Category Archives: What I’m Listening To

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, much less detailed. 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 the details. (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.)

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?

*

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 character 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 farmer 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 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.

But unlike Steamboat, where Fetchit plays a less integral role (the narrative here focuses on a plucky fiancee who becomes a steamboat pilot to help Rogers rescue her beloved from the noose), in Priest race is difficult to ignore. Set in 1890, an apparently better, vanished time in the border state of Kentucky (which, it seems we must continuously remind ourselves, never joined the Confederacy), it is a full-tilt sentimentalization of the Old South. The movie is dominated by nostalgia. 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: “we fought,” Priest says maudlinly, “for what we believed was right”), 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 lost, let alone ended—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. (In one of the film’s running gags, a tobacco-chewing member of the jury punctuates the prosecutor’s high-flown speeches by pinging the spittoon at all the right moments.) 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 restlessly finding their seats). Later in the film, Priest scares off a potential competitor for Ellie May’s hand (the sleazy town barber, who later becomes the plaintiff in the trial against the girl’s father) 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 prosecutor 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 is the point: Judge Priest barely grazes the myth of the Old South, or at least Old Kentucky; and it does so only, it seems, 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 powerful I Am Not Your Negro recently reminded 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 prosecutor 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 the dysfunction of the jury 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 bass 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 (i.e., to create a rousing backdrop for the story of war heroism and so predispose the jury toward acquitting of the girl’s father), 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.

(Cue “Dixie.”)

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 slaves lamenting that they are to be sold down the river. Originally, the song would have been performed in minstrel shows. It is an “antislavery” song, though only as antislavery as Cabin is, with Kentucky represented as a slave’s paradise of good, mild, 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 in the movie, 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 deus ex machina 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. (Meanwhile, according to Michael Rogin, the lynching scene never made it out of the script.) 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. Rogin’s and May’s monographs date from the period when I was finishing my graduate school coursework and reading for my doctoral exams. Perhaps close reading went entirely out of style, and I somehow missed it? Or is it just that digital technology has made scenes like these infinitely more available to analysis? Anyway, 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 mostly closed† (occasional drafts notwithstanding) has hardly deterred a resurgent old guard from continuing to release records and 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 an enormously girthy man in big shorts and high-tops. And there he was! the girthy man of my youth, just greyer 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.

Inspecting the crowd while Crowbar leveled imaginary skyscrapers, I saw chins up and eyes closed, people basking in that heavy low-end distortion of endlessly sustained fourths like clients at a tanning salon. I’ll say it again: 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 tricorder over somebody’s thorax, but, instead of chirping, what will come out is … Crowbar? (Or perhaps the opposite is true, and we’ll find that we’re all being concussed into idiocy.)

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 had 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 the Crowbars stomped around, 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 he have but to become the guitarist in a band that fetishizes the horror of the abattoir?), Carcass’s other founding half, thrashing away to Walker’s left. A Perpetual Thrashing Machine, he was the antithesis of 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 adjacent 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 a 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 miasmic chaos, 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 decadent phase 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 approach to 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 Amazon.com 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 and pioneering 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 suppressed, 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 it 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, like Walker, try to stay out of it (most grindcore and a few 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 germaine 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.

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 magnetic 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 deep into my coffee, I wait for the right moment to elbow him softly in the ribs.

*

“Dave? Dave Holland?”

“…”

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

“…”

“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.”

“…”

“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.”

“…”

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

“…”

“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!”

“???”

“Yeah, but I like the musical artifact, and frankly, I like buying ’em at shows, right off the artists, if I can swing it. 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 …”

“…”

“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.”

“…”

“Well, he’s basically saying that new technology, by changing the patterns and pace of life, changes the way people process the world. The electronic age, particularly television, marked this radical change in consciousness. People stopped thinking serially—words across a page—and started thinking simultaneously. And collectively. He’s sort of guru-y, tends to rely more on repetition than making a logical argument. Maybe he’s trying to dramatize his own thesis, justify it a priori? Still, I’ve started to wonder if he was right, if that’s why nobody reads anymore …”

“…”

“I guess it is sort of like jazz. Everyone in the band linked to everyone else, thinking together. Except he’s imagining of a whole society like that, ‘wired’ together by TV. He’d probably see the changes in music post-World War II and make a similar argument. 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’s is the only ostensibly ‘lead’ instrument, and Eubanks’s, to a degree, but they’re not any more prominent than you, or Obed for that matter—he certainly didn’t wait to step into the spotlight! Guy’s a freight train. Makes Tain look tame.”

“…”

“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?”

“@#$%&!!”

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

“…”

“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 …”

“???”

“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. But you, you had to leap halfway across the neck! Which you did effortlessly, by the way, or it seemed that way. Do guitarists just not think about that sort of thing, or do they do it on purpose? You must’ve played with enough of ’em to know.”

“…”

“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.”

“…”

“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.)”

“…”

“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 …!”

“…”

“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 …”

“…”

“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.”

“…”

“Oh, I’m glad you hate that shit too!”

“…”

“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.”

“…”

“[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!”

“…”

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

“…”

“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.”

“…”

“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.”

“…”

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

“…”

“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.

Un/coiffed

1

“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 a poster-boy for the young lions. He even looks a bit lion-like in his photo on the J-music website, with a wide, flat, handsome face and neatly-arranged beard and dreadlocks; a 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. An ensemble, that is, of roommies.

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.*

There’s a level of energy a young jazz band can reach that outstrips even the most inspired veteran, and that 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, partly propelled forward 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 debut and 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. They have all already achieved remarkable things. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that they had come to the Gallery this evening dressed up as the professionals they were still in the throes of becoming—dressed up as men. (If the suit fits—and it clearly does—wear it.) In the presence of so much talent, to augur bright futures is easy. But if I was going to vote one Most Likely to Succeed, it would be 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 percussive, Jaki Byard-style comping on the high end of the keyboard was equally on target.

Now, I know a band can’t really sustain that sort of millennial exuberance 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 inspired 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? One imagines—at least I do—that there was a time when musical mentors told the younger players, “Son, nobody cares. Just play the music.” 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 very antithesis of that headbanging on the blues, such that no dread threatened to escape from within his becomingly beige rasta 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, 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.

But then 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 band looks 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. One step away from a pink slip. 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. Of course, Miles was also taken to task for leaving the stage when his sidemen soloed … so six of one, etc.

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.

2

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 arriere garde museum-pieces inside 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, and everything else as repressed as it can possibly be.

Six Years in the Pit

Given the recent decline in production, is a year-end reflection warranted? It seems a tad self-indulgent. With so little to bite off—to riff on Shaw, about Henry James—one can become enamored by the sound of one’s own chewing. Should not proportion be considered above all? How can I not be a bit embarrassed, when I look at the “Recent Posts” widget and see “Five Years in the Pit” still on the list? A mere half-dozen new pieces about music; the full version of an already (half-)published piece in The Charnel House, because the journal where it had (half-)appeared kicked the bucket; some fun with site re-design: are these not the hallmarks of decline? The Romans must have been rearranging statues in the emperor’s palace just days before the fall.

I’ve toyed with the idea of making this blog seasonal. Since fall tends to be the heaviest teaching season, and hence the most difficult time to produce new work, it might make sense to do the planting then, and then cultivate and harvest from late winter through summer. A field must lay fallow a time for things to grow again, and that fallow time is deeply productive, even if what is happening isn’t yet visible. But—as my inverted agricultural year suggests—the seasons of the mind are insulated from the weather, and entirely independent of the tilt of the earth (though not of the ear). Better, I think, to let pieces straggle in as they appear, like travelers coming in from a storm, brushing off their coats, stamping their boots.

Not only has production slowed, but reflection comes a month late this year. April is the Pit Stop’s birthday, little as that means measured against eternity. I waited the extra month because I wanted to publish the most recent post, “Elastic,” before calling it a year. This for two reasons. First, since the year started with a longish piece on Ornette Coleman (“Ex Nihilo,” 6.3.15), the two profiles, Ornette and Miles, serve as nice bookends. But the Miles piece also bookends the history of the blog as a whole. Miles was the subject of the second piece I ever posted (not including the blog introduction) way back in 2010 (“Convalescing With Miles,” 4.14.10); and I think that considering these two pieces against each other gives a fair indication of where the blog has gone. This one is a hell of a lot longer—I’m almost embarrassed to say how much. (A note to myself, jotted among my first sketches for the piece: “This is just a tribute, so it doesn’t need to be long!”) “Convalescing With Miles” is impressionistic and personal; “Elastic” puts a greater emphasis on history and analysis. This is not to say that impression and personal narrative/response aren’t part of the new post; they’re still the bricks and mortar of how I approach writing about music. It’s just that they are folded into a piece with a broader scope … even if the seed of it was just to record new impressions of an old, beloved record.

I think the new Miles piece points to something else important, something I’ve mentioned before: that even though I’ve been listening to this album on and off for a quarter of a century, writing about it pushed me to think about it in a new way. It started on a hunch, something that happened in my ear; it turned into a quest, something that happened in language. The quest, in turn, forced me to go back and listen, and listen relentlessly, like I did to Ornette’s late ’50s and early ’60s albums last year. (It was also a great excuse to pick up some Miles records from the ’50s and ’60s I didn’t know.*) Is it silly to think that a music-lover and avocational music-writer needs to find an excuse to listen to Miles Davis? Perhaps. But such is the case. A brief anecdote by way of explanation. As a high school student (zzzzzzzz) I didn’t particularly enjoy English, this despite having had great teachers. I didn’t have the infatuation with Portrait of the Artist budding writers are supposed to (though I did really like the sermons on hell). The early American stuff we did was a painful slog. (“Billy Budd” still is—sorry, Herman, but I’ll take Redburn any day.) Poetry by and large left me cold. Oedipus was eh. Faulkner was just weird. But writing? I loved it. I was reading King, Poe, Barker, Lovecraft. It was only in late college that my eyes were opened to the broader terrain of literature—and this because of my desire to write. Ulysses ripped my head off—I had no idea you could do that with a novel. (I’ll stop there; you can wake up now.) The point is, writing back-doored me into English. And though my roots in music go deeper, I find that writing does the same thing here: it activates me, pushes me to listen more, and more closely, because I want to put my thoughts and impressions together in language. No surprise I added the Jacques Barzun epigraph to my front page (The Rotten Plank) this year. It has been a guiding star since I discovered it. For what I most want is to articulate this thing called music, so as to better understand and appreciate it; and my desire to articulate drives me to listen, annotate, write, and listen again.

In this way—I have argued this before, too—I find that writing about music takes on a life independent of the musical text in which it originated. More: I would argue that it should. There is a point at which listening ends, and revision begins, and through this the ideas begin to reshape themselves, and to coalesce around new ideas that depend, not on the music, but on the ideas themselves, and on the language in which they are enmeshed. Sometimes I do go back and listen to make sure I have not misstated, or gone too far afield, or outright invented—the music is still the text that the writing is ostensibly “about,” that the words are supposed to “reflect.” Other times I don’t bother … or perhaps don’t dare to. By the time the writing has finished creating itself, it must be able to justify itself as a text; it should not need the music to do so. I would rather believe there is something in those brave follies language steers me toward. And I would hardly be the first writer to founder on the shoals of ambition, that darkest of human desires (as the excellent recent horror movie Starry Nights illustrates), sailing my rickety little sloop of musical impressions foolishly onward into this mare ignotum. Such ends hardly matter, measured against the feeling of the wind on my face and the view of the crooked horizon.

I chopped a long footnote out of “Elastic” because it had no platform there, but it does serve as a good concluding example to the foregoing. The following remarkable passage about Miles comes from Whitney Balliett’s The Sound of Surprise (1958). With Davis’s legend secure by the end of the ‘50s, it’s easy to forget there was some ambivalence about his debut, as Balliett reminds us: “His approach consisted of an awkward blotting up of the work of Dizzy Gillespie. He had a shrill, mousy tone, he bungled more notes than not, and he always sounded as if he were playing in a monotone” (127). A decade later, Miles’s evolving technique and approach had gained Balliett’s qualified admiration: “In slow numbers, he often uses a tight, resonant mute and, by playing directly into the microphone, achieves a hollow but penetrating sound, like blowing into the neck of an empty bottle. At the same time, he employs economical, melodic phrases spattered with a good many off notes, which give the effect of his casually twisting the melody—as if it were soft metal—into lumpy, yet graceful, shapes. Davis frequently plays open horn in middle tempos, and the change is startling. Although his tone is still slightly sour, series of fat, delicate phrases seem to round it off. They are reminiscent of a man slowly and rhythmically beating a soft punching bag. Fast numbers appear to unsettle him, for he often relies on a fretwork of empty runs and unsteady spurts into the upper register. But in a medium-tempo blues, say, Davis is capable of creating a pushing, middle-of-the-road lyricism that is a remarkable distillation, rather than a one-two-three outlining of the melodic possibilities; indeed, what comes out of his horn miraculously seems the result of the instantaneous editing of a far more diffuse melodic line being carried on in his head” (127-8).

After six years in The Pit wrestling with all the demons entailed by the phrase writing about music, all I can really do with such a passage is stand back in awe. That last sentence nails something essential about Miles’s whole aesthetic; it is as though the lyricism that precedes it were clearing the brush for this realization. With the exception of Gary Giddins, I can’t think of a writer who even comes close to this. And Balliett and Giddins are as stylistically different as Rollins and Coltrane: one the consummate stylist, sharp, taut, lyrical; the other a polymath and volcano of ideas, his text a dense, allusive tissue. It is remarkable (and a little depressing) to consider the gap that separates them from the “merely” insightful—that is, from all the other great music writers out there. We hear the same thing in music—I’m sure you’ve witnessed this yourself, if you make a habit of going out—when mere talent has the misfortune to share the bandstand with genius. Their work transcends music criticism, as to constitute a wholly separate music. When I read a paragraph like the one above, Miles becomes vestigial, just as, say, Balzac becomes vestigial when I read the work of Roland Barthes. I mean, I could spin that Balliett paragraph on my turntable. I am happy to be excoriated for saying so, to die a martyr’s death for such an outlandish idea. I am sure Giddins would groan, and Balliett turn in his grave, to hear me suggest it. Clearly, it is impossible to conceive of the above passage without Miles—clearly! Impossible! But isn’t this the point of music writing: to create something that doesn’t simply live parasitically on the body of the music, but that can be read, listened to, with a pleasure all its own? That has its own integrity and life and identity and, like a bubble forming on the surface of the sea, eventually floats off, to shimmer in its own beautiful, radiant existence? In the contemplation of beauty we needn’t always scourge ourselves remembering what gave it birth. Just as in my most despairing moments I want to put down my pen and put on a record, so, when I come across a passage like that one, I wonder whether we need music at all, whether words aren’t enough.

*

I can’t end this Piteous reflection without the usual look ahead. As noted in the past, based on my hearing issues, memoir and book review would come to occupy a larger share of the themes on this blog, and so they have. Struggles aside—for that Waksman review (“Dr Heidegger’s Punks,” 4.16.16) there was so much I wanted to say that it became a hydra, and I am a poor substitute for Hercules—you, dear reader, can look forward to more reviews in the coming year.

On a broader scale, the contents of this blog are going to shift, much like those in your overhead bin do during travel. As I finish out my twelfth year at CUNY, I have been granted a sabbatical for lucky year 13. What could be more metal than that? Besides writing as much fiction as I can muster, my plan is to translate, working with my father, a classic Argentine study of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. While I’m engaged in the research and translation work, the blog will become a space to reflect. So, nestled among the usual commentaries and memoirs and strange offerings, expect a combination of personal reflections on Beethoven (under the working title “Letters to Ludwig”) and pieces about the joys and sorrows of translation (no working title as of yet).

Down … down …

 

* A friend recently asked me why on earth I still buy CDs. He doesn’t even have the technology to play them anymore, as I suspect is true of a lot of people. For a belated response, see the “addendum” I am posting, together with this end-of-year reflection, at the end of “Three-Legged Dogs” (8.21.15).

Elastic

milesSome years ago, while I was trawling YouTube for vids to show my Writing About Music class, I dug up a clip from one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts from the early ’60s. These were educational programs presented and televised with the purpose of introducing the youth of the day to classical music. The youth could have asked for no better guide than the charismatic Bernstein. Somehow, though, whenever the camera deigns to look at the crowd, it finds the faces of sullen, pimpled preteens slouching dutifully next to their parents. Watching, all I could think was, “In a few years, these kids are going to be dropping acid and screwing in the mud at Woodstock.” In my mind, the black-and-white of TV’s childhood morphed into the meridianal colors of the summer of love. If you want to see an image of the end of an era in embryo, you can’t do better than these youthful faces in the crowd.

Alternatively, if you want to listen to the end of an era, put on Miles Davis’s near-concurrent (1964) concert recorded at New York’s Philharmonic (Avery Fisher) Hall. Originally released as two separate records that divided ballads (My Funny Valentine) from “burners” (Four & More) in 1965 and ’66, respectively, jazz yin and yang were eventually re-bundled, if not re-ordered—the integrity of recordings commanding a respect that the integrity of performance apparently does not—as The Complete Concert. It is something of an irony that the Concert is regarded as a good “gateway” record for budding jazzophiles. True that, unlike Kind of Blue, the Concert is not the jazz record everybody buys, and then never buys (or even hears) another. Also true that, like what Robinson Crusoe salvages for his lonely island, the Concert could serve as the cornerstone on which to build, if not a society, then at least a collection. (That it is a double album makes it even more like Crusoeian; a box set, or better yet an iPod, would really capture the spirit of that text.) It is, in fact, the first jazz recording I ever owned. The irony is that I—and apparently so many others—would begin at the end: with a record that was tearing up and rewriting the old rules, laying the foundation not just for a new phase in Miles’s protean career, but for jazz.

Of course, I didn’t hear that at the time. I couldn’t have. I’m sure what I admired was the energy and brilliance of the playing. Even if Collin Fleming’s characterization of the burners as “speed-metal, punk, thrash-jazz” (on NPR) is more than a bit of an overstatement, it’s probably a good indicator of why this record grabbed me so hard at the time. But without context, it would have been impossible for me to hear what makes it at once culmination and transition. What I have elsewhere called archaeologies of listening—the ways in which we access and interact with the sedimentary layers where a genre, work, or recorded artifact fits into our overall listening history—determines much, if not all, of what we are able to hear. In the same way I could not hear Paco de Lucia as a flamenco guitarist until I was familiar with the forms and history of that music—when I was a teenager, he was just another fusion monster—so there was no way I could hear the boldness of this record until the jazz firmament was clearer to me, the other stars in this and neighboring constellations visible. Even more, albums that we hear at certain times in our lives, particularly influential ones, become mired in the moment, trapped in the amber of emotional memory, so that it is difficult to hear our way outside of our original contact with them. And then, even after we have acquired the adequate contexts for listening, our own ossified associations discourage us from hearing them in these contexts. Whereas a Miles album that is new to me is fairly easily “placeable,” this one resists being tugged from the shell that nostalgia has secreted around it.

But then a few months ago, after a number of years without hearing it, I put this album on, and those old tunes suddenly sounded new to me. My ear unsettled them, and I heard it, for the first time: the cuspiness, the intimation of a break. It is in fact right there, always has been, in the brilliance and energy of the playing I originally admired. The Complete Concert is still a desert island disc for me, insofar as that old fantasy still has meaning in the age of Pandora and Spotify (asks Crusoe, “Can I get a signal here?”). It’s just a different island.*

Perhaps it was the particular nostalgia that developed around this record, a “first,” that made it so difficult to hear it as one of the most anti-nostalgic albums ever recorded. Listening to it now, it couldn’t be more obvious the way the playing is bursting at the seams, taking all the pillows from Miles’s career—his standard repertoire, his approach and his sound throughout the ‘50s—and pullin’ the stuffin’ out of them. The musicians, with the partial exception of George Coleman, play around and with the tunes rather than in them. There is so much room in the sound they create. It is as though, with the revolutions of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, whatever Miles might have thought of them—and he didn’t think much—the artificiality of the old language had been revealed. But what to the free jazz player appeared solid and breakable became, in the hands of this quintet, fluid, elastic. And so, everyone holding an end, they stretch, and pull, their impulse not to dismantle, but—standing from points beyond, outside—to speak in a new way. In this respect, I suppose the Concert could be called a dialogic record, as much as it is a prophetic one: the replacement of George Coleman by Wayne Shorter,§ the move (as Gary Giddins notes) to more open compositional forms, and to new instrumentation, including electronic keyboards, and then electronics more broadly, funk, and fusion.

*

The first thing you hear from Miles, after a brief piano introduction by Herbie Hancock, is the breathy 1-2-minor 3 figure announcing the melody of “My Funny Valentine.” It repeats, the notes pushed out, like the horn is a bellows; then it ascends, crescendo, to a peak that hangs wavering for what seems an impossibly long time, before disappearing. If you know the version of “Valentine” on Cookin’ from a little under a decade before, all you can think of is the difference in scale: how much thinner is the (muted) tone on the earlier recording, how much more spacious the horn here; the resolve, the confidence on which such a brazen, unaccompanied climb must be founded. It is an unforgettable entrance. And it tells us a few things: that melodies are to be pontificated, sidled into, pilfered; that dynamics are key. Timbre and ornamentation soon take their place beside dynamics: notes are crushed and bitten off, inflated until they explode, or deflated until they vanish. They are pushed off cliffs, or slid into oblivion. And it isn’t just his horn Miles controls this way, but his band. They can swing as hard at a whisper as at a shout; and when they all arrive together, as they do—once again, unforgettably, a few minutes into “My Funny Valentine”—and Miles peals that split note, man, they’re all there. Part of it, of course, is that they take their sweet time. Over the song’s thirteen minutes, the rhythm section will fall in and out, swing will turn to bossa and back to swing, but without ever losing their sense of center or direction, their Ariadnian thread.

As with the melodies, so with the solos. On “Valentine,” drunken guffawing; pokes and scoops that again emphasize dynamics; repeated bleats, sometimes even shrieks; hooked-down notes. On “All of You,” a bird-call will to play the same riffs a few times before tagging some note and moving forward; on “Stella by Starlight,” flight-of-the-bumblebee trills, clips and whines. Those forever-sustained notes, like Miles is balancing something on his nose—and then a popping staccato. It’s this oscillation between the sustained notes and the dropped ones, piercing runs and flat, deflated-sounding tones like a tuned-down guitar, that gives Miles’s solos their intense vibrancy. Through them, he asserts that one needn’t be thematic, or even melodic, but rather that variety of gesture and tone can (and should) carry the brunt of the musical expression.

“My Funny Valentine” is also the tune with what is perhaps Miles’s most famous gaffe, or “fluff,” as the jazz critics graciously call them. As Giddins reminds us, where Miles is concerned, these mistakes were generally taken as a sign that something greater than virtuosity was at stake in his playing. (Giddins calls him a “confessional poet,” Fleming an “emotional virtuoso.”) What strikes me is where this particular fluff appears: right after the tune plateaus on a tranquil bossa. It’s hard not to hear Miles and his horn recoiling from the sudden influx of schmaltz—as though he had laid a trap for himself, and barely made it out alive. If this is an unintentionally humorous moment, there are others that seem more deliberate: on “All of You,” for example, and again on “There Is No Greater Love” (this on Four), he wears his mute like a child’s party hat, bleating away more shrilly than Don Quixote’s wounded sheep. Sometimes, the mute sounds less like an expressive tool—ironic or no—than a blade for cutting. At such moments, I imagine that what I am hearing is the sound of Miles flaying his old skin, before hanging it on a pike for the audience to politely applaud. This is artistic self-remaking at its most brash and merciless.

George Coleman (Blue Note)

George Coleman (Blue Note)

The difference between Miles and George Coleman on this record has been much remarked, and is evident from the moment the latter first appears some five minutes into “My Funny Valentine.” With Coleman, you immediately want to sing his lines; Miles’s you don’t dare to (you’d hurt yourself trying). The same schmaltzy “Girl from Ipanema” moment that Miles falls apart on, Coleman hops through, or falls dreamily into. Coleman plays patterns, Miles shards. When Coleman trills, it is in clear places of resolution or climax; Miles no. When Coleman harps a single note, it has a melodic purpose in that place in his solo; when Miles does, it is pure effect. He can be more abstract—in parts of his solo on “Walkin’” and “Four,” for example, he seems infected by Miles’s playing. But overall, Coleman tends to fall back on the same sorts of figures that are either conventionally spectacular, tuneful, or bluesy. Indeed, his touchstone is the blues; his solos tend to move from lovely minor melodies, quadruplets a la Freddie Hubbard, and modal nods to Coltrane, to riffs with a bit more dirt under their nails, an effect like the epigram at the end of a Shakespeare sonnet. Not to say that Miles doesn’t play the blues here; it could even be argued that the gestural, effect-heavy sound that Miles was consolidating around this time is more blues-inspired than Coleman’s melodic flights. But only Coleman returns to the blues and its stock figures with a regularity that suggests retreat.

The burners on Four & More are as revolutionary as Valentine’s ballads, but they shred the old tunes/old language differently. If the ballads are inflated into behemoths that ramble their way into odd, beautiful corners, the burners are played at Ben Hur chariot-race velocity. At these tempos, melodies begins to disintegrate,† and the resulting roughness of the unisons between Miles and (George) Coleman recalls Ornette Coleman with Don Cherry—which, as Ekkhard Jost writes in Free Jazz, are themselves appropriately “reminiscent of early Parker-Davis records.” Nor is it possible to sustain the syncopated pulses that Miles favored on “So Near, So Far” and “Joshua” (on Seven Steps to Heaven), and now attempts to add to “Walkin’,” one horn leapfrogging the other at the tail of the head, only for them to tumble down together. Needless to say, there is no time for the yawning strut of the 1954 original, no room for the lovely blurps and hiccups and stuttering around the beat that gave that version its preternatural swing. Here, the melody comes in gasps. (Better to call it sprintin’ … even if the down-home apostrophe-n of hard bop no longer applies.) The upshot is that the band is so tight, their sense of time and each other’s place is so intuitive, that they don’t need to be unified to stay together. Time has to be intuited more than heard if they hope to be able to ride the curling edge of time in the almost impossibly nimble way that they do here.

As on the ballads, the burners’ melodies are expressively disarticulated and circumlocuted. (Is that a verb? It is now.) Listen, for example, to the way Miles walks backwards into the head of “So What,” or, for that matter, the way he runs around Coleman on “All Blues,” the closest thing to a burner on Valentine. The overall effect, however, is different. If the ballads can be described as pushing rubato to the point that the melodies collapse into a timelessness, the burners are whatever rubato’s opposite is: not trying to humanize a theme by making it beat with heart instead of the metronome, but dismembering it, detaching it from its frame of reference. Solos break into the themes in odd places and at unfamiliar angles. Miles cultivates shorter, harsher, more angular phrases: snorting arpeggios, piercing shrieks, long, strident trills, slurs and brays, bumblebee chromatic runs that zigzag into the upper register. Even when the lines are not short, the melodicism of a few years earlier has begun to come apart. His attack is sometimes reminiscent of Django’s guitar; his timbre tends toward the hyperbright, like a wah-wah pedal pushed all the way down. The wailing flamenco style of this “Walkin’” would not have been imaginable a decade earlier, nor is it the same wail as on 1959’s Sketches of Spain. On “Joshua,” notes crowd out other notes; riffs start to go somewhere, then collapse back on themselves. We are left not craving the forward movement or the shape of a solo, but the rhythmic lilt around some unclear center and the plastic shapes of consecutively-clustered notes. Sometimes, Miles just rides one note for all it’s worth; he plays like he’s leaning into a wind.

There is an interesting paradox here in the way Miles and Coleman play with the rhythm section. As noted, the general perception of this album is that Coleman is distanced from the rest of the band—the “young lions” and Miles—by his more classic style, as though he were standing on shore playing his horn alone while the rest of the band rowed out to sea. The paradox is that, of the two, only Coleman mixes it up with the rhythm section, engaging in the sort of back-and-forth we expect of small-group jazz. You can hear Hancock’s left hand goading him forward, and clear call-and-response between the two on “All of You”; on “Seven Steps to Heaven,” Hancock selects the shuffle breakdown in Coleman’s solo for the introduction to his own. In some ways, it is actually Miles who sounds distant, treating the band more as a platform for his leaps than partners in conversation (they are invariably there for him—they better be!), and jumping them through hoops like trained fleas (they are just as quick—they better be!). On the melodies, Coleman, too, is often the stable base Miles jumps off from (again, “All Blues”). It may be typical of bandleaders in general, not just Miles, that they call and you respond; listen to Tony Williams’s bass drum answer Miles on “Walkin’,” or the stuttered notes on “I Thought About You”. On the other hand, perhaps it’s the very transparency of the dialogue between Coleman and the rhythm section that suggests the distance we hear: they have to hail each other to hear each other. Miles is integrated with them without his having to say anything, to do anything but play what he plays. And yet … sometimes Miles sounds like he’s in danger of floating away—“in the sky,” as his last recording with the Second Great Quintet (sans Coleman) put it, or just ready to walk out …

… which is, in fact, how he often ends his solos. Subdued, to say the least; with a shrug, or a stutter, or a chromatic leap to nowhere. His “Joshua” solo has the perfect walk-out end: it’s all body, all attitude—anything but harmony. The audience almost forgets to applaud; they don’t quite realize it’s over. Following Miles, the band sometimes ends tunes that way: letting them run out of steam, depressing the swing, draining the sound away.

Herbie Hancock (Blue Note)

Herbie Hancock (Blue Note)

A few words about the rhythm section, or at least about Hancock and Tony Williams—I’ll reserve my comments about Carter for some loquacious eternity. In a way, Hancock’s playing splits the difference between Miles and Coleman. While his figures are closer to Coleman’s, their organization, progression and rhythmic features are more arresting. Rolling chromatic figures recall Monk, when he is not outright quoting (e.g., “So What”); his percussive drive is sometimes reminiscent of Mal Waldron. Listening to Hancock on “My Funny Valentine” yields some sense of the variety and beauty of his playing, and particularly the way he takes Coleman’s figures and turns them on their head. The solo begins as a duet between he and Carter that becomes more steadily rhythmic over its first couple of minutes. From a series of beautiful, Debussy-inspired chords (at 11’40”), Hancock moves into a three-note figure that he develops, crescendo, and (in appropriately modern response to the chords) against dissonant, contrary-motion figures in the left hand. A few bars later, six staccato notes played on the upbeat, and Carter swings in after him. The blues appear, as they do throughout Hancock’s playing, here in a group of rolling slurred/doubled notes. Then an ascending figure in triplets, with a heavy accent on the downbeat. What happens next is (to my ear) remarkable: descending quadruplets in the same time, but against a swung rhythm that puts a downbeat on every third note, so that he falls in and out of phase with the beat. Since the triplets were accented on their last notes, and the quadruplets on their first notes, the last note of the triplets becomes the first of the quadruplets, and the two motions are welded together. It’s not just me who’s enamored of this riff: Hancock repeats it in a yet-more rhythmically oblique way on “All of You,” and even feints a third time, on “Stella,” before a fast run that rather abruptly concludes his solo. Attractive as it is, it is really just one in a constantly-varying array of rhythmic invention. On “All of You,” for example: from hard-swinging half notes into rising sextuplets (around 10’), then a double-time descent, then quadruplets (briefly), then 2-note figures that work against the grain of the beat, ascending, descending, one note for every two in the left hand—and then the quadruplet idea from “Valentine” reappears, but inflected differently. This is Williams’s doing: after failing to comment on “Valentine,” here he accents the first two notes of each descent, mimicking Hancock’s pattern. Who knows but that the manic on/off-time of his drumming was its original inspiration?

Of course, it’s possible that Hancock got the idea from Williams—God only knows what are the true genealogies of these riffs, the back-and-forth pre-history of jamming and gigging that results in what we hear on any particular recording. As for Williams, that oft-cited ride cymbal on the wide-open burners, always changing, never losing the moment, is a recording unto itself. The feeling it creates is night-and-day different from the hi-hat of the ‘50s: from fast shuffle to pace-clock, the 1’s and 0’s of an endless stream of code. His breaks are actually more spare, less spectacular, than his accompaniment (a little like Monk in this regard: the best fireworks happen in the corners of our ears, when he is comping). But then Williams is well aware of that night and day. On “Seven Steps,” in the very last break, he inserts three traditional swing beats on the hi-hat, followed by two light taps on the snare—and then the rest of the band leaps back into the melody (6’32”-4”). It is the opposite of everything else he does on this record—it sounds like a sample from the 1954 “Walkin’”—and so, like Miles and his mute, hard not to hear as parody, as cutting—in this case, of the hip-cat, square-glasses Mort Fega introductions that serve as both bookends and intermission: “Wet your whistle in the lounge, stretch your legs a bit … Take five, boys!”

*

There is a backstory to this record that is as irresistible as the music, and that has helped vault the concert into the realm of myth. The quintet was still pretty new, the venue prestigious; the occasion—voter registration efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as an homage to JFK—noble … the stakes, high. Miles, who was rich and famous, had decided the quintet would waive their fee; the rest of the quintet, who were not, balked. Tickets were expensive; for a still-emerging musician, there was a fair bit to be lost in such a venture. By the time they got out on stage, everybody was pissed off. Afterwards, they figured the concert was a botch. But producer Teo Macero knew different, and when the band heard the tapes, they did, too. In Miles’s terms: “We just blew the top off the place that night. It was a motherfucker the way everybody played—and I mean everybody. […] That anger created a fire, a tension that got into everybody’s playing.” “Fire” is in fact the most oft-repeated term in the story of that night, the wine-dark sea of this particular legend, the spur of the Ben Hur burners and the sinker for the expressive depths of the ballads. With this, the idea of the Philharmonic concert as a singular event took off: a kiss good-bye to the standard repertoire (Giddins notes that Miles would not record a standard again until the ‘80s); “a summing up,” as the liner notes have it—what are liner notes for, but to create myths?—“of all Miles Davis had learned to this point.” The CD packaging, which includes the staid Philharmonic program for that night’s concert, only further sediments the idea of the concert-as-classic. And when you put on the disc, before you hear any music at all, there’s Mort Fega, talking about “young Tony Williams” and “Miles … Miles Davis.” This is the concert everybody wants, myself included; the voice that you hear at the end of every installment of Ken Burns’s Jazz documentary, intoning: Nothing would ever be the same again. No one had ever heard anything like it before.

In the end, it all has a bit of a tendency to obscure the fact that the tensions that might have moved the quintet to such a brilliant performance that evening were not always creative—in particular, Miles’s unhappiness with Coleman, the odd-man-out and likely subject of that “and I mean everybody” in the quote above. Clearly, the record catches the quintet on a stellar night, and does a fine job of representing an important transition in Miles’s career. But it also seems essential to deflate the notion that this concert, this night, was anything more than representative of what Miles was doing more generally at the time. Live at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival, recorded about five months earlier, is as astonishing as Philharmonic ’64 … but in ways that are less comfortable for the myth. Much of what has been said about the ’64 concert could be said about Monterey: the “blistering” tempos; the shrill pulses, shouts, and Bronx cheers that were coming to define Miles’s style; the jazz-morphing tugging-at-time of his new rhythm section. They were even there, though to a much lesser degree, on Seven Steps to Heaven, the album for which Miles re-recorded half of the tunes with his new band. “So Near So Far,” which features only Carter of the new quintet, has the dramatically sustained notes and pulsing ostinatos that are simply exaggerated within the space afforded by the concert stage. The band has a tendency to stretch out more for Monterey‘s crowd, too—Bob Belden’s liner notes to the CD do a superb job discussing the role of Monterey and California culture in jazz’s burgeoning, forward-looking respectability—than at the stuffier, cause-heavy Philharmonic show.

But that’s just the point: in ’63, one gets the impression Miles was still finding his way out of the box, and the Quintet as a whole was still trying to find their sweet spot. The performance of “Stella By Starlight” on that recording is weak, particularly compared to the majesty of the ‘64 version. Perhaps they hadn’t quite figured out how to inflate a ballad to the size they wanted without losing its coherence, or Miles didn’t yet know how to channel his young rhythm-mates to approach a ballad as confidently as a burner—they had, after all, only been playing together for a few months. But it isn’t just the band; Miles himself is simply not on on this record the way he is in the ’64 concert (compare, for example, his solos on “Walkin’”).

If there is an exception here, ironically enough, it’s George Coleman. He steals the show. Not only does he sound more integrated than Miles, he sounds more willing to step outside himself, to enter the fray with the rhythm section, to meet them head-on. What a change, five months later. Thus, between ’63 and ’64 we’re hearing not just the consolidation of Miles with his new rhythm section, but the progressive distancing of Coleman. Comparing Coleman to Miles here, I can’t help but wonder if the “and I mean everybody” comment was directed not at Coleman, but at Miles himself.

All this acknowledged—myth debunked, center shifted, degree-versus-kind difference invoked—there is still an edge to this recording, the ’64 recording, a sharp, cutting edge you don’t hear at Monterey. Maybe it was the political context that had tilted in those five months, past the point of no return; the “fire” in the playing is the one James Baldwin mentioned in the title of his jeremiad, published the previous year, now licking at the country’s heels; that, while Miles was waiving his fee to register voters for Civil Rights, Tony Williams’s generation was listening to Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, as black militancy in the face of white intransigence morphed the movement inexorably toward Black Power. Maybe the aesthetic boredom with the old repertoire was not just about how to make a rote program exciting again, but the husk of a political kernel: the way those old tunes, not just the romances but all those tunes, masked something of the disharmony and violence of the country. Turning them upsidedown, shaking them, even gutting them—there’s a violence done here, the violence of violence unmasked. It is not, then, just the aesthetics of the music that is unmasked as artificial, but the entire political framework which made their creation and expression possible. It is the anger at the polite applause that appears when “All Blues” begins, ah, listen honey, this is a standard, a classic, before the band shreds it, almost in doubletime. An audience member’s shout, captured at one of Miles’s more inspired moments at the beginning of “Stella,” is its antithesis, a harbinger of the days of rage. Maybe it is not that ruptures happen so cleanly, in a single night, but that certain recordings more clearly and fully reveal the general tenor of the shift.

Hell, maybe it was about the money. But it was the young guys standing up for their money, refusing to be martyrs for a cause. You don’t sit down for the firehoses. You go get a gun.

 

* The “desert island disc” fantasy is the dystopia of an immutable taste and immutable identity. It strands us at a particular phase in our listening history. Although the idea is that these are albums we can’t grow tired of because they grow with us, the truth is that separating them from the surrounding ocean of music would cause them, and us, to stagnate. They become a static structure, only understandable in terms of each other, rather than dynamic points in our development.

§ Miles’s choice of tenor sidemen always tells us much about what he wants to achieve with a particular band, and what direction he is headed. Coleman’s situation in ’64 is a bit like Lucky Thompson’s, who, at least on the ’54 recordings with Miles, sometimes sounds like he stepped out of a ‘40s big band; I can almost see him stand up to take his solos. (A grain of salt, please; it’s the only Thompson I know.) Miles clearly drew energy and ideas from tenors who pushed him in new directions, like Coltrane and Shorter. Shorter seems to have had a particularly pronounced impact on composition, as can be heard as early as E.S.P., which sounds more like a mid-‘60s Shorter record than anything Miles had done up to that point. (N.B.: each of the band members composed a tune for that record.) In a lovely piece comparing Shorter to Coleman, the saxophonist Bob Mintz places Shorter in the ‘60s turn to greater abstraction, which Miles picked up on: Shorter’s is “an almost free jazz approach to grooves” where “harmony and melody were very fluid, and secondary to rhythm,” an approach he refers to as “time-no changes.”

† It’s interesting to consider the place of tempo in musical identity. In the hierarchy of musical elements that put us nearer to or further from the idea of composition, tempo would be at the bottom. Whether a musician plays a tune fast or slow is an interpretative choice that would hardly be labeled creative. What is remarkable about the burners on Four and More is that tempo is accelerated to the point that the compositions begin to come apart. These are tunes that seem to assert that tempo, humble tempo, if pushed to extremes, can yield a new identity. Speeded up, they are all but made new.

Dr. Heidegger’s Punks

waksmanWaksman, Steve. This Ain’t the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk. Berkeley: California UP, 2011.

 

In one of my favorite Nathaniel Hawthorne sketches, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” the eponymous doctor invites four aged friends to taste a water he claims will restore their youth. After demonstrating the effect on a half-century-old rose, Heidegger expresses the (sardonic?) hope that, in their second youth, his friends would become models of virtue rather than succumbing again to dissipation. Of course, his guests assure him, clamoring for a drink. The effect of the water is immediate: all four are rejuvenated, and end up parading around the room, admiring themselves in the mirror and ridiculing their former infirmity. Heidegger himself only watches. His friends’ behavior under the “delirium” of the elixir is enough to convince him that its magical properties are not for him. He is a different kind of mirror, a moral one, as so many a Hawthorne character and narrator is. Nor is the actual mirror in Heidegger’s study devoid of said quality. As the three men vie for the attention of the newly “girl widow,” “by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber, and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have [!] reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grand-sires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shriveled grand-dam.” Just in case the reader was looking for stable footing, the narrator claims that he himself “bears the stigma of a fiction-monger.” And so—again, typical for Hawthorne—there is a delicious, crepuscular ambiguity as to whether the transformation is real, or Heidegger is watching four old fools captive of a delusion.

I thought of Hawthorne’s sketch more than once while I was reading Steve Waksman’s excellent revisionist heavy-rock history This Ain’t the Summer of Love. In Greil Marcus’s classic formulation, the arrival of punk onto the scene in ‘76 was a “pop explosion”: “a moment of anxiety and rupture that created […] a stark sense of ‘before’ and ‘after’”; the “historical slate” had been “wiped clean” (Waksman 148, 149). And yet, as Waksman shows, for “a small but vocal minority” of rock journalists, spurred by “a mix of nostalgia, narcissism, resentment, and rebellion” (65), the “explosion” of ’76 was not really an irruption of the New; it was the Second Coming. For ’76 simply fulfilled the promise of Nuggets, Lenny Kaye’s legendary 1972 compilation of mid-‘60s garage rock, that last last great moment in rock ‘n’ roll history, whose youthful energy had been dissipated by the anathema of prog-rock pretentiousness and the tuned-in, introspective listening of the audiences for psychedelia (see Waksman 30).* Nuggets, Waksman writes, “embodied the search for a way to channel the most unleashed qualities of rock in new aesthetic directions and the desire to counteract the growing hierarchies—economic and artistic—that had developed around the music during the past half-decade” (66). Despite the emphasis on the “new” here, Waksman is quite clear that Nuggets was first and foremost an act of nostalgic reclamation (69). I can’t help but see them—Lester Bangs, Greg Shaw, Lenny Kaye et al.—standing around with their fingers crossed, haranguing passers-by with their vinyl pamphlets, like Jehovah’s Witnesses on the subway platform. Never mind the messiah, here’s the Sex Pistols.

For all the cynical posturing of so much rock criticism,§ there is something deeply romantic about this vision, and Waksman is not slow to point it out. Shaw, a self-proclaimed “rock purist” (50), believed that by the early ‘70s rock had “lost the ability to represent youthful desires in […] a direct way” (52-3; my emphasis); and it was by this lizard brain-to-neocortex ratio that the worth of all rock was to be measured. Ideally, the denominator must approach zero, and so the ratio infinity, until the audience brushed up against the asymptote of a Maenadic orgy of self-annihilation. To live suspended between two utopias, watching, waiting for the next artist who would “save” rock ‘n’ roll—by which we can only mean ourselves from the consciousness of our own aging and imminent death—strikes me as simply the Heideggerian impulse writ large. Indeed, it is the very warp and woof of post-‘60s America.

I think it was Jello Biafra who said he hated punk nostalgia. How ironic, then, that punk should turn out to be all nostalgia; that the answer to the perennial question “How to keep rock young?” (Waksman 145) should be through periodic injections of the past. Of course, this is as much a polemical exaggeration as Shaw’s: the “new aesthetic directions” are as important as the spirit of rock revived. I will return to this later. For the moment, suffice it to say that punk as “pop explosion” is a hyperbole of wish-fulfillment; that a secret history (Marcus’s subtitle to Lipstick Traces) is still a history, a tradition, a canon; and that the story is clearly more complicated than razing history by cultivating the barbaric yawp of hormone-addled teens. Waksman’s task is to tell this more complicated story. How is it that this odd beast called Heavy Metal, hardly the tiny mammals of the paleontological imagination, survived that icon-shaped meteor called Punk? Why did Metal, as The Dude would say, abide?

*

The mythology of punk had to be constructed against something, and that something would be metal, unruly child of prog and the blues, the dark twin from which punk was separated at birth. Indeed, the labels—punk, metal—are historically so fractious and ideologically charged that we’ve forgotten the days when Bangs et al. were singing the praises of early Grand Funk (and even Black Sabbath) for carrying something of the “squalid” (66) garage-rock aesthetic into the era of the stadium, and when GFR could be lumped together with The MC5 and Stooges around ideas of spontaneity, unleashed desire, and populism (67). This Ain’t the Summer of Love is a fine remedy for the cultural amnesia that has hampered our understanding of these two genres’ tangled histories.

“Metal and punk,” Waksman writes in his introduction, “have enjoyed a particularly charged, at times even intimate sort of relationship that has informed the two genres in terms of sound, image, and discourse” (7). Rather than a fixed boundary between them, he posits a “continuum,” through which “generic boundaries have been continually tested, sometimes to be remapped and other times to be reinforced” (10). Waksman is interested in re-telling the story in such a way that punk and metal mutually illuminate each other, and to highlight not just tensions and antitheses, but the reciprocity and cross-pollination of their imbricated evolutions. By redefining the relationship between overtheorized (to the point of fetish) punk, and the until recently (and perhaps still) undertheorized heavy metal, the study spurs us to “question some of the assumptions that have led to the canonization of punk as the last great moment in rock history” (17) … and as such, to hear rock history differently.

Waksman might quibble with me here (and there, and everywhere), but This Ain’t the Summer of Love strikes me as deconstructive in spirit.† By unearthing the nostalgic wish-fulfillment that impelled the “canonization of punk” as the antithesis of “dinosaur rock,” Waksman dismantles a critical binary by which the two genres have often been distinguished. The goal here is neither to invert the hierarchy (metal rules!) nor to eradicate distinctions (metal IS punk), but rather to reveal the role of ideology—where metal simply becomes the foil against which to shore up punk’s authenticity, the scapegoat onto which punk can cast anything it cannot countenance in itself, the representative of the worst excesses to which the spirit of rock can be degraded, in order for punk to believe its myths about itself—in the way the two genres are understood and understand themselves, as well as to map how each genre has impacted the other in that “charged, intimate relationship.”

Another example: The desire for mass success has generally sat better with heavy metal than with punk, which repudiated the machine of rock stardom. In this formulation, heavy metal comes to represent the capitalist means of production of the “rock-industrial complex” (stadium show, major label, etc.), punk the conscious, liberated masses (however un-mass they might be) existing in authentic relation to the band. And yet, early punk bands found it difficult to spurn the crowd or the major labels when they came knocking. Were said bands therefore un-punked, “sellouts,” their authenticity just another pose? Writes Waksman about the uncategorizable Dictators: they “thumbed their noses at the terms of rock-and-roll success but still continued to struggle mightily for it” (127). It is a comment that could be applied more broadly.

Of course, binaries are like rabbits, or characters in the Pentateuch: one is continuously begetting another. Slow versus fast, pretentious/arty versus gonad-driven, spectacular versus intimate, passive versus active, hierarchical versus democratic, centralized versus decentralized, amateur versus virtuouso, etc. (I will not presume to identify the pater-binary here.) While it is true that differences in musical practice and production are expressions of differing ideologies, the genre labels have the effect of exaggerating them, erecting artificial barriers along the “continuum,” distorting how we hear the music, and deafening us to points of merger and cross-influence.

I would take this one step further and argue that, from the perspective of heavy metal, music and ideology form a binary of their own. That is, metal would like to believe it has no ideology, would understand itself as a purely aesthetic phenomenon, with music and musical practice at the center of the subculture. This makes sense, given its historical love-hate relationship with the mainstream. Punk, on the other hand, was always conscious of its ideology, or of itself as ideology. The music was of a piece with it, but was never understood as an entity separate from it. For punk, the music was a sort of caulk to hold the subculture together, present in every nook and cranny, but not itself the scene. The opposite is true of metal: the music is the scene; the metalheads fit themselves into those cracks, bearing up the music together. Music creates solidarity in metal, rather than being one (perhaps the highest) expression of it. (According to this formulation, no matter how punk-influenced metal has been, the answer to the question, “Is there metal beyond metal?” which was posed at the 2013 Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference (see “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein,” 5.24.13) must be “No.”)

Perhaps, if punk is more a creature of ideology than of its aesthetic expression (e.g., anti-virtuosity and -complexity), it is as much in need of metal to give it musical life as metal needs that other thing punk has from time to time given it: attitude; energy; the dismantling spirit of noise and a dissonance edging into atonality (and anarchy) that visits rock whenever it becomes too enamored of its own edifices. Without metal, punk burns itself out; without punk, metal ossifies. Again, since metal pretends it is not ideological, it is happy to draw on punk for inspiration, including musical inspiration; whereas for punk to do the same can only appear a betrayal, since one cannot delve into metal without dragging the whole kit-and-caboodle of its (reactionary, hierarchical) ideology behind.

If we look to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) era, we are left with the fascinating and troubling suggestion that metal became metal via punk, found its voice because of punk. (It reminds me of the scene in Invisible Man where the protagonist makes white paint by stirring black paint into it.) Here, metal becomes metal not via the mirror of its Other, but by incorporation—that is, because of a certain level of “impurity.” So, just as there was no pure rock in some past utopia that we can remake in the present, so there is no pure or true genre; it is essentially contaminated, always in the process of making itself, cobbling itself together from the bric-a-brac of the musical past, subject to the forces of media and market. Its achievement is aspirational, and endlessly deferred. Ah, these quixotic attempts to redeem the sinner and refine the defiled! The “purity virus,” as we might call it, can be quite as debilitating as what Bangs called the “superstar virus” (Waksman 54). Now, in “taking in” punk, was metal paradoxically infected by the purity virus—the very same virus that leads punk to define itself against metal as ur-representative of the musical past? Perhaps. But it may have been just enough to inoculate it: to create a firm yet still-porous membrane that would allow both a relatively stable generic identity and the possibility of change … and thus the preposterous longevity which has so flummoxed its detractors. Perhaps punk was necessary to show metal that it does have an ideology, and so to help it come to consciousness of itself as a genre.

And punk? Since punk is the privileged term, it has the privilege of pretending to be sufficient unto itself: punk is punk is punk. Or: punk is pure negation, an anti-genre, nothing without the contours of the generic history it mythologizes itself razing to the ground, an energy that “infects” other genres, and that is the essence of its paradoxical purity. Or: punk is … punk is …. After a time, defining punk comes to seem as elusive as locating the proverbial True Scotsman. Punk, the fleeting utopia (was it actually ever there?), the grail-shaped elementary particle created in fiery collision, decaying at the instant of its detection.

*

There is a danger here, no matter how fine a blade one uses, of treating the genres monolithically, of re-stabilizing the very generic binary Waksman would have us think about fluidly, historically. (Notice how much of the above is written in the present tense.) All this talk about binaries is making me hungry … for history, that is. And since the above admittedly weaves far away from Waksman’s study, which is so firmly grounded, it is high time we re-grounded ourselves in the text.

Perhaps something of the foregoing discussion can help reveal why metal’s place throughout the book feels a little problematic. The idea that punk was a sort of reservoir from which metal could draw energy, “revitalizing” it during periods when it was flagging, and pushing it in ever-more-extreme directions, makes metal the dependent genre. Only when metal had developed “an underground energy of its own” (239) would the current be freed to flow in the opposite direction, helping to release hardcore from the mirror of its fetishized purity, polluting it with the dungheap sounds of Black Sabbath, Ted Nugent, and AC/DC, and producing first crossover as a self-consciously hybrid genre (D.R.I., Suicidal Tendencies, C.O.C., S.O.D.), and eventually the more thoroughly-digested hybridity of grunge. Then again, perhaps the feeling of imbalance is an inevitable product of the way rock history has been written; the Standard Model always exerts a gravity on any counternarrative, be it about minority populations or minority musics.

Regardless, the history Waksman tells is compelling: nuanced in argument, deeply researched, and smartly contextualized by cultural changes in twentieth-century Britain and America, from suburban male tinkering to the changing meaning of postwar youth culture. Not surprisingly for a book about “crossover and conflict” between countergenres,** chapters are dominated by pairs—GFR and Nuggets, Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop, The Runaways and The Dictators, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. “Death Trip,” the Cooper-Pop chapter, is particularly insightful about these two figures who stood at the headwaters of the generic division that would emerge over the ‘70s, initiating both aforementioned founding differences (e.g., large-scale spectacle versus intimacy and authenticity) and shared fixations (victimization, death, gender ambiguity). In the third and fourth chapters, Waksman turns his attention to early attempts at crossover. Some of the most interesting material examines the way ‘70s bands’ hybrid identities and competing agendas made them unstable. For The Runaways, for example, the tension between Joan Jett (punk) and Lita Ford (metal) tore the band apart. A few years later, Iron Maiden would more successfully negotiate a similar tension by ejecting the offending matter—original singer Paul D’ianno, whose voice, stance, and look screamed punk—and consolidating their image around the operatic Bruce Dickinson (201). With D’ianno, Maiden had been touted as a crossover band; even the original Eddie, the band’s endlessly-mutable mascot, clearly bore the marks of both genres (see 196).

What happened between The Runaways and Maiden that allowed the latter to enjoy at least a few pre-thrash years straddling the two genres? One word: Motörhead. Only peerless Motörhead, mother of all crossovers, get their own chapter. They were noisier and dirtier and less bassy than other metal bands, albeit proficient enough instrumentally; in Waksman’s lovely phrase, “their music was all distorted rushing surface” (165). Both punk and metal writers in Britain claimed Motörhead as their own, whether as the fulfillment of the sound Johnny Rotten prophesied, or as stripped-down heavy rock without a political agenda and a biker look to boot (160-1). Audiences for Motörhead were motley assemblages of punks and metalheads, a phenomenon that would continue with Maiden and the NWOBHM. For Sounds writer Geoff Barton, for example, a 1979 concert of NWOBHM bands featuring Maiden “showed that punks were not so ready to leave the musical past behind as they were often portrayed, and that heavy metal retained a vital degree of currency amid the social divisions that defined the British music scene” (177; the words are Waksman’s).

Punk’s impact on metal would become increasingly transparent—and oft cited, though not without occasionally disparaging comments on punk musicianship (166)—as the ‘70s drew to a close, penetrating to all levels of musical activity: independent labels, local scenes (even if these were meant as stepping stones to stardom rather than ends in themselves), and more extreme styles. It was NWOBHM bands like Raven and Venom who would push the quest for a new, metal-specific authenticity the furthest—that first injection of “punk attitude,” as both D’ianno and Venom’s Abaddon put it (195, 199)—and so have the biggest impact on the rise of the ‘80s metal underground. Mixing a noisy, DIY sound with metal themes, Venom claimed to prefer a punk label to being classed with “unworthy” heavy metal bands (194). In their marginalization from the heavy metal mainstream, they became the genre’s “ultimate purveyors” (195), using punk to scour away any and all extravagances, and redefining the fringe as the new center.§§ A couple of years later, as the meaning of the New Wave shifted, so did the NWOBHM, toward a pop-friendlier sound of short, tight songs with catchy leads (e.g., Def Leppard). Thus, as the different sounds, fates, and degrees of influence of Motörhead, Maiden, Venom, and Leppard show, the impact of punk on metal in late ‘70s/ early ‘80s Britain is ambivalent, even contradictory. While it is true that NWOBHM was an attempt to “come to terms with the impact of punk,” “metal bands of the time were as likely to be reacting against punk as incorporating its values and features, and may have been doing both at the same time” (209).

This true-versus-mainstream divide arising from British metal’s uneasy late ‘70s/early ‘80s interaction with punk would soon take on a decidedly Atlantic cast, with the distinctly un-punk and orthographically-challenged Leppard pandering to American audiences, the same audiences who would soon be buttering the bread of SoCal proto-hair bands like Quiet Riot and Mötley Crüe.†† Meanwhile, independent American labels were beginning to foster stateside underground scenes, helping to pave the way for American crossover. SST, founded by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, grew away from hardcore dogma so that, by the mid-‘80s, their catalog was offering a mix of punk and metal—including Black Flag’s own divisively metal-inflected My War (1982). For Waksman, SST helped “legitimate the inclusion of heavy metal in the independent realm” (228), even as he notes that metal was already creating its own version of DIY culture via its European connections (the Danish fanzine Aardschok, for example, and the NWOBHM). With the emergence of originating thrash metal bands like Slayer and Metallica further up the coast, hardcore ‘zines began to sit up and take notice; some began to call for détente between and even unity among the two scenes.*** Independent Metal Blade would go on to record crossover pioneers D.R.I. and C.O.C. Eventually, the “Seattle Sound” would be built from the bricks and mortar of these crossover tendencies, fused by the isolated and closely-knit musical culture of that city. For Waksman, SST and Metal Blade each had a role in fostering crossover, but only Seattle’s Sub Pop “made the combination of metal and punk into the basis for a broad-based youth culture that reshaped the rock music industry in the first half of the 1990s” (254); it was “the one genuinely mass-oriented music phenomenon […] predicated on the interplay between heavy metal and punk” (301).

This Ain’t the Summer of Love ends like a classic novel: in marriage (with children!). But did the couple live happily ever after? The outcry over Metallica’s headlining Lalapalooza, five years after they went “alternative,” suggests that grunge was only a partial, or momentary, resolution. Waksman’s reading of the evolution of Lalapalooza is brilliantly on-target: “It was almost as though the 1960s-70s shift from festival rock to arena rock was being replayed all over again in the context of a single annual event” (304). By beginning at the dawn of the ’70s and concluding with the Blue Öyster Cult song from which the book takes its title, Waksman suggests that, to truly understand the evolution of punk and metal, one has to go back to that very shift, to the genres’ dual emergence on the other side of the Altamont faultline. BOC’s “This Ain’t the Summer of Love” is a postmortem for “the pastoral, communitarian mythos that surrounded [rock ‘n’ roll] at a particular point in time […] 1970s rock is not about going back to the garden, it’s about riding into the night noisily and with abandon” (297).

As Waksman shows, there are different kinds of gardens; garages will do quite as well for flowers as Golden Gate Park. But the anti-nostalgic impulse carries a danger as well: the fantasy that history can be scraped off of the present, and time begin anew. (Indeed, the anti-nostalgic impulse may be just cloaked nostalgia.) If punk and metal were “efforts to reinvest rock with meaning after the perceived demise of the 1960s counterculture” (18), then what meaning(s)? To what extent revived, imported, contemporary? The central question of the book may be not about the mutual influences between musical genres, but about how to engage with the past without succumbing to either nostalgia or resentment; or without, as James Baldwin once wrote, either drowning in it or replacing it with a fantasy.

*

Some twenty years later, where are we? Sometimes I wonder if, for people of my generation, the genres are as polarized as they ever were. Waksman’s personal story, which he glosses in his introduction, is familiar to anyone who grew up in the ‘80s and invested him or herself in either or both of these genres. He identified as a metalhead; his heavy metal T-shirt marked him as “other” in that epicenter of hardcore, Orange County. But he listened to some punk, and, after his punk college roommie discovered him spinning a Black Flag record, he started going to shows. I grew up three thousand miles away, but everything about Waksman’s narrative resonates with me. We grew from Led Zeppelin and Rush toward something starker, darker, heavier, filtered into punk or metal depending on a variety of social and cultural circumstances. I had metalhead friends who who drew a more or less firm line between metal and punk, and others who tried to find their own positions between the two, and even among Brit-lithium bands like The Smiths and The Cure. One, a diehard Metallica fan, floated me my first hardcore in the form of early Tendencies, D.I., and Blag Flag’s Family Man. Another, a one-time skinhead, later became an enormous influence on my taste, seeding me with Beefeater and SNFU while I did the same to him with Voivod: places where divided currents rejoined. We all have stories like these, friends like these: holes poked in the seemingly impregnable walls of genre, notes and cigarettes passed between, smoke blown through, this no matter how wedded we were to our perfectly masturbatory musical identities.

Today, I find that those who held a firm genre line tend to be nostalgic for a certain tribalism, before everything got thrown in the hopper and blended up—before, say, a band with a violin could be called metal, and kids in Brooklyn listened to country. Waksman’s point about grunge’s tangled genealogy, its deep hybridity, is borne out by the way these hard-line friends hear it, whether they subscribed to the metal or punk-cum-indie rock side of the line. Kurt Cobain, for example, is contested terrain. He is generally understood as a punk hero by indie rockers, and the antithesis (one even sees this in Waksman) of grunge’s other multiplatinum success story, Pearl Jam. My nostalgically metalhead friends (you know, the ones who think music died with the ‘80s, was briefly resurrected in Pantera, and then died for real) also have a hard time swallowing Pearl Jam … but some of them claim Nirvana for metal. Alice in Chains has always gone down a lot easier, and even Soundgarden, despite their propensity for parodying metal. But the reticence about miscegenation runs deep as identity. On my end, I love Pearl Jam—I hear not just ‘70s rock, but punk and The Beatles in them, and much more; their ballads leave me feeling like a wrung-out towel—and never developed much of a taste for Nirvana. Then again, listening to my iPod on shuffle in the car, I find myself increasingly skeptical of the old allegiances. The music jumps from Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime to Slayer’s South of Heaven, both from ‘88. To what extent was it ever possible to understand these bands as belonging to the same all-encompassing parent genre? My beef is not with evolution per se, of course. I just sometimes marvel at the arrangement of the phyla, always a conventional frame laid over what is indeed a continuum, and—at least where the consumption of music is concerned—usually done so by forces outside of our control.

And the “kids” today, where are they at? Barring statistics about tastes and attitudes, the only evidence (once again) is anecdotal. And what anecdotal evidence I can muster is ambiguous, even contradictory. On the one hand, the taste of younger crowds seems to run the gamut—“genre be damned!” seems to be the rallying cry today—and bands post-grunge happily draw on both “energies.” Cobain himself has acquired the same legendary, common-property status that Jimi or Joplin have; he seems to be the only such figure that has currency among today’s youth audience for rock (which is also why he is contested terrain). In the local music ‘zines where I live, the same publications appeal to both metal and hardcore fans, although there is still a good deal of attention paid to which aesthetic a new local band more or less subscribes. On the other hand, genre has splintered to such a degree that micro-identities seem to isolate audiences within not just genres, but subgenres. If the resulting constellations are not always predictable and channel-able as they once were, they can be just as fiercely guarded. “Crossover” bills may make money, but perhaps only because they gather enough people from different audiences and scenes, not because the audiences themselves cross over … even if the Cro-mags fans aren’t kicking the shit out of the Slayer fans anymore (one wonders if this was the case back in ’79 in Britain as well). Add to this the retro- aspect of today’s audiences, with neo-punks and neo-metalheads digging deep into ancient catalogs, and constructing identities from the bones of their forefathers, and one begins to wonder if that nostalgia for tribalism, be it around punk or metal, propagated by music media, has been absorbed by the youth of today as a way of shoring up their own identities against the endless stream of available music. Or perhaps it is simply natural for youth to crave the sort of ready-made identity that popular music provides.

From the standpoint of contemporary politics, there is a (for me) happy payoff to Waksman’s study. For one of the great values of This Ain’t the Summer of Love is that it so well demonstrates the contingency of the border between the two genres and scenes. For the most part—and I will focus on America here—the suburban youth who patronized hardcore were as alienated from the traditional working class as they desired to be from the plastic world of their parents; the proletariat remained theoretical. Meantime, the working class was listening to arena rock/ metal; their politics were reactionary and populist. (Surely a large number of suburban youth also populated that audience, and became much of the audience for ‘80s underground metal: one that aped the working class, as Deena Weinstein showed … but was devoid of both working-class roots or a revolutionary ideology.) Between a working class that embraces capitalism aspirationally, and which finds its greatest exponent in the Horatio Alger rock star, and a disaffected suburban youth without any authentic connection to that working class, who scowl and sneer at “the system,” but are entirely impotent to effect change: “punk” and “metal,” labels that help drive the ideological wedge between the middle and working classes, pitting them against each other for the benefit of the 1%.

But to return to aesthetics, and to my beloved monoliths. Punk and metal have always needed each other to check each other’s worst excesses; they are perhaps best construed as warning labels: stay away from idealized poles, where ideology is mistaken for life. What else could have saved hardcore from drowning in the mirror of its own purity, or from the delusion that it was the vanguard of the apocalypse? And what could have saved the lumbering, masturbating spectacle of metal from itself, if not the noisy anti-energy of punk? Each of us might put our fulcrum in a different place along Waksman’s “continuum,” but some Cygnus there must be. There must be a similar balance, I think, about the way one approaches the past—between, that is, nostalgic romanticization and anti-nostalgic rebellion; between death by drowning and a life of fantasy. For Waksman, the success of grunge seems to have been its ability to negotiate both generic and generational pitfalls: “resources from the past became the means to counter the orthodoxies of the present and to create a new synthesis that melded hardcore’s radical sense of refusal with the ambivalent embrace of heavy metal excess” (298). For the artist of today, weaned on notions of the anxiety of influence and in a culture that is at once hyper-aware of the immediate past and with the technological means at its disposal to both endlessly confront and endlessly recycle it, negotiating the opposing pitfalls of nostalgia and rebellion seems the essence of the creative struggle.

*

Oh, dear. This is a ramshackle house of a “review.” Some very nice individual rooms, you will agree: so pleasantly decorated, the grillework so fastidiously done over, the wallpaper fascinatingly intricate, and mirrors, my God, mirrors everywhere, making everything appear larger than it is. But it is true that, viewed from a distance, it is a bit of a monstrosity: an amalgamation of strange, misshapen additions, as though there had never been a hearth. I won’t even tell you about the rooms left on the drawing board; the Alice Cooper-Iggy Pop one was particularly beautiful; perhaps they will become future additions, or better yet, outbuildings. For now I am running—running, abandoning the place, before I have the urge to grab my tools again, and build yet more rooms, and renovate old ones … and even to re-decorate rooms that will later fall to the sledgehammer! As afraid of my own desire to look back as Lot. When I have reached a minimum safe distance in time, the great gravity of this house only enough to make my teeth sing, and my pen has turned into a pillar of salt, then, then I can begin to dream of returning.

 

* Perhaps even nostalgia about nostalgia, a Third Coming. In his third chapter, “The Teenage Rock ‘n’ Roll Ideal,” Waksman takes us even further back, to the lost teen utopia of the 1950s: America’s Garden of Eden, the competing figures of Gidget and The Wild One, the beach kid and the juvenile delinquent (111-112). America, Christopher Hitchens once said, has a talent for misplacing its innocence. Anyway, among the many strengths of Waksman’s book is its close attention to the pivotal role media—journalism, radio stations, record labels, and anthology recordings—play in shaping musical genres, and by extension music history.

§ Bangs may masquerade as a cynic, but … what a gloriously seductive costume. I can’t think of a rock writer I read with more pleasure. I am generally too happy getting lost in the whorls of his language to bother stepping back to disagree. N.B.: Bangs, for one, recognized the tension between what he called “The Party” and self-consciousness (see Waksman 56), and tried to solve it in typical Bangsian fashion, that is, by recourse to his methamphetamine style.

† Deconstruction itself has become (must become) an object of nostalgia. It does seem oddly apt to use an intellectual tool that came to prominence in the ‘70s and ‘80s to discuss changes in music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. To each time, its tool. That said, I am not sure why intellectual tools should fall out of use. If I am trying to pull nails out of the floor (of culture, in this case), a claw hammer is going to serve me as well as anything since invented, and perhaps better than anything yet invented. Interpretative frameworks—generally cobbled together from different disciplines, grafted with varying degrees of success—are as maniacally sought after, and just as prone to obsolescence, as any other commodity … and therefore, as much a product of the ideology they are ostensibly used to critique, no? Anyway, a new area for eBay to exploit.

** The term is Heather Dubrow’s; I might have done well to raise it earlier. Countergenres are genres that “work according to a set of norms that are implicitly or explicitly drawn from and at times opposed to each other” (Waksman 9). Waksman notes that relationships between genres and the transformation of genres are undertheorized.

§§ Waksman draws on the concepts of mundane and transgressive subcultural capital to analyze Venom’s role (184-5). For a fuller discussion of these concepts, see Keith Kahn-Harris, “‘You Are From Israel and that is Enough to Hate You Forever’: Racism, Globalization and Play Within the Global Extreme Metal Scene,” in Metal Rules the Globe (Duke UP, 2011); and my own discussion of Kahn-Harris’s argument in “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein” (5.24.13).

†† One of my favorite anecdotes in Waksman’s book tells of Def Leppard’s Joe Eliott stripping off the union jack to reveal the stars and stripes. The equation of authentic or true heavy metal with Britain is nowhere better stated than by Rob Halford a few years later: “The USA still looks to Britain as the true origin of Metal […] I honestly don’t think that there has ever been a true American Heavy Metal band!” (333). Judas Priest, as Robert Walser once noted, aspires to be genre-defining. For the irregular ways in which claims to authenticity intersect with masculinity and social class, as well as with nationality, see pages 201-206 in the Waksman.

*** A shout-out to Pushead (Brian Schroeder), who wrote so passionately about punk-metal crossover for Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll: “Now the crossover has happened and the 2 underground energies are colliding. This is speedcore. There is still hardcore and metal, but in a general sense, the ferocity and quickness brings a unity for those who enjoy it” (239). Today, Pushead is best known for the artwork he produced for Metallica. He should also be remembered—fondly? disturbedly?—for fronting over-the-top speedcore band Septic Death.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow

annieYou are indeed always a day away. Is this cause for hope or despair? For Annie the eyeless orphan, hope, naturally. Corollary: the present sucks. But you’re supposed to forget this when you’re immersed in the song, tumbling down the diatonic staircase to future happiness, become as much a child as the performer. It must be sung by a child, the less proficiently the better (as I heard it, endlessly, helplessly, one morning on an Amtrak train), to express the perfect naivete, the utter conviction of the position you, the listener, are expected to adopt. To create a surrogate present. To wallow in hope. No wonder she doesn’t have eyes, this Tiresias reborn as Pangloss: all she can see is the future, and it’s roses, roses all the way down. Or maybe she dashed them out, not, like Oedipus, to punish herself for her arrogant blindness to prophecy, but to better signify her willful neglect of the present. The dream may be deferred, but for little white Annie, it never dries up, rots, or explodes. Hell, it doesn’t have time to, the play is so quick in rewarding her (and the audience) for her stubborn will-to-hope by making tomorrow today. The orphans are not the sans culottes, storming the barricades of their conniving wards, cutting off their heads, burning the orphanage to the ground. A bizarre mixture of charity and Keynesianism ensures that the wicked are punished and Annie lives happily ever after. No surprise, either, that this Depression-set tale of hope would resonate with a bankrupt city in the year of the blackout. Only in hindsight does the Depression reveal its function in our grand historical narrative, redeemed by the New Deal and the economic expansion beginning with the Second World War. We can follow this tendency as far back as the American jeremiad, as Sacvan Bercovitch (re)interpreted it: straying from the righteous path is only ever a detour to fulfilling the glorious mission that God intended for this nation. America is Annieland; even Disney’s Tomorrowland simply technologized the seeds brought by the first English settlers; and it was Disney that would be coming to save New York, too (morrow), though audiences in 1977 wouldn’t have guessed it.

It might be fruitful to compare Annie to Jane’s Addiction’s own paean to tomorrow, “Jane Says” (the definitive version is on their live first record, Jane’s Addiction, 1987). Here, in dreamy, sustained-fourth choruses, the eponymous Jane says she’s “gonna kick tomorrow.” The verses describe her hard-knock today, and the way she’s planning a new future: leaving the abusive Sergio, quitting junk, saving to “go away to Spain,” etc. But if Sergio comes back, well, “Tell him to wait right here for me/ Or try again tomorrow ….” It’s that “tomorrow” that carries us into the chorus, the change in tone suggesting the fantasy that allows Jane to escape the vicious cycle of her life, musically encoded in the tick-tock two-chord progression of the verses. It matters much here that Annie sings in the first person, while Jane’s words are reported, except in those choruses, where Perry Farrell assumes her voice. She hasn’t started saving, of course. She’s the one who needs saving. But this is no “22 Acacia Avenue” (Iron Maiden, The Number of the Beast, 1982), the idealistic young working stiff saving Charlotte the prostitute from her own perdition, metal’s version of Daddy Warbucks, told in his voice. No one’s going to step in and rescue Jane, not even against her will. But then she has no will. “She’s never been in love”—so the last verse reports—and the chorus that follows, eschewing the “tomorrow” of the first two: “I want them if they want me.” Jane is the anti-Annie; no fighter, “she can’t hit”; she is devoid of the ability to start anything, least of all her own life over.

Tomorrow proves to be more than Annie’s john—she doesn’t care whether tomorrow wants her; she’s in love; and even more than Annie’s pimp, it’s her long-lost daddy. But tomorrow is most certainly Jane’s pimp. Hope is stripped of its romantic aura. She says a whole lot, but is unable to do; tomorrow remains a word, a word expressing a dream, a dream curtailed the moment the word is spoken, deferring it, ever deferring it. The explosion happens—“she takes a swing”—but is impotent. The dream, hope, is the addiction. Unlike Annie, which entices us to see the Depression folded into the narrative of America’s bumpy road to the future, and envision the same glorious destiny for a beleaguered present, Jane is trapped in the moment: skid-row L.A. in the 1980s, in the ashes of Reagan’s California, shrilly calling out the fantasy of Morning in America. If Jane could only wake up! A few years later, the messiah would arrive, not as a New Deal, but a Neoliberal Bubble. But then Jane never made it that far.

And yet, satirized as it’s been, Annie’s “tomorrow” is not devoid of irony, just as Jane’s is not devoid of that willful hope. With Annie, the adult listener is at once moved by hopefulness and aware of the wider context, the hard-knock life, the potentially delusive nature of that hope, at least as it appears outside the theater. Conversely, we can’t help but be moved by Jane’s desire to change, even as the song’s fatalism makes Perry Farrell’s crooning of that word so grotesquely ironic: a bell tone that opens no doors, a bird call without answer, hovering and falling from the same hopeful fifths, chorus and verse … the same fifths Annie hits, even as she suggestively surpasses them (to-mor-row, 5-6-5). Make no mistake, Jane goes out saying, saying, saying. They’re sisters, Jane and Annie, they share an ambiguous genealogy, Jane the grown-up Annie who might have been, in another possible tomorrow.

Tomorrow, Janis once said, is the same fucking day, man … except that, as Pink Floyd is always singing in the continuous present of some classic rock radio station somewhere in America, you’re “Shorter of breath/ And one day closer to death.”

Here’s to a great 2016!

Three-Legged Dogs

A Partial Chronology of Butchered, Bruised, Worn, Defective, and/or Repurposed Recordings I Have Known

Analog, sigh. It was a time of cobbling, of gaps and seams, of defects as a matter of course. A combination of economy—blank cassettes cost an order of magnitude more than blank discs—and technology—the culture of obsolescence that arose around the inability to manipulate damaged discs. Now, discs have given way to a shadow-world of music without material form, without fingerprints.

It’s true that a recording is always to some degree a ghost. But as the technology has changed, and with it the recorded artifact, so our relationship to music has changed as well. It’s less intimate, I think, than it used to be. Less personal. The once-obvious seams and crooked hems, the weird silences and truncated ends, the nicks and quirks and tics and scratches and skips: there were just so many spaces we could fit ourselves into. So many things could go wrong without scuttling everything, and there was so much room for us to screw up. And then we had to learn to live with it, like we had to learn to live with the imperfections of our friends and siblings, our parents, our lovers, ourselves. Accident or defect (occasionally a happy one) or a history of wear marked recordings as ours, marked us in turn. It didn’t make them obsolete; sometimes it made them that much more valuable, that much more endearing. An old scar, a maimed rescue. A paperback held together with rubber bands. Jeans you couldn’t wear out of the apartment—we used to be able to wear our music that way.

This is not intended as an exercise in nostalgia, personal or historical, though nostalgia does have its place here, of a weirdly masochistic sort: for the sometimes maddening way our music misbehaved, and that we misbehaved with it, wrestling with the plastic-yet-resilient media in which it was embedded, and which we quite consciously took for it. Our suffering and our struggle created a relationship, a bond. A mutual devotion.

Without further ado, then, a very partial chronology of my three-legged dogs.

*

1981. When David Z. got Moving Pictures and Dirty Deeds for his thirteenth birthday, we played “Tom Sawyer” over and over until the kid who lived on the other side of David’s semi-detached house, who was a year or two older than us and wore a gold chain, told us to stop. That day left a groove in my ear. Or maybe a skip. Before I ever got a chance to tape Moving Pictures, this same neighbor got hold of it, and—so his story went—his little sister whacked the needle while the record was playing, right at the beginning of “Tom Sawyer.” How convenient, having a younger sibling, particularly a younger sister, for a patsy. Maybe it was his way of getting revenge on us, for killing that song before it even had a chance to be born. Maybe he was calling attention to the fact that we were acting like a scratched record, picking up the needle and carrying it back to the beginning of “Tom Sawyer.” Anyway, when I put David’s record on to tape it, the opening synth swoosh had been chopped in half; the record jumped right to a heavily-truncated first verse: “A modern day war—” and then into the main chord progression. That was the Moving Pictures I taped. I listened to it relentlessly. It was the only version of “Tom Sawyer” I knew, unless I happened to catch the song on the radio, or hear it at another friend’s house, until I bought Moving Pictures on cassette a year or two later.

1982. My store-bought cassette of 2112 was defective. In the last section of the side-long title track, Alex Lifeson is supposed to intone “We have assumed control” three times, and then whammy-bar the low E until the feedback rings out the song. But on my tape he said it only once, and then the music, the climactic, cataclysmic roar of “VI. Grand Finale,” abruptly stopped, followed by the tape itself, Click—this being a time when the technology of recording was not so far removed from that of mousetraps. On side 2, “A Passage to Bangkok” picked up with the last two notes of the “oriental riff,” and Geddy Lee started right in with “Our first stop is in Bo-gota,” etc. The opening unaccompanied guitar riff was entirely missing—which makes sense, as it was the other side of the same chunk of tape that should have contained the end of “2112.” I always figured that tape was fucked up, but never had the gall to return it. I mean, what if the much older, much cooler record store clerk looked me in the eye and said, “Retard, it’s supposed to end that way?” Could I really risk being that much of a loser? About my favorite band? And so I didn’t hear how “2112” really ended until I bought the live album All the World’s a Stage the following year. But that is an abridged live version, so how could I really say they hadn’t changed the ending for the concert? Here’s the real kicker: When I finally bought 2112 on record and heard the “real” end of “2112,” I was disappointed. In terms of endings, it’s by far the weakest of the three side-long suites the band produced, utterly deus ex machina, as abrupt and contrived in its way as my defective tape. At least the cut-off ending had a certain daring, an admission of failure, like one of those “O! Something!” Melville endings. Suffice to say it’s become quite precious to me now, all that missing music. Or at least “2112” has. “Bangkok” really suffered. The problem is I couldn’t put one back without the other.

1983. I’m still tight with Billy Joel’s Glass Houses, but there was period when I believed I should disparage it, a rite of passage, you might say, and what better way to do so than to record Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast right over top of it? I mean, steamroller that Billy Joel shit into oblivion. I remember the thrill of learning you could actually do this by stuffing wads of toilet paper into the square notches (a.k.a. love handles) in the corners of a cassette. Blank tapes had little tabs over these notches; after you made a recording, you were supposed to break them—the ends of scissors worked well for this—to safeguard the product. But it turned out that even if you broke the tabs, you could reverse the process with wadded toilet paper. And so you could repurpose any store-bought tape. In fact, you could record over anybody’s shit, if you had that sort of a mean streak in you. Man, I loved popping Billy Joel into the cassette player and having Maiden come out the speakers. Instead of “You May Be Right,” “In-VA-ders.” Maiden, my mighty Norsemen, severing the limbs and burning the corpse of that wretched Saxon Joel.

1983. I copied my friend’s Screaming for Vengeance record over one of my dad’s classical piano tapes. I’m sure I had his permission. (I’m not being ironic.) When I put the tape on, there was this lovely little piano lick—seven or eight climbing notes, lasting maybe a second and a half—and then, Bwaaaang!, “The Hellion,” SFV’s instrumental prelude, landed on it like an atom bomb. Here’s my best guess how this happened: Cassettes have about five seconds of lead before the magnetic tape begins. When you taped a record, you had to make sure to start recording after the lead; otherwise, the music would start before the magnetic tape did, and you’d miss the beginning. (In fact, since the piano lick starts in the middle of a phrase, this is likely what happened to my father—which was maybe why he gave me the tape to use.) The easiest way to skip the lead was to turn the wheels of the cassette manually, with a pen or your fingernail, until the black magnetic tape appeared, then insert it in the recorder, set PAUSE and RECORD, drop the needle, and un-PAUSE. But if you forwarded past the lead, and there was something already recorded on the tape … well, there it stayed. I still can’t listen to “The Hellion” without hearing that scant piano lick—it adds so much to the song it’s a shame the Priest didn’t think of it themselves. It probably helps that, in all these years, I’ve never been able to figure out what the piece is.

1985. I spent a lot of time this year copying classical records from my parents’ collection, including one of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. The ppppp introduction of the “Freude” theme is, as you may recall, bowed on the basses; and the dynamics of the symphony are such that, unless you’re blasting the whole thing—which I wholly endorse—you can’t even hear this introduction without turning the stereo way way way up. And even then you’ve got to crouch beside the speakers and hold your breath, feeling about as deaf as Beethoven. On that old record—or rather, the tape I made from it—the imperfections in the vinyl are louder than the basses; the theme is almost lost in the hiss; the music seems so insubstantial that the medium is straining to capture it, like neutrino tracks caught in miles of lead. There is something about being on the cusp of not hearing the beginning of that theme, those yearning basses so deeply buried in the hiss and crackle, rising as the theme develops and is distributed throughout the orchestra, that (for me) cannot be disassociated from the symphony itself. As though the limits of the medium reflected the very distance from which the theme had to travel to reach us, and the impossibility of our yearning as we try to reach through the material that stands between ourselves and the music, an otherworldly visitor. Such hamstrung listening was also about creating the figure of Beethoven for this impressionable and romantic teenager.

1986. When Judas Priest sold out with Turbo, I threw the jilted fan’s tantrum and recorded over all my Priest.* Or almost all. A lot of it, anyway. I kept two ninety-minute cassettes’ worth—I wasn’t quite so betrayed, I guess, that I couldn’t carefully preserve my favorite material: Unleashed in the East in its entirety, and select songs from the rest of their catalog—like an enraged divorcee stumbling out of the house with her favorite lamp tucked under one arm. The challenge was to keep certain songs on albums without using more tapes (one doesn’t squander precious resources on the Judas, the scab, the snitch). So I had to find equivalent-length songs to squeeze into the gaps created by the songs I was deleting. Of course, though I tried every possible mathematical combination, there were no exact matches, and three sides of those tapes (that is, the sides without the untouchable Unleashed in the East) are marked by unnaturally long gaps where I had to let silence fill the space until the next previously-recorded track. There is also at least one glaring error (“The Last Rose of Summer,” I think, partially retained). (N.B.: I had taped my Priest off a friend with whom I no longer spent time; he had taped my Maiden; this was typical of the symbiotic relationship that defined music trading in those days, i.e., pooled money, shared resources.)

1987. My record of Permanent Waves had a skip right where “Natural Science” moves into part 2, “Hyperspace,” so Geddy Lee would sing “Our causes can’t see their e-ffects,” followed by a short tom roll, and then the song would go on: “e-ffects” (buddulup-bup-bup) “e-ffects” (buddulup-bup-bup) “e-ffects,” etc. And not even on beat: the tom roll ended a little early, not quite a full measure, which in itself was tricky and sort of cool, at least the first few times, and, in hindsight, points the way toward a detour to some other relationship to my music, a perilous road not taken, at least until some years later.** Whenever I listened to that record, I had to remember to walk over to the turntable and knock the needle gently out of its groove so I could hear the rest of the song, and save myself and my band from the limbo of e-ffects (buddulup-bup-bup). Since I no longer had my store-bought cassette handy, just as happened with “Tom Sawyer,” I got used to hearing “Natural Science” this way until 2009 or so, when I found another copy in a crate of records someone was getting rid of in the basement of my Harlem co-op. The super had already taken his pick.

1991. The year of the Police Squad! mix (in color!), among the finest mixed tapes ever made. I hope its recipient, Patrick U., has kept it, with the intention of eventually bequeathing it to a museum. It paired choice late ‘80s/early ‘90s rock with snippets from the TV show Police Squad! (e.g.: “Who are you, and how did you get in here?” Leslie Nielson: “I’m a locksmith, and … I’m a locksmith.”) But as with so much of this time, it is also a recording of a process: walking down the stairs to where the TV/VCR was; setting the tape up in the little portable tape deck (the sort with the retractable handle in front of the deck and the single speaker behind it, the generation before the boombox); getting the VCR ready; waiting for the house to be quiet; recording open-air. Then trudging back upstairs to the living room, where the stereo with the CD and turntable was, to record a couple more songs; then back downstairs, etc. Of course it sounded good, the way the berries you pick taste better.

1993. At the end of my first year of grad school, I got a tape of An Anthology of Tom Waits from a friend; it was taped over a Vanilla Ice cassette that her Japanese students had given her as a gift. She had turned the label inside out, matching her purple cursive against their green print. I value the names of Vanilla Ice songs written in the hand of Japanese students I will never meet almost as much as my friend’s cursive … though neither as much, it must be admitted, as hearing “Ol’ 55” or “Diamonds on my Windshield” or “The Piano Has Been Drinking” or “Burma Shave” for the first time.

1998-9; 2002-3. An ambitious project of making salsa mixes from Latin music shows on Columbia’s WKCR 89.9—initially “Caribe Latino,” which used to air on Monday nights from 10-12, and then Friday Night’s “Mambo Machine,” as well as occasionally the cumbia show on Wednesday eves, and the Sunday-afternoon Latin shows on WBAI, although their yield was considerably lower. I wouldn’t hear the tapes until the next day or weekend, like they were traps set for crabs. (When the show was on I was usually grading papers with the volume all the way down, or out somewhere.) Had I (or my partner) flipped the tape without missing too much between sides? Had I gotten so lucky as to record the part of the show where the DJ rattled off names and artists? It was, to say the least, an imperfect process. There are tracks that cut off in the middle, and tracks that start in the middle, and tracks with gaps in their middles where the tape had to be flipped, though the bits I got, whether beginning or end or beginning and end, were too good to throw back into the sea. There were tapes that caught the first half-hour of the graveyard experimental/ambience program “Transfigured Night,” which was the first way I ever heard Runes, for example, and speaks to the happy accidents and contingencies that come of casting the net widely—you’d be surprised at the sort of things that lurk in the abyssal deeps of radio. And then there is one whole side of a 90-minute tape (I think it’s volume 7 of the 22 I managed to finish) where the radio signal was coming in … poorly. It was the Machito festival—KCR specializes in marathon broadcasts to celebrate artists’ birthdays and passings—and they were playing all this son stuff from the thirties, and where the fuck was I going to find that again, back in 1999? There are places where the static is so bad you can’t even hear the music. Maybe I was a fool to keep it. But there it is, Machito, fading in and out, and me like a ham radio operator, catching the electromagnetic waves from some Siberia of time, an echo-wave reaching me from deep in the past.

*

Enough. But I’ve barely scratched the surface. All those tapes glitched by the faulty connection in the white jack in the back of the receiver, so that the lefthand speaker crackled and made bands stutter (e.g., Maiden, “Die With Your Boots On”: “No point a-a-asking who’s to blame.”). The Forbidden Evil tape that would garble and unspool, a loop like a hernia, that my friend Pat F., who worked in the local video store, helped me to cut and splice, so that it worked again, but a couple of seconds of “Through Eyes of Glass” were lost, right as the song is leading into the second verse, “My mind is one, now has the crystal power,” etc. An entire post could be written about mixed tapes, audio letters and sentimental objects par excellence.

But to return to the issue of materiality. It might be argued that music exists somewhere beyond the medium of the recording, in some essence apart from it, and to seek perfection in technologies of reproduction is to allow us to better approach and perhaps capture its spirit. My Beethoven example above seems to suggest this, although it is encased in metaphor.

Yet, I would tend to the opposite: the recording is the music, or all we can have of it. Or, perhaps better put, the recording as a physical object exposes the essentially and inescapably material nature of music. And never moreso than when a recording is mangled or otherwise faulty. A music-phobic way to listen to music, then, to try to purify it of the very stuff from which it is made. To imagine bathwater and baby so essentially different. I think that we have lost a certain solidarity with the material world; and, lacking it, we have come to lack something in our relationship to art, which is, first and foremost, material.

And so, when I hear people talking about their high-fidelity systems, their 180-gram mint-condition vinyl, their thousand-dollar needles, their surround-sound speaker set-ups, their subwoofers that make the glass of water set upon their marble countertops shudder as if Jurassic Park’s T. Rex were walking by … how can I help but sigh? Give me ink smeared thick as frosting across a smooth white page. Give me a typewriter with a broken TAB key and a ribbon you have to rewind by hand, like the magnetic tape of a cassette. I want to be able to feel the way the nibs of different pens slide across surfaces of different kinds of paper, feel the ridge of the slight dent made by the typewriter keys, as though it were braille, hear the din of language being made in the smoking factory of thought. Give me a music, as much as a language, that I can touch. Speakers bowing under the weight of sound, smouldering oil lamps, sawdust and stale beer, the creak of old pews, or of an old guitar when a string is torqued one step higher.

Spirit, spirit, spirit. Haven’t we had enough of that? If I can’t touch it, can’t smell it, does it deserve to be called music?

 

* I have heard this sort of thing was widespread in 1991, when Metallica released the “black” album, and betrayed fans everywhere responded by etching out the Metallica from their collections. Two points follow. One, betrayal is, of course, a powerful way to create cohesion, and it might be said that Metallica’s apostasy produced the genre of thrash metal as a discrete historical object—that it couldn’t have become so without that boundary-forming betrayal (as, earlier, thrash bolstered its identity by defining itself against the apostasy of hair metal). Second, consider that Metallica’s apostasy is perched on the cusp of metal’s splintering into a number of subgenres. I have compared the circa-2005 thrash revival to the Second Great Awakening (“Burned-over,” 8.3.11), and now I wonder if a similarly fruitful comparison couldn’t be made to 1991: the mainstream deemed to have fallen away from the true faith, and the subsequent (or concomitant?) splintering of the genre into sects.

** Not to suggest that my relationship to music was entirely devoid of irony or humor. One of my first great mixing projects (with a friend) was to create a song composed of lines from Rush songs in combinations that made them ridiculous, like an audio version of those channel-changing cartoons in Mad magazine (e.g.: “We will call you Cygnus, god of/ [click] The hypocrites.”). And talk about seams: this mix was so primitive that it was pretty much nothing but seams. That said, there’s no question that we often need to be pushed out of our listening grooves, and, as at least two of the entries above suggest, such defects can open up new ways of listening. Not to add to hip hop apocrypha, but it’s not difficult to imagine that damaged vinyl played a role in the origins of sampling, just as scratching re-purposes the recording artifact for ulterior musical ends. (… But then where to put Steve Reich?)

Addendum, 5.25.16. On reflection, I think there is another reason why I tend to privilege recorded artifacts over streaming music from the web. It goes back to a comment sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris made about listening in the internet age, which I discussed in “T-shirts and Wittgenstein” (5.24.13): that the instant availability of music creates a “crisis of abundance,” leaving the listener without the time necessary to process, or engage deeply with, or fully reflect upon, what he or she hears. Recursivity and focus is replaced by breadth, and—this more an echo of the recent stream of publications about cognition and the net—the listening mind comes to mimic the web. In this regard, the artifact serves as a kind of stopper, the proverbial finger in the dike holding back the sea of music raging behind it; a means to manage the rate of access to new music that would otherwise deluge us. We might say this is a subsidiary role of all media: not just to provide access, but to limit, to act as a screen. To some, such a choice of listening habits may sound parsimonious, even Puritanical. I would prefer to think of it as Hellenic: the ideal of moderation, a means of maintaining or restoring some measure of (in this case) aesthetic health in an age of decline.

Dry Hump

TraderJoes440My mother is in the car. My father is at the post office, which is housed in a building indistinguishable from the businesses in the rest of this strip mall. I am at Trader Joe’s, or, as my mother called it until quite recently, Traders Joe—a Spanglishism that results, I would guess, from hearing possessives as plurals, and perhaps from a tendency to confuse the order of parts of speech, as in abbreviating shopping mall as el shopping, or calling The Rolling Stones Los Rolling. That she has at last learned the correct name of this grocery store is, to me, a more potent demonstration of Americanness than her citizenship.

From the second handicapped parking spot I could already hear the music, some song by Los Rolling I didn’t recognize; and now here I am, jutting my chin to Mick and the gang as I dig through the cornucopia of snack mixes—Tempting Trail Mix, Go Raw Trek Mix, Rainbow’s End Trail Mix—in the guiltless banana republic, the outpost of some sunny SoCal empire, that is Trader Joe’s. Shopping here is a cross between safari and beach vacation; I feel a tiny bit colonial, but innocently so. Perhaps it’s because every aspect of the experience is as managed as a Disneyworld ride, up to and including the adorable hippies in Hawaiian shirts carrying signs the size of butterfly nets and restocking shelves with Trader Joe’s products, or one of its cuddly ethnic variants, as recognizably Traders Joe as the Lone Ranger with that teensy-weensy mask stretched over his eyes. The employees at the registers seem a bit too old to be working here, and a bit too cheerful. In fact—again reminding me of Disney—everyone is a bit too cheerful, to the point of seeming a little on edge, so that I can’t help but scan their eyeballs for an amphetamine shiver. And maybe that’s why, despite the crate-and-burlap kitsch of the decor and the lockstep branding of the products and the Pangloss vibe of the staff, shopping here carries a whiff of adventure, of potential danger.

Or maybe it’s the rock-n-roll. Digging through the nut mixes, it occurs to me that the music is a little loud—at least, a little louder than I am accustomed to in such an environment: the blow-up cushion of smooth jazz on which I float at, say, Kroger, or ShopRite, or the yoga-mat silence of Whole Foods. Clearly, the music is a little too present; I have—God forbid—paused to listen, to think, I don’t know this Stones tune, to wonder if I am too disdainful of the British Invasion, or just plain ignorant. I am thinking about The Stones rather than Fancy Mixed Nuts, or any other of the almost-equally-desirable snack products with which it competes, filling the shelves before me. The music has ceased to serve its function, that is, to focus me on and funnel me toward consumption, to create a hypnogogic state conducive to the dreamlike spending of money.

But my distraction is temporary, and soon enough I find my rhythm again. This is just a different kind of store, and so a different kind of shopping is demanded of me: hip, rebellious. Every item that I throw into my cart is a flip of the bird to the grocery-store past, with its long dim aisles and sullen, pimpled checkout girls and pedal-operated conveyor belts. This ain’t no ShopRite! (Bam!) This ain’t no Kroger! (Whap!) This ain’t no …

But this is nothing compared to what awaits me around the corner, past the well-ordered meat and dairy items and brightly-packaged vegetables, past tortillas in all the colors of the Mexican flag. The Stones song ends, and on comes Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded,” same volume, but seeming louder—that middle-of-the-dial, talk-jock in-your-faceness, the sort of shit Clear Channel has used to pave our cultural interstate highway system. On classic rock stations across the country, the same Foreigner tune, at the same hour, like church bells reminding the faithful to … well, to what, exactly?

You don’t have to read my mind. F, C, G. To know what I have in mind. F, C, G. Honey, you oughtta know. I oughtta know. Damn it, I oughtta know. What am I here for again? Bananas, that’s right. My mom is waiting for bananas. But I am in the frozen aisle. Clearly there are no bananas to be found here.

Well, you move so fine. Danish Pancakes, yes. Let me lay it on the line. Glu-ten Free, Toas-ter Waf-fles. I just wanna know. Choc’late La-va Cake. What you’re doin’ after the show. Choc’late La-va Cake.

I’m trying not to dawdle. But for all these products in their open freezers, like bleachers full of adoring fans, wanting me. Worshipping me. If they had their way, I’m sure they would strip off their packaging and jiggle their contents at me, before jumping right into my mouth. Bananas might as well be in an alternate universe.

Up ahead, a pair of employees chats happily, the female sitting on the railing of the open freezer. And here I thought it was just me, Foreigner, and micro-fetish food items. I am afraid they will engage with me, greet me, ask me, with a wink and a nudge, if I need anything. So I lower my head like a cuckold and push by, listening to Foreigner, who are now asking her, “baby,” if she “do[es] more than dance.”

Do they hear it? How could they not? And when some stripper with a ‘70s haircut and pasties thrusts her hips into my imagination, fingers laced behind her head … do they see what I’m seeing? (My God, where did that come from?)

By aisle three I am beginning to feel just a little goofy, to the point that I wonder if I’m participating in a psychological experiment, or some Candid Camera-style TV program. An elderly woman blithely pushes her cart toward me, a blissed-out expression on her face, reminding me of the mall walkers I witnessed just an hour before—my first encounter with said species, I am unaccustomed to malls, they induce in me the sort of vague dread some people feel when you say the words “uranium enrichment tubes,” or “marriage equality.” Beyond her is a young mother with a toddler, the toddler pushing a toddler-size shopping cart, mom probably a toddler when this song came out. And all the while, Foreigner continue to stroke themselves through the PA:

Are you … hot, mama? Are you old enough? Is my timing right? Did you save your love for me tonight?

Man, seriously? I feel like Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I want to scream, Don’t you hear it? Doesn’t everybody hear it? Like I’ve been hurled up to the ceiling, to look down on my shopping self from among the festive, half-tumescent beach balls, loudspeakers blaring beside my ears.

Instead, staring intently at the coffee (organic, shade-grown or bird-killing, nature-despoiling: it’s up to you), I start to giggle.

It’s about time, though I’m not entirely sure if it’s victory or surrender. And then I feel self-conscious, again. For even though it’s okay for the employees to laugh—it’s probably listed in their job duties—it feels wrong for me. I almost expect someone to come and, smiling, lead me out of the store by the elbow.

I reach down and squeeze my bag of Fancy Mixed Nuts, feeling the air inside the package push threateningly against the seam; and I vow that, though I must walk the gauntlet of every item in this store, I will make it to the bananas, I will return with them to the car by the time my father is out of the post office … even one as newly beholden to the gods of efficiency and world-is-flat progress as Trader Joe’s is.

Besides, I have to know what brand-stamped global treasures the next aisle might hold. What desires will I discover? What half-naked natives will I see dancing when I spread apart the plastic leaves? This: Reduced Guilt Kettle Chips! Right next to the South African Style Potato Chips! Hilarious ironies of product placement! And this: Giant Peruvian Inca Corn! Who knew such a thing existed? And how did they get these giant Peruvians into the country?

And look at this: Cookies and Cream Cookie Butter! So much for reduced guilt! Indeed, Foreigner informs me that we can make a secret rendezvous. But before we do, you’ll have to get away from you-know-who.

I hold the cookie butter like contraband, plastic and pinstriped, a sort of lard vibrator. I think: So this is what it has come to. Or, rather, this is what it always was. Or, rather: Look what I have come to. Or something like that. Chorus, chorus, repeat and fade, Ponging I to IV, V to I, music endlessly consummated, consummation endlessly deferred. Of course: everything else happens backstage, after the show, all night.

Slowly, I return the cookie butter to the shelf.

It ends better for Foreigner than it does for me. The bananas, in the last spacious, bright aisle, are a letdown. A little bit spotty. A little bit green. Even the guy at the register seems disappointed. Like he was expecting more from me. He’s supposed to smile. He rings up the bananas and the Fancy Mixed Nuts. I pay with a credit card.

Maybe Muzak just doesn’t cut it anymore, at least for post-boomers and geriatric hippies: a more vigorous genre is required to prod us up and down the aisles. Still, you would think the irruption of the crass sex anthem that is “Hot Blooded,” an engine built for stadiums full of hormone-addled teens dry humping amidst wafting pot smoke and puddles of vomit, into the pristinely-ordered, tightly-managed grocery-shopping bonanza that is Trader Joe’s, would do some sort of damage. Except that Foreigner are about as dangerous as gluten-free toaster waffles. And this has nothing to do with some historical transformation into retro-hip, or embarrassing kitsch, or the staid label of “classic rock,” or a Tom Frank-style conquest of the cool, where, say, Bob Dylan or Los Rolling have been appropriated (inasmuch as rock ever needed to be) to sell Coke or credit cards. Nein. Foreigner were born fully assimilated. “Hot Blooded” was castrated at birth. 1978 was the year George Romero’s zombies invaded the shopping malls, the year mass consumption finally found its appropriate metaphor.

It’s the titillation of adolescence teetering on the edge of forbidden knowledge, the fantasies of sexual abandon and mastery, that we consume, in tightly-controlled environments of endlessly-proliferating commodities—songs, noodles—packaged to look diverse. Wandering up and down aisles, sitting in traffic jams, scanning the statistically-selected music on devices that obsolesce before our eyes, all the well-ordered routines of late capitalist life, cookie butter rebels toggling from stadium to stadium, store to store, dry hump to dry hump, as guilt-reduced as the coupling of rock star and groupie, over and over and over again.