequacies.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “[Sigh] You’re right, I did say ‘show.’ Some people in the U.S. say ‘show’ when they mean ‘movie.’ I usually don’t, it’s sort of a Rocky Mountain thing. But to get back to the, ahem, rambunctious world? Obed. I loved the vocalizing—mouth and drum. He makes his toms sound like talking drums. Or does he have one back there? Look, you can’t see the drums hardly at all from this side of the bar, at least where they’re set up tonight. This one night, though, I timed it right, got a seat on the other side of the bar, and the drums were set up so that I could watch Rudy Royston from behind the kit. It was like taking a master class. Unbelievable. From here, though, you have to sit up just to see the cymbals over the bottles. And Kevin, I could only see the back of his left hand—see him not move it on that lick. You know, the one time I got to see John McLaughlin, he was playing electric, Dennis Chambers was on drums—you can just imagine what those two sounded like going head-to-head—at The Bottom Line. The Bottom Line was kind of a shitty place to see music—historic, but shitty—historically shitty, maybe—I don’t know if you ever got a chance to play there. No? Bully for you. Anyway, I was sitting way over on the right. My one chance to see McLaughlin, and he played half turned away from me the whole night. I couldn’t see his hands at all!”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Yes! What a band that was! Did you ever see the movie they made about the Isle of Wight festival?”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Well, don’t bother. At least, if you want to see yourself. They gave maybe thirty seconds to Miles’s band. I think you appear for like two seconds, and John for two, and Chick, and Jack, and then the camera swoops out, and that’s it. The Hendrix footage is decent—better than Woodstock’s. You know what, though. These cats you’re playing with tonight? I think they could hold their own against any band Miles put together.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “I know I’m digressing. I’m making a valiant effort to bring this back on point. But I didn’t have that much to say in the first place, and this is a mock-up of a bar conversation. Besides, I have to fill all this white space, and I have all these little black marks to use.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “No, I don’t really know why. I just have to. Why do you have to make all those notes?”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Well, you better drink up, then, I’ll get the next round. No? Next Thanksgiving, then? Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to stay for the second set. But I live in a land far, far away. Besides, I have start writing, before you and everything else disappears.”


This post is dedicated to Rupert Pupkin.



“Where the future is present.”

So reads the banner hanging above the bandstand at New York’s venerable, vital Jazz Gallery. A place where talented young musicians can be mentored to carry forward the jazz tradition? Or a place where cutting-edge new music can be fearlessly presented to the public? Actually, both interpretations fit the Gallery well, though the two do not always sit easily with each other.

Alto saxophonist Patrick Bartley, whose Dreamweaver Society sextet played the Gallery a few Thursdays ago, also fits nicely with either interpretation. On the one hand, he is the founder of the J-music ensemble, a cross of jazz with Japanese pop and the ur-popular (among younger folk) aesthetics of anime and video games. On the other hand, he boasts an impressive resume of sidework with jazz veterans like Mulgrew Miller and Wynton Marsalis, on the latter of whose HBO YoungArts Masterclass he appeared, to much acclaim. Recording by seventeen, a Grammy nomination already under his belt, Bartley is the model young lion. He even looks a bit lion-like in his photo on the J-music website, with neatly-arranged beard and dreadlocks: a contemplative, serious young man, staring meaningfully off at some horizon.

The Jazz Gallery is currently located in midtown, on the fifth floor of a crotchety old office building, entered solely by way of a crotchety old elevator. (I’m sure they were priced out of their original second-floor, stairwell-accessible Hudson Street digs. At least they didn’t move to Brooklyn.) The elevator is festooned with warning signs: no more than five people at a time; do not jump, or the elevator will come to an emergency stop; if it does, here is a list of procedures to get yourself rescued before having to resort to eating your fellow passengers/your own foot/etc. It is also—almost needless to add—dreadfully slow.

So imagine my consternation a few Thursdays ago when, just as the elevator was arriving, a group of dapper, laughing young gentlemen breezed into the entranceway and proceeded to fill the car well past the capacity enjoined by the signs. No matter how edible they looked, I didn’t want to get stuck in the elevator with them: I ducked out and waited for the next car.

It was only on reaching the fifth floor that I realized they were the band. And it was only some fifteen minutes later, when they got up to perform, that I realized just how goddamn young they all were. Not a one older than 25, some maybe still in school, at least some of whom (including tenor player Xavier del Castillo and drummer Evan Sherman) had attended the Manhattan School of Music with Bartley.

The set was clearly intended to introduce Bartley as a composer and bandleader, and to this effect the pieces seemed chosen to demonstrate his range, from the Coltrane-inspired E-flat blues that led off the set (I thought particularly of “Chasin’ the Trane”), to the Mingusy, color-accented follow-up, the trio-only interlude that gave Bartley a chance to burn on tenor, and the couple of more pop-sounding ballads that closed the set. Bartley is a charismatic bandleader who plays his alto with an almost eerie effortlessness. His tone on that instrument is strong, almost biting, his solos nervy and technically dazzling. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of Dolphyisms that squeaked out of his horn, particularly on the blues—enough, one might think, to make Wynton nervous. By and large, the sextet was well-utilized throughout—showcasing the fine band was as much a part of the evening as showcasing Bartley; only the guitar felt a bit vestigial. With a band this big, the de rigeur merry-go-round of solos could have turned into a lead balloon … so I was relieved that, after the blues—that is, after each of the musicians had a chance to introduce himself—the tunes became more economical in their arrangements; while the trio around the set’s midpoint made a nice palate-cleanser for the second half. There was much apparent chemistry and comfort between the two saxes, too, though their combination was sometimes flummoxed by a mellifluous, Lawrence Welk-sounding harmony.*

In terms of sheer energy, a young jazz band can outstrip even the most inspired veteran, and that often makes up for whatever failings you might identify with some critical distance, or just sourness of temper. The word that best describes it is exuberance; it arises, I would guess, from a sort of heedlessness about … well, about basically everything. The opening blues that evening was just such a nitro-burst of energy, propelled forward partly by nerves, I would guess, and partly by the familiar terrain offered by the blues themselves. Del Castillo was practically headbanging during Bartley’s solo, and Bartley himself wasn’t far behind when del Castillo, after an introduction of thoughtful, tentative pokes, like he was on a first date with his reed, found his voice and really started to blow. Watching them, I thought, Man, these guys could go all night. The thought had a tinge of (vicarious, nostalgic) eroticism. I mean, I couldn’t help thinking how cute they all were, del Castillo in particular, in his grey suit, with his hair not-quite-tidily pulled back; when he hit the sweet notes on his tenor, his eyebrows would do this funny thing, turn up and straighten out, so they looked penciled in.

But then this was their night on the town. Bartley surely has experience dressing up for Wynton & Co., and at least two of his sidemen, drummer Sherman and guitarist Gabe Schnider, have built similarly impressive resumes. I myself was particularly taken by pianist Mathis Jaona Jolan Picard. What a touch, and what a presence. A series of trilling figures down the keys on the blues was as perfect as anything I’ve heard of any pianist, of any age: a model of space and light; and his Jaki Byard-style comping on the high end of the keyboard was equally on-target. They have all already achieved remarkable things. Still, I couldn’t help feeling they had come to the Gallery this evening dressed up as the professionals, as the men, they were still in the throes of becoming.

Now, I know a band can’t really sustain the millennial exuberance of that blues for a whole evening; as a writer friend I have surely quoted before would put it, the “lights” can’t always be “on.” But there were aspects of the performance that unnecessarily turned the lights off. For example, Bartley’s propensity to chatter between songs. It’s natural enough for the music an artist writes to be sparked by something in his or her personal/musical life; the monicker for the sextet, “Original music inspired by dreams, fantasies, stories and images from childhood to present,” suggested as much. So why belabor the obvious? It’s different, of course, if one has been in the business for a long time and has a knack for storytelling (like Max Roach did), or one’s storytelling becomes a performance in itself (like Roy Haynes’s does, not always for the better), or one is just fabulously articulate (e.g., Joshua Redman). True, Miles himself was taken to task for never saying anything at all. And the parameters for how much to say may have shifted vis-a-vis the pathology of sharing endemic to the internet. With Bartley, though, I got the uneasy impression that he was practicing the sort of between-song banter that might be expected of him in his artistically well-heeled future. Maybe it shouldn’t have made me uneasy; after all, cultivating a public persona, finding one’s comfort zone for engaging with the audience, is part of maturing as an artist.

But then this might have struck me only in retrospect, after the penultimate tune, “The Heart of the Beholder.” During his solo, Bartley began some very practiced head-swinging, the antithesis of that headbanging on the blues, such that no dread threatened to escape from within his becomingly beige cap. No ecstacy, performed or otherwise. No sonic payoff (like the fade-in-and-out effect Branford Marsalis gets when he starts rocking in front of a mic, or the Hammond-like sound John Zorn gets when he turns side to side, blowing like a foghorn). Not even much in the way of spectacle. It actually reminded me of a live recording I heard once on BGO, I think it was of Joshua Redman. Every time he hit a high note, a cheer would go up from the crowd, like for a victorious gladiator. Tonight, the cheers were off somewhere in the future; I felt like I was watching a dress rehearsal for fame-to-be.

Anyway, I’m happy to blame it on that Grammy gig with the Dave Matthews Band.

Maybe I wasn’t the only one feeling that the bandstand had somehow been drained of its earlier vitality. On that penultimate number, during the guitar solo, Bartley made a point of looking at his watch. Twice, in fact. Looking at your watch during someone else’s solo suggests … well, a lack of enthusiasm. I didn’t entirely disagree with Bartley; of the sextet, I was least enthused by the guitar’s contribution, which sounded long on effects and somewhat short on ideas—my own prejudice, perhaps; never much cared for Frisell, either. But then I’m not the bandleader, with all the responsibilities that entails, like making sure the musicians look good (check), and keeping time—that is, if the club doesn’t do it for you—which, it must be admitted, can be to the music’s detriment, as sets are sometimes cut short to get the crowds in and out. Not that I can imagine the Jazz Gallery ever doing this; they’re not that kind of venue. Now, if a bandleader wants to express dissatisfaction with a particular member, looking at his watch seems like a viable way to do it. But for all his going-places demeanor, Bartley doesn’t seem like the sacking type. So what do bandleaders do when members solo? Close their eyes, nod (or bang) their heads, smile (check, check, check) … and maybe stand off to the side, even a little offstage, to check the time. (And yet, Miles again was taken to task for leaving the stage when his sidemen soloed. The pitfalls of bandleading!)

Though I appreciated the opportunity to hear the diversity of Bartley’s compositional palette as much as his prowess as a soloist, such a carefully-ordered parade might also have contributed to the deflating: like a graduating performance or competition, intended to please judges, faculty. Like them, it was a little too coiffed. The best thing about listening to these musicians over the next couple of decades will be hearing them steadily un-coiff themselves: as they stop thinking about their blindingly bright futures, and those first hairs fall out, and their beards get that touch of grey, and their bellies can’t quite be secured behind their coat-buttons. Of course, you can dress like a motherfucker and still let it all hang out musically; but first you’ve got to be comfortable with the pull under your arms and the tightness in your collar, the unreachable itch in the middle of your back. Then and only then can the music find a way out of your clothes.


About an hour after listening to Bartley’s sextet at the Gallery, I walked in on a quiet little pow-wow at The Stone. It might have been a sobremesa in some old artist’s parlor that I suddenly found myself semi-eavesdropping on. Marty Ehrlich was among them, as I realized a little later on—unlike with Bartley’s band, there was no sartorial riser separating musicians from audience. I recognized him when he went over to his bass clarinet and played a scale, perhaps an illustration of something he was saying. It’s enough just to hear the rich, still unjustly rare tone of the bass clarinet in a space as small as The Stone to be entranced.

It was Ehrlich’s sextet on the bill that night, just the latest in a remarkably fecund last few months at The Stone. I can’t remember a time since The Stone opened that I’ve been there as continuously. Week-long residencies by Joe Morris and Nels Cline (who managed to get Dave Rempis’s ass out to New York) and Susie Ibarra (so nice to see her again; I think the last time was at the Noguchi, more than a decade ago); and that month-long celebration of Steve Coleman’s sixtieth, yowza. This week belonged to Ehrlich, and this night, to the music of Andrew Hill, with whom Ehrlich and one of his sidemen, trumpeter Ron Horton, had worked in the late ‘90s/ early ‘00s. (Hence the presence of the bass clarinet: Eric Dolphy was also a Hill collaborator, and one of the personnel on Point of Departure.)

When set-time came the band didn’t march up in a bunch to the clearing that serves as The Stone’s stage, as they do in places like the Vanguard (or, for that matter, the Jazz Gallery), so much as bleed into it, man by man. The announcement was little more than a reminder to turn off cell phones and not take pictures without permission. Ehrlich called down to the basement (where the musicians usually lounge between sets) to tell someone to “take his time”; and this person, who turned out to be the drummer, clearly took him at his word: the band played the first couple of tunes as a percussionless quintet. A relaxed attitude toward the music, to be sure—which is in no way to say an unprofessional one. It came through, too, in the lack of a dress code, and in the informal, easy manner among the musicians, and between the musicians and audience.

The quintet-cum-sextet played a mostly relaxed and rather sweet set, too, with gorgeous, thick harmonies carried on by the horn trio on the front line, ravishing, once again, in a club The Stone’s size, and perhaps most redolent in the opening number, an elegy for Ornette Coleman that Ehrlich composed shortly after the great altoist’s death, the only piece of his own that evening. Though Ehrlich tended to let the whole band say their piece on every Hill tune, the solos were brief enough—never more than a few choruses—that they went by with Bird-like swiftness, and, interestingly, with less display, both harmonic and technical, than those of their younger counterparts at the Gallery. Bassist Dean Johnson might be the exception here; the sliding figures he used to knit together his wonderful solos brought into relief a certain understatement in the playing of Marty Jaffe, the very adept bassist of Bartley’s sextet, though this might be a matter of compositional temperament, i.e., where in an ensemble the bandleader “hears” the bass.

Who were these un-coiffed men? Don’t take this the wrong way, but: a bunch of old white guys, the youngest of whom was my age, the rest in their late fifties and early sixties. The contrast with the diversity of Bartley’s young band was striking, at least in hindsight. As for the generation gap, it is perhaps best expressed by their web presences: Bartley’s sidemen have a mix of websites (two), SoundClouds, and, most prominently, Facebook pages. Ehrlich’s all have websites. Not surprising: they are all widely-recorded area musicians and composers; three hold academic posts, a fourth routinely teaches at jazz workshops. In other words, they are the very sorts of people who the members of Bartley’s sextet were or are taking their classes from. In this regard, the question of race becomes particularly intriguing. It isn’t as though Ehrlich hasn’t played with a diverse who’s-who throughout his long career, Hill among them; or that African Americans are unrepresented in jazz academia (although perhaps under-represented, if other disciplines are any indication); or that New York’s “creative music” scene is not and has not always been diverse (although, again, one wonders whether crossovers with the academically-ensconced schools of contemporary classical and electronic music changes the complexion of this music community … but perhaps only to buttress its diversity, as the number of Asians would attest). The photographs blanketing the north wall of The Stone might be enough to lay to rest questions about diversity. In a country that is anything but post-racial, as the recent election so aptly reminded us, perhaps jazz, in the globe-trotting, genre- and culture-mixing transformations of its last few decades … perhaps jazz is?

I wouldn’t venture to say that anyone in Ehrlich’s band doesn’t “see” color (which always seems like the first clause in a racially-charged statement), or, for that matter, ethnicity, or culture. Ehrlich himself has made some brilliant recordings for Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Culture series. But I don’t think anyone asks anymore whether a “white” player (who is unlikely today to have an uncomplicated belief in or relationship to “whiteness,” to riff on Ta-Nahesi Coates) is “qualified” to play or teach jazz. That said, it is an interesting, ongoing historical wrinkle that “white” instructors train a diverse cadre of young musicians in what is in essence an African American tradition. Have we moved beyond questions of theft and ownership, beyond the mirror-image diatribes of Miles Davis and Art Pepper? Perhaps never entirely; but for a niche audience like this one, where connection to the music happens through tiny labels and intimate live performances, probably more here than anywhere else. (Tradition cannot “belong” to anyone, true … but alas, record companies and venues can. (N.B.: I’m done with the scare quotes now.))

I’m also intrigued by something else: that the older cats gathered at The Stone to perform music in a more radical, less traditional (albeit mellower) vein than the younger cats at the Jazz Gallery. If the latter are perhaps still steeped in the canon—including the early avant garde one Ehrlich paid tribute to—and a bit blinded by their own bright futures, the Associate Professors in Ehrlich’s band don’t need to ponder their futures much, at least beyond the next project, and maybe a last promotion, an emeritus title. Comfortable in their professionalism, they can afford to be rumpled. This generalization can’t be too neatly mapped onto generations, let alone “races” (oops); but I do think it points to something funny about the state of so-called creative music more than a half-century after those first mavericks started to play so-called free jazz. To what extent do spaces like The Stone (and even more, events like the Vision Festival) exist to memorialize an earlier radicalism, the rupture of the once-unpalatably new, in a more conservative/ neoliberal age? To what extent do they exist to present the newest music? To what extent, that is, does The Stone play museum to the Jazz Gallery’s gallery? (The role of the artist as curator of a week’s exhibit at The Stone is particularly suggestive.) To what extent is the Gallery’s calendar a better indicator of “the future of music” than The Stone’s? Or are both niches equally unrepresentative of “the future of music,” as the oxymoronically tiny crowds for both gigs would seem to attest? (At this rate, it won’t be the future for long.) It seems logical that the situation of such music today would mirror a similar predicament in radical politics—the reason, perhaps, one feels like an exhibit at every protest, framed by police barricades, watched like a reality show by the inhabitants of a strange, disheartening America I can no longer even attempt to fathom. Some days, I feel caught between an older generation mired in ‘60s nostalgia and a younger one bereft of the cultural preparation to think beyond the terms dictated by the prevailing ideology: the essence of Gen X middle-agedom.

So. Ehrlich, the grey-haired academic, gathered with his begowned colleagues to play a set that began with an elegy, and then went on to memorialize the music of another dead man: a dinosaur exhibiting relics in a museum. What, you say, could be more thoroughly dead? Explain to me, then, why the music, like so much of Ehrlich’s recent work, sounded fresh and vital, at once reflective and spontaneous; why this place called The Stone continues, despite its name, to re-engage with the spirit of music’s present, wherever its future and past might be.

Toward the end of the set, Ehrlich looked at his watch to see if they had time for one more. They did, a short one. He said little else, besides the names of his bandmates, the dedicatee of the first tune. Certainly nothing personal—nothing, that is, except with his horn, which said everything that needed to be said.


* I don’t know if it was the particular harmony, or the combination of instruments, or something about the players’ approach. But this seems to require an explanation, a … justification. It’s often the case that people studying for their doctoral exams fall into some weird obsession or other to mitigate the day-in day-out mental strain of study. One friend, for example, got completely obsessed with Scandinavian black metal—unironically, he assured me. Another became an aficionado of European soccer. For me, it was The Lawrence Welk show. Utah being what it is, Lawrence Welk aired weekly, I think on the BYU station, right around my bedtime. I cannot claim, like my Scandinavian death metal-listening friend, that my appreciation for Lawrence Welk was unironic, or in any way deeply felt, as the other’s surely was for Real Madrid. But I would call it mesmerizing, and eye-opening as well. It’s a good way to take yourself out of your contemporary context, and confront a facet of the once(-and-future?) America, or rather the America that some wish(ed) for, with eyes tightly closed and heels clicking.