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Friday, May 30, 2008

I have to say that this has been one of those weeks where I fantasize about having enough money to wall myself away from the world and do drugs and desserts until I die.  So today, I was trying to remember something/someone music-related that made me laugh when I recalled this interview with O.D.B. on MTV where he pulled up to the welfare office in a limo to pick up his check.  I’m not going to parse out the man’s ethics late on a Friday when I’m counting the seconds until my first Mexican Martini.  But he was a hilariously interesting character, both for having more aliases than a C.I.A. passport and in his fairly adamant refusal of most social graces.  His lyrical abilities had a miraculous Wesley Willis quality about them, somehow managing to penetrate our reality from a galaxy far far a way and usually delivered like a gravel mouthed old dude yelling from a cracked cellar door.  And just to make myself smile that much wider I absolutely had to dig up my favorite Dirt McGirt couplet:


“You can call me dirty, and then lift up your skirt
And you want some of this dirty, god made dirt and dirt bust yo ass”


How did this work?  The lyrical rhythm is pausing and parenthical (oh yeah, and dirty bust yo ass, son), but it still sounds amazingly stammered out.  A great man has been taken from us while my list of ungreat ones that should go in their stead remains ignored.  I guess God needs all the good people to work in the Angel mines.


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Thursday, May 29, 2008
Aside from the requisite stints in rehab, the Botox and the damage done, and the increasingly profitable reunion tours, not a lot of memorable music gets made after age 30.

Nothing gold can stay, wrote Robert Frost. And believe it or not, he wasn’t actually talking about the Greasers and the Socs, or even Ralph Macchio’s ability, post Outsiders, to convincingly play high school kids well into his mid-20s (making the other ageless wonder, Family Ties era Michael J. Fox look like Methuselah by comparison). Frost, of course, was speaking of more poetic matters, like springtime and flowers and innocence and all that CliffsNotes crap.


What he was not talking about, since it had not yet been invented, was rock and roll. So he could not have known that he was providing a very prescient epitaph for what is often the rule and seldom the exception with every great rock band: they age poorly. Aside from the requisite stints in rehab, the Botox and the damage done, and the increasingly profitable reunion tours, not a lot of memorable music gets made after age 30. Consider how many groups have blazed like fevered comets into the public consciousness, then flamed out, leaving a body of work—and sometimes their bodies—behind.


Not counting the careers cut short by death (think Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain or Clapton…wait, Clapton didn’t die? Never mind), and not cherry-picking the no-brainers like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Who, it’s actually easier to identify the groups that have managed to produce work worthy of their salad days—much less work that is worthwhile. The very recent efforts by Portishead and the Breeders, as well as the fairly recent masterpiece by Sleater-Kinney (please come back!) prove that it can be done. The fact that those three bands are fronted by females is noteworthy, and fodder for further discussion: women rock harder and make better music, after 30, than men? It would seem so. Then again, King Buzzo might have something to say about that, although he is probably too cool to even be considered human, much less a man.


But why is this so rare? Certainly the impetus of lean and hungry desperation (not to mention drugs) inspires rock music in ways not especially amenable to other types of art, like literature. Robert Frost was 49 when he dropped Nothing Gold Can Stay; Pete Townshend was 20 when he wrote “I hope I die before I get old”. By the time he was 49, The Who were already recycling their better days on the arena rocking chair circuit.


There are still some legends thrashing about in the mud and the blood and the beer: Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, for instance. Their best days are undoubtedly far behind them, but at least they’re still trying. And yet, the issue isn’t really about trying, it’s about an end result that passes the smell test (mosh pit or mothballs?), regardless of intent or integrity. Perhaps it’s appropriate that one elder statesman who is defying the trend is the golden god himself, Robert Plant. While the world waits to see if the mighty Zeppelin will glide again, Plant paired up with the beguiling Alison Krauss to create Raising Sand, an effort that, not so ironically, sounds better with time. In fact, it surpasses just about anything Plant’s peers have been able to manage since John Bonham died (doing his part to ensure that the best band of the ‘70s would not embarrass themselves in the ‘80s). Granted, Raising Sand is not (nor is it pretending to be) rock music. Perhaps that is the entire point. To be a rock and not to roll? Perhaps this is what Plant meant, way back whenever. Or perhaps it is just the forests, echoing with laughter.


TO BE CONT’D.


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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Reading Slate’s coverage of the R. Kelly trials fills me with that self-loathing that comes from being entertained by morally toxic junk culture.  Levin’s style is funny and slick, but there’s a dead hole in the place where any analysis or bigger picture might be sketched in.  The hardest part about the piece is the undercurrent of class disdain that hangs over the diaries, when people named Sparkle argue with an an attorney they are “doing the dozens” as opposed to just having a nasty exchange on the stand.  That tittering “it’s like the ghetto version of The Hills”  starts to sink in your stomach when you realize that the man on trial may in fact be a prolific, serial child molester who, in this case, decided to film himself urinating on the face of a little girl.  The only people who seem more repellant are Kelly’s Manson girl courtroom fans vying for his attention between all this boring sexual abuse.  Aren’t there any single serial killers that need pen pals?


Of course, the age old question here is whether or not you should try to separate art from the artists, especially since talent is an indiscriminate whore who would just as soon make Jeffrey Dahmer a figure skater as Kristina Yamaguchi.  But it’s a principle that in practice comes with little consistency or coherence.  At some level you have to forgive artists for their ugly humanity, but at what point does the art implicate the viewer in something sinister.  I cringe when I first read that Johnny Deep purchased some paintings of pedophile/serial killer John Wayne Gacy precisely because this is a no brainer on the artist/art distinction.  It’s Gacy’s sickening crimes which produce the market for his art and not great art that just so happens to be a product of a sickening mind.  With R. Kelly, the problem will not be so severe, in part because he’s just not so seriously talented that his music needs to be framed in any ethically grand conflict.  But still, one does have to wonder if he’s convicted if that changes the probable sexual object of his infinite number of lamely metaphored sex jams.  Will it still be easy to bump along to “Ignition” if you know that key is destined for a thirteen year old?  Listening to R. Kelly obviously wouldn’t make you a child molester, but in all cases like this, the question becomes how much the artist pollutes your experience of their art by obscuring its virtues with their vices.


Tagged as: r. kelly
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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I try as much as possible to avoid overtly political commentary in this blog, because it’s not usually germane to discussions of music.  Sadly, this is primarily because politically oriented music is almost as anachronistic as phrases like “artistic values”.  I couldn’t help but comment on a recent National Review post that suggested that Barack Obama’s 75,000 person rally in Oregon was due in large part to The Decemberists opening with a free show.  I’m hardly uncritical of Obama and his followers, but doesn’t this claim smacks of tone deaf desperation. 


Do the Portland, faux Brit Oregonians really have that level of mass magnetism?  This is what happens when your clueless stepdad tries to politicize pop culture in order to denigrate an opponent at all costs.  Would the same undercutting claim be made if Toby Keith opened for John McCain?  Clearly, the Decemberists were not the draw all the Obama rally and nothing nefarious is going on by giving a free concert before a political rally a tradition as old as driving people to the polls and the far more questionable practice of “walking around money”.  God knows, “My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist” is certainly as frenzy-inducing as “We Will Rock You”.  But the worst part of the post are the unsubtle McCarthyite gestures suggesting that The Decemberists are a bunch of communist radicals purely based on selected lyrics from “Sixteen Military Lives”.  I mean, they make negative gestures about the flag pin in their video.  Clearly, The Decemberists are terrorists.  Surely, Obama deserved to be smeared for associating with a Molotov-tosssing librarian like Colin Meloy.  Next thing you know he’ll be drawing a crowd of a 100,000 by getting the Jesus Lizard to open for him.


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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I’ve always loved this song even if Dwight Twilley was probably the poor man’s Cheap Trick with many more misses than he ever had hits.  Even though this is more properly categorized as power pop, I love tamped down glam aspects of the song, particularly the flirtatious mouth movements, batted eyelashes and scrawny boy hip swivel. Not to mention Susan Cowsill barely breaking a sweat in her shades as she blasts out “Free, Free, Free” like Queen singing songs from “Hair”.  Even though they were contemporaries of T. Rex, they’re clearly avoiding the tarted up look that would soon overtake and eventually undermine glam rock.  Nothing says we’re power pop like your mom’s sweat shirt.  Still, the song has some absolutely soaring moments even if you can’t tell if it’s a straight-up come on or an insult wrapped in a come on.  Essentially, it’s a riotously harmonized chorus telling the object of his affection that she/he doesn’t have a love, so, well, why not?  And, if I’m not mistaken he also seems to suggest that he couldn’t wait to be single, but now he’s “on fire”.  Of course, this pre-dates the hair band days where everyone’s eyes were suddenly “on fire” and the metaphor became duly limp.


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