Song 4: Velvet Underground/I’m Waiting for the Man

Posted in Dancing about architecture on August 30th, 2008 by bill
_2006_04%2BApril_06_Pictures_06B%2B%28velvet%2Bunderground%29-799122.jpg Cooler than you: the Velvet Underground

The three songs on the list so far have all been about sex and/or love (in rock'n'roll terms, there's not much difference between the two). So where's the third leg of the holy tripod? Where are the drugs? There aren't many drug songs from rock's first decade or so. Certainly it wasn't that people weren't taking them; it's just that they weren't writing songs about them, or if they were, they were doing so in code. It just wasn't socially acceptable to write overtly about drugs, or at least not commercially acceptable. By 1967, the Beatles certainly had experience with marijuana and LSD, but they never wrote a song identifiably about ganja, and John Lennon famously and disingenuously denied that "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was about acid. Even Jimi Hendrix, poster boy for the psychedelic lifestyle, ended "Are You Experienced?" with the disclaimer "not necessarily stoned, but beautiful." It took someone like Lou Reed, a Warhol-influenced degenerate with no consideration for social conventions or chart success, to openly write songs about drugs. And not happy psychedelics either, but hard drugs, street drugs. The Velvet Underground's first album, released in the same year as Sgt. Pepper and the aforementioned Are You Experienced?, contained two such songs: "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "Heroin." I've chosen the former as a better exemplar of a rock song about drugs because it is simpler, more propulsive; "Heroin," while a magnificent song, is a beast of another color. Lyrically, the two cover much the same territory, presenting an unflinching and unusually honest view of drug addiction, both the undeniable highs and the unavoidable lows. "I'm Waiting for the Man" brilliantly sets the scene in its first two lines:
I'm waiting for my man
Twenty-six dollars in my hand
Reed delivers these lines in the jaded deadpan of a guy who's been there a thousand times and knows the score. There's a dangerous glamour in that tone, a glacial kind of cool that every hipster for the last 41 years has coveted. The Velvets were ahead of their time in expressing the nihilism that was the flip side of the hippie drug culture's professions of peace and love. Starting in 1968, that corruption would infiltrate and finally overwhelm the light side; the Velvets just got there first. There was no summer of love for them. Musically, "I'm Waiting for the Man" is about as simple as it gets: two chords and a chugging train rhythm, though with a lot of interesting textures draped on top. Given this, there are surprisingly few recorded cover versions; frankly, I think people are just scared of it. Among those who have had the courage to try it are David Bowie, Bauhaus, the Modern Lovers, and oddly enough Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (better known to the world as OMD). It has also been reconfigured in various ways over the years by former VU members Reed, John Cale, Nico, and Maureen Tucker. The journey the song takes is pretty simple, too. At the beginning, the singer is desperate for a fix, "sick and dirty, more dead than alive." The specificity of "twenty-six dollars" tells you that 26 bucks is everything he has; he's just hoping it will be enough. After enduring the taunts of the locals ("hey white boy, what you doing uptown?") and the humiliation of public exposure ("everybody's pinned you, but nobody cares"), he finally gets his hands on what he needs. The last lines of the last verse say everything there is to say about the addict's mindset — and I don't mean just the drug addict, I mean all of us, whatever our habit:
I'm feeling good, I'm feeling so fine
Until tomorrow but that's just another time
And that goes for bloggers too. As soon as I post this, I'll be feeling so fine. Tomorrow? Well, that's just another time. In the meantime, here's a VU video shot by Andy Warhol for your amusement:

Song 3: The Jimi Hendrix Experience/Wild Thing

Posted in Dancing about architecture on August 29th, 2008 by bill
There's a moment in the U2 documentary Rattle and Hum when Bono — in his typical annoying, self-righteous style — introduces a version of "Helter Skelter" like this: "This is a song that Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealing it back." Well by 1966, the Brits had up and stolen rock'n'roll from us. We needed someone to steal it back. Fortunately, fate provided just such an agent in the person of James Marshall Hendrix. It was fate that gave Hendrix his middle name, the same as the name of the powerful brand of amp he would one day use to make noises never before heard by humans. It was fate, along with probably some amount of American racism, that made him go to London in 1966 in search of a recording contract. And it was fate (acting through ex-Animal Chas Chandler) that hooked him up with two big-haired British hipsters, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience. They just happened to be the perfect backing band for Hendrix: rock enough to match Jimi's thunder when they needed to, jazz enough to know when and how to get out of the way. I've always thought that Redding and Mitchell's contributions to the Experience were underrated; the band may have been 95% Hendrix and 5% those guys, but still Jimi's work with other groups never had that same flavor. For this reason, on mixes and whatnot I am always careful to credit the Jimi Hendrix Experience when appropriate. Fate also conspired to give Hendrix just the right grounding in the rock'n'roll of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard — in fact he played in Richard's band in his early years, until he was fired for upstaging the star — as well as the blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Albert King. Take this mixture, add bold artistic ambition, spike it with a massive dose of LSD-25, and you get something like this....

After blowing every important mind in the UK — including those of Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, and Jeff Beck — the Experience set out to conquer the U.S. with an appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival. It was there, on June 18, 1967, that they gave the (literally) incendiary performance captured in D.A. Pennebaker's film Jimi Plays Monterey. If you haven't seen this movie, then what the hell are you doing reading this? Go watch it immediately. The Internet will still be here when you get back. Monterey was Jimi's star moment, his chance to cement a place in rock history. Backstage, he and the Who had flipped a coin to determine who would go on first; neither wanted to follow the other. Jimi lost. A normal person would be nervous under these circumstances. A normal person also would not be flying on acid when performing in front of tens of thousands of people, not to mention movie cameras. Jimi Hendrix was not a normal person. He may in fact have been nervous, but from the moment he hits the stage, tearing into a lethal version of Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor," he is like a force of nature. Look at the audience — they don't know what to make of this. They don't even necessarily look happy so much as just stunned. I don't want to get into a blow-by-blow of this performance, which includes a stellar (if incomplete) version of "Like a Rolling Stone," a fantastic run through "Purple Haze," and a glimpse of Jimi's softer side with "The Wind Cries Mary." It's all great, and it's all prelude to the big finish, which Jimi introduces thusly:
It is no big story about going, you know, we couldn't make it here so we go over to England, and America doesn't like us because, you know, our feets too big and we got fat mattresses and we wore golden underwear. Ain't no scene like that, brother, it's just... dig, man, you know, I just [?] around to England and picked up these two cats, and now here we are. It was so, you know, groovy to come back here this way, you know, and really get a chance to really play.


You know, I could sit up here all night and say thank you, thank you, thank you, but...I wish I could just grab you, man, and just [smooching sounds]. One of them things, man, one of them scenes. But dig, you know, I just can't do that....

So what I'm going to do, I'm going to sacrifice something right here that I really love.... Don't think I'm silly doing this, because I don't think I'm losing my mind...last night, man, ooh, God....

I'm not losing my mind, this is for everybody here. This is the only way I can do it, you know. So we're going to do the English and American combined anthem, together, OK?

Don't get mad. Nooooo...don't get mad. I want everybody to join in too, alright? And don't get mad, this is it, there's nothing I can do more than this. Groove, look at those beautiful people out there...

With this, Hendrix points to his ears as if to say, Prepare to be damaged, and begins squeezing sheets of feedback from his machine, maneuvering it through the air like a toy spaceship. He humps the guitar, then starts working the tremolo bar with the fervor of a mad scientist, carving texture and shape out of the wall of noise. A light strumming across the surface of the strings, then he winds up and hits a monstrous power chord, then another, then another, and then the second one again, and then there are words... "Wild thing, you make my heart sing...." "Wild Thing" had first been recorded a year earlier by English band the Troggs, who are a subject in their own right, the inspiration for Lester Bangs' famous essay "James Taylor Marked for Death." The song they made famous, written by one Chip Taylor, has also been performed by everyone from Cheap Trick to X, the Kingsmen (of "Louie Louie" fame) to shrieking comedian Sam Kinison, Warren Zevon to Hank Williams, Jr. But in truth there are far fewer cover versions than you might imagine; it takes guts, or maybe rocks in the head, to compete with Jimi, whose performance of "Wild Thing" is truly larger than life. He lays it all out there in one orgy of noise, sex, joy, and destruction. He struts, he sneers, he says "Sock it to me" and makes a clicking sound with his tongue. He interpolates a section of "Strangers in the Night." He humps the stack of Marshall amps with his guitar, then he lays the guitar on the floor, douses it with lighter fluid, and sets it aflame. This is not unpremeditated — Hendrix knew he would have to pull out all the stops to top the Who — but it is terrific theatre. He lifts the blazing guitar and begins to smash it. And when it's all over, after Jimi's gone — as he would be gone, for real, soon enough — there's still a sound. The sound of a guitar's pickups melting. And that, my friends, is rock'n'roll.

(Update 5/2015: At one time this space was occupied by an embedded video of Jimi's performance of "Wild Thing" at Monterey Pop, but this has been pulled off YouTube for copyright reasons. I recommend seeking out a copy of Jimi Plays Monterey from wherever you can get it.)

Song 2: The Kinks/You Really Got Me

Posted in Dancing about architecture on August 21st, 2008 by bill
The Kinks, on top of the world.

Levitin left Elvis off his list because the person he was making the list for "had heard Elvis Presley, so I didn't need to cover that." This left me with the decision of whether to do the same. For serious Elvis people, this would be no decision at all; the question would be which Elvis song to put on. "That's All Right, Mama"? "Blue Suede Shoes"? "Heartbreak Hotel"? "Hound Dog"? But I am not a serious Elvis person. I enjoy his work, admire his talent, and yet there's something lacking in his music that is essential to what I think of as rock'n'roll. For lack of a better word, I would call it balls. It's laughable to me that he was once considered so dangerous, because however salacious the material, there's always a softness about Elvis, an absence of real menace. Not that there's anything wrong with that — it's part of what made him lovable, and vulnerable. Some cynics will try to tell you that Elvis was the white devil who stole rock'n'roll, watered it down, and sold it to the mainstream, but in my version of the story he was a guileless soul who happened to be the right guy in the right place at the right time, and got famous beyond all comprehension. Which is the tragedy of Elvis, and that's more than I want to get into here; if you don't already know the story, read Peter Guralnick's Careless Love. (As a sidenote, if I was going to pick an Elvis song, it would probably be "Baby, What You Want Me to Do?" from the '68 comeback special — the rawest and realest he ever sounded.) So the Elvis people will squawk, but I'm skipping right to the 60s, when rock'n'roll went to England. It found a very receptive audience there among the country's young people, who embraced this raucous new musical form despite their cultural handicap. Kids across the land not only bought the records but started their own bands. And this points up a key to rock'n'roll's appeal that I think is often overlooked. Yes it's rhythmic, yes it's rebellious, but it's also easy to play. Unlike jazz or swing or big band music, any lunkhead with a guitar can play some approximation of rock'n'roll, thus becoming a participant rather than a spectator. But when the English started playing rock'n'roll, they didn't get it quite right — again, the cultural handicap. So what they ended up with was something different, a new iteration of the idea of rock'n'roll that was at once more primitive (i.e. less virtuosic, Clapton notwithstanding) and more refined by virtue of its basic Britishness. I can't think of a better embodiment of this than the Kinks, nice provincial lads who were also known to get into vicious fraternal fistfights. Later in their career the Kinks would achieve great musical sophistication, but in 1964 they got the world's attention with the stomping, easy-on-the-brain rocker "You Really Got Me," about which the All-Music Guide has this to say:
To explain why and how this song works would be against its very nature; it operates on a purely visceral level. Those chords, the riff, and the sentiment "you really got me" are basically all you need to understand its essence. At the time, it was likened to a play on the ambiguous "Louie Louie," another classic from the era. But a few facts are in order: Dave Davies' fuzz-tone guitar was a groundbreaking sound at the time, achieved by him cutting the speaker of his amp with a razor blade and poking pins into it. The song was a million-seller.
Along with "Louie Louie" and "Wild Thing," "You Really Got Me" is one of those songs that even the crudest garage band can play, if not play well. Among the big names who have recorded it are Iggy Pop, Mott the Hoople, the 13th Floor Elevators, Sly and the Family Stone, Toots and the Maytals, and of course Van Halen, whose version set a new standard for flashy wankery but was nevertheless a huge hit. So with apologies to the Stones, the Who, the Them, the Yardbirds, and the Animals, the Kinks take home the hardware. Let's give them a big hand.

Song 1: Bo Diddley/Who Do You Love

Posted in Dancing about architecture on August 13th, 2008 by bill
Bo Diddley's influence was not just musical, but sartorial (see also: Isaac Hayes, R.I.P.).

Somebody has to represent the African-American inventors of rock'n'roll on the list, and while I have much respect for Little Richard, his singular vocal style and use of the piano as primary instrumentation place him outside the mainstream. Chuck Berry is the obvious choice, maybe even the smart one, but the late Ellas McDaniel (a.k.a. Bo Diddley) was arguably even more innovative. Rock'n'roll famously changed popular music by placing the emphasis on rhythm rather than melody; Diddley took it one step further and added an element of pure sound, pioneering the use of reverb and distortion that Jimi Hendrix would later take into outer space. But while Bo had one foot in the future, he also had one way back in the past. The rumbling drums found in most of his music are a direct link to rock's African roots. He was most famous, of course, for the Bo Diddley beat, but even when he didn't use it — as on "Who Do You Love" — he could lay down the tribal thunder with the best of them. You can also hear the influence of the blues loud and clear here. In truth, the dividing line between rock and the blues is often pretty blurry; the only thing that makes Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" rock and Muddy Waters' version, "Mannish Boy," blues is the necessity of a filing system. Really I could just as easily put "I'm a Man" on this list, but "Who Do You Love" is somehow more compelling. Maybe it's the lyrics, which marry bluesy swagger and boastfulness with death imagery and what appear to be voodoo references:
I walk 47 miles of barbed wire
I use a cobra snake for a necktie
I got a brand new house on the roadside
Made from rattlesnake hide
I got a brand new chimney made on top
Made out of a human skull
Now come on and take a little walk with me, Arlene*
And tell me who do you love...
Tombstone head and a graveyard mind
Just 22 and I don't mind dying
Who do you love?
"Who Do You Love" has been covered by the Band and the Stooges, the Doors and the Dead, Eric Clapton and Patti Smith, George Thorogood and the Jesus and Mary Chain (who also recorded a tribute called "Bo Diddley Is Jesus"). But the original cannot be touched:

* It would be easy to think that Bo is addressing himself to the more generic "darlin'", but if you listen close, he's clearly enunciating the name "Arlene."

Rock History in Six Songs or Less

Posted in Dancing about architecture, Read it in books on August 11th, 2008 by bill
I haven't actually read This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, but I have been in the same room with someone who has. It was he who pointed out to me a passage where the author attempts to explain rock'n'roll to an 80-year-old engineer friend of his.
He knew about my previous career in the music business, and he asked if I could come over for dinner one night and play six songs that captured all that was important to know about rock and roll. Six songs to capture all of rock and roll? I wasn't sure I could come up with six songs to capture the Beatles, let alone all of rock and roll. The night before he called to tell me that he had heard Elvis Presley, so I didn't need to cover that. Here's what I brought to dinner:

Long Tall Sally - Little Richard
Roll Over Beethoven - Beatles
All Along the Watchtower - Jimi Hendrix
Wonderful Tonight - Eric Clapton
Little Red Corvette - Prince
Anarchy in the UK - Sex Pistols
Now this is the sort of thing that grabs my attention, of course. There are some interesting choices here. Little Richard is obviously meant to represent the roots of rock'n'roll, which makes sense since he invented it (just ask him), but he's such a singular talent it's hard to think of him as representative of the genre. The inclusion of the Beatles and Hendrix is hard to argue with, though one might quibble with the choice of songs, which were intended in part to acknowledge their writers as well (Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, respectively). "Roll Over Beethoven," while a perfectly enjoyable rocker with some historic resonance, doesn't well represent the depth and breadth of the Beatles' creativity. "Watchtower" may be Levitin's strongest choice — majestic, evocative, poetic — though it wouldn't necessarily be mine. After that, though, he goes completely off the rails. The inclusion of "Wonderful Tonight" is, if you'll pardon my French, batshit crazy. I probably wouldn't have Clapton in there to begin with, but if I did, it would be something a little more rockin' —"Crossroads," "Layla," "Cocaine" maybe — certainly not this treacly ballad recorded long after Slowhand's heyday. And "Little Red Corvette"? Prince has made occasional forays into rock'n'roll, but this is straight-up soul music — and modern, mechanized soul at that. It's not a bad song, to be sure, but it's not among Prince's 10 best, and it doesn't belong on this list whatsoever. That leaves "Anarchy in the U.K.," which is a sensible choice, representing punk rock and capturing rock's general sense of rebelliousness. But it's debatable whether the Sex Pistols, essentially a gimmick band who made one album and disappeared, deserve such prominent placement in the pantheon. So naturally I set about making my own list. My initial thought was to limit the staggering number of choices by using only songs with "rock'n'roll" in the title. Under consideration were such songs as: Rock and Roll Music - Chuck Berry/The Beatles
Rock'n'Roll - The Velvet Underground
Only Rock'n'Roll - The Rolling Stones
Rock'n'Roll - Led Zeppelin
Rock'n'Roll Part 2 - Gary Glitter
It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock'n'Roll) - AC/DC
I Love Rock'n'Roll - Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll - Ian Dury & the Blockheads and although I ultimately rejected this approach as too limiting, it did somewhat influence my final choices — which I will reveal one by one through the course of this week. Stay tuned.

Spiritual warfare and breathing problems

Posted in Read it in books, Spam, wonderful spam on August 7th, 2008 by bill
Lately, I spend an inordinate percentage of my blogging time reading and deleting junk comments. Deleting them because they are, like, clogging up my bandwidth, man; reading them because you never know when the spam machine is going to cough up something lovely or at least useful, something I can repurpose as content. Something like this:
spiritual warfare and breathing problems
order of operations word problem
algebra 2 problems
monovision problem
preschool behavior problem
or this:
elegram taurus worktable? cottony, clipboard cottony.
polygynous proverbial buxtehude seagram frog timon, telegram
andover libido escape libido constrain.

mingle heathen frog

airplane mingle idiom? timon, seagram redemptive.
operon jasper libido lash mingle elute, heathen
operon oval saxophone idiom polygynous.

stepmother taurus timon

mingle buxtehude saxophone? townsend, refer escape.

redemptive democrat.

or this:
monetary monotonous Kerouac.panning buffets.thunderbolt
I like that: "monetary monotonous Kerouac." It says something. I've always thought Kerouac was overrated, anyway; Capote was right on the mark there. You know who's underrated, or underappreciated anyway? This David Mitchell guy. After Cloud Atlas, I went back to his first novel, Ghostwritten, which is a very similar series of interlinked episodes (some characters even overlap between the two). Mitchell is a wizard. He writes with a brain-melting virtuosity that seems effortless but must have required a lot of hard work (at least I fucking hope so). It's not showoffy brilliance like that of, say, Richard Powers; he writes involving stories with compelling characters, gets you hooked in, then pulls the rug out from under you and starts over again. This is the kind of writing that makes you wish you were smarter, because you just know you're missing something. But as Rumsfeld might have said, you have to read with the brain you have, not the one you wish you had.