A million stones, a million bones

Posted in Dancing about architecture on February 28th, 2010 by bill
decemberists After observing the federally mandated waiting period, I am finally ready to name my album of the year for 2009. There's not a lot if suspense here, at least in my mind. All along I thought the Decemberists' The Hazards of Love would be pretty hard to top, but I had to hear a few other things (Devendra Banhart's latest, e.g.) before I could be sure. Now, with February safely in the rear view and springtime in the offing, it's time to make it official. I was inexplicably drawn to this album even before its release, despite never having been much of a Decemberists fan before. Loved the title, loved the cover. Bought it on the day of release, found it a bit much to process at first, but it grew on me quickly. Partly I just admire the sheer ambition of it; in a time when everyone seems to be thinking small, as downloading pushes the music industry back toward a single-oriented mindset, Colin Meloy and co. have the gall to release a full-fledged concept album/rock opera, 60 minutes of music where the songs bleed into each other without pause. That wouldn't matter, of course, if the music sucked. Which it does not. Despite a less-than-clear narrative, a penchant for overuse of highfalutin' vocabulary, and occasional leanings toward prog-rock, The Hazards of Love just works, moving from strength to strength. The sense of dynamics is extraordinary, with folky elements nicely balanced by some stomping rhythms and downright metallic guitar. There's harpsichord, banjo, autoharp, guest vocalists, a children's choir, and God knows what else in there. You really feel like you've been taken on a journey by the time it's over, and how many albums these days pull that off? A couple months later, thanks to Cecil's misfortune (sorry, Cecil, and thanks), I got to see them perform the album live at Oakland's venue of choice, the Fox Theater. This was something of a peak experience, the kind of show that puts you in a good mood for the rest of the week. It was also at this show that I became acquainted with the album's backstory: It began as simply a title, inspired by a similarly named EP by an revered but obscure English folksinger named Anne Briggs. I love that kind of shit. I'm listening to The Hazards of Love right now, and it is blowing my mind all over again. Why belabor the point any further? Hooray for the Decemberists, I say.

Bowie and Bolan Whitewash an Office

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why, Read it in books on February 23rd, 2010 by bill
[caption id="attachment_1169" align="alignnone" width="225" caption="David and Marc, older, richer, and more coked-up"]David and Marc, older, richer, and more coked-up[/caption] This month's book club selection is Bowie: A Biography by Marc Spitz. (Is he any relation to Bob Spitz, author of the gigantic Beatles book it took me the better part of a year to get through? I am mildly curious, but not enough to actually do any research.) My favorite factoid so far: In the years while David was still David Jones, his friend Marc Feld, later known as Bolan, briefly toyed with the name "Bowland." It would have been Bowland and Bowie, and then maybe Iggy Stooge would have changed his name to "Bowery" and they would have formed a trio. I also loved this anecdote about the first time they met:
It's now hard to believe but the meeting of these two rock icons was as humble as it could have possibly been. Les Conn, managing both Bolan and Jones, had promised both future icons some much-needed spending money to whitewash his office. "Both Marc and I were out of work," Bowie would later recall, "and we met when we poured into the manager's office to whitewash the walls. So there's me and this mod whitewashing the office and he goes, 'Where's you get those shoes, man?' And I asked, 'Where'd you get your shirt?' We immediately started talking about clothes and sewing machines. 'Oh, I'm gonna be a singer and I'm gonna be so big you're not gonna believe it, man.' 'Oh right. Well I'll probably write a musical for you one day then 'cause I'm gonna be the greatest writer ever.' 'No no, man, you gotta hear my stuff 'cause I write great things and I knew a wizard in Paris!' It was all this. Just whitewashing walls in our manager's office."
This is the kind of image that amuses me no end, two young, skinny, overdressed aspiring rock stars doing manual labor and talking shit. To quote another famous Bowie associate, "Those were different times."

Valentine’s Day in reverse

Posted in Whatever Else on February 16th, 2010 by bill
In front of a restaurant on College Ave., an employee is erasing the Valentine's Day messages from the windows. "Be Mine" becomes "Be Min," "Be Mi," and, with a flourish, just "Be." And then nothing at all.

Seven Thousand Different Melodies

Posted in Dancing about architecture, Read it in books on February 6th, 2010 by bill
[caption id="attachment_1066" align="alignnone" width="222" caption="The Metal Machine Music 8-track, which Lester Bangs used to play in his car."]The Metal Machine Music 8-track, which Lester Bangs used to play in his car.[/caption] I've been rereading Lester Bangs' classic Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, and as a result thinking a lot about Lou Reed, Lester's idol and nemesis. Odd that all these years later Lester's long gone while Lou improbably remains alive, or at least not certifiably dead, and still an enigma wrapped in a paradox: the misanthrope's misanthrope, also author of such transcendently beautiful and human songs as "Candy Says," "Pale Blue Eyes," and "I'll Be Your Mirror." He is also the creator of the infamous Metal Machine Music, which is the subject of not one but two pieces in Psychotic Reactions. The first, "How to Succeed in Torture without Really Trying," describes MMM this way:1
What we have here is a one-hour two-record set of nothing, absolutely nothing but screaming feedback noise recorded at various frequencies, played back against various other noise layers, split down the middle into two totally separate channels of utterly inhuman shrieks and hisses, and sold to an audience that was, to put it as mildly as possible, unprepared for it. Because sentient humans simply find it impossible not to vacate any room where it is playing. With certain isolated exceptions: mutants, mental patients, shriek freaks, masochists, sadists, amphetamine addicts, hate buffs, drug-numbed weirdos too walled off by chemicals to feel anything, other people whose nervous systems are already so bent out of shape that it sounds perfectly acceptable, the last category possibly including the author of this article.
So of course I had to go on Amazon and see if it was in print, only to discover that it was readily available for the low, low price of $5.99 (less, I believe, than it cost upon release in 1975). And then I was compelled to add it to my collection, and for weeks it sat there on my desk, sneering at me. "Chickenshit," it would whisper, "you can't handle what I have to dish out." I suspected that it was right, and furthermore suspected that in true Warholian fashion, MMM was meant to be admired as a concept rather than actually listened to. But at some point I had to face up to reality and play the thing. Here are my notes from the experience: 1:09 Pressed "Play" on the machine. Initial impressions, not so bad. No worse than Stockhausen or that other shit I was forced to listen to in that "Electronic Music" class at UCSC. A lot going on at a lot of different frequencies. Information-rich if nothing else. 1:18 Starting to grate a little bit. Of course, this album was interpreted by many, including Lester Bangs, as a great big "fuck you" to just about everybody, including record companies, music fans, music critics, and ultimately Lou Reed himself. But in an interview that appears in the book, Lou claims to love the album:
There are about seven thousand different melodies going on at one time or another, and each time around there's more. Like harmonics increase, and melodies increase, in a different combination again. I don't expect anybody with no musical background to get it. I took classical piano for fifteen fucking years.
1:24 I notice that Johnny the cat, who until recently was sprawled in his usual blissful afternoon slumber, is now sitting upright with his ears twitching. And this is a cat who is quite accustomed to sleeping through whatever horrible noise I blast through the stereo. Coincidence? Perhaps, but I wouldn't be surprised if any local dogs are on alert as well. 1:28 Beginning to feel kind of tense. This is probably no coincidence either. Quoth the Lou:
There's certain frequencies that it's illegal to put on a record. The masterer can't put them on, and they won't, and you can't record it. But I got those frequencies on this record. I tested the thing out at shows during intermission. We played it very softly to see what would happen. Which was exactly what I thought would happpen: fights, a lot of irritation...it was fabulous, I loved it.
1:37 Starting to feel impulse to kill self and/or others. May have to bail out of this experiment for sake of personal safety. Mental picture of head exploding Scanners-like. Losing will to...form...sentences. 1:41 Flipping through Psychotic Reactions and came across this:
As far as Metal Machine Music goes, I listen to it all the time, but I'll never forget what Howard Kaylan told me Lou said to him after unsuccessfully trying to sell the layers-and-layers-of-sonic-frequencies concept (which was only a speed trip in the first place) to Flo and Eddie: "Well, anybody who gets to side four is dumber than I am."
And that clinched it; I was not going to risk brain damage just to prove a point. I aborted Project Metal Machine and put on some Van Morrison to soothe my jangled soul. Later I included MMM in a shuffle of five CDs and was able to get through all of the tracks that way. Now it will find its rightful place on the shelf between Sally Can't Dance and Coney Island Baby, where it can't do anyone any harm. a a 1. The second, by the way, is entitled "The Greatest Album Ever Made."

1969, part 5

Posted in Audio transmissions on February 3rd, 2010 by bill
About a week ago, I set out to create one last installment of this series that would make use of all the stuff I couldn't fit in anywhere else. What I ended up with was an uncontrollable shaggy dog of a thing that goes on roughly forever. You may, nevertheless, find it amusing. This crazy concoction is dedicated to crazy Dennis Hopper. 1969, PART 5: HIPPIE WIGS IN WOOLWORTH'S PLAYLIST: There will be no playlist at this time. Suffice it to say that the cast includes Ralph "Danny" Brown, Walter Cronkite, Miles Davis, David Bowie, Neil Armstrong, Richard Nixon, The Byrds, James Brown, Jim Morrison, Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, Max Yasgur, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, CCR, and many others. Any questions, leave a comment and I'll get back to you.

Groundhog Day Again Again Again

Posted in Whatever Else on February 2nd, 2010 by bill
It's a pretty lovely day here in the City of the Proud, despite the foul prognostications of that obnoxious rodent in Pennsylvania. I've said this all before, but I'm not such a fan of the groundhog. Every damn year it supposedly sees its shadow and we are told that no, spring won't be coming early this year, foolish humans. I'm starting to think there's some kind of conspiracy behind the whole thing—maybe the companies who make winter coats, or speculators in natural gas? Well I for one refuse to go along. I do not acknowledge your authority, Marmota monax. I'm going to go ahead and act as if spring starts today, and let's see you stop me.

Lester Bangs foretells the future

Posted in Dancing about architecture on February 1st, 2010 by bill
Rock is basically an adolescent music, reflecting the rhythms, concerns and aspirations of a very specialized age group. It can't grow up — when it does, it turns into something else which may be just as valid but is still very different from the original. Personally I believe that real rock'n'roll may be on the way out, just like adolescence as a relatively innocent transitional period is on the way out. What we will have instead is a small island of new free music surrounded by some good reworkings of past idioms and a vast sargasso sea of absolute garbage.

–Lester Bangs, "Of Pop and Pies and Fun," 1970

And what can I add to that? Absolutely spot on.