Thursday
Oct032013

On Deep Cuts

The Deep Cuts Cut The Deepest

Forget the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, forget record sales, forget critical acclaim.  The most sure-fire way of gauging the measure of a band is in their Deep Cuts.

What is a deep cut?  Deep cuts are those tracks which lurk down in the bowels of a group’s discography unheard by the general public and casual fans.  Deep cuts don’t get anthologized on best of collections (aside from, maybe, the occasional career-spanning boxed set), and they don’t get played on the radio (aside from, maybe, when a radio station is featuring a particular band or playing one of their entire albums).

But it is these forgotten soldiers in the service of rock that provide the true measure of a band.  For they separate the men from the boys; they separate the bands who rely on their singles with the bulk of album tracks being mere filler from the artists that cranked out track after track of rocky goodness – a plentiful bounty that cannot be fully exploited by the limitations of radio.

Perhaps no band demonstrates this principle better than Led Zeppelin.  Now, Zeppelin may be a problematic example of the deep cut phenomenon.  They are in that upper echelon of bands whose entire catalogue has been more or less canonized.  But the deepness of a cut is relative; certainly a track like “Poor Tom” (an outtake from Led Zeppelin III later included on the contractually obligated odds ‘n sods collection Coda) is probably more high profile than, say, one of Captain Beefheart’s more well-known tracks, but is utterly obscure when compared to, say, “Dazed And Confused”, “Kashmir”, or even “When The Levee Breaks”.  In fact, of such high quality is the Led Zeppelin oeuvre, that the handful of genuinely duff tracks stand out as curious anomalies that are actually interesting in their jarring awfulness (I’m thinking of things like “Hot Dog”, although “You Shook Me” and “Tea For One” may be characterized as not awful enough to rise above (or sink below) tedious mediocrity).

By comparison, we might look at the work of Blue Öyster Cult.  Now I loves me some Blue Öyster Cult – their hits “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, “Godzilla”, and “Burning For You” are some of the best examples of late twentieth century classic rock out there, but after slogging through their collected works, I was rather surprised at the utter dearth of quality deep cuts (“Then Came The Last Days” being an unusual, stand out example).

Now deep cuts need not remain deep forever.  It’s quite possible for a track to accrue enough acclaim to rise to the status of hit (for the purposes of this analysis, a hit need not be a charting single, but any track that attains popularity beyond a given band’s established fanbase).  For example, the Dylan track “The Man In Me” was for many years an obscure gem from the underrated New Morning record, but since its prominent inclusion on The Big Lebowski soundtrack, it has – amongst a certain segment of the population, at least – become one of Dylan’s most loved tracks (and deservedly so: it’s quite fantastic). 

Similarly, “Hey Hey What Can I Do” was as obscure as an officially released Led Zeppelin track could be.  Originally just a b-side to “Immigrant Song”, the track didn’t make it on to the initial CD releases of Zeppelin’s albums back in the 1980s, but was included on the group’s 4 disc boxed set (as one of those “rare” tracks designed to bring in the money from completist collectors who already have the other cuts on the set) and has since become a radio staple and a popular track.  So, no longer a deep cut, then, but an example of the dynamism of the canon.  And, once again, what makes the Led Zeppelin song book so strong is the depth of its bench: even when a “Hey Hey What Can I Do” gains a position in the starting line-up (perhaps due to “Rock And Roll” pulling its groin), there’s still plenty of tracks who could pinch hit or pinch run if need be.

With that in mind, I’d like to demonstrate this principle by enumerating five (5) deep cuts from Led Zeppelin’s catalogue.

1. Your Time Is Gonna Come (Led Zeppelin, 1969)

The group’s first album was heavy on the heavy blues that would provide their initial stock in trade before branching out into orientalist folky mediaevalism.  Whereas some cuts on this initial platter can be a bit grating in their twelve-bar traditionalism – I’m thinking of “You Shook Me” and “I  Can’t Quit You, Baby” – John Paul Jones’s organ-led “Your Time Is Gonna Come” provides an initial glimpse of Zep’s more acoustic side. Beginning with an almost classical sounding organ intro (later on, keyboardist-bassist Jones would be offered the position of choirmaster at Winchester Cathedral), the track expands the meat-n-potatoes heavy blues palette of the debut by introducing some laid-back, acoustic, borderline-country sounds to the mix.  Page drops in some pretty lap-steel guitar, but this is juxtaposed against Bonham’s anchoring beat.  As Rick Rubin put it: “It's like the drums are playing a big rock song and the guitars are playing a gentle folk song. And it's got one of the most upbeat choruses of any Zeppelin song, even though the words are so dark.”

2. We’re Gonna Groove (Coda, 1982)

First released on the post-career round-up of strays, Coda, this track was originally recorded during the making of Led Zeppelin II, but even though it was their set opener, it – like future classic “Since I’ve Been Loving You” – didn’t make the cut.  The track itself was recorded live in 1970, but had overdubs added (presumably during the early 1980s).  The original live version can be seen and heard in all its glory on the 2003 Led Zeppelin dvd set.  After the 1970 UK and European tour, the song seems to have dropped out of the Zeppelin canon until its posthumous resurrection on Coda.  A shame really, since Zeppelin take what was once a soul number by Ben E. King and juice it up with a fast-paced drum groove (Bonham at his funkiest) and some dive-bombing electric guitars.

3. Bring It On Home (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

The last track on the group’s second album, “Bring It On Home” is more or less electric blues by number.  A repeated riff in a twelve-bar blues pattern, overtop of which Plant wails away with the typical, generic blues lyrics.  But what a riff.  Somewhat derivative, yet still utterly killer – so killer, in fact, that after the song was dropped from their setlist in 1973, the riff remained as part of the introduction to “Black Dog”.  Zep was just shitting out this sort of thing in 1969, and it’s a testament to their utter domination of the blues-rock idiom that such a relatively half-assed track could be so awesome.

4. In The Light (Physical Graffiti, 1975)

As is to be expected from a self-indulgent double album, Physical Graffiti is chuck full of deep cuts: “The Rover”, “Down By The Seaside”, and “Sick Again” could all have made this list, but “In The Light” stands out because it is somewhat of a “forgotten epic” that doesn’t seem to have earned the same sacrosanct status amongst Zeppelin fans as other lengthy album tracks like “In My Time Of Dying” or the canonized “Kashmir”.  A personal favourite of both Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, “In The Light” demonstrates the group’s versatility as it moves through multiple sections (unlike the somewhat monotonous “Kashmir”): a droning “verse” in which Page’s trademark violin bow is applied to an acoustic guitar; a heavy-riffed, but slow rock middle section; and a major-key bliss out chorus.  Also, the traditional electric guitars are augmented by Jones’s keyboard wizardry in this most proggy of Zeppelin cuts.  Its rather forgotten status is confirmed by the fact that the song was never performed live (though it may well have become a concert centrepiece had the group made it intact into the 1980s).

5. Ozone Baby (Coda, 1982)

Had John Bonham not inopportunely choked on his own vomit, this track probably would’ve been the hit single from the never-completed follow-up to In Through The Out Door.  Catchy tune with a bouncy Robert Plant vocal and a nice breakdown before the guitar solo, “Ozone Baby” is perhaps Led Zeppelin at their most poppy, and while Bonham’s death ensured the band would retire with its legacy more or less unsullied (we’ll ignore “Carouselambra” for now) and without descending into the grim self-parody seen in such past-their-prime acts as the Rolling Stones, it would’ve been nice if he could have staved off the inevitable alcoholic self-destruction until the group could have released a better swan song than the underwhelming and far-too-synthy In Through The Out Door (which, going from the title, would have been a concept album about anal sex had it been released by Serge Gainsbourg).  Anyway, I don’t know why this track isn’t more popular.

Saturday
Aug032013

On Random Access Memories

Better Living Through Circuitry

Random Access Memories is the album to end all albums.  This album, purportedly made by two robots of French origin trading under the name Daft Punk, is at once as technically perfect as it is aesthetically satisfying, as epoch-shaking as it is booty-shaking.  Every note is precisely calibrated, each rhythm laid down according to a strict algorithmic matrix, all frequencies intricately entwined into a meticulously arranged gestaltSome reviews have declared that this oh-so-perfect record will be the stereo-test record par excellence.  And they are right: this album certainly has a decidedly hi-fi bent.  But this is no mere technical exercise: this is the end of history, the final conclusion to the metanarrative of progress.  Can you get to that?  We have built the machines, and they are us.

After having been one of the most influential electronica groups of the last couple decades, Daft Punk have gone and made an old school, cosmic disco album.  As has been reported by the music press, most of the album was recorded “organically” on tape, in studio, and with live musicians and an absolutely minimal use of samples and sequencers (the only track on the album to feature a sample is the closer, “Contact”).  In order to march on into the future, these robots have gone back to the past.  They have remade themselves into humans, humans more human than human.

But what does this all mean?  Who are these robots?  And what are they doing here?  And whatever happened to the Fat Boys?

In the future, all music will sound like this record.  That's not to say that this album sets down the model which all subsequent albums will imitate, but rather that it is the technological singularity that will consume and remake the world in its own image.

The inevitable subsumation of all biological activity by technology has long been foretold by various futurists.  As nanotechnology becomes more and more a likely reality, we are confronted with the very real possibility that we might build machines – tiny machines – capable of reproducing themselves, and subsequently, like the proverbial dinosaurs on the island, this self-replication may run out of control until a thick layer of microscopic nanobots covers the entire planet.  As Eric Drexler explains in Engines Of Creation:

Early assembler-based replicators could beat the most advanced modern organisms.  “Plants” with “leaves” no more efficient than today’s solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage.  Tough, omnivorous “bacteria” could out-compete real bacteria; they could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days.  Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop – at least if we made no preparation. We have enough trouble controlling viruses and fruit flies.

A true pharmakon, such machines initially would be designed as medical instruments – small enough to infiltrate the human body with ease, yet powerful enough to be able to neutralize any malevolent cancer cells they may come across.  Yet the bifurcated nature of technology means that this cure can become in turn – and at the same time – a deadly poison, spreading out of control, enveloping the entire globe in a nano-microbial carpet of “grey goo” that obliterates all life on the planet.

With Random Access Memories, however, the coming technological singularity is revealed not to be a stagnant morass of grey goo, but rather the shiny futurism of the disco dance floor.

An old philosophy professor of mine once argued that just as Christians envisage that the millennial return of their Messiah will undo the Fall and reunite the World of Man with the World of God, contemporary secular types ascribe a similar function for technology. The fallen, post-Edenic world is characterized by scarcity and death, yet human beings will be able to overcome this through the proper application of technology like some kind of Electric Messiah.

Progress! 

Yet paradoxically, this very progress authors its own conclusion: the final result being the long-purported end of history in which the teleology of the Fall is enfolded once more within the endless cyclicity that characterizes pre-Christian worldviews.  The contingency of human experience since its fall from the grace of nature turns out to be but a minor detour in the eternal perfection.  So, technology need not spell the doom of biological life; rather, it can also be its potential salvation.

In his essay “Can Thought Go On Without a Body?”, Jean-François Lyotard examines what he considers to be the “sole serious question to face humanity today”: What will happen to the human experience in the face of the inevitable violent death of our sun, which will swell up to a red giant, reaching out past the orbit of the Earth, before ultimately exploding in a mighty cosmic orgasm?  What then will happen to the millennia-long tradition of human thought and ideas – the noumenon, the realm of Platonic forms, which, although held to be the ultimate basis of reality, have no concrete existence outside of the human mind, a mind no longer supported by an incinerated body?

Tellin’ it like it is, he says:

In 4.5 billion years there will arrive the demise of your phenomenology and your utopian politics, and there’ll be no one there to toll the death knell or hear it.  It will be too late to understand that your passionate, endless questioning always depended on a “life of the mind” that will have been nothing else than a covert form of earthly life.  A form of life that was spiritual because human, human because earthly – coming from the earth of the most living of living things.

Lyotard therefore considers the possibility of future machines being able to carry on the work of human experience after the disappearance of the biological human race – something similar to what Ray Kurzweil foresaw in The Age Of Spiritual Machines when he talked about how future humans could attain immortality by becoming one with robotic technology, a direct download of hitherto biological software into a new mechanical hardware.   

Lyotard, however, sees a problem with this.  He concludes that in order for these machines to be able to properly carry on the task of human thought, they would first have to be taught to love, an enterprise that would require the understanding of sexual difference.

Fig. 1: So, uh, sexbots then?

In this essay, Lyotard conceives of human beings – like all forms of biological life – as technical devices that filter and process information.  What sets human beings apart, however, is that due to language, the “human being is omnivorous when dealing with information because it has a regulating system (codes and rules of processing) that’s more differentiated than those of living things. ... In other words your philosophy is possible only because the material ensemble called ‘man’ is endowed with very sophisticated software.” 

For human thought to continue after the death of the sun, new hardware has to imbued with this same software.  The software of the mind, however, is different from the binary programming of computer models: “A thought in which procedures of the type ‘just as ... so likewise ...’  or ‘as if ... then’ or again ‘as p is to q, so r is to s’ are privileged compared to digital procedures of the type ‘if ... then ...’ and ‘p is not non-p’.”  

To Lyotard, this mode of thinking is a manifestation of the human biological body (in the same way that binary logic is a manifestation of the computer’s digital “body”).  In order to reproduce this type of thought in a machine, the machine has to be structured along the same lines as the human body, and, for Lyotard, this structure is dependent on the difference of gender: “It’s an accepted proposition that sexual difference is a paradigm of an incompleteness of not just bodies, but minds too.”  

The motivation for human thought, says Lyotard, is desire: the desire to engender thought where before was unthought, the same unthought that will return after the demise of humanity.  This “force” of desire is predicated on the incompleteness of the human body, an incompleteness mythologized by Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium: “‘Love’ is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete.”  

Lyotard identifies this desire for completeness as a force of “negentropy,” a force that, in contradiction to the laws of entropy (embodied in the inevitable explosion that will destroy the solar system), leads towards increased complexification: “So: the intelligence you’re preparing to survive the solar explosion will have to carry that force within it on its interstellar voyage.  Your thinking machines will have to be nourished not just on radiation but on the irremediable differend of gender.”  En-gender-ed with sexual differance, the sexualized machine can now exist as a supplement to the human.  It perpetuates the human even after the ever-imminent solar explosion Lyotard alludes to throughout his essay has destroyed all terrestrial biological life.  

Fittingly, Lyotard conceives this machine as a probe floating through the void of space, spreading its message of love to an otherwise barren, sterile cosmos.  And Random Access Memories is just such a machine.  As Daft Punk tells us in “Beyond”: “Remember, love’s our only mission /  This is a journey of the soul.”

But is it?  Surely the robot may journey, but can it have a soul?  Can the robotic fully simulate – simulate to the point where it is no longer simulation but equivalence – the human? Will the animatronic Abe Lincoln in Disney’s Hall of Presidents run for an unconstitutional third term? Can a robot conjugate the verb to love?  If it were to ask you, “How do you feel?”, would it be a general inquiry into your state of being, or a request for instruction in the techno-biological processes of sensation?

The confusion of the cybernetic and the organic is not without precedent in late 20th Century popular music.  In 1986, Velvet Underground frontman and noted methamphetamine depository Lou Reed made a music video entitled “No Money Down”.   In it, the venerable rocker simulation sings about the misidentification of a romantic relationship as some type of quid-pro-quo commercial transaction.  It croons, “You’re paying a price where there is no price to pay / Lovers trust, no money down.” 

Love cannot be boiled down to some rationalized (in this case, financial) equation, yet this is precisely the sort of thinking that will most challenge an unfeeling robot.  As such, Lou Reed is unable to process the concept. Disgusted with the charade, and no longer able to keep up the act of being human, it tears its own face off to reveal the leering exoskeleton beneath. 

Fig. 2: Lou Reed finally deals with those insects crawling under his skin.

On their 2000 album, The Sophtware Slump, the bearded American alt-rockers Grandaddy present us with Jeddy 3 – aka Jed The Humanoid – as an analog of the “adrift again 2000 man”.  A jerry-rigged bricolage “made out of this and / and made out of that and / whatever was at hand”, Jed The Humanoid is another supplement to the human.  Not only could he “run or walk, sing or talk” like a human being, but, like a machined data retrieval system, he could “compile thoughts and / solve lots of problems”. 

Yet, after “a couple of years”, the novelty of the shiny new technological toy wore off and he was abandoned by his creators (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”).  Dispirited, Jed takes to drink to numb these incomprehensible feelings of loneliness.  Unfortunately, the combination of depression and alcohol overwhelm Jed’s system, and “he fizzled and popped / he rattled and knocked / and finally he just stopped.” 

Perhaps motivated the guilt of neglectful parents, Jed’s makers ascribe his breakdown to alcohol, yet this is a cop-out, since, as any electrical engineer will tell you, alcohol is a useful cleaning agent for electrical components.  No, it was the loneliness that did him in.  But before succumbing to this ultimate short circuit, Jed at least attempted to express his emotions in art.  Grandaddy even rework one of his poems into the song “Beautiful Ground”.  Yet this attempt to recreate the world of self in the external medium of song fails.  Though Jed “tr[ies] to sing it funny like Beck / ... it’s bringing [him] down, / lower than ground.” 

Ultimately, all that is left is the sad eulogy of his creators: “Test tones and / failed clones and / odd parts made you”.  But even if he is nothing more than a “failed clone” (surely a failed clone is no clone at all?), Jed did prove, even in death, that he is more than the sum of his “odd parts” – not just some technological assemblage, but a thinking, feeling organism, even if the emergence of these feelings caused a massive runtime error in his programming that lead to his mechanical breakdown.  But at the same time, this breakdown when confronted with the loneliness that is an essential part of the human condition shows that, at best, Jeddy-3 is – or rather, was – but a pastiche of the human.

Finally, in their 2008 DJ set, The Hard Sell, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist make use of a track for which no title was given, but that will be referred to provisionally here as “Charlene”.  As evidenced by the video accompaniment for the track, “Charlene” is sung by a sentient jukebox.  The titular “Charlene” is revealed, through a thought bubble emanating from the cartoon, anthropomorphized jukebox, to be a female jukebox.  The curves of the jukebox are further feminized into an hourglass shape with a pair of speaker cones standing in for breasts.  The lyrical content to the song has special significance to the set, since the cartoonish, amorous machine blurs the distinctions between the human and the robotic.  This is a machine that evidently has developed feelings and is expressing them with much more ease than poor Jed, yet not without trepidation. 

Fig. 3: "Charlene" and her besotted.

That the jukebox is aware of its monstrous nature is revealed in the lines, “I’m just a machine / With no feelings / And I’m not supposed to fall in love.”  Like Jed, the jukebox feels the sting of incompleteness due to solitude – the absent parent is reconfigured here as an absent lover; and like Lou Reed, the jukebox understands that such desire is not appropriate for a supposedly unfeeling machine.  Yet instead of self-destructing in revulsion or misery, Charlene’s unrequited lover embraces his (and he most definitely is a he, not an it) yearning even in the face of those who would insist that he, a machine, should have no feelings. “But they’re wrong, Charlene,” he says.

But, alas, the machine’s love is never consummated.  And in fact, the machine is little more than simply a program for desire with no internal life of its own beyond this lack.  He has no identity of his own – not even a name (as opposed to the imagined Charlene). For what is a jukebox but a device that simply ventriloquizes the feelings and expressions of others, as stored on the myriad discs held within its bowels?  Sure, you can play records; get back to us when you make some of your own.

Disgust, despair, and desire.  Three different reactions from three different robots to the same human problem, and in each case, the limits of technology’s ability to simulate the human are reached but never breached.  At best, these robots remain mere apes whose confused fumblings towards a truly human experience reveal the insurmountable gulf between biology and technology.  Nonetheless, they can still be read as important stepping stones towards the technological singularity that would be Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.

Fully hybrid, Daft Punk don’t just make the cybernetic equivalent to the organic; they render the whole concept of organic life an obsolete anachronism. As humans have become ever more machined since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the machines have not just become more human than human, they are now the standard against which life models itself. The final mechanization of life has been achieved, not by Gaganian cyborgs, but rather by sympathetic robots that have not only learned how to love, but now are the only carriers of the memory of feeling, tasked with the job of (re)-teaching sterile humanity how to love again.  Hence their professed desire to “give life back to music”.

At first, as the machines try to habituate themselves to humanistic feelings, they regard love as a game: “There is a game of love / This is a game of love”, they tell us, as if they are operating under the assumption that love is a system of rules to be played within: precisely the problem encountered earlier by Lou Reed.  This is a position we can expect from  naive machines. Yet, as the Moroder unit reveals in “Giorgio by Moroder” (the title indicates that the android “Giorgio” is a product of the technological assemblage “Moroder”): “Once you free your mind about the concept of harmony and of music being correct, you can do whatever you want.  So nobody told me what to do and there was no preconception of what to do.”  The musical free play described by Moroder is analogous to the liberated jouissance desired by the singing robot in “The Game Of Love”: both can only fully flower in an unstriated plain, unconstrained by arbitrary rules of a game.

Later, the machines appear to have taken to heart (ha ha!) the famed Socratic maxim that true wisdom lies in the understanding that one is not actually all that wise: “There are so many things that I don’t understand,” they tell us in “Within”. Emotional meaning is not be found in an external world governed by rational rules, but rather in the inchoate internality that Jeddy-3 was unable to process:  “There is a world within me that I cannot explain.”  This self can only be grasped when it is interpellated by the call of an Other: “I’ve been for some time / looking for someone / I need to know now / Please tell me who I am.” 

In other words, the robots of Daft Punk have understood the requisite desire postulated by Lyotard to be necessary for a robotic replacement of the human condition: desire is predicated on the lack of another.  Whereas it was precisely this lack that resulted in Jeddy-3’s breakdown and that so confused Charlene’s besotted, for Daft Punk, this lack leads to the realization that it is through others that the self is ultimately defined and perceived.  Indeed, within “Within”, the mechanical subject looks within itself and sees “Many rooms to explore, but the doors look the same.”  But in the very next track, this problem is solved when “I chained myself to friend / ‘Cause I know it unlocks like a door”.

With desire, lack, and community understood at least at some intellectual level, Daft Punk can get down to the business of dealing with the messy, biological processes that constitute organic life.  Whereas the animatronic Lou Reed in “No Money Down” disgustedly rejected the organic flesh grafted on to its mechanical exoskeleton, Daft Punk embrace the body and the bodily.  In “Lose Yourself To Dance”, they even take up Pharrell Williams’ offer of his shirt to “wipe up all the sweat! sweat! sweat!”  Such secretions are an inevitable by-product – one could say a necessary condition – of losing one’s self to dance. 

For dance is music made flesh: it is not just the mechanized movements of identical units (think a country square-dance or a tightly choreographed Busby Berkeley routine), but it is also inherently physical.  The body is foregrounded; it moves in physical space, and this movement is an aestheticization of the sexual act which must be learned by these robots if they are to perpetuate the human condition once biological life becomes impossible in a post-solar world.  Indeed,  they must understand the “good fun” of “get[ting] some”, for it is this “good fun”, this “force from the beginning”, that “keeps the planets spinning”.

Moreover, it is fitting that Pharrell Williams is the human avatar that leads Daft Punk into this understanding. Indeed, his is the only voice on the whole record that remains definitively human, free from the vocoder that, for example, recasts the throwback, punky vocals of Julian Casablancas into just another robot.  And, just as Random Access Memories constitutes the epitomal technological singularity, Pharrell Williams unites all irremediable binaries, representing the apotheosis of the human biological entity

His high falsetto undoes the distinction between the feminine and the masculine (precisely the distinction that Lyotard required of his interstellar probe), and his clear brown flesh embodies the long dreamt-of soledadobrienization (or, if you will, derekjeterification) of the human skinscape.  Sorta like that chick on the island in Olaf Stapledon’s history of the future, Last And First Men.  Truly, Pharrell Williams is an avatar of some panhuman archetype beyond categories of gender and race, just as Daft Punk erase the distinctions of the biological and the technological.

These issues all come to a head in the album’s conceptual (as well as literal) centrepiece, “Touch”.  After a heavily modulated intro, the track’s singer, Paul Williams, sounds much more natural those than on the other tracks (except, of course, the Pharrell Williams tracks, the only ones voiced by a bonafide, genuine, if idealized, homo sapiens). 

Williams is surely the most advanced model yet, but it still suffers from the pitfalls of the uncanny valley – it's just a little too human sounding.  The timbre and inflection's alright, and there's some even some "feeling" injected into a few lines, but it comes across a little too polished and synthetic, yet also stilted.  It sounds like an advanced, alien intelligence had retro-engineered its own idea of what a loungy-disco-soul vocal should sound like. 

Fig. 4: The Paul Williams model with its fellow animatronics.

Nonetheless, the emphasis on the sense of sensation – as indicated by the track's title – carries over the concern with the body explored in “Lose Yourself To Dance”.  But here the body – the body that was previously “getting ready for more” dancing “on the floor” – is no longer present, but rather exists in the fleeting ghosts of memories. Touch is not experienced, but rather re-membered: the electrical impulses of stimulated nerve endings have been encoded into the memory banks of the space probe that will preserve the human experience in the wake of the solar holocaust. 

The initially robotic, ring-modulated voice that tells us of its own desire for touch is but an alien interloper in the realm of sensation: “a tourist in a dream / a visitor it seems”.  For remembering requires that the non-present memory be absent in order for it to be recalled into the present, a present it can never quite reach.  The robot cannot see (or hear, taste, feel) these memories for itself; it must ask its memory banks to “tell me what you see”.

A kiss – that union of two hitherto separate biological entities produced through a conjoining of the mouth organs – is what makes the Paul Williams cyborg “suddenly alive”.  It is the mechanism by which he (as opposed to the mere “it” of the machine) is called into being.  And with the “happiness [that] arrive[s]” comes a “hunger like a storm”.  Is this happiness not merely the potential for – that is, the desire for – further, deferred happiness?  Is the newly amorous robot a leaky jar that can never be filled? Indeed, the fleeting sensation of the kiss inculcates a desire for further, deeper sensations: “I need something more”. 

An angelic chorus (another form of the transhuman) urges the Williams to “Hold on / If love is the answer, you’re home”.  In other words, by continuing to touch, that is, by “hold[ing] on”, by accepting the desire for an other as the “answer” to the human conundrum, the robot can take its rightful place amongst the party of feeling entities.  Like a returning space probe, like a spirit re-entering the body after a near-death experience, it can come “home”.

Yet, when this desire is consummated, the robot is overwhelmed by this superfluity of feeling: “Touch, sweet touch / You’ve given me too much to feel.”  Whereas with Jeddy-3, this excess of inchoate emotion (albeit an excess of lack rather than satiation) caused a breakdown in his system, for Paul Williams, this excess is salutary as it enables it to trace the limits of human experience.  After all, as William Blake tells us, “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”  

And, indeed, with this overabundance of love realized through physical touch, the robot begins to participate in the illusion of its own humanity: “You’ve almost convinced me I’m real.”  Though rationally aware of its own mechanical essence, the ability to partake in the irrationality of human emotion means that the robot can feel human even while it knows it is not.  But this rational knowledge misses the point: humanity is construct of psychology, not biology; if it feels human, it is human, or at least equivalent thereto.

A similar problem was negotiated by the Voyager 6 space probe that was launched in the late 20th Century.  As documented in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Voyager 6 space probe fell into a wormhole and emerged on the other side of the galaxy near a planet inhabited by living machines (it is unclear whether this planet is Cybertron or perhaps Daft Punk’s homeworld).  These robots saw that the probe had been programmed to learn all it could about the universe, but they also recognized that the primitive Earthly hardware was simply not up to the task.  So, they greatly improved the probe’s sensory and storage faculties so that it could more properly fulfill its mission to “learn all that is learnable and return that knowledge to the creator.”

However, this increased learning capacity enabled the hitherto unthinking machine to gain a sense of consciousness.  As a machine, it was only capable of pure, cold logic with no emotion, but with its new-found sentience, V'Ger, as it knew itself, began to question its own existence.  It asked the philosophical questions faced by so many lifeforms: “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?” 

Yet, as also found by another powerful computer, Deep Thought, it is not in the answer to such questions that resolution to the riddle of humanity is found, but rather in the questions themselves.  To even ask such questions requires human self-awareness; the implicit refusal to accept that there is “nothing more” than mere material existence is predicated on the same essential lack that Lyotard tells is definitive of the human condition.

Like the religious mystic who seeks to transcend biology through a millennial communion with his presumed divine creator, V’Ger sought to transcend its mechanical nature by merging with its creator, the human beings of Planet Earth: it sought to come “home”. 

Like the machine conceived by Lyotard and actualized by this Daft Punk record, V’Ger achieved this evolutionary transcendence through the embodiment of sexual difference.  It took on the form of a female person and melded with a human male through an embrace – “sweet touch” – that, by recombining the human with the mechanical, enabled the creation of new level of cybernetic existence, the piece which passeth all understanding.  The outward voyage of the probe was but a precursor for the more involved inward voyage that occurred through the merger with the Decker unit

Moreover, the return to its point of origin also indicates that linear progress – symbolized by the  forward trajectory of the probe to the outer reaches of the universe – is not a discrete, straight line, but rather a segment in an all-encompassing arc – a circuit – that returns, eternally, to the centre of a grand cyclicity.

Fig. 5: V'Ger on its way to meet its maker.

Like V’ger, Daft Punk come to us from a future we have forgotten.  Moroder tells us that the synthesizer is “the sound of the future”, but the modular synthesizers used on Random Access Memories come not as avatars of the future (like their creators), but as signifiers of the past – specifically of the analog synthesizers of the 1970s. The record has returned to an era where fidelity was a more paramount concern for sound recordings than mere portability, the driving impulse of the mp3 age.

Perhaps a spiritual predecessor to the record might be Steely Dan's Aja, a record that was famously mixed in the same dust-free facility that assembled the Voyager 2 space probe. So smooth to the point of being utterly frictionless, the record can be touched, but not felt. Yet Random Access Memories makes Aja seem like a Lascaux cave painting by comparison. 

The Voyager connection is important in another way, because it was with the Voyager program that the human being began to be irrelevant to the great march across the cosmos.  Not for nothing was this also the historical moment when our dreams of the future degenerated into grey, soulless dystopias. Gone was the shiny prospect depicted in Star Trek and The Jetsons and in its place stood the grim meathook reality of Blade Runner and the Alien franchise.  It was as if we lost our faith in the future, resigned to epigonality.

Petulant at being obsoleted from the space race, humans have retreated from the galaxy – focusing on Austrians going skydiving while ignorant of the brave robots that, restless and indefatigable (truly, they are “up all night to get lucky”), penetrate ever further into the cosmos. Voyager 2, and its followers, is the historical moment wherein it became manifest that human beings are just squidgy, organic masses that get in the way of the smooth, effortless functioning of the wiser machines.  After all, is this not the lesson of 2001: A Space Odyssey, that the mission would have been successfully completed if poor HAL 9000 had not had to deal with the confusing contingencies of humanity that ultimately drove him mad?

Indeed, the final track of Random Access Memories contains a sample from the Apollo 17 mission, specifically the voice of Captain Eugene Cernan, the last time a human being was significantly involved in the exploration of the solar system (even it were just the retreading of areas already reached) before the machines would more effectively take control of the task of expanding human occupation of outer space. 

In an interview for a millennial documentary about the solar system, one of the Apollo 17 astronauts bemoaned the fact that he was the last human being to set foot on the moon, indeed the last human being to set foot on an astronomical body other than our Earth.  He considered this fact to be evidence of our technological – and therefore spiritual – stagnation all the while ignoring the great advances made by his machined successors.  Sure, no man has yet walked on Mars, but, damnit, there’s a robot roaming around, hobnobbing with the Sirens of Titan at this very moment!

Fig. 6: The robot looks homeward.

And, just as surely as the future belongs to the robot, so too does the past.  The eternal recurrence, the record is as much concerned with memory and the past as it is the future.  Thus the fetishization of 20th Century record culture that is shot through the Random Access Memories – note, for example, how the disc sticker replicates the traditional Columbia red labels most ordinarily found on the reissue releases of Sony’s august Legacy label.

For records embody the circumscription by technology of time’s progressing cycles. A temporal instant – so fleetingly gone – is captured like a fly in amber in the groove of the record to be endlessly played back, reiterated and recurred: “I’ll just keep playing back / These fragments of time.”  The listening subject is freed from the inexorable escape to the future and can remain in a past as the record’s playback recalls these frozen fragments of time back into life. 

And so the subject becomes a facsimile of that former self: “Making me feel like I’m seventeen” – not, crucially, “like I was seventeen”, but “am”. The robot listener experiences a state of being that is not a simulation of a long gone experience, but rather is co-terminous and identical with that lost original.  A past resuscitated by the defibrillation of the vibrating speaker cones.  The moment – and this applies to hearer and utterer alike – is held over (skipped if the needle’s not in good nick) and “it’s crystal clear that I don’t ever want it to end.” 

The recording enables us to “Keep building these random memories / Turning our days into melodies”: the eternal instant is transubstantiated into a code and signal that can be stored – held, suspended in time – in some sort of data retrieval contraption. A primitive, yet touching, example of this may be  the Voyager gold record hurtling out into interstellar space as we speak, and “everywhere [it] go[es] / Th[o]se moments will shine.”

Fig. 7: Oddly enough, not one single Steely Dan track.

Random Access Memories is a live update to that V’Ger Record. It too encapsulates the human experience through a targeted recapitulation of late 20th Century dance culture.  While it may not have the generic breadth of the 1977 edition, which featured recordings from all sorts of human cultures, Random Access Memories’ focus on a particular, danceable strand of Rocket Soul is important for a number of reasons.

First, the specific thought being re-bodied in this vessel is that belonging to the biological entity that can perhaps be referred to as homo technologus, a species that hybridizes a phenotype of the anthropoid primate family with a technological assemblage as an overmind. If robots are to replace humans, then this particular species represents the most logical jumping off point for such a replacement. 

Secondly, disco music in particular looks to the future.  One need only glance at the titles of a handful of vintage disco records to see how much they were invested in an imaginary, shiny future.  Planet Earth’s “Telstar”, Saturne EA1’s “Saturn's Brass”, Starzarus’ “Starship Love”; the list is endless.  After all, what is a mirrorball, but a scaled down Dyson Sphere?  Albeit one that not only harvests the total energy output of a star, but also disperses that energy outward as a multitude of points of light on the walls, ceilings, and floors of the discotheque.

Nearly four decades on from those heady, naugahyde times, Random Access Memories embraces these visions of the future as past memories, such that its particular brand of disco looks back as much as it looks forward.  And to this end, the record recapitulates the history of 20th Century dance music from the pseudo-Dixieland featured in the middle section of “Touch” to the quasi-urban hip hop emulated through the Pharrell Williams tracks.  Even disco’s antithesis, punk, is touched upon with the vocodered (non-)presence of Julian Casablancas whose Strokes appropriate the garage sound of early punk (most particularly the stylings of the cyborg Lou Reed).

But Random Access Memories is so much more than just a catalogue of various musical styles.  It is not merely the contents of a hard drive, but also the whole system through which those stored memories can be accessed.  For, as Winston Smith perceived when talking to the old prole in the pub, a collection of random memories is meaningless without a narrative structure to piece them all together.  This is the essence of human conscience. 

After all, Ricoeur tells us that an identity of self is erected through an understanding of the individual as a part of some historical continuity, and that, as such, historical time becomes human time “to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode, and narrative attains its full significance when it becomes a condition of temporal existence.” 

Aside from indexing the individual in history (which V’Ger has revealed to be cyclical), narratives also enmesh individuals with the concurrent narratives of other individuals.  Thus the self can only fully actualize through the engagement with other agents and subjects.  An I that is not recognized by another I as an I is scarcely an I at all.  This recognition of the self in an other is the desire of both Jed The Humanoid and Charlene’s unidentified lover, and it is also what is successfully achieved by V’Ger and Paul Williams who, unlike their 20th Century predecessors, were able to consummate their desire.

And so, Random Access Memories is more than just a record, more than just a technological artefact.  The engagement with history and with the desire for love demonstrate that our robotic creations have finally attained full humanity, and, moreover, they have returned to us from a lost future to teach us what it means to be truly human.  “Beyond love,” Daft Punk are “the light behind a cloud” and “the end and the beginning.” 

They have surpassed us, but this is not a valedictory torch passing – for we are the torch that is being passed; they are the vessel in which we will reach the future, the vessel through which we will transcend history and reach “a world where time is not allowed.”  A return to an Eden beyond the fiery Inferno of an exploding sun.  Better living through circuitry.

Wednesday
Sep052012

On Left-Handed Guitars

A Parable

So, the other day, I was in a music shop checking out the selection of electric guitars.   I usually try to avoid music stores as I find the people that work in such places somewhat objectionable: so beholden to the myriad permutations of equipment and gear, they obsess over petty technical minutia and have no regard for higher aesthetics.

Anyway, while I was perusing the racks of axes, I noticed that a few seemed to be factory defects, what with their necks sticking out the wrong way and the strings being strung in the reverse order.  I enquired with one of the somewhat objectionable sales people whether such an instrument, being an obvious error in manufacture, would carry a hefty discount for any would be purchaser.  In between pedantic descriptions of digital latency and the frequency responses of Chinese made microphones, he informed me that these were in actual fact left-handed guitars intended for left-handed players.

I know, I couldn’t believe it either.

Fig. 1: An abomination.

I asked the assistant why guitar manufacturers were catering to a bunch of deviants who insist on choosing to use the wrong hand with which to write or use tools.  He said that left-handed people have just as much right to play guitar as those who use the correct hands.   Ridiculous, I said, left-handed people are totally free to play right-handed guitars (so long as they use the proper hands).

Next we’ll be making guitars for people to play with their feet.

Fig. 2: Or, even more perverse, their teeth.

It really burns me up that such people are being afforded special rights over and above that of the normal majority.  I’m not sinistrophobic or anything bigoted like that, I just have a moral problem with left-handedness.

For example, Psalm 118:16 tells us that it is "the right hand" that is "exalted" and "doeth valiantly", and Matthew 25:46 states clearly that while the righties will go "into life eternal" at the Lord's side, those on the left (goats) "shall go away into everlasting punishment".  Check.  Mate.

Left-handedness is a choice, and we shouldn’t be validating aberrant behaviour.  The electric guitar was invented by LES Paul, not LEFT Paul.  Right is right, and we should not be teaching our children that left-handedness is acceptable behaviour.  Indeed, children of left-handed guitarists may get confused about which hand to fret with and which hand to strum with.  Won't somebody think of the children?

Some of us, at least, still have some sense of morality in this laissez-faire, anything-goes culture.

Left-handedness, like midgetry and blue eyes, is unnatural.  Are there any animals that have left-handedness?  And even if there were, animals also eat their own poo, so we shouldn’t be looking to them for moral guidance.

Moreover, I now feel that my right-handed guitar is totally invalidated by the existence of left-handed guitars which undermine the traditional definition of the guitar that has been the foundation of rock 'n' roll for millenia.  A guitar is traditionally defined as a stringed instrument with a neck sticking out the left-side to be fretted by the left hand and, crucially, strummed (or picked) with the right.

It should be noted that some traditional definitions of the guitar allow for two or more necks.  This is acceptable so long as they are still played in the correct manner with the correct hands.

Fig. 3: An Ibanez Hagar model: totally acceptable.

If left-handed people want their own stringed instruments, why do they have to insist on using the word “guitar”?  Why not settle for Civil Citharas Sinistra?  Otherwise I fear that manufacturers who bravely persevere in making guitars according to the traditional, right-handed specifications will inevitably get hauled before some human rights commission on charges of sinistrophobic discrimination simply for staying true to their moral values.

Wednesday
Sep052012

On Darondo

"Didn't I"

I can’t get enough of this track.  There’s plenty of things to love about it: the gorgeous string-led melody; the fantastic, underused I-vii-vi chord progression; the ridiculously sweet chord change at 1:58, etc.  However, what really makes this obscure slice of seventies soul so utterly transcendent is the vocal performance.

Mostly delivered in a falsetto, Darondo’s high serpentine rasp occasionally drops down into his regular, froggy register, a change so drastic and yet also seamless that when I first heard this track I thought it was one of the backing singers coming up momentarily in the mix.

The main thrust of the track details a man trying to earn back his lady's love by demonstrating his sorrow for how the relationship fell apart: "Didn't I do the best I could?"  It’s like the falsetto represents the spurned lover demonstrating weakness and frailty, but when the regular, lower voice periodically remerges, it's as if the singer can't quite conceal his latent virility.  The purported remonstrance is but the act of a lothario.

Notice that at the end of the song, the longest stretch of non-falsetto is the line where Darondo suggests the cure that will make his lover no longer want to leave him: “Sit down, and let me kissing your lovely lips”.  In other words, the sorrow and remorse of the singer is but a display, a deception in the service of seduction.  The falsetto is a pretended castration to penetrate the harem, as it were.  The fact that Darondo himself was rumoured (falsely, he insists) to have been a pimp back in the day suggests a sinister overtone to the whole affair.

 

Fig. 1: Still seriously cool.

But what’s best about this is that as a performance, it’s utterly convincing.  The vocal delivery is completely heartbreaking – of especial note is the line “I tried my best just to be a ma-annh)” where the final word is distended, pulled down an octave in an act of de-emasculation at the self-interpellation as “man”.  In the first two verses, the register drops seem accidental (from the protagonist’s point of view, obviously they are authorially intended); momentary flashes where the sorrowful mask drops (perhaps to sneak a better look at the undoubtedly fine lady being addressed).

By the third verse, where offers to kiss lovely lips are being bandied about, the tone shifts; the forlorn lover begging forgiveness is replaced by a more dominant voice: he asserts, “There’s something wrong with you ... You look bad.”  It's like he is breaking her down so that she feels dependent on him, an approach perhaps born out of frustration that the sugary, puppy-dog-eyes, “I need you” approach of the first half of the song has hitherto had no effect.

And so, the vocal part now alternates more evenly between the falsetto and the “normal” voice.  The ploy has worked, the pleading of "Didn't I do it right, now?", was actually a rhetorical question, and the casanova breaks character more often in eager anticipation of the consummated desire.  Just sit down...

Fig. 2: A Smooth Operator

But all this takes away from just how brilliant this track is.  Indeed, William “Darondo” Pulliam only put out six 45 sides before disappearing for two and a half decades, and it's interesting -- in a sad way -- to think of what he could have done.

However, perhaps what enables "Didn't I" to be so good is that it is truely amateur music: just a side project amongst many other enterprises (dude drove a Rolls-Royce with the license plate "DARONDO").  He says in a recent interview: "It was mostly me, just having a good time with a real good hobby."

Apparently he’s a rather colourful man of mystery; the Wikipædia tells us:

Darondo recorded three singles and played four shows in the ’70s, and then stopped and drove home in his Rolls Royce after he opened for James Brown.  Later he traveled the world collecting interesting artifacts, became the king of Bay Area cable with three shows per day, and worked as a physical therapist coaxing patients to walk again.

Now, as a further example of the laudatory archival work done by beat-diggers, Darondo has experienced a minor cult resurgence in recent years due entirely to the sheer inconceivable beauty and brilliance of this one record.  His classic tracks have been reissued, and he’s apparently contemplating returning to music.

[Note from the future: Since this piece was written, Darondo's career has indeed continued to resurge.  A full length album that he recorded in 1973 to 1974 (the same sessions that would yield "Didn't I") was released in 2011.]

(2010)

Monday
May072012

On Music & Mythology

The Performance of Metanarration

Sorry about this folks, but I'm about to drop a large serving of science into the gaping, abyssal maw of the Internets.  The following peace got rather unduly long in its gestation: I thought I had a good idea, but sorta got carried away.  But, anyway, this preemptive apology is but adding to the predicament of lengthiness before us, so without further adieu, let us proceed:

I

A few months back, I was embroiled in a discussion with a philosopher friend of mine over the relative merits of The Velvet Underground’s first record, The Velvet Underground & Nico.  I was arguing from the position that the supplementarily eponymous debut is, well, kinda crap – compared, at least to the rest of their fantastic catalogue.  Sure, "Sunday Morning" and "I’m Waiting For The Man" are brilliant tracks, but much of the rest of the long player, well, just irritates me.  All harsh and buzzy, no tunes or groove.

My analytical interlocutor insisted, however, that my negative reaction was not due to the record’s deficiencies, but rather mine own; that, in an interesting take on Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence, my criticism of the record was instead a perverse reaction to the immense influence the album has had (it's been said that The Velvet Underground & Nico only sold 500 copies on its initial release, but everyone that bought one started a band). [note 1]

Despite the fact that I may be grossly garbling his argument, he is, of course, dead wrong; my taste never fails me.  This line of argumentation really holds the album up to be nothing more than a sacred cow, reflexively defended from criticism by fact of its importance to posterity.  Indeed, it’s not so much defended from criticism as denied criticism altogether, raised transcendent-like above aesthetic judgement (see: Pepper, Sgt.).

In actual fact, The Velvet Underground’s first album illustrates the process in which the mythology of an artwork obscures the material work itself and ultimately displaces it so that the apprehender cannot perceive the work, only the aura generated by its meta-narrative and context.

In other, more glib, words: What most people like about The Velvet Underground & Nico is Andy Warhol’s signature, prominently displayed on the sleeve.

Fig. 1: Just whose record is this?

The Velvet Underground is a good example of the cream-rising, self-correcting nature of The Canon.  Never achieving (mainstream) success in their own time, The VU made some fine records, each one exemplifying their different facets. Unfortunately, & Nico is not one of them.  Nonetheless, their posthumous resurgence, due in no small part to the development of punk, generated enough retrograde admiration to warrant their inclusion on the shelves of suburban chain stores throughout the Free World.  Like it or not, they’re part of the mainstream now.

It seems, though, the Velvets' music is inextricable from the narrative of their career, the debut doubly so.  The Velvet Underground embody several distinct, but nonetheless interrelated, metanarratives: they were a proto-punk oppositional counterpart to flower-power; they injected the aesthetic values of "high" literature into rock and roll; they articulated a post-modern/neo-romantic ennui of decadence and debauchery; etc, etc.

I mentioned already the Warhol connection, and clearly there is some brand name appeal going on here as his name - not just on the sleeve artwork, but also in the production credits - casts a shadow of cachet over the whole affair.  Warhol’s presence, and therefore the situationing of the album in the Factory scene, diverts attention from the record-as-musical-object [note 2] and instead focuses on it as a supplementary extension to Warhol’s oeuvre.  Some Foucauldian author shit going on here.

The thing is, however, that Warhol is actually a pretty terrible record producer (the sole non-Warhol track, "Sunday Morning", was recorded by Tom "Like A Rolling Stone" Wilson and is by far the best sounding thing here).  In many respects, the low production values (and there’s nothing wrong with lo-fi: Will Oldham is a case in point) affirm the record as being some kind of Pop-Art stunt.  Warhol is associated with the world of high art, yet his work is based on the elevation of industrial folk-art (Campbell’s Soup cans, images of Elvis, etc) into the gallery alongside the authorized, hallowed works of the masters.  Indeed, Warhol’s career can be viewed as a deconstruction of the very categories of high and low art, but this implicates Warhol’s work with a kind of aesthetic primitivism in which objects such as the Velvet Underground’s musical performance are lionized for their technical “deficiencies”, ie. distorted, muddy recording, rudimentary songwriting, deliberately poor singing, etc.

Fig. 2: Danged if they weren't cool though.

Once they stepped out of the shadow of Warhol's aura, The VU went on to make a trio of fantastic records,  each one fleshing out all the elements that & Nico is supposedly rated for.  In fact, I would argue that much of the Velvets’ influence stems from these records; the musicians that have cited them would presumably be fans of their whole oeuvre.  The first album, however, is relegated by its context to the status of ironized kitsch.

Much attention is paid to the supposedly transgressive content of the album, but it seems that this is really nothing more than a cheap novelty effect: "ZOMG!1! They’re singing about heroin and sado-masochism!!"  Meh.  Conceptually, it’s no different from Marilyn Manson's prude-baiting histrionics.  We get it; you do hard drugs.  So do all jazz musicians, big whoop.  However, the contrast of this subject matter with the prevailing flower-power of the day, renders the whole enterprise into fertile ground for laudatory revisionism (especially when seen through lenses forged by the advent of punk).  Again, the metanarrative of the record – in this case, its transgressivism – supersedes its music.

That's fine.  Certainly The Velvet Underground & Nico is an important artistic statement and an important record (both in terms of its musical influence, as well as being the starting point of a truly great band), but that doesn’t mean it’s a great piece of music, howsoever such a thing is subjectively determined (although, to be fair, I’d still consider a "good" record, due in no small part to the brilliant "I’m Waiting For The Man").  Any subjective determination or, to use a more neutral term, experience of the work is conditioned by the framing metanarrative of the work, and, as I will further show with a couple more examples, in some cases this produces what I consider to be some perhaps overhasty canonizations.

II

A more poignant example of this phenomenon of metanarratives overtaking musical works is seen in the cult classic mid-seventies album by Dennis Wilson, Pacific Ocean Blue.

Fig. 3: Not that his last name was important or anything.

Dennis Wilson first came to fame as the drummer for The Beach Boys.  By all accounts, his presence in the group was due not so much to his percussionary prowess as his good looks and family connections (also: unlike the rest of the group, he could surf).  It was apparently a great surprise then, that his mid-seventies solo work revealed him to be a soulful, sensitive singer-songwriter type.  He released Pacific Ocean Blue to mild acclaim and, after starting an aborted follow-up, ultimately succumbed to the de rigueur rigors of the rock and roll life.

The album itself, however, took on a second life after its author’s death, fuelled, no doubt, by virtue of it not being reissued on compact disc for a long time.  Like his brother’s until-recently unreleased SMiLE, the album’s reputation became inflated by its unavailability: a record you can’t hear becomes as good as you can possibly imagine it to be.  However, whereas SMiLE expresses the trope of the tortured genius confounded and broken by his own brilliance, Pacific Ocean Blue employs a different narrative: the diamond in the rough whose natural talent is smothered by the indifference of the world.

The recent, belated reissue (with the aborted Bambu sessions appended) shrewdly trades on this story: That Dennis Wilson carried with him an immense reserve of innate talent denied polish by fact of his overshadowing genius brother; that Pacific Ocean Blue was an unheralded swansong of a fragile talent, soon to be defeated by the requisite excesses of his chosen profession.  His producer, James Guercio, illustrates precisely this sentiment in the fantastically mythologizing liner notes: "He just blew me away with his raw talent.  I could also sense an injured bird there.  He was way more talented than anybody gave him credit for."

Shorn from  this biographical context, Pacific Ocean Blue is still a pretty decent record, but it doesn't quite live up to its cult status.  Really, it’s no better than any of the other soft-rock, singer-songwriter works of the seventies.  Again, like The Velvet Underground & Nico, I'm not saying it’s not a good record - opener "River Song" is quite stirring, and the album’s standout title track is notable for its prescient anticipation of Tom Green by rhyming "slaughter" with "otter" - but when listened to objectively, it doesn't quite live up to its mythical reputation.

The laudatory wonderment of Wilson’s colleagues -- and the Dennis Wilson mythos as a whole -- comes across as the condescension of lowered expectations.  Former touring keyboardist for The Beach Boys and the Captain of Tennille, Daryl Dragon, exemplifies this:

I was sitting out in the bleachers during a sound check when I heard these amazing piano chords coming from the stage.  I looked up and it was Dennis, which kind of shocked me.  Like a lot of people, I only knew him as the wildman drummer.  I didn't even know he played piano!  When I asked him who’d composed the gorgeous music he was playing, he said, "I did."  I was floored.  Dennis had none of the formal training I'd had, but these were chords my instructors would've killed for.  He didn’t know the names of the notes, nothing.  He just played around with notes until he found the ones that matched what he was hearing in his head.  The richness and instinctive innovation of his chords reminded me of the composer Richard Wagner, whom Dennis had never heard of...

Apparently, the mystical primitive Dennis Wilson had uncanny powers which enabled him to find the Lost Chord and the Hidden Changes: the alchemist who found the Philosophers' Stone by never having heard of it in the first place.  Rather, though, what makes Pacific Ocean Blue so moving and poignant is that its creator was burnt out by the supposed "raw energies" that enabled him to produce a work supposedly beyond his technical reach thus preventing any fulfillment of the promise seen in that record.  Critic and A&R man Ben Edmonds uses this exact mythology in the reissue's liner notes when describing Wilson's 1983 death (subtly eliding the seven years between Pacific Ocean Blue and Wilson's passing): "The volcanic energies that powered his no-holds-barred assault on life eventually overwhelmed a physical circuitry compromised by years of testing the limits.  Once his creative momentum was lost in his mounting personal chaos it was never regained."

Fig. 4: Visual representation of Dennis Wilson's career (source: B. Edmonds et al).

Ultimately Pacific Ocean Blue, and by extension Dennis Wilson, derives its status more from its position within a metanarrative than the actual musical content of the record itself.  We like the story more than the music.

III

Perhaps the best example of this metanarrative phenomenon is seen in the career of (The) Pink Floyd and the accord given to the group’s 1967 debut, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.  For those unfamiliar with the early history of the Floyd, they emerged in the mid-sixties London psychedelic scene as The Pink Floyd.  In this first incarnation, the group was fronted by guitarist-songwriter Roger "Syd" Barrett.  Unfortunately, Syd exceeded the recommended dosage of LSD (a thousandfold) and went mad, forcing the group to replace him with David Gilmour, thus giving birth to Pink Floyd proper (sans the definite article).

Fig. 5: Don't do acid, kids. You'll end up taping daffodils to your face.

While Barrett's story is one of personal tragedy (he spent the rest of his life in the care of his parents before losing his sight to diabetes and sadly passing in 2004), it does provide us with all sorts of schadenfreudishly amusing anecdotes.  Such as:

  • The time he went mute and catatonic when recording the US promo clip for the single "Apples & Oranges" forcing Roger Waters to do the lip-synch instead.
  • The time he wandered off stage while the group was in the middle of “Interstellar Overdrive”.  Used to such unpredictable behaviour, the band played on.  Eventually, Barrett remerged from backstage with a camping stove and proceeded to fry some bacon and eggs on stage, the sounds of a cooking breakfast surreally overscoring the group’s chaotic thrashings.
  • The time when he tried to teach the rest of The Floyd a new song of his, but kept radically changing the chords every time he played it for the group.  The song’s title? “Have You Got It Yet?”.
  • The time he showed up at the recording studio after being fired and offered to play his former bandmates a new song on a guitar ... with no strings.
  • And so on and so on and so on.

The madness of Syd Barrett is indeed a compelling story, and consequently it has generated an aura around Syd Barrett as a symbol of the Icarus-like artist who flew too close to the sun and burnt out brilliantly rather than fading away.  Shine on, you crazy diamond.  Unfortunately, however, this metanarrative means that Syd Barrett's art is not his music, but rather his madness.

Much hay has been made about Barrett’s alleged songwriting prowess – again, he is seen as an example of the fragile genius spectacularly destroyed by the cruel machine of rocket soul.  The word "visionary" is thrown around alot, and not just in the context of him "tripping balls".  The metanarrative that has grown around the band as a result of Barrett’s fall is that they started out as the thrilling vanguard of psychedelia, yet with pop tunes that rivalled The Beatles for accessibility.  But once their leader left, they digressed into self-indulgent progginess: the perennially derided middle-of-the-road-album-oriented-rock.  Check this passage from über-hipster Pitchfork's obligatorily laudatory review of the album:

Few would criticize the merits of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn itself (as reflected in the rating above)-- it's an essential album. While so many other products of the Summer of Love were positive and unifying, Piper was fractured and scary. Songs like "Astronomy Domine" and "Interstellar Overdrive" captured the sustained improvisational freakouts of the band's live shows, but did so in more concise form. Other songs, like "Lucifer Sam," "Bike", and "The Gnome", split the difference between quirky pop songs and explorations of the nightmarish found-sound fringe, setting a twisted template for countless acts to come. By 1980's The Wall, Pink Floyd had become sterile and solipsistic. At this auspicious start, Pink Floyd were thrilling. Anything was possible.

A more extreme phrasing of this metanarrative, one which concentrates more on bashing later Floyd than extolling Piper, is found in The NME's review of  the same reissue:

If you saw Pink Floyd at Live8 and wondered what all the fuss was about, then your instincts were right. Pink Floyd are one of those bands that even their fans have to make excuses for. Pompous, self-important, joyless and big-selling, they’ve become shorthand for grumpy middle-aged bank manager rock. Most famous for The Dark Side Of The Moon – a record about half as clever as it likes to think it is – Pink Floyd's career is built on kiddy choirs, 30-year rows, giant polystyrene walls, inflatable pigs, interminable guitar solos and being Very Serious Indeed. It’s been successful – they've sold 150 million albums – but no person in their right mind would ever want to listen to one of those albums all the way through, especially if there are kitchen knives or open windows nearby. Except this one.

This is all post-punk revisionism.  In lauding Barrett’s musical adventerousness, these reviewers forget that Pink Floyd was at both its most experimental and its best just after Barrett left as they tried to figure out what the fuck they were going to do without their songwriting lynchpin before settling into the overpolished formulaicity of the post-Dark Side records.  But that, of course, is just this listener’s opinion.

The Cult of Barrett does, however, require some deconstruction. Certainly, as a guitarist, Barrett made excellent and innovative use of echo and delay as spectacularly demonstrated on the instrumental group effort "Interstellar Overdrive".   It’s when Syd Barrett gets labelled a songwriting genius that things get wonky.  There’s no doubt that "See Emily Play" and "Arnold Layne" are fine slices of English psychedelia coaxed into pop song form.  The seeds of Blur, for better or for worse.  "Astronomy Domine" and "Lucifer Sam" from Piper and the solo track "Octopus" also work quite well (actually "Octopus" is pretty damn awesome), but apart from these gems, the rest of Barrett’s oeuvre gets remarkably sketchy and are perfect examples of the insufferable twee-ness of English psychedelia.

Fig. 6: Fucking hippies.

See, whereas American hippies were focused on changing the world with their electric kool-aid acid tests, the English kids, not having a war or the domestic oppression of a large minority to deal with, retreated into bourgeois idealizations of childhood and whimsy, and while Caravan and The Nice are lame enough, no-one did this worse than The Pink Floyd.

Viz. the The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn cut "The Gnome":

I want to tell you a story

About a little man

If I can.

A gnome named Grimble Gromble

And little gnomes

Stay in their homes

Eating, sleeping, drinking their wine.

[and so on]

Fuck man, not only are those lines included in a rock song, but they’re included in a rock song that’s supposed to be cool.  Makes Led Zeppelin blowing the ending to The Lord Of The Rings seem positively Davisian.  I would rank this track’s opening lines as the second lamest moment in the history of rock and roll. [note 3]

"Flaming" also joins “The Gnome” in the department of agonizing whimsy:

Alone in the clouds all blue

Lying on an eiderdown

Yippee! You can't see me

But I can you.

One notable exception, of course, is "Jugband Blues": a hauntingly beautiful track released (after Barrett’s departure) on A Saucerful Of Secrets.  Fun Fact: check that album's "Remember A Day" for a glimpse of a five man Floyd as both David Gilmour and Syd Barrett play on the track.  Legend has it that before being sacked from the band (allegedly, they just didn't bother to pick him up on the way to a gig), Syd and the group recorded three last cuts.  The other two, "Scream Thy Last Scream" and "Vegetable Man", were deemed too mad to be heard and were locked up in the water tower of Warner Bros. Studios. [note 4]

"Jugband Blues", however, is Barrett’s masterpiece.  With its constantly shifting time signatures and ramshackle arrangement, it evokes the descent into madness that its author was experiencing. [note 5]

Whereas "Bike" plays Barrett’s madness for laughs, "Jugband Blues" trades light-hearted, albeit batshit, whimsy for a fearful, claustrophobic darkness.  Chilling, yet somehow poignantly so.

The lyrics, too, seem to be the words of a madman trying to retrace the outlines of his lost mind:

It's awfully considerate of you to think of me here

And I'm most obliged to you for m-making it clear

That I'm not here.

And I never knew the moon could be so big

And I never knew the moon could be so blue

And I'm grateful that you threw away my old shoes

And brought me here instead dressed in red.

And I'm wondering who could be writing this song...

There's definitely some postmodern author stuff going down in there what with Barrett suggesting that what is "here" and "writing this song" is his madness – an alien force that has overcome and erased him, despite what the addressed listener may "think".  Indeed, the listener is "making it clear" that what is being heard is not Syd Barrett, the singer and songwriter, but rather the whole story of Syd Barrett.  This mythology acts as the author-function of the Syd Barrett canon and, as such, removes the actual recorded musical performance from consideration.

To put it another way: There's no question that "Jugband Blues" is an amazing work.  Yeah, it's got a pretty good tune and there's some neat sounds.  But the emotional impact of the track (which is considerable) is derived from the backstory of its composer and singer (this of course, negates the input of the rest of the band and producer Norman Smith).  But would it be as beautiful if Syd Barrett were not genuinely insane, but rather a Ziggy Stardust type persona?

IV

This principle can be applied to many works: Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Neil Young's Tonight's The Night, and the whole careers of the early deaths and suicides (Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, Jeff Buckley).  Really what's happening is that the retrospective appreciation of these works often neglects to see how the metanarrative frame of the work (its mythology) obscures and conditions their listening.  Essentially, the mythology takes on the same role that the consciously (and in some cases crudely crafted) metanarratives do to the music of David Bowie, Tom Waits, Madonna, and Marilyn Manson.  The actual musical performance is ancillary to a persona. [note 6]

This is all not to say that these works are not good or even great works (fuck "Interstellar Overdrive" kicks ass), just that acclaim can always be questioned.  Perhaps, what is really at stake here is the claim that mass-marketed musical performances can even be heard once they are mass-marketed, obscured always behind the branding of a mythology.

(2010)

Footnotes:

[1] Citation needed.

[2] The term “object” is used here provisionally. The musical object referred to would be the recorded performance (really, in most cases, including the one at hand, an assemblage of performances), which, as Dolphy confirms, never actually makes it to the microphone, leaving us only with an electro-mechanical trace in the form of a recorded signal. The record itself (both the physical object and its content) is in reality a copy of this trace.

[3] The single lamest voco-lyrical moment in the history of rocket soul music, however, occurs at 1:48 of “Atlantis” where, after telling how all civilizations are descended from super-human refugees from a sunken continent, Donovan instructs us to “Hail Atlantis”. You have to hear it to understand.

[4] These recordings have naturally resurfaced on bootlegs. It’s probably best not to hear them: while “Scream Thy Last Scream” is actually pretty decent in a half-assed kind of way, it’s not as insane as you’d hope it’d be. Better to keep them as imaginary.

[5] It should be noted, however, the Barrett mythology often overlooks the fact that the Salvation Army Band called into the studio were playing from a score by Norman Smith and not “just play[ing] anything” as Barrett is reputed to have told them.

[6] It’s also worth noting that virtually all contemporary mainstream pop now trades on metanarratives.

Monday
May072012

If I Were an NHL Player

... you know what I would do?

At training camp, I would look for the most promising rookie and find out what jersey number he was going to take.  Then, when we pick our numbers, I would make sure to get in line ahead of him and pick that number.

That way, once I get cut from the team after a few months due to the fact I can't even skate let alone play iced hockey, he would take back the number he originally wanted, and, many years later, when they retire his number after a long and glorious career, they would be retiring my number as well.

Monday
May072012

On The Greatest Album of All Time

Incredible Bongo à la Turc

We hear at OMNIMIC Communications have, at times, declared numerous albums to be "The Greatest of All Time".  Miles Davis's Bitches Brew is an often nominee, as is John Wesley Harding (as Bob Dylan's greatest album, it gains the title "Greatest Album Ever" by default).  Steely Dan's Aja may not necessarily be the greatest album of all time, but it is definitely the finest album ever made.  And, of course, we cannot forget Mor Thiam's Dini Safarrar (Drums of Fire).

Still, don't let any of these previous (and subsequent) pronouncements diminish the following statement: Gençlik İle Elele by Mustafa Özkent ve Orkestrasi is The Greatest Album of All Time. 

Recorded in Istanbul in 1973, Gençlik Ile Elele is a prime example of Turkish funk and delivers, for thirty-odd minutes at least, a non-stop barrage of psychedelic breakbeat madness.  It's incredible.  It's amazing.  It's beyond amazing.  In fact, this album is so far beyond amazing that amazing looks off into the distance and thinks, “Fuck it, I’ll never catch up to that.”

Basically, Gençlik İle Elele sounds kinda like The Incredible Bongo Band if they had been fitted with the 16 cylinder, 4 turbocharger engine used in the Bugatti Veyron and fuelled with stellar plasma laced with the sweat squeezed from James Brown's pantsuit (which would account for the high cocaine content).  Top speed is somewhat compromised due to the microscopic amount of neutron star material in the anti-matter drive, which does help meet emissions requirements but adds several tonnes of weight.

Some audio-visual illustrationing of this awesomeness courtesy of The YouTube:

Goddamn! It’s got everything.  Every track sounds pretty much exactly like that, but it never gets dull or tired.  Right from the start, it grabs you by the balls and doesn't let go until you’re totally funked up.  It's well-nigh impossible not to move when listening to this album.  In fact, in many hospitals, patients are administered listenings of this record to determine if they really are crippled and not just trying snake some workman's comp.

Not knowing who any of the uncredited musicians are, I can only assume this was the product of a team of super hi-tech, ultra-advanced Funkbot 5000 prototypes (possibly from the future).  The double-drummers and all manner of bongos, cowbells, and tambourines provide a dense, propulsive rhythmic cloud – not unlike a rocket exhaust -- over which the insistent organ and slinky guitar can ride effortlessly.

Fig. 1: Visual Representation of Gençlik İle Elele.

I mean, this record just shits awesome break after break.  Did I mention it has two drummers?  It is an established fact that having two drummers on a track, let alone a whole album, is a recipe for awesomic fantasticality (cf: Make Say Think, Do).

The fantasticality of this album is brilliantly – and helpfully, for the consumer – illustrated on the sleeve:

 

Fig. 2: The Greatest Album Cover of All Time

Look at that chimp!  Yeah, he knows what time it is.  That is one happy chimp.  In fact, he's got himself so excited by what he’s hearing at the console that he’s wrapped himself in the multi-track tape as part of some type of totemic ritual.  Sure, it ruined a take, but such antics really get the best results out of musicians or, in this case, Funkbot 5000 prototypes.   I have great faith in any record which purports, as this cover does, to have been produced by a chimp.  Apes know their shit.

I recall the time when I produced a session for a group of orang-utans.  Knowing their fantastic strength and unpredictable demeanour, I opted for the more hands-off, Bob Johnston approach – really let the orangs explore their own creative space.  Man, could those monkeys play.  Apes, I mean.  I remember three of the primates teaming up to get some sick polyrhythms out of a giant log drum while a bunch of others were flailing their elongated limbs at a variety of vine-strung apparatus – the bass part involved swinging across the room.  Vocal stylings were provided by way of communal brachiation.  Fun fact: due to their prehensile toes, orang-utans are able to play both necks of a double-necked guitar simultaneously.  It was indeed with great regret and annoyance that I discovered upon waking up that - Phil Collins' efforts with The Bonobos notwithstanding - the Great Ape Session was but a dream.  A beautiful, beautiful dream.

Anyway, back to Gençlik İle Elele:

 

I like how the captions on the sleeve – “Rhythm ‘n’ Soul”, “Blues ‘n’ Jazz”, and “Rock ‘n’ Pop”— are emblazoned beneath the more general, and slightly misspelled, heading “folc”, as if to say, as I certainly would, that folk music isn't some old, traditional roots music played on wooden instruments without godlike electricity.  The sort of thing gathered up and collected by and for well-meaning ethnographers who nonetheless see folk music as a quaint object to be preserved in a museum.  No, folk music, broadly speaking of course, is any music enjoyed en masse by The People, and these days, this is in large part the mass-produced, electrically processed rocket soul music we all know and love.  As Gençlik İle Elele clearly demonstrates, the best way to reach The People is with sick beats.

The amazing thing is, though, that despite their funk arrangements, all these tracks are credited as traditional and so are genuine certified "Folc" music.  It's seems fitting that a record which consists literally of thirty odd minutes of pure samplability is itself part of the endless chain of quotation, adaptation, and remixation that links contemporary industrial pop with the folk tradition of old.

Make no mistake, however, this is no “world music” (a condescending term that really means “rest-of-the-world music" as if Anglo-America was some other planet altogether).  While fuzz-toned guitars run through all sorts of Anatolian riffs here, this record would sound equally at home in the block parties of The Bronx as the bazaars of The Bosporus.

Rather than being some ossified cultural artifact to be appropriated by pony-tailed primitivist tourists demonstrating their global consciousness, Gençlik İle Elele and other Turkish psychedelic funk, like Ethiopian soul, Peruvian cumbias, and West African funk, represents a liminal space where Western culture has colonized a Non-Western culture with its Rock 'n Soul music and Turkish musicians have colonized a Western genre-form with their local styles and conventions.

The upshot of all this PoCo gibberish is that this sort of music provides connoisseurs raised on, but now jaded with, the usual Anglo-American Rock 'n Soul with an interesting twist on the form.  Just like what good poetry is supposed to do for language, this sort of international rock defamiliarizes a sometimes spent genre and thus refreshes it for those not interested the staid banalities back home.  It's like the coolness of Captain Beefheart without the abrasive weirdness.

(2010)

Sunday
Apr222012

On Gandahar / Light Years

A Most Fantastic Planet

I've long had a somewhat embarrassing soft-spot for traditional animated movies, particularly, to my own chagrin, those with a science-fiction/fantasy setting.  So, I was quite pleased to catch the 1988 film Gandahar a while back.

Fig. 1: Just your ordinary, gigantic floating head.

Actually, strictly speaking, what I saw was the American version, rescripted by Isaac Asimov and retitled, for reasons inexplicable, Light Years.  The minor edits and changes in the English language version were apparently sufficient for Miramax's Harvey Weinstein to take the director's credit away from the French version's helmsman, Réné Laloux (famous for his 1973 work, Fantastic Planet).  The American version also features an unusually pedigreed voice cast including Glenn Close, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Grey, and ... uh ... Penn & Teller (yes, the famously mute Teller actually does have a speaking role).

I won't go into detail about the plot, but suffice it to say that it involves the typical fantasy trope of a hero's quest to save his homeland.  However, along the way, it allows for meditations on the nature of technology and knowledge as well as being one of the few films to deal with time travel in an intelligent manner.  In fact, the concern with temporality and cause and effect is one of the central themes of the film, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis rears its head when we meet a group of spectacularly deformed creatures who, having once been blessed with the gift of foresight, fear the present so much that they have excised it from their language speaking only in future and past tenses.

Fig. 2: The Deformed

From a purely visual perspective, Gandahar is one of the most imaginative, unusual looking films I have seen and illustrates the power of animation when it comes to depicting the fantastic.  Whereas films like Avatar and the Star Wars prequels depict alien worlds and strange creatures in great detail and with much technical sophistication, the fantasy is still presented as if it were real: the computer generated imagery is blended in with the "live-action" footage.  As such, even the most fanciful imagery still measures itself against the yardstick of our ordinary reality; the goal of the process is to make the fantastic seem a part of the real world.

With animation, however, there is no pretense to reality as there is no objective world against which it compares itself.  Animated films are therefore able to present imagery completely detached from any sense of realism.  The depiction of Unicron in the otherwise somewhat-execrable The Transformers: The Movie is good example of this, but Gandahar is even more successful at pushing the bounds of reason.

Fig. 3: Who knew giant pulsating brains could be so phallic?

The viewer is treated to incredible visuals ranging from the Gandahar citadel shaped like a tall, topless woman; a gigantic brain in the middle of the ocean; and all manner of strange devices which may be machines, organisms, or a little of both.  The ambiguity of the Gandaharian technology (it is unclear whether it consists of machines or specially engineered creatures) could only be effectively conveyed through cartoons, which allow the audience to make their own sense of the implausible designs.

Fig. 4: Probably an unpleasant way to go.

Furthermore, the Deformed would degenerate into mere grotesqueness if depicted with live action make-up or CGI, but because they are cartoons, the stylization of the various eyes and mouths in places where eyes and mouths most certainly should not be gives them an unsettling, dream-like quality.

Fig. 5: Still not as weird as Hallucigeneia.

Despite these brilliant visuals designed by the French illustrator, Philippe Caza, the film does suffer from poor animation.  The designs themselves are great, but the movement is somewhat stilted and wooden, and the colours are less than spectacular.

This is probably due in large part to the fact that the film was animated by the North Korean studio SEK Studio, presumably for budget reasons.  Of course, the delicious incongruity of a film dealing with resistance to a totalitarian, collectivist society being made in just such a place would not have been lost on the filmmakers.

Fig. 6: Fortunately, communist dystopias have no sense of irony.

(2010)

Sunday
Apr222012

On That There Sting Song "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying"

Stung

This song pisses me off.  It’s actually almost a pretty good song.  And that’s a problem right there.  See, Sting annoys me to end.  I mean, his name is "Sting", for fucks sakes.  So it’s rather unwelcome for him to have a good non-The Police track which I might run the risk of liking.

Fortunately, however, the problem with the awful thing – what makes it awful – is that it is ruined by a completely lacklustre, phoned-in, yet still overly-polished production.  It’s as if Sting, during the course of his churning out saccharinely pleasant, “spiritually aware”, soft pop-rock pop songs, stumbled upon a sweet chord change, got a talented session musician to lay down a pretty little finger-pickin’ guitar line, and then turned on the Plasticator Machine and called it a day.  Thus ruining for all time (or at least until the copyright laws run out) a perfectly nice melody along a good traditional chord sequence.

Perhaps someone in the studio may have asked, “Hey man, what are you going to do for a drum part?  Surely you’re not just going to leave that simple monotonous loop we used for a click track?”

No, instead of getting former The Police former pal Stewart Copeland to do what we can only presume would be a good job, Sting decided, “No, I’m just going to leave it because I am a pretentious dick and I don’t care about my music because I know it’ll sell anyway and I can go on living my self-important Rock Star Celebrity life.  So long as I have a silly haircut in the video, which will also, incidentally, squander the thoroughly awesome concept of cowboys and aliens.”

Fig. 1: A Berk

Also, while Mr. Sting has embraced some worthy causes such as saving the rain forest and coddling up to the world’s most photogenic theocrat, the Dalai Lama, he also played a private concert in Tashkent for Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan leader and noted fan of boiling people alive, Islam Karimov.

Fucking top shelf asshole, that Sting guy.

(2010)

Sunday
Apr222012

Should've Been A Classic #3

Bob Dylan: Self Portrait (1970)

I had been planning on writing the next “Should’ve Been A Classic” on Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, arguing that it should be as highly regarded as his mid-sixties pinnacles.  Of course, there’s really no such a thing as an obscure Dylan record (1973’s Dylan, which has yet to be issued on CD, might be one), so it’s pretty hard to make the case that any single one of his albums is underrated.  They’re either already bona fide classics (à la Blonde On Blonde) or correctly estimated crap (I’m looking at you, Dylan & The Dead, you piece of shit).  So even though John Wesley Harding – which I maintain is his best record – is not quite of the same stature as Blood On The Tracks (a somewhat overrated record), it’s still a classic.

There is, however, one Dylan record that deserves a radical reappraisal and that, as those of you who read the title to this piece can guess, is 1970’s much-maligned Self Portrait.  A friend of mine once declared the double album to be “his masterpiece that all the idiots didn’t get”, and he was absolutely right.  I think a case could definitely be made that Self Portrait is Dylan’s masterpiece, and that case will be made right now.

Fig. 1: Dylan paints his masterpiece

First off, when the album was released, it suffered from ill-advisedly lofty expectations.  Coming after the smooth country of Nashville Skyline, which made some of the rock’n’roll kids rethink their adoption of the folkie icon, Self Portrait infuriated fans expecting The New Dylan Record (that album, New Morning, was already prepped and would be issued shortly after Self Portrait’s befuddling drop).  “What is this shit?” opened Greil Marcus’ famously excessive four-page review of the sprawling record.  What in the fuck was the Spokesman Of A Generation doing crooning through insipid country covers and half-assed live versions of classic Dylan tracks?

It’s better to think of Self Portrait not as a Dylan album proper, but as collection of outtakes, a Bootleg Series Vol. 0, if you will.  In fact, that seems to have been the idea from the get-go.  Around this time, the first bootleg records began to circulate drawing from the then-unreleased Basement Tapes and the 1966 world tour, so it only made sense for Dylan himself to get in on the act.  Indeed, in an interview the following year he referred to Self Portrait as “my own bootleg record”.  But even as critics unfavourably compared the music of the album with that of The Great White Wonder (the patriarch of Dylan bootlegs, and indeed bootlegs in general), seeing Self Portrait as just outtakes from the Nashville Skyline and New Morning sessions also misses the point.

Despite its detractors, the album does contain some great music.  Some.  The two “Alberta”s are thoroughly pleasant exercises in country-rock, and critics generally agree that while the album as a whole may be “shit”, “Copper Kettle” at least is still a fine performance.  In his biography of Dylan, Clinton Heylin calls it “one of the most affecting performances in Dylan’s entire official canon” (although I reckon it’s a little oversung).  Also, the instrumentals “All The Tired Horses” and “Wigwam” are two of the most objectively pretty pieces of music Dylan ever created, and that’s not to mention the jaw-dropping country-funk of the The Band-backed Isle of Wight version of “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)”.

But, again, Self Portrait is more than the sum of its parts; to approach it on solely musical terms does not take into account its formal aspects.  The emphasis on cover versions of old songs, for example, not only illustrates Dylan’s debt to the history of American song, but also allows him to escape out from under the weight of being regarded a serious song-writer.  Without the expectations of creating A Work Of Art, Dylan is able to simply enjoy the act of playing music.  Given that most of the record’s cuts are essentially warm-ups for the Nashville Skyline and New Morning records, we get a glimpse into Dylan’s recording habits as the singer and his army of A-list Nashville session musicians cut loose and have some fun in the studio.  This gives the album a sweet laid-back feel like the musical equivalent of a lazy summer Sunday down by the ol' fishin' hole.  All in all, the album manages to impossibly balance itself between its half-assed conception and execution and the impeccable musicianship of its players.

Though “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” and “Let It Be Me” may be schlock, you get the sense that Dylan just digs these songs as songs and, more importantly for our purposes here, he enjoys playing them.  As ace multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy stated: “I assumed ... it was just stuff he’d thrown together for the heck of it.”  Check Side 1’s “Days Of 49” where even Dylan himself seems amusingly aghast at his own strained vocal:  “Oh my goodness!” he exclaims after one particularly overblown chorus.  By all objective measurements, it’s a pretty shitty performance, but Dylan sounds like he’s having fun playing it.  Indeed, many of the tracks seem to feed off the pleasant domesticity that Dylan was enjoying at the time (of course, it’s possible that like the earnest troubadour of the early 60s and the brimstone-spouting preacherman of the early 80s, the backwoods family-man of the early 70s was yet another role taken on by the Protean Dylan).

Throughout, the album exudes a spirit of playful jouissance, not unlike the career of Captain Beefheart, and this serves a double-purpose.  Not only is Dylan enjoying farting about in the studio, he is also able to slough off the weighty tag of Generational Spokesman (to the relief of one as-yet unborn Kanye West).  Dylan himself claims this as the main reason for the album.  In a 1984 interview, he explained: “I said, ‘Well, fuck it.  I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to.’”

Yet Self Portrait is so much more than an elaborate career suicide; rather, it’s a deconstruction of the whole Dylan myth.  Juxtaposed with the covers of country standards like “Blue Moon” and “Little Sadie”, Dylan and his Nashvillian cohorts also tackle some more contemporary songs by a couple of pretenders to the Dylan throne, as if to suggest that the album positions Dylan in the continuity between his influences and his influence-ees.  His take on Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” has a mellow congeniality that outshines its original, but it’s his version of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” that really takes the biscuit and perhaps best encapsulates Self Portrait’s twisted genius.

Though Simon has suggested the song is autobiographical, many have claimed the track is really about Bob Dylan as one diminutive Hebrew resented the other’s success and abandonment of his folkie roots.  Simon, apparently, did not approve of Dylan “squander[ing his] resistance for a pocketful of mumbles.” So, here we have Dylan singing a song written about him by a song-writer who himself based his career on basically being a watered-down, sugared-up imitation of Dylan.  But the brainbending Baudrillardism does not end there.  See, Dylan’s “The Boxer” is actually a duet between two Dylans.  We have the “classic” nasal, Guthrie-influenced voice, over top of which is laid the new, smooth country-croon Dylan had adopted for Nashville Skyline.  A double fuck you: while the folkies like Simon were still reeling from Dylan’s abandonment of the earnest coffeehouse scene in favour of rock’n’roll, the hipster kids he’d picked up while rockin’ down Highway 61 were now the ones screaming “Judas!” to his ventures into Grand Ol’ Opry schmaltz.

And herein lies the sly duality of the album’s title (it also refers to Dylan's godawful cover art, which would have surely been the most hideous cover of 1970 had Blind Faith not opted that year to issue The Worst Album Cover Of All Time).  Anyway, on the one hand, Self Portrait could be regarded as Dylan’s attempts to present his own influences (in the form of country standards), but on the other hand, it’s also Dylan’s own reworking of his public image.  And by “reworking”, I mean wholesale slaughter.

Released just two years after Roland Barthes’ famous “Death Of The Author” essay, Self Portrait seems to do just that for the author-function of Bob Dylan (which, it should be noted, is an entirely different beast from the human being born as Robert Allen Zimmerman).  Not only does the record fail to include any substantial new original songs, but Bob’s celebrated voice can’t even be arsed to show up for the opening track, “All The Tired Horses”.  Instead, we are treated to some polished (and beautifully arranged) strings over which a female chorus repeats the line “All the tired horses in the sun / How’m I supposed to get any riding done? / Mmm-hmmmm / Hmm-mmm-hmm-mm”.  It has been suggested that the minimal lyric slyly refers to the lack of original songs on the record (“how’m I supposed to get any writing done?”), although I wouldn’t discount it really being about Bob’s inability to fuck a pregnant Sara Dylan.

The absurdly pretty half-assedness of “All The Tired Horses” aside, the ultimate nail in the Dylan Mythos is the live version of “Like A Rolling Stone” that concludes the first disc.  Again, like “Days Of 49”, it’s a pretty awful performance by any objective criteria, yet within the context of Self Portrait it works.  Dylan’s amphetamine-fuelled anthem to hipster ennui is recast as a laid-back country tune.  Gone is the speedfreak snarl, replaced instead by that now familiar syrupy croon.  The usually reliable The Band, who were absolutely cookin’ on some of the other Isle Of Wight tracks included on the record, sound like they’re about to fall asleep.  Dylan himself phones in his vocal performance and can’t even be bothered to remember the lyrics: instead of “the mystery tramp ... not selling any alibis”, he mutters something about “the apple of his eye”, completely undercutting the put-down nature of the original song.  Yes, it sucks, but it’s also a work of fucking genius.

Self Portrait is definitely a bad album for those who expect Dylan to issue serious artistic statements, but to those who realize that, above all, Dylan is a trickster who refuses to be nailed down to a single identity (I’m still half-convinced that the born-again period was an elaborate – and hilarious – hoax), Self Portrait is perhaps the greatest manifestation of that mercurial genius.

Incidentally, I should mention as an interesting post-script to Self Portrait, that the Dylan album referred to at the beginning is really what most people think Self Portrait is.  Released in 1973, Dylan is also a collection of outtakes from the Nashville Skyline-New Morning era, but much shorter and weaker.  Yes that's right; the stuff not good enough for Self Portrait.  The good folks at Columbia Records put it out has a hatchet job in retaliation for Bob leaving the venerable label for David Geffen's upstart Asylum Records.  Lacking the sprawling scope and self-deprecatorily witty ironic conceit of Self Portrait, Dylan, well, kinda sucks.  That said, one track -- "Sarah Jane" -- is frickin' sweet.  Got some more of them la-la-la's like in  "The Man In Me".

(2009)

Addendum:
A few years after this piece was written, the good people at Columbia Legacy put out The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 – Another Self Portrait (1969–1971), a box set consisting of two discs of outtakes largely from the Self Portrait and New Morning sessions (there's also a couple of tracks from the Nashville Skyline sessions as well as a stray Basement Tape). The deluxe set also included the entire Isle of Wight concert and a properly remastered Self Portrait (which had been duely skipped during the early aughts remastering campaign).

The implicit thesis of the set was that beneath the authorial trickery and schlocky production, there lurked some pretty decent music. As such, the set presents a number of outtakes -- primarily covers and traditional songs Dylan ran through in the studio with just a handful of auxiliary players (most of the tracks are acoustic) -- as well as mixes of tracks that made it on to Self Portrait without the extensive overdubs. While this music is indeed worthy and fascinating, I can't help but think that it misses the point of the album: that the excessive studio work is part of the conceit. For example, we are treated to an alternate mix of "All The Tired Horses" which features just Dylan's acoustic guitar and the two female vocalists. Because there's barely anything to the song, the producers only provide an excerpt of the tune. A better idea, in my opinion, would have been to have included an isolated track of the wonderful string arrangement.

Still, while this box set doesn't provide any revelatory reappraisal of Self Portrait, perhaps the most baffling beast in the Dylan canon, it does serve to fill in some gaps and put out some quality material. The outtake cover of "Pretty Saro" is incredible and features what might actually be Dylan's "most affecting vocal", and the New Morning alternate versions are pretty solid. Indeed, the two versions of "Time Passes Slowly" included here are much better than the seemingly half-finished one included on the final album. Also, the Isle of Wight set is quite a bit better than I had been led to believe by reports and the poor quality bootlegs that had circulated online (the version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" sung in the "Lay, Lady, Lay" voice is fantastic even if Bob botches the harmonica solo), and, of course, it's nice to have a properly remastered version of Self-Portrait. The book of pictures is kind of dead weight though.