Here there be downloads

May 16, 2009

Various albums of mine have finally made it online in digital download format.  You can find them at the links below.  Brazen plea for your assistance: if you contribute any user reviews or include these albums in content lists on any of these sites, I’ll be forever in your debt.*  That kind of thing is what may push this endeavor from pure loss to only marginal loss for me.

* Actual time I will be in your debt: seventy minutes.

1.99 Millers: Drink Your Way Out of This One (vol. 1)

millers remix 300

Download from

emusic

amazon

rhapsody

itunes

napster

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1.99 Millers: Drink Your Way Out of This One (vol. 2)

Download from

emusic

amazon

rhapsody

itunes

napster

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The Insaniacs: 29 Goddamn Phat Tracks

insaniacs fiver 300

Download from

emusic

amazon

rhapsody

itunes

napster
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Breakfast Jones: Consolidation

consolidation 300

Download from

emusic

amazon

rhapsody

itunes

napster


One of my best songs, part 3

January 16, 2009

Diane,

I’d like to close out the punk run of this series of posts with an appropriately short, nasty, and abrasive little entry.

When The Septic Bobs keeled over, it was only after crapping in the pumpkin-orange punchbowl with “Halloween 666.”  That album was the sixth (not the six hundred sixty-sixth) in a series of Frankenstein-and-Wolfman-celebrating albums, that came out almost every year between 1995 and 200x.*  This final emission was the top of the heap in every sense – which is not to say that it was particularly great.  But I had finely honed all the things I liked about the previous Halloween albums, and used them to do some stabbin’.  In your EAR.  Which is quite painful.

One thing I always enjoyed about writing a Halloween song was using a traditional theme as a metaphor for something else.  Hence “Frankenstein” from the first album was a metaphor for transforming the self through rebuilding; five albums later, with “Halloween 666,” I had a songs about wearing masks and haunted houses that were really about self-loathing and failed marriages.  (God, I suck.)  Writing songs like this is what we call being a mature artist.  But then again, I also had wading pool-deep tunes like the one about Johnny Unitas returning as a zombie to win a playoff game, even though that would most assuredly violate one or another NFL rule.  Probably something from this section.  That song was called “Zombie Unitas,” in case you were wondering, and the obvious had escaped you thanks to your stupid, stupid mind.

(Oh, you insulting alien bastards!  We will defeat your Plan 9 yet!)

Also in the wading pool part of the complex was this song, which played a big role in why I “disbanded” the Bobs.  This really is everything I wanted to say and do, boiled down to one minute and three seconds of pseudo-tuneful hollering and sneering.  Others might expect the “ultimate” Septic Bobs song to accomplish more – to be AMBITIOUS in some way, to have a chorus or a guitar solo or some kind of emotional resonance or thematic depth.  But no – in fact, fuck no – it’s really quite the opposite.  It was only by stripping away all those things that I could really get to the core (“heart” is too nice of a word) of what punk rock meant to me.  No choruses, no guitar solos, no resonance and no depth; instead, a slightly heaping minute of screaming about torturing a girlfriend to death.**  But in a catchy way.

Before we get to the song, I want to present the context.  This is “Re-animator,” my favorite horror movie.  It’s based on a series of Lovecraft stories, and I should mention that “Halloween 666” opens with two songs in a row about Lovecraftian subjects.

(By the way, I LOVE the narrator for this trailer.  I wonder if he cried himself to sleep while clutching his trailer narration cash the night after recording this?  He sounds mostly unengaged, with subdued shades of morally offended.)

Not only that, the cover art (crappily and hastily drawn by yours truly) renders a scene from “Re-animator” in cartoon monster form.  Here’s my “art” – enjoy the crapulence:

reanimatorbobAnd to provide the musical context (we were talking about music, weren’t we? I kinda forgot), here’s NOFX playing a very energetic and snotty version of “Linoleum” live:

So – punk [NOFX] + horror movies [Re-animator] =

S 2 Yr M

And here, for your moral edification, are the lyrics:

Beat your head in with a bat, I will
I wanna be that kind of guy,
the kind of guy you can rely upon
Just ask me what you want
Now ram it up your cunt?  Oh god
that’s fuckin gross, but if you say to
I’ll do anything but enslave you
unless you really insist
Maybe it’s time that I…

pistol-whipped your precious skull
into oblivion, and all
your screamin won’t mean shit to me
Spontaneous hysterectomy+
with tweezers, and pliers
Oh my love, it’s so divine
I’m glad you’re mine

For our next entry, Diane, we’ll be moving past punk rock and torture, and onward to the greener and mellower pastures of adulthood.  In other words, we’ll be leaving behind the youth music and getting into adult contempo crap.  Thanks for bearing with me thus far, old-timer.

* Brutal honesty time: all the years that have happened since I graduated from college are a total blur.  “Halloween 666” was recorded in either 2001 or 2002… I think.

** Looking back at it now, this could easily be perceived as a horribly misogynistic song.  All I can say is this: if you don’t see the irony and think I meant any of this seriously, you’re probably not my target demographic anyway.  So… shrug.

+ Hysterectomy, Wikipedia tells us, means “surgical removal of the uterus.”  In this context, we’re doing it with tweezers and pliers.  I like to think about that; it’s neat.


One of my best songs, part 2

January 16, 2009

Diane,

I decided I was mostly going to write punk rock songs in 1992.

I decided I was mostly done writing punk rock songs in 2007.  That means the amount of time I spent seriously engaged with punk (because for a musician, writing songs in a genre is as seriously engaged as it gets, and everything else is just dabbling) was about five times as long as the Sex Pistols were together*; about twice as long as the first incarnation of Bad Brains lasted; probably three times as long as it took Greg Graffin to earn his Ph.D.; and roughly one and a half times as long as “Sandanista!” (zing!).

In that time frame punk went from a gentrified, specialist’s genre to a compromised alternative radio and MTV force, and back again.  It saw the tail-end of the ascendancy of pop-punk labels like Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords, who waxed with the success of Green Day and quickly waned again after (though they still plug along today).  It saw Rancid revitalize the sound of The Clash to mostly positive notices, but some vitriolic negative ones as well.  It saw the deaths of two Ramones and Joe Strummer.  And it saw me, some random home-taping idiot, pumping out a couple hundred two minute 4-track anthems.

Sadly, most of those anthems have no staying power for me, for several different reasons.  My early musical experiences were pop-heavy and highly melodic, so I gravitated towards the harmony-laden, poppy stuff when I first got into punk: Bad Religion, NOFX, Lagwagon, etc.  I still like the best work of those bands, but as a musical direction for myself I wouldn’t choose it – it tends to be shallow and repetitive stuff, while not as immediate and brash as the earlier, less melodic punk it evolved from.  Besides that, I was a mediocre songwriter and had a tin ear for recording and mixing music back then, so many of the songs I wrote consisted of a blandly pretty melody over a generic chord progression buried under a wall of BLLLLAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR – “blllarrrrr” being the sound my purple B.C. Rich with the Floyd Rose tremelo made when I played it through my shitty amp with the distortion maxed the fuck out.  That guitar was made for better amps and douches like Yngwie Malmsteen, not some wannabe punk kid with his shitty tape recorder.  Basically I was a sub-garage sub-Paul Simon/sub-Bad Religion hybrid.  If I made anything listenable in those first few years, it was a complete damn accident.

The early two-thirds of my punk period (makes me sound more Picasso-like, doesn’t it?) were spent recording under the silly moniker The Septic Bobs.  The name dates back to high school, when my friends and I had little better to do than fill up tapes with bad songs and think of ridiculous band names.  (Early examples: Reubens Exposure [Pee Wee Herman historians will chuckle], Vicious Upholstery, The Giving Tree [no one will chuckle, though many may rasp the mirthless laughter of embarrassment].)  I stuck with it because why not, it was a sort of brand name – known and tolerated by my close friends, who were the only people hearing any of the music I was making.  I also had developed a sideline of drawing Septic Bobs, which (it turned out) were little cartoon monsters that liked to eat things:

lilcheesebobNaturally, the Bobs adorned all the album covers for their namesake band, like so:

ethelineThis got to be such a meme (can a meme be a thing that you’re mostly sharing with yourself?  I dunno, who cares) that I was powerless against it.  The Septic Bobs continued as a mostly one-man band for years after I was basically sick of my “style.”  The increasingly intermittent tapes I put together came to be all over the place in terms of genre and tone, and I started incorporating lots of other influences – classic Brit punk, Cars and Blondie-style new wave, folk, pop, goth rock (of the tongue-in-cheek variety), and avant garde noise bullshit.  I think ultimately I was just sick of myself (a la Matthew Sweet) and was trying to become somebody else – maybe everybody else, and all at once, if necessary.  Finally, it was time for one last hurrah.  I did “Halloween 666,” the sixth installment in a long-running and kind-of-annual tradition of horror-themed punk albums; then I put the Bobs to rest.

But that was well before 2007.  And we’re not doing that story today, anyway – we’re just getting through some history.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I had a habit of listing terrible band names that no one would want to use, just things that made me laugh.  One of those names was The Insaniacs.  For some reason this third grade-level play on words was giggle-inducing for me.  What kind of stupid band would call themselves that?

Turns out, it was me.

My return to punk, post-Bobs, in the summer of 2004, was as The Insaniacs.  For whatever reason, the name had grown on me to the point that I thought it was fitting for what I wanted to record next.  That thing was ultra-short, ultra-ultra-minimal punk rock missiles aimed at the gut and the crotch.  My aim for “All the Different Kinds of Nuts” was to cram 10 songs into 10 minutes of CD (yeah, I had moved on to digital recording by then).  I managed it in fifteen, anyway.  The songs were much harsher than before, without quite verging on hardcore, and there was a distinct and new influence from The Clash, who had slowly become my favorite punk band.

The follow-up to “Nuts” was intentionally set up as a test of my own willpower.  I was going to call it “150 Goddamn Phat Tracks,” which would sprawl over probably four CDs, and force myself to write and record the whole thing in a year.  The pace was beyond ridiculous, and as I passed the 20-song mark I knew I was never going to make it; I was already tired of the conceit and ready to take a break.  So I wrapped it up at just 29 goddamn tracks (maybe half of which were phat – the other half were mere fat) which at least squeezed on to a more manageable single disc.

“Phat Tracks” looks like this:

insaniacssmall

I think we can all agree, if nothing else, that that dog is cute and kind of scary.  That’s what I was going for.

The album had an even bigger Clash influence than before, which was fitting, since Joe Strummer was two years past being able to sue me.  I was working in a lot of ska, reggae, and new wave influence – which was both very “London Calling” of me, and also a logical next step, seeing as how I was getting seriously into roots reggae and dub, and had always loved the hell out of The Cars and Talking Heads and all their skinny-tie, big-suit brethren and sistren.  That year my mailbox was always stuffed full of the fresh-ordered likes of “Remain in Light” and Buju Banton’s opus, “Til Shiloh.”  (Between then and now I’ve consumed a whole world of both genres – Adam and the Ants, Wailing Souls, Bounty Killer, The Jam and Joe Jackson, Scientist and Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby; I could go on and on and on.)  Between these various influences, The Clash largest among them, the album came out sounding like “London Calling”‘s snotty kid brother.  Only not nearly as good.  But hey, nobody has THOSE kind of aspirations.

This, to me, is the best one track from this album – the one I’d play for almost anybody to give them an idea what it KIND OF sounds like, MOST OF the time.  It owes a clear debt to Mick and Joe, and also to Talking Heads and Bow Wow Wow (they of “I Want Candy” fame).  It’s got a backbone of semi-tribal drum rhythm, something Bow Wow Wow and Adam and the Ants were playing with most, but many others also danced around in the early 80s.  On top of that is big guitar chords and a raucous tune of the variety I’d describe as “Clampdown”-meets-“Rudy Can’t Fail”-with-a-splash-of-Buzzcocks.

Here’s a few of the things I’m talking about – in order, Adam and the Ants (with the title track from “Kings of the Wild Frontier”); The Clash doing “Clampdown” live; and purely for the fuck of it, Buju Banton on a super-G-funked remix of “Champion”:

And if you’re feeling a little too inside my head at this point, I’d advise you to shake it off and just listen to the damn thing, already.

Libby O

By the way, my good friend Sweaty B (an original Septic Bob, though never much of a punk appreciator) played the sweet bass notes on this song, and several others on the album.  He’s a true pro, that guy… except in the sense that I totally didn’t pay him a dime for his work.

* Pre-cash-in reunion, of course.  We’re pretending that didn’t happen.


One of my best songs, part 1

January 15, 2009

Diane,

I don’t usually get autobiographical ’round these parts.  In fact, it’s one of this blog’s invisible and unspoken mission statements to remain steadfastly outward-aimed.  Probably this is because I usually write these things in the morning, and Diane – I am NOT a looker in the morning.  Heavens no.  Hair all akimbo, shirt half tucked-in, magically ten pounds heavier… I’ve got problems.  It’s usually about four p.m before I start looking like a normal human being that you’d feel comfortable asking for directions, or bumming a quarter from.

Regardless, for a short stretch we are going to GET autobiographical.  I want to post a series of essays about songs I wrote, that I like.  But in a sneaky fashion, I think these navel-gazes will still reflect more light on the world outside of me than on me, myself.  (And I.)  I hope they’ll retroactively guide people to some interesting stuff that influenced me along the way.  And I hope it will also give some insight into the general creative process; which, no matter what anyone says, is largely about homage, imitation, plagiarism, theft… and MURDER.  Mwahahahaha!

Now let’s get on with the first entry.

My musical education was, I guess, like most anybody else’s: you hear some things, you like some things, you start digging.  And like a miner in a gold vein, you dig what’s in front of you – what’s connected to the gold you already found.  You don’t abandon the vein and start looking for gold five hundred miles away, in another state.  That would be pretty stupid of you.  Er, me.  It’s only when you’re filthy rich and you’ve exhausted all the readily available gold that you go looking elsewhere.

I started with the crap my parents liked (Neil Diamond, John Denver, other folky 70s stuff, and lite rock radio) and moved on to the pop music of my middle teenagehood (Phil Collins and Genesis loomed over the landscape that year, it feels like).  When I started getting into the hard stuff, it was hair metal first (pop with guitar solos) and then alternative rock, or what is now being called alternative metal – though that label wasn’t used much back then, perhaps because the whole idea of “alternative” music was making the idea of “metal” very unfashionable.  Though in retrospect, Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction sure seem harder and more metally than Poison and Warrant, who were clearly gay music for gaywads on a gaycation in Gayworld.*  From there it was a short hop to punk rock (especially of the melodic and soaring-harmonies variety) and punk-informed alt rock, which gradually became something called post-punk that nobody really understands outside the borders of Washington, D.C.

Years later, it was 1994.  I had moved to Chicago, and it was miserable fuckin’ cold most of the time I lived there.  Beneath the many feet of snow and icy arctic winds blowing off of Lake Windmaker, in my igloo wrapped in a bearskin parka in front of a frost-caked 4-track tape recorder, I was trying to keep myself warm by whipping up a miniature punk frenzy.  It wasn’t working.  But I still have the tapes for posterity.

This is the second tape I made under the name Electrotone, which I think I stole from a line of guitars or effects pedals or something (I broke my Googling finger earlier today, sorry!).  The core idea is one I would revisit repeatedly later on: it’s essentially alt or indie rock, but with influences from both punk and electronic music.  “Electrotone” only managed two releases, and this one was a scant five songs, but at least the cover was horrifying:

elec1

Oh yeah, Diane: I drew that.  Who wants to fuckin’ touch me?!?

Of the five songs on “Extra Flesh,” two were well-meaning pieces of shit, one was a boring instrumental, one was pretty good, and then there was this one.

The song is called “Klepto.”  The lyrics are simple – a girlfriend stole from the narrator, who is now kicking her to the proverbial curb, where hopefully she will get hit by a non-proverbial bus or something.  Why was it about stealing and breaking up?  Well, to tackle the second part first, I had a strong belief for a very long time that all rock and pop music was better when it was about failing relationships.  This eventually culminated in the 1.99 Millers album “Drink Your Way Out of This One,” in which 98% of the 38 tracks were about this very subject.  After that, I felt like maybe I had emptied the well.  But years before, Electrotone was still doggedly propping up that model.  Getting back to the stealing, I totally loved the Superchunk semi-hit, “Package Thief.”  Superchunk was one of those very tuneful punk/alt rock outfits that I couldn’t get enough of in the 90s, and “Package Thief” was this invigorating blast of energy and melody, with a kickass video involving puppets:

So two different times I had an appealing song idea with no lyrics, and both times I stole (yeah yeah) from the ‘Chunk, by writing some nonsense about thievery.  The first time it didn’t work out.  The second, which was this time, it kinda did.

Musically, “Klepto” is a bit like a Superchunk number, but really it came from a different place than that.  This was written not long after “Rushmore” and its trailer introduced the world to a song called “Making Time,” by The Creation.  “Making Time” is very Kinks-ish and Who-riffic – it’s a psychedelic pop/punk song from before punk even existed.  It’s simple and beyond catchy.  When I heard it, I instantly loved it – it was like all the music I already loved, only old and British:

(“Making Time” starts at about the 45 second mark in that clip.)

When you combine “Making Time” and the classic Kinks songs I knew with the punk and alt rock stuff I was listening to (especially the band Wire, whose early work made much delicious hay out of this kind of minimalism), you get “Klepto.”  I wrote a hypnotic and barbarically retarded little riff, the one that opens the song; then I came up with another, chunkier riff worthy of the Kinks or AC/DC; then I start singing some frantically-paced lyrics about stealing and breaking up; and voila, a song was born.  In final analysis, the drums aren’t good (I was still using a mediocre Boss drum machine) and the mix is too fuzzy and distorted, and because of my pre-digital, pre-having money limitations the whole thing sounds kind of crappy – but something almost like listenability still floats through the din.

Klepto

For those of you for whom this song is too rough around the edges, Part 2 will feature a more recent and much more tolerable recording.  I’ll get to that in the next day or two.

* I’d love to remove this somewhat offensive joke, but I can’t.  My inner nine year old loves it too much.


Movie/music/food

September 25, 2008

1. Goodfellas/Frank Sinatra/veal parmigiana.  Some combinations are so obvious, I probably could have left them off this list.  Nonetheless, this combo platter of mob guys, a singing mob guy, and unethically-raised meat slathered in tomato sauce and cheese is a feast for the senses, even if it will leave you feeling a little guilty and sick to your stomach.  Here’s a veal recipe and a Frank recommendation.  If your conscience bothers you, sub in chicken or Quorn for the veal, Tony Bennett or Brent Spiner for Ol’ Blue Eyes.  But don’t try to swap out the mafia guys – you might get stomped on:

2. The Harder They Come/Jimmy Cliff/fried plantains.  Another serving of obviousness, but we may as well get it out of the way early.  Fried plantains are easy to make and delicious, and you really can’t have tropical island or Latin American cuisine without them.  As for the movie and the Jimmy, here’s a ready-made slice of both:

3. Tombs of the Blind Dead/Hooded Menace/paella.  This slow, eerie Eurohorror cult classic was made in Spain – hence the paella, a Spanish staple akin to the more familiar (to Americans anyway) jambalaya.  As for the Hooded Menace (“Who?” I hear you asking), they’re a new death/doom metal band about to release their debut on Razorback Records, they’re great, and they’re directly inspired by the blind dead movie series.  So it was an obvious choice.  Anyway, here’s an indifferently edited and voiced trailer for “Tombs of the Blind Dead”:

4. Repo Man/The Sex Pistols/Food.  This is nothing but a brazen plea to one of my dear friends: watch “Repo Man,” fucker, it’s funny!  “Repo Man” is becoming a lost cult classic – you hear less about it every year, even though it remains Emilio Estevez’s best work (take that, “Young Guns 2!”) and holds what is near the top of the list of must-see Harry Dean Stanton performances.  For the Pistols, the obvious choice is the bullocks – but you also can’t go wrong with taking a tangential ride down “My Way” Road (which brings us back to “Goodfellas” territory, coincidentally) ((Special Double Parentheses: that video is well, WELL worth your time)).  Finally, if you don’t get the “Food” thing, all I can say is this: put it on a plate, son.  You’ll enjoy it more.

5. The double-your-pleasure seafood special: Jaws & Moby Dick/Ahab & Mastodon/shrimp tempura roll & pan-seared tuna.  Too… much… linking….  Want… to… kill… self.  OK, let’s just run through this real quick:

  – “Jaws” is a classic movie by Steven Spielberg that basically created the blockbuster summer movie.  It holds up today as (in my opinion) the best of its breed, even better than “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” 

  – “Moby Dick” is of course a book, but it was also a movie a few times, including a decent made-for-TV version with Patrick Stewart as Captain Crazypants (that was his name, right?).  Pretty soon it’s going to be a shitty blockbuster with its soul removed (super-spectacular quote: “Our vision isn’t your grandfather’s ‘Moby Dick’… This is an opportunity to take a timeless classic and capitalize on the advances in visual effects to tell what at its core is an action-adventure revenge story.”).  So take your pick.

  – Ahab and  Mastodon are two separate metal bands who decided to turn “Moby Dick” into a concept album.  In both cases this works way better than you’d think.  Ahab’s album in particular sounds exactly like what I imagine you’d hear after a whale mauled you and you were drifting to the bottom of the ocean, many dark fathoms deep.

  – Shrimp tempura roll is one of my favorite sushi rolls that doesn’t cost a zillion dollars.  This recipe for pan-seared tuna I have never tried, but it sounds awesome.

Now here’s the 50s “Moby Dick” with Gregory Peck, which I have never seen, but looks pretty good:

6. The Lord of the Rings trilogy/Led Zeppelin/bread with butter and honey, cheese, apples, cold cured meats.  A movie about hobbits, some music about Mordor, and an array of simple Shire food.  Definitely a good plan for whiling away an entire Saturday one week.


Beg, borrow, or steal

July 24, 2007

Diane,

A common misconception that has been troubling me recently is the idea that culture can be owned.

This is simply a factual error, from which springs a conceptual error.  The fact is that culture spreads and mutates of its own accord, against your will if need be.  It pays no attention to what you want from it.  As a result, the concept of culture ownership – the misguided notion that you can or should be able to control culture, and prevent undesirables from sullying it – is just a denial of culture’s essential nature.  It’s you, standing on the shore of a lake and saying you should be able to walk across the lake because you believe water should be a solid (imaginary Jesus and seasonal/geographical ice notwithstanding).  You can’t walk on water and you can’t hold culture.  Like water, it is a liquid – it spills, it seeps, it evaporates, and if necessary it will wear slow holes in whatever contains it.  Eventually water and culture will get away from you.

One place I see this misconception is in the elitest music subcultures.  Metal and punk fans tend to be the worst about it.  Their war is against the selling of their culture.  A band can be huge in the scene, generally if not universally well-loved, a la Behemoth when they released “Zos Kia Cultus” or Operation Ivy, that pre-Rancid ska band with unimpeachable cred.  But then Behemoth starts selling too many albums and plays at Ozzfest, and Op Ivy turns into Rancid and signs with Epitaph and has a couple hit singles – and the fucking earth must be flying into the sun, because everyone is red in the face and acting like it’s the end times.  Nile was pretty cool when they were just another death metal band with a unique penchant for Egyptian lyrics and instruments, but now they’re sellouts and crap and that Egyptian thing is a gimmick.  Green Day was OK in their halcyon days on Gilmore St., but as soon as they show up on MTV singing about masturbation it’s fucking OVER.  This particular strain of kneejerk anti-commercialism and elitism isn’t confined to these two types of music listener, though; I’ve talked to hip hop purists on Okayplayer.com and reggae snobs on the VIP dancehall forums, and every kind of music elitist you can think of on the old Salon.com message boards, before they started making you pay to post.  (Fuck that, you sellouts.*)

Culture elitists have a real problem to contend with, and it is as follows (presented here in easy-to-remember axiom format):

    First Axiom of Culture – If your culture is worth a damn, people are going to LIKE it.

    Second Axiom of Culture – If people LIKE your culture, then they will WANT it.

So it’s going to get packaged and sold.  Maybe you don’t like what Green Day has done with punk, or the fact that a major label signed Green Day and got their shit spinning on MTV and alternative rock radio approximately 5,976 times a day.  Maybe it pisses you off when you see little kids in eyeliner and American Idiot t-shirts, because you think punk was better before the masses got to it.  Well, maybe you were right.  But you’re just going to have to get over it.

Punk was inaccessible for about one second in the early 70s, and then it grew hooks and happy little melodies and sold out.  Everything that people want will sell, and as soon as someone with some business sense realizes it, they’re going to sell it.  That’s what happens at the intersection of culture and capitalism.  Punk got sucked into the distribution cycle.  And not only did it start selling, but people – I’d go so far as to call them pioneers of a sort – realized that by toning down the anger and increasing the catchiness they could sell even more.  Punk went commercial.  It happened because the original product was good, and people liked it.  Only the hardest hardcore had no commercial appeal at all, but it was compromised by its relationship to the more tuneful strains of the genre.  So now the hardcore fans sit around and bitch bitch bitch about what happened to punk.  And I say to them again: get over it.  There is nothing you can do about it.  You never owned punk.  It had begun “selling out” long before you ever heard the first note on your first Minor Threat seven inch.

You think Mexicans don’t feel some resentment toward the owners of Taco Bell?  Well, white people wanted cheap and fast Mexican(-ish) food, and Taco Bell filled the gap.  It wasn’t a diabolical scheme to ruin the cuisine’s purity.  It was simply the convergence of people liking Mexican food and wanting it in a more convenient format, and a business owner (who probably also really liked Mexican food) rushing to fill the market gap.  Capitalism does this to culture.  You can’t have both and prevent this from happening.  It happens; get over it.

Another place I see this coming up a lot is in the discussion of black culture.  I aim to misbehave (~ Capt. Malcolm Reynolds) a little here, Diane, so bear with me, and keep an open and charitable mind.  If you visit the Okayplayer site, like I do every day, you can usually see a hoppin’ discussion of whites stealing from black culture.  This goes back to Elvis – probably a lot farther, but in terms of pop music that is the genesis point.  Public Enemy said Elvis was a racist.  Mos Def (who I like and admire, at least until his last couple of so-so albums) said Elvis had no soul, and implies that Little Richard was the real thing that Elvis wasn’t.  And it’s gone on from there.  Today on Okayplayer we even have a white person posting that Amy Winehouse is stealing black music.

Let me refer back to our two axioms:

    First Axiom of Culture – If your culture is worth a damn, people are going to LIKE it.

    Second Axiom of Culture – If people LIKE your culture, then they will WANT it.

And at this point I’d like to add a third:

    Third Axiom of Culture – If people WANT your culture, then they will also want to CONTRIBUTE to it, and/or MAKE SOME of their own.

Elvis wasn’t a capitalist who “stole” black music because he saw the potential to get rich.  He was a kid who loved the sound of rock ‘n roll and had a gift (largely unappreciated by me, I’m sorry to report) for performing it himself.  Maybe you think Elvis sucked, or maybe you’re indifferent to him like I am.  But Elvis saw something in the music, and whatever he saw, however he transformed it into his own (whitened) style, people LIKED it and WANTED it, and that was that.  That was the beginning of how rock became white music.  It may piss you off – whether you’re black or white or whatever other color – but it happened, it wasn’t malicious, and you have to get over it.  There’s no going back.  There’s no one person you could have taken out, Terminator-style, to prevent it from happening.  Even if Elvis hadn’t existed there were others in the wings that would have happily filled his shoes.  Many, many white kids in those times were getting into black music.  And they weren’t going to be content with just listening to Chuck Berry records while singing white pop themselves.  They liked it, so they wanted to MAKE it.  And when they did some of it was compromised or evolved or just changed in exactly the right way to make other, previously unaccepting white kids like it too, and want to buy it.

I concede that there is an element of racism in the selection of what sells a lot, versus what does not sell as much.  This was true to a much larger degree in the old days before hip hop.  A lot of white people were afraid of black people, and by extension afraid of black music.  But when you whitened it up a little and put a white face on the record sleeve, they weren’t afraid of it any more; they could just enjoy it.  That’s unfortunate.  But it wasn’t Elvis’s fault, or Mick Jagger’s, or Jimmy Page’s, or Eric Clapton’s.  Those guys to varying degrees all loved black music.  They just wanted to make some themselves.  If I may turn back to Mos and his song “Rock N Roll” for a second:

    You may dig on the Rolling Stones

    But they ain’t come up with that shit on they own

The thing is, Mos, if your aim is just to educate, most Stones fans already know this.  They know the Stones were borrowing from and sometimes outright stealing blues licks and lyrics.  Some rock stars – not all, but some – gave credit where it was due, or at least talked about their idols in interviews.  They were candid about their blues influence and encouraged their white fans to seek out the originals.  Clapton is a one-man blues preservation society; he’s done a lot to keep blues alive (or at least displayed, museum exhibit-style, with informative plaquards).  But even the ones who were shoplifting don’t really compromise my argument.  Led Zeppelin stealing blues songs and not giving credit doesn’t make them racists; it just makes them dicks.  And we have plenty of those in both the white and black camps.  (Refer to previous Michael Vick post for details.)  People being dicks has continued at a steady rate for thousands of years of human civilization, but I’m happy to report that racism has undergone a steady decline, at least in the last century of American society.  It still isn’t fixed but I don’t think Denzel Washington or Snoop Dogg have much to complain about, financially speaking.

But Mos, if your aim is not to inform, but just to imply something negative about the Stones’ music (e.g. “The Stones are terrible because they borrowed from the blues”), I say again: you have to get over it.

Culture is stolen within racial boundaries as well as across them.  You think all those original blues players simultaneously and independently came up with the idea to play acoustic blues?  Hell no, they didn’t.  They were borrowing and yes, STEALING from each other liberally and frequently.  Different delta blues players claimed to write songs with the same lyrics and tunes.  (Some of them were being dicks, like we just talked about.)  You can hear a story about almost any great blues or jazz musician in their youth, hearing one of their forebears and deciding on the spot that they wanted to play the same kind of music.  There wouldn’t have been a Charlie Parker if there hadn’t first been Lester Young and all those other jazz titans blowing gales through Kansas City.  There wouldn’t have been a Robert Johnson if there hadn’t first been Son House and Charley Patton.  And even the very originators of every genre were still looking to some other influences, translating and recoding them in a new way.  Everything is borrowed; everything is either evolution or retread; nothing is new under the sun. 

It’s a patently false idea that people of another skin color, country, class, or gender shouldn’t be allowed to participate in/mimic/co-opt your culture.  That’s a law that cannot be enforced, and as such is pointless.  Any person with musical talent is going to be influenced by the music they like.  And the only way to prevent other people from liking your music is to make it suck.  Blues, rock, and jazz don’t suck; ergo, white musicians started playing in these styles just like blacks had before them.  And before that, jazz and rock and blues musicians – the black ones – were borrowing from (white) classical music and (white) popular songsmiths like Gershwin.  None of these musics was created in a vacuum, and none of them has pure African heritage.  It would be silly of me to complain that blacks stole from white music to come up with some of the greatest American contributions to art.  So please, don’t complain about Eminem when he sells more records than Dr. Dre.  He’d be the first one to point that out, and the first one to give credit where it’s due.  Amy Winehouse hasn’t made any secret of the soul tradition she is borrowing from, either.  These musicians LOVE hip hop and R&B.  They just want to make some of their own.

* Irony star!


A perfect day

July 5, 2007

Diane,

My perfect day begins at 9 a.m.  Eight makes me feel sleepy and ten makes me feel lazy, so nine it is.  I will perhaps be over-rested since I went to bed around midnight, but for this day it won’t matter.  I will wake up clear-eyed and transition quickly to appropriately energized.

There won’t be a breakfast.  The perfect day is going to involve a substantial lunch and dinner and plenty of snacking, so there’s no room for a real breakfast.  I’ve had great days that started with breakfast, but they were never perfect.  So instead of real food, I’ll drink a few mouthfuls of water (after showering and brushing my teeth, of course, which will impart the water a fresh, minty taste), and eat half an apple.  Nancee will eat the other half.

We’ll sit on the deck in the cool morning air, the sun crawling up the sky but not heating things up too much, because it will be late September.  We’ll talk for half an hour, then go look at the garden, which will somehow still be producing tomatoes late in the season.  Then we’ll head back inside and lie around reading books for a while.  My book will be something by Bill Bryson, I think, because Cormac McCarthy is a little heavy for a perfect day.

At 11:20 we’ll be too hungry to wait for lunch any longer, so a-lunching we shall go.  And let me tell you, Diane, nobody does lunch like the India Garden.  I’ll heap my plate with vegetable biryani and chicken tikka masala and that cheese and peas concoction that sounds and looks appalling, but is actually utterly amazing.  And because it’s a perfect day, they will have brought over some of those marvelous fried cauliflower things from Garam Masala Indian Grill.  I’ll clean one plate and pick over half of another one, and then we’ll head out.

We’ll walk to Indy CD and Vinyl where I’ll buy two or three CDs.  I’m thinking three – one roots reggae classic and two lost gems of late 70s funk.  Then we’ll drive to Vibes up in Castleton and I’ll load up on punk and metal.  Something by the Dead Kennedys, and some Entombed album that they recorded between “Left Hand Path” and “Clandestine” but somehow forgot to release.  Finally we’ll stop by Luna Music, which has conviently relocated to the same strip so I don’t have to make another trip, and I’ll pore over the hipster indie rock before eventually deciding that I’ve had enough music for one day.

The CD player in my car will miraculously heal itself, and Entombed will serenade us with raw-throated paeans to death and Satan (played at a moderate volume) as we drive to Brown County in southern Indiana.  The CD will end just as we get there, because somehow the drive will only take 40 minutes even though it’s usually twice that.  We’ll hit the candy shops and buy carmel corn and almond bark, and peppermint bark for Nancee.  We’ll get fresh-made ice cream in waffle cones, and finish the last dripping bite as we start a round of mini golf, which will eventually end in a tie (much to Nancee’s delight).  The air will smell like wood smoke as we walk to the pizza place to get dinner.

We’ll eat pizza and breadsticks stuffed with jalapenos and mozzarella, and we’ll watch “Jaws” on DVD back in the hotel room.  Our cat Fiver will be there, because we always miss him when he’s not with us; but for some reason he’ll decide not to nip and poke us to get our attention, because that drives us crazy.  Quint will die but Brody and Richard Dreyfuss will paddle home and leave me feeling inspired and hopeful.  I’ll put on my earphones and listen to Scientist dub me into another world as I drift off to sleep.

Now that’s a day, Diane.