September 26, 2011
Worst. Song. Ever.
I was eating a slice at one of my neighborhood pizzerias the other day. Well actually it was two slices and a drink: either a plastic bottle of corn syrup, or a large styrofoam cup with ice and corn syrup, your choice. That’s their lunch special for five and change. I went with the plastic bottle of corn syrup.
So anyway, there I was, having at it, and all the while the 1970s station on their satellite radio was being piped in as usual. For the most part, it’s a pleasant enough way to pass the fifteen minutes or so that it takes for me to get my food, plop into a hard booth, and then wolf it down. Mostly what wafts down from the overhead speakers are harmless tunes you’ve heard a thousand times before, hits from that fabled decade when viable music could be found on both AM and FM radio stations.
For someone like me, born in 1967 and raised on radio, it’s almost impossible to find a song that I haven’t heard before on a station like this. The whole thing is a predictable corporate endeavor that minimizes risk and targets demographically derived profits by tightly cleaving to an established catalog with which I am intimately familiar. It’s the usual fare of black music (Disco, R&B, Funk) and white music (Rock and Pop) from the era: Billboard hits that were once ubiquitous and now run the gamut from standards to novelties. At best, every now and then they might surprise you with a tune you haven’t heard in a while, unearthing a pleasant memory and triggering the release of some wistful endorphins in your brain.
But not last Friday.
When I get home from work
I wanna wrap myself around you
I wanna take you and squeeze you
Til the passion starts to rise
“That’s pretty insipid,” I thought to myself. But it’s just typical, `70s soft-rock crap: a poorly constructed and saccharine ode love wrapped around a painfully obvious cock metaphor. I’ll just ignore it. But then came:
I wanna take you to heaven
That would make my day complete
I nearly cackled out loud before catching myself, trapping the aborted laughter as a snort and bringing up a little piece of mozzarella. I wanna take you to heaven, that would make my day complete? As in, you know, it’s been a pretty good day up until now, was super productive at work, got a nice compliment from the boss, didn’t hit any traffic on the way home, and now if I could just flag us a cab after dinner and go up to heaven, well, that would be a really great way to round out the day. Seriously?
I was mildly stunned, contemplating the phenomenal stupidity of the song, when it broke into the chorus:
But you and me ain't no movie stars
What we are is what we are
We share a bed
and TV, yeah
And then I cocked my head like a dog does at a curious sound. “Holy shit. Wait a second,” I thought, unnerved by a sense of confused nostalgia. “I think I actually know this.”
And that's enough for a workin' man
What I am is what I am
And I tell you, babe
well that's enough for me
Wow. I haven’t heard this song in at least a quarter-century, probably longer. But it’s all coming back to me now, and you know what? I think I used to like it. Quite a bit. I had completely forgotten about it, and now here I am, listening to it again unexpectedly, and being rather surprised to find out that it is absolutely one of the worst songs ever.
On an aesthetic level, when the 1970s worked, they really worked. Anyone old enough to remember them knows what I’m talking about. For those too young, I’m sorry, but you missed it, and its likes shan’t be seen again in our lifetimes, I’m afraid. But the `70s also sometimes bombed really hard, and that hit or miss quality is one of the main reasons why all these years later, the 1970s are both emulated and mocked, romanticized nostalgically and shunned in horror.
Striped, knee-high tube socks, avocado kitchen appliances, short gym shorts, sideburns, track suits, afros, wide pointy collars and lapels, formica, bell bottoms, plexi-glass, cocaine, speedos, polyesther, and colors, colors everywhere.
It’s all still pretty divisive.
For the most part, I loved it, and still do, but the super seventies style didn’t always work. No denying that there was a lot of shit. And this song, as it turns out, managed to take every bad `70s cliche and execute it poorly.
For example, you’ve got schmaltzy lyrics and an intrusive orchestra. Now unfortunately, both of those things were pretty commonplace during the 1970s. In and of themselves they’re nothing remarkable, just cheesy crap that was part and parcel of the music scene. So how do you bring the verbal and aural cheese to the next level of awful?
You have the string section swell just as the singer declares: But that’s enough for a workin’ man, what I am is what I am.
And you do it, apparently, without any sense irony.
That’s emblematic of the kind of deeply ingrained flaws afflicting this song. It takes something that sucks and makes it suck even more. For example, it is also a victim of that classic 1970s ending: the fade.
I remember picking up a book of Journey sheet music when I was a teenager (yes, I had every Journey album in high school, let’s just get that out of the way now). Studying that book and learning to play those songs taught me three things. First, and most importantly, don’t ever, ever stop believin’. Second, you’ll only have so much fun playing guitar music on a piano. Beautiful fuckin’ instrument, the piano, but not much for power chords. And third, the official music theory description for the end of most Journey songs is apparently: Repeat, Ad Lib, Fade.
I would’ve preferred something more poetic, like the words Keep Playing over and over again in smaller and smaller font, but either way it alerted me to the artifice of what was going on. It’s like the musical equivalent of a laugh track on a sitcom: a lazy, half-assed, corporate way to pull everything together, a cheap and sloppy shortcut that tries to create the illusion of being tight, sharp, and successful. Can’t be bothered to write a joke that’s actually funny? End it with a laugh track and hope no one notices. Can’t be bothered to figure out an actual ending for your song? End it by fading out and hope no one notices.
So needless to say, I wasn’t surprised that as I was finishing the crust on my second slice, this god-awful song was bringing its torturous sound scape to a decrescendo via the dreaded fade out. But even the way it did that was stupefying. Because, though it was a bit unexpected by this point, the song actually has a natural stopping point. A damn near perfect stopping point, really. This minor-chorded fiasco could’ve gotten one thing right by ending as the music dies down and approaches the home chord while the singer croons, I’ll tell ya baby, that’s just enough for me.
Yeah, ya know what? That would work. Despite everything that’s gone horribly wrong up until now, it could still find a nice ending, a somewhat artistic dovetail as everything comes together to create a graceful exit for an otherwise embarrassingly shitty song.
Except it doesn’t actually end there. Inexplicably, the orchestra starts up again. Woodwinds, strings, the whole deal. It’s as if they’re on a tape loop, and after they’ve finished going through their charts, they wind it up again right on cue, for no good reason, and commence a completely pointless, half-minute fade out from the top.
Anyway, the important thing is that it was finally over. I just shook my head in dismay. How was it that I ever liked this song to begin with? How on earth did I once think this thing had good lyrics, catchy chord progressions, and some heartfelt soul?
Oh yeah. I was nine.
Anyway, the biggest surprise of all? The artist. Turns out it was Alice Cooper of all people. Yeah, Mr. Welcome to My Nightmare, Mr. Scarey Makeup, Mr. Bloody Stage Show, Mr. Legendary Drug Consumption, Mr. Chicken Killer, the whole nine yards. He was the talentless, soft rock creep who penned and sang the unfathomably bad “You and Me.” You know, the same guy who once released an album called Muscle of Love.
Cooper co-wrote it with guitarist Dick Wagner. It was produced by Bob Ezrin and appears on his 1977 solo album Lace and Whiskey. It was the lead single and peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard pop chart. The b-side was “It’s Hot Tonight”.
Alice Cooper’s “You and Me”: Worst. Song. Ever.
Though of course I’m open to your suggestions.
February 15, 2010
Love, Recession Style, with Twin Sister and Soderbergh
A consideration of "Vampires with Dreaming Kids" and "The Girlfriend Experience"
These days, my life is lived on the hypermedia broadband, incessantly, obsessively. And occasionally, I have some remarkable experiences there. I'd like to tell you about two of them which chimed together.
Recently I discovered a quite extraordinary band just starting to run the Brooklyn club circuit. Their name is Twin Sister, made up of four guys and a girl, all friends from Long Island, between the ages of 20 and 26. They've just released an EP called "Vampires with Dreaming Kids," and to my mind it's one of the most lushly considered "concept albums" I've heard in a long time: a great ascending arc of falling deeply in love, and that is a thing that is ever so difficult to talk about even when talking about music: to say so is a great risk: one is either wise, or deeply foolish. (And fools rush in, etcetera etcetera.)
I'd like to consider this EP in conjunction with Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience," which I encountered directly after. I found myself watching "The Girlfriend Experience," and toggling between that and "Vampires with Dreaming Kids" back and forth, so taken was I with the emotional and intellectual effect this had – for "Vampires with Dreaming Kids" and "The Girlfriend Experience" are diametrically opposed to one another in every respect but one: they are both true.
There are four tracks on Twin Sister's EP. The first, "Dry Hump," begins with late-night drunken guitars: one, acoustic, a melancholy strum; another, electric, an errant, plaintive wail. A whisper of a girl's voice, supine, playful, wasted –
If you're all alone
bring over your bone s
and payyyyy me
anywhere you want to
It's a line that folds under the lip of pornography, but doesn't slip in; that feels up the emotion of blasé whorishness but doesn't give in, precisely (because of the title) it's a wet hallucinatory invitation to halfway. As the music shimmers like a dirty Spacemen 3, the phrase repeats – first sounding like Billie Holiday on a broken record, then Björk at both her most coquettish and most playful. Then a big fat guitar bass note flanges upward, and the track becomes at once a striptease and a torch song, heavy with sleaze and sweet dream.
And then the morning, with red-haired lover, all things diamond and aflame in "Ginger" – in the first instant of wakefulness crashing down like My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless," but then opening up into castles of cathedrals and bell-chimes and stained-glass cascades, riding on a river of bass in a month of The Sundays. Epic as The Arcade Fire without the bathos, intimate as Sinead o'Connor when breathless, re-writing The Pixies' "Gigantic, big big love" with a slow, confident heartbeat and arabesques of the quotidian made magical, "maybe little birds begin to grow."
But Twin Sister knows – it knows the castled cathedrals raft upon the bass river of Time, it knows that the epic must admit of the quotidian, that the myth must be made human for it to survive. And so "Ginger" closes like a breaking-down phonograph gearbox, its grand gates dissolving into the '70s prairie of "Nectarine." It's an acoustic, country-inflected romantic ballad that casts a male voice into Penelope's song:
When you're sailing 'round the evening
and when you come back home
when you come back home
I'll won't ever let go I haven't before
These lyrics risk the gauzy, flaccid cheesiness of '70s soft-rock, but the risk pays off with a gallopity rhythm and a slide geetah, recasting a stasis of ebb-and-flow in overnight stays into a story of pioneers, male and female voices pairing in a duet
We can ride back home
which prompts the inevitable question: what, where is home?
"I. want. a. haaaus," insinuates lead singer Andrea Estella on the finale, each word insistent on the beat. It makes one a little nervous. After all, there's a brief Slavic moue on "want," as if she's channeling Ivana Trump for an instant. But just like the implied "money-shot" of "Dry Hump," anxiety over filthy lucre dissolves into the intimate and mystical –
I want a house
Made of old woo(d)…
You can paint it any color
Just as long as I can be with you
What's particularly magical about "I Want a House" is that its slowdance down-beat and whukka-whukka guitar rub up against the sickeningly sweet clichés of commercial Top 40 R&B ballads, and steal the honesty from their overprocessed heartstrings. Imperceptibly, "I Want A House" shifts from downbeat to upbeat, from acquisitiveness to ownership, and into a beautiful, melodic slow house groove.
We see now why Twin Sister has titled this EP "Vampires with Dreaming Kids." Notwithstanding the current lurrrve for all things vampiric, it seems clear to me that Twin Sister has taken a collection of genres that exude a popular and therefore vampiric seduction – porn, goth, country, r&b – and brought them into the home of dreaming kids, i.e. lovers. In which they are allowed to twist and change, playfully, with impish, seductive danger, as Twin Sister morphs itself into a safe and generous sonic home.
The few critics who have so far responded to Twin Sister's music have labelled it "Shoegaze." Sure, there's the slow-beat, electronic dush paired with chromatic guitars, but this is not the shuffle-sway of early-20s mumblecore shyness. You're missing the point if you're looking at your shoes. This is music that implores you to look boldly, directly, communicating what you want, because this is music that fulfills trust with generosity, a generosity extended by Twin Sister to make the entire EP free for download.
Right about the same time I encountered Twin Sister, this past month, I checked out Steven Soderbergh's experimental film "The Girlfriend Experience," shot amid the financial crisis of 2008 and released in May 2009 to reviews as mixed and coolly considered as the film itself. Back then, A.O. Scott in The New York Times, in a highly nuanced critique, thought some of its methods "tryingly obvious and irritatingly oblique," but suspected that
'The Girlfriend Experience' may look different a few years from now. When the turmoil of the last 12 months has receded and the 10th-anniversary deluxe collectors edition comes around, this strange, numb cinematic experience may seem fresh, shocking and poignant rather than merely and depressingly true.
As the unrelenting disclosures about the financial crisis have denuded our emperors, and turned eyes to the pornographic details of our exposure to debt, A.O. Scott's timeframe has collapsed – that time is now. And with "The Girlfriend Experience"'s themes of vampirism, commerce and intimacy tangled in a Gordian knot of modernity, the film provides an unsettling – and insistently curious – counterpoint to Twin Sister's music.
As you may recall from the marketing hype, the film stars "real-life" porn star Sasha Grey, 21 years old and credited in at least 161 triple-Xers. She's been called "the smartest girl in the business" she constructed her stage name from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and she considers her work performance art. In Soderbergh's film, Grey plays the role of Chelsea, an upper-echelon escort negotiating her lifelovebusiness in Manhattan, catering (mainly) to young professionals barely containing their panic over Wall Street's fall.
Now, I love brilliant women, but Sasha Grey's porn doesn't do much for me; I've seen a few scenes, on the tamer end of her spectrum (for research purposes naturally). As is the case for most pro smut streaming out of the Valley, it looks like she's acting, which is to say it's not very good acting, since porn generally works best the closer it gets to a cinema verité of pleasure. She's somewhat cold, often blasé, often dominant, sometimes providing a study of the fabricated nature of the medium through those non-moods.
In other words, utterly perfect for Soderbergh's movie.
Because she's trying to escape the frame.
"GFE," runs the jargon in the CraigsList adult section, "the girlfriend experience," which is a clever marketing euphemization of the term "escort," which means prostitution dressed up to imagine itself differently. Chelsea (Grey), as we learn through the narrative, is yet still a romantic and refuses to take the euphemized, marketized term "GFE" at its pornographic value. Throughout the film, she's searching for the perfect client, the one with whom she'll love her job. It sounds like an absurdity on its face, but when are any of us not on that quest? What looks to be "a perfect match" is a mirage (a waffling screenwriter, in a loop-within-a-loop); the remainder of the men dolorously detail their financial anxieties while dispensing investment tips. Such is the contemporary girlfriend experience, a gender theorist might conclude.
The film very deftly tangles the definition of "success," between what you love to do and what makes money, and then severs them neatly. Call girls need marketing too, but paying someone is expensive and prostituting your own prostitution is nauseating. Chelsea turns a trick as an audition to a sex junket in Dubai, then gets abused in a written review, "clammy hands" being the wrist-slap of the insult onslaught. Even the reporter she talks to angles questions toward exploiting her character. This is life, and through most of it Chelsea rides with barely-edged directness and knowingness.
In the final scene, Chelsea is called in to a Hasidic diamond merchant. He escorts her into the back room, and lectures her on the importance of voting for McCain while they both strip to their underwear. In most of the film, as in most of her porn, "grey" the color is as much a dominant presence as Grey the actor. Here, the room is warm; Sasha Grey has never looked more beautiful and inviting. She clasps him in a very chaste embrace. He climaxes. And for the first time in the entire movie, you sense an actual intimacy between two people, a "couple" trying to transgress their identities but unable to penetrate beyond them.
"If you're going through hell," Winston Churchill said during the Blitz, "keep going." There's a reason why, in Soderbergh's film, the only professional actor is Grey herself. It's "a hall of mirrors," as Village Voice critic J. Hoberman wrote, reflecting the exploitative tension between professional and personal goals in not only Sasha Grey the actor and Steven Soderbergh the director (whose career swerves between blockbuster and art-house) but you, and me, and everyone, in these Great Recession years.
And by peering closely at the telescoping reflections of mirrored surfaces, we do yet see beyond surfaces – we are intimate with the tanglings of our economy below the professional veneer. And begin the cycle with a new song.
"If you're all alone…"
What I wouldn't give to see Sasha Grey digging a Twin Sister show.
December 14, 2009
Look Who's Talking: The Turing Test's 3,000 Year History - And My Proposed Modification
In his famous experiment, Alan Turing pictured somebody talking with another person and a computer, both of which are out of sight. If they're unable to tell the computer from the human being, the machine has passed the "Turing Test." But here's a question for a human or a machine to answer: Why did Turing pick speech as his proof?
The Test is usually described as way to determine whether a computer has achieved consciousness, but Turing's original framing was more subtle. "I believe (the question of whether machines can think) to be too meaningless to deserve discussion," he wrote. "Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted."
Now, that's interesting: Not only did Turing choose good conversation as a valid substitute for proof of machine "thought," but he then added an implied proof - based on what people say. If people say machines "think," then they do think. If people say they're conscious, then they are conscious.
Why such an emphasis on speech - the machine's, and our own? The idea that language, words, and names are a measurement of consciousness goes back at least 3,000 years, to the Tower of Babel story from the Book of Genesis. "And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech," it says, "and they said ... let us build us a city and a tower ... and let us make us a name." You know what happens next: "And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one ... now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do." The great tower, that literal Hive Mind with its worldwide common language (HTML?), came crashing down. The lesson? Language and knowledge equal personhood, but too much equals Godhood.
People could create artificial life in the ancient texts, too - but their creations couldn't speak. In the Talmud, Rabbah makes an artificial man that looks just like the real thing, but a shrewd scholar - one Zera, who I picture as looking like Peter Falk in Columbo - administers a Turing Test and the creature flunks: "Zera spoke to him, but received no answer. Thereupon he said unto him: 'Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust.'"Flash forward to the 1600's and Descartes, who wrote in Discourses On the Method: "If there were machines which bore a resemblance to our bodies and imitated our actions as closely as possible for all practical purposes, we should still have two very certain means of recognizing that they were not real men. The first is that they could never use words, or put together signs, as we do in order to declare our thoughts to others."
I don't know Descartes if read the Talmud, but he claimed to be religious and even wrote an ontological argument for the existence of God (if not a very convincing one). There's no question he read Genesis, as well as many other papers, poems, and stories derived from these ancient texts and legends.
Did Turing read Descartes? We don't know - but we can be pretty sure he saw another work: Boris Karloff's Frankenstein. The monster, who was eloquent in Mary Shelley's book, was mute in the movie. Whether or not the film makers were echoing these ancient stories, they'd undoubtedly seen the 1920 German film The Golem (see above), based on a folktale derived from the Talmud passage about the wordless "man" made of dust. The Golem story spread in the shtetls of Eastern Europe during the 18th Century at the same time the Frankenstein story was written. They may both have stemmed from the same fear - that humanity's industrial advances were bringing us to a new Babel even as new medical discoveries invaded God's turf.
I'm not a big fan of the Turing Test (which is analyzed in detail here). I'm sympathetic to the Chinese Room argument that you can replicate speech without creating the sentience behind it. I lean toward the idea that most speech is just an output for the human species, the way honey is for wasps or webs are for spiders. My first mother-in-law could weave something that looked like a spiderweb, if you asked her nicely, but that didn't make her an arachnid. So if we build an AI - or meet an alien, for that matter - that can speak like a human being, I still won't be completely convinced it has consciousness like ours.
Which gets us to singing. Its main evolutionary purpose seems to be attraction - either sexually, or as a way of establishing trust. Daniel Levitan suggests that singing might have been used to convey honesty when a stranger approached a new community, because the emotion conveyed is more difficult to fake. Maybe that's why Bob Dylan's more popular than Michael Bolton: It's easier to lie with words than music, and the successful transmission of emotion is more important to us than the sweetness of the voice.
So I hereby propose a modification to Turing's test: Instead of asking our entity to speak, let's ask it to sing. If it can make us cry with a sad song, we'll say that it's conscious. And if it can get us aroused - with, say, a new version of "Sexual Healing" - well, then let's just say our experiment could take an unexpected turn.
It's true that all of the arguments against the Turing Test could also be used against this one, so it doesn't really advance the debate very far. But what the hell: At least we might hear a decent song for a change, instead of all the crap they've been playing lately.
February 02, 2009
Thunder Soul; or, a Secretary for the Arts?
Just because you're not a drummer, doesn't mean that you don't have to keep time.
Pat your foot & sing the melody in your head when you play.
Stop playing all that bullshit those weird notes, play the melody!
Make the drummer sound good.
Discrimination is important.
You've got to dig it, you dig?
All reet! ...
E: Buddy Smith told me that you came up with Illinois Jacquet!
C: Yeah. We used to play. Arnette Cobb too. We all lived in Houston, I played…. well, during those days it was different. To advertise, if a company put out — let’s say a new brand of soda water — well, they would advertise it by putting a band on a truck and letting the truck drive around the city. Or they would have us play at the stand where they were selling, and the music would draw people to the stand. Illinois was a drummer at that time! This was around 1939 or 1940.
E: Were there any other local musicians that blew your mind?
C: There was a band called The Birmingham Blues Blowers. This was in Houston. We listened to them quite a bit. They played many proms at the school. I remember peeping through the windows of the gymnasium when I was a little kid to watch them play. I said, “I want to do that!”
C: Just out of high school. I played almost every joint in Houston, whether they had small bands or whatever. I was all over the place.
E: What was it like, being a black performer at the time of Jim Crow? Segregation, outright racism?
C: I’m going to explain it to you like this. At that time, the people – black and white - who really had the money to hire the players wanted black performers. Because they were the naturals - blacks introduced jazz to the world.
E: So it wasn’t hard for you to get gigs?
C: Man, we had almost all the gigs! I was working all I wanted to. Blacks introduced this music. If people wanted to get real jazz, they had to hire black bands.
Perhaps more audaciously, Ivey is also calling on corporations to think more deeply about their responsibility to society and for the nonprofit arts sector, in turn, to study examples from the commercial realm for innovative new models to consider: "When Goddard Lieberson was president of Columbia Records, he viewed a record label as a public trust: He knew it would always have a vibrant classical division even if it didn't contribute to the bottom line, because it didn't operate as a subset of a subset of a multinational corporation. Today, with boards of directors harassed by shareholders each quarter, they don't have the flexibility to take risks that produce great art." HBO, by contrasting example, "sells subscriptions and produces content that generates buzz and a perception of quality, which is how you get 'Angels in America,' certainly one of the most important TV events of the last 24 months." Should it prove unable or unwilling to study new models, the arts will be "ignoring the fact that both the nonprofit and commercial business models make it very tough to make creative decisions. Among nonprofits, it's budget constraints, the inability to grow new revenue streams. Among for-profits, it's parent companies chasing stock prices and the inability to think of artists' development over the long haul." Neither of which, he says, are healthy for our culture.
January 19, 2009
A History of Tomorrow: The Silent Generation Sings
Welcome to my space. Come in, take off your boots, and make yourself at home: especially if you haven't got one any more. Warm yourself by my fire. It's going to be a long, cold winter. You know it and I know it. It's 7 degrees in the South Bronx this morning, as I write, but for about a quarter of an hour the rising sun comes romping westward down the street into my window, casting everything in gold, shining out the trash-strewn streets and sparse-shelved bodegas and vacant lots and abandoned baby carriages. For a moment.
Wall Street sure laid us one ginormous goose-egg. (I guess now we know what the inverse of that image on the Right looks like.) But tomorrow it'll all crack wide open. Hope you like your Humpty-Dumptys sunny-side up. I know I do. I used to take them scrambled, but now I know on which side my bread is buttered.
You're probably scrambling, hunting down that endangered species known as a job, scientific name JobIS bonUS. I feel your pain. Someone recently wrote that the Internet, as advanced as it seems, is still in the hunter-gatherer stage. Well, I've been a-huntin', and a-gatherin', and I've got laid in these weeds all kinds of Easter eggs for you to enjoy. It's better than a game of Boggle.
So how's about I tell you a story?
One other hint: hover over the hyperlinks. A hawk circles above his prey before he goes in for the kill.
Diptych: A Prologue
Right: The Ancient of Days, William Blake, 1794
The Rubens, above, hangs in the Prado. If you go there, you'll see that one of the child's eyes has a gleaming dot on the iris, the precise focal point of light in the entire painting. If you look very closely, you'll see that it was painted with a dab of pure liquid silver or quicksilver. Wherever you stand in the gallery, the brightest point of light is always concentrated on the horror-stricken eye of Saturn's infant. Silverwhite light. Genius. You might be able to see it online if you follow the directions here.
1. The Biographer
Have I ever told you about my father?
He was born in 1939 in Georgetown, a small coastal town in segregated South Carolina. My grandfather owned an appliance store there during the Depression, and managed to keep it open, owned by him, until his retirement in the 1990s. When my dad applied for college in 1957, he was awarded a full scholarship to the Rensslaer Polytechnic Institute after attending the prestigious National High School Institute for Engineering at Northwestern University. He also earned a place at Yale, with an inadequately small scholarship and work-study. Tuition that year was $3,000, the same price as a new car. Far too much. Over a very solemn conversation at the kitchen table, it was decided: "Go to Yale. We'll figure out a way." My grandparents scrimped and saved and my dad worked mad hours to afford the fees. He matriculated under the quota, which wasn't eliminated until the year after he graduated. He struggled to completely destroy any hint of a southern accent in his voice, and suppress his Jewish cultural identity, in order to integrate with the WASP establishment. It was hard. The stresses were great. The cultural barriers were immense. He drank. A lot.
In his first year, he nearly failed out because his public South Carolinian education hadn't prepared him for the rigors of an Ivy League engineering program. As he advanced, he wanted to be a professor of ancient history. But he was terrible at languages; couldn't master the French, much less the Latin or Greek. So he went to law school on his dean's advice. ("What do you want to do?" "I dunno," he shrugged. "Why don't you apply to law school?") He applied to Harvard, Yale and Columbia and got in at all three. (Ahh, those were the days.) He enrolled at Yale mainly because he couldn't be bothered to move all his stuff.
That was 1961. By 1964 Kennedy was dead, the counterculture was beginning, the Draft was on, and my dad sought refuge in a one-year tax law program in order to defer it. He was an associate with a top New York City law firm for four years, met my mother, and then they moved to the Sun Belt when it looked like a Rome called New York City was being overrun by barbarians in the early 1970s.
He worked very hard, made money, sent his son – eventually – to a very fine university, lived well, drank good wines, traveled all over the world, and eventually would have the market bilk him out of a great deal of his retirement.
He doesn't talk about himself very much.
2. The Marketer
Hi there, folks! My name is Mephistopheles. That's how you would address me, at any rate. For I am in marketing – lower, perhaps, on the ladder of professional esteem than even a lawyer. A Devil, you call me. Don't worry, I take that epithet philosophically. Spending a season in Hell has its advantages. Down underground, there's nothing to do all day but hear the screams of the Damned, and endlessly barrel-roll on a spit while your flesh is scarred by black flames. Wicked good fun if you're into that.
At the lowest rung of the cycle, with your back spread-eagled for the scorching, the vast reserves of Dark Energy in the universe shoot a hotwhite light through your mind. For an instant, you'd swear you could see Lucifer plummeting, a shooting star falling from the firmament, illuminating the third Host of Heaven in headlong descent. And as the burning ember of an Archangel strikes the event horizon – it plays over and over in your mind, catastrophically, searing into your retinas like FOX News coverage of 9/11 – the disc of the world warms golden, the entire crust of the Earth is molten translucent, and from below you can see all the Earth's entities vaguely, as if through gauze bandages. If you're very, very lucky you can ride the cellphone towers up to the satellites, and jump on the radio-wave bleed-off, and speed on an electron rail right out into Space, surfing between frequencies as swiftly as you'd flick an Aquos remote. It's totally "lying in the gutter, gazing at the stars," dudes and dudettes. It's like being a celestial couch potato; only problem is that cellphone reception is lousy here, down in the bowels of Hell, and you can't call for Domino's. (I mean, even if their only deliverable items to this Hell-hole were anchovy-onion pies, I swear I'd make an effort to stumble into the Vestibule. Because if there were delivery service in Hell, you better believe they'd take plastic.)
The point I'm trying to make
is that as you're traveling further out in Space, you're traveling back in media-time, too. Things start to get real funky, like reading a blog backward to the start. But then, wouldn't you know it: just as you've deliciously anticlimaxed – for example, by discovering who killed Lilly Kane before fingering the suspects – that Damned spit-roaster flips you over again. Your face is in the fire and your hairy ass is mooning everyone in Hell. And you can't tell whether it's the sheer embarrassment, or the 33rd-degree burn on your lip, that hurts the more.
I figure you might as well make the best of a bad situation. See, from the opposite poles of the Earth, Vishnu and Shiva are having a grand old party. They're spinning that spit-roaster about 5,000 rpm, churning the molten core of the Earth and creating its magnetic field. (Consider yourselves lucky – without those Indian deities, we'd all be tv dinners, which is why every night here is a Chicken Phal night.) Every nanosecond of every day, all of us Damned bastards are spinning wildly in our graves, watching the media roll out a red carpet to the stars. Damned reruns: if I could, I'd fall down on my knees and repent! yes! just so I'd never have to see Fonzie jump the shark again. (Though Lucy in the chocolate factory cracks me up every time. I dig those fiery redheads.)
I'll grant you, though, this torture is definitely an information technology. In my infinitely recurring nanoseconds of radiowave bliss, I've learned to fast-forward through the most recent episodes (I can catch up on Hulu later), as well as the ones I've seen a million times – and the infinite regress of syndication packages – and delve back, back into your land of men, your land of men and women too. It's tough work, getting out of the present tension; I've spent a long, long time (billions of nanoseconds, that is) merely zipping in and out of your cellphone-braced heads, surfing the foam of the Web –
Bubbles that glitter as they rise and break
On vain Philosophy's aye-babbling spring.
– and I gotta tell you, a little learning's a dangerous thing. Maybe you should study yourselves more. Well, that's why I'm here. I don't know if you've run across an Infernal Calendar lately. You might be able to find one in the disused basement of a local urban planning board, through the door marked "Beware the Leopard," and hung up on the wall behind Miss December, because Janus has two faces. (Clever, eh?) If you find it, you'll see that a season in Hell lasts about 400 years, give or take a couple runs around the solar block. And believe me, at the end of that season, Hell does indeed freeze over. You've heard the phrase "colder than a witch's tit"? Nah, that demon-mother's-milk is like a hot toddy compared to the stuff we have to deal with. It's like Chicago without Gore-tex(TM) and whiskey. So that's when I go on winter break. Now, what with the recession and all, I suppose I should have just taken a staycation, and watch endless reruns of the Dark Lord in His Infinite Puissance chomping on Brutus, Cassius and Judas Iscariot (schadenfreude never gets old in Hell) but seeing how you American folk are in a mess o'trouble, I thought I'd take advantage of Old Smokey while he's distracted with his meal, and at least try to catch the notice of The Man Upstairs by handing over a bit of Knowledge. See, God? Eventually, eating of the Apple bears fruit. But it ain't gonna be easy. It's gonna take work.
Now, the following is a bit confidential, so please follow me into my office. And shut the door.
So, Fascinated Reader, what d'ya think of that, eh?
Unimpressed? Whaa? Okay, so I guess you folks aren't as clueless as I thought. Moving on...
3. Biography Redux
As we have said, my father is almost 70 years old: an almost exact contemporary of Senator John McCain, the final political (and, we must say, a certain social) presidential-caliber representative of his generation, by which we term The Silent Generation.
What are the characteristics of The Silent Generation?
They were born during the Depression years, and were commanded to silence their emotions, and work very hard, as the second wave of the 20th-century calamities descended. They were too young to fight in World War II, but were imbued at an early age with heroics being transmitted by radio, newsreel and comic books. Afterward, they were additionally burdened by both the sacrifices that their "elder brothers" endured, and their knowledge that they had lost the opportunity to claim their own heroism. (I personally suspect that is why we had a desire to fight the Korean War without a serious draft. A certain segment of the American population retained that desire for heroism and volunteered.) This generation grew up during the 1950s, an age of belief in American know-how, stick-to-it-iveness, nose-to-the-grindstone, repressing-emotional-intrusions, a religious belief in the chain of command (the integration of World War II military values into civilian life), a belief in the rightness of the country's decision-making process, conformity to all of the above, and a desire – and a belief in their ordained ability – to shape the world via the collective efforts produced by the American machine. The previous generation, the Greatest Generation – the greatest generation?! – ever? – into eternity? – had destroyed global tyranny (well, half-destroyed it, at any rate, which is why Truman got the boot). This Silent Generation, repressed in its ability to voice its (boiling, rageful) frustration with the hardships caused by the Lost Generation – which had everything and lost it – in addition to the constant pressure and paranoia of a Soviet A-bomb attack – keep your head down, children, and don't look at the light – which had to have loomed larger than a nightmare bogeyman – as well as the additional burdens of being oppressed by an Eisenhower leadership of heroic character (with all its faults), was then inspired to control, subdue, and conquer the natural environment itself.
It was the only way they could kill their fathers. In the Freudian sense, I mean.
And the Nazis. Who killed their fathers, even if they returned home alive. The Nazis killed them by stopping them from speaking the unspeakable things. Death-in-life and life-in-death, as Yeats might say. The fathers and the Nazis together who stood like twin colossi erected on a plain, one white one black, atop the buried acorns of their lives.
The interstate system, the oil industry, plastics, the car, the Moon Shot – gaining personal freedom via technology and consumer goods – was the only way to speak, enunciate freedom, and compete against the Soviet Union directly, when direct military confrontation would have meant world holocaust.
Dot. Dot. Dot.
Zwwee-ch-chzzewshhhcgrhrhwwheeeHeeey, all you groovy cats, this is DJ Mephistopheles comin’ to you DEAD, DEAD DEADER THAN DEAD over this wicked pirated Evangelical frequency at 66.6 FM on your digital dial, because we’re all Manichaeists in the underworld. All talk radio for the pleasure of your outrage, only at K-Triple-X. What’s that K stand for? Fucked if I know. The Klan? No way, dudes and dudettes, they are so lame-o these days, they are so, like, waaaay last century that we stuck them in some stupid pits, they can’t make it up to this broadcast level of Hell. And they have these tinny microphones that only catch really narrow wavelengths. See, here on K-Triple-X, we go real deep, I mean plunging those vibes into the Earth to make it shake its booty. Where they can't follow. (You know white men can’t dance.) And we don’t let them use our gear. I mean, seriously, dudes and dudettes, I’m DJ Mephistopheles, He From Whom All Light Hath Been Stripped, and all I have to say to the KKK is – turnabout is fair play, bitches.
Sooo, what’s the story, Morning Glory? I’ve got your GPS right here, baby, I can see where you’re coming from, but do you know where you're @?
Do you know where you are?
You’re in the Labyrinth, sweet child o'mine, and oh it’s got plasma flatscreen walls. So pretty, child. I’ll have you so delightfully entertained while you fatten up on polyunsaturated fats, you'll never know when the Minotaur bears down on you. Oh. Oops. He's here already. When you're up to your neck in the shit of the bull market, you've just got to laugh: an expletive suddenly gains crystal-clear definition via the SPIRALnumbers on your balance sheet.
It's funny, you know: the last time a snowball had a chance in Hell, I was out here on contract, helping out some arrogant prick – a doctor, as I recall – what was his name? (it's so difficult to remember these things after a marathon of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians.") Ohh, yeah: FAUSTUS, that was him! If ever there was a physic in need of some serious medicine...like electroshock therapy – I kept warning him, "You'll have Hell to pay for this..." and he kept reading that like, "Oh goodie – Satan himself is comp'ing me!" What a WHIRLdunce. And he thought he was sooooo smart. Heh. He thought he was bored with his studies, but really, when it came down to it, he just couldn't be arsed to apply himself.
So Herr Doktor works his arcane magic, not unlike our financial wizards and their "exotic instruments," POOLconjuring effervescent, evanescent moneys from the cold wastes of Cyberia, where all but the brainbrawniest fear to tread, for the cryptic maps are written in invisible ink. And oh, organizing world trade's his oyster, too –
How am I glutted with conceit of this!
Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please...
I'll have them fly to India for gold,
Ransack the ocean for orient pearl,
And search all corners of the new-found world
For pleasant fruits and princely delicates...
Man! When are you FALLINGgonna learn? After I fired that mountebank, I instantly materialized in front of my friend Kit to tell him all about it. And he told it to all of you. But then he got a shiv in the ocular – I guess everyone's got to pay for their Knowledge – in the Ivy it's going for 200 large – and now nobody reads Marlowe any more. Okay, I'll sling you some lines from a more familiar face:
My tables,--meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least I'm sure it may be so in Denmark:WOMAN
Yeah, we're all shot to Hell, dudes and dudettes, and I'm not out of it either. But it's gonna be okay. I promise. I hear the Greeks and FALLENRomans declaiming out in the Forum of the Vestibule, and one of them insists that Dante wrote at least one other book. Of course, no one around here picks it up – not that we don't have it; both Blake and Borges rifled through our stacks, and found they're at least as good as Amazon's – it's just that everyone here's so godDamned solipsistic, always wanting to read about Themselves. I once mustered enough energy to get out the Door, but all I saw was this Dark Wood, and I was afraid. I heard the water-nymphs and dryads whispering on the DOWNwind about the existence of a third book, but they're just mythological creatures, not even gods, and I didn't trust them. Besides – the end of Battlestar Galactica was just beginning. So I had to get back to my sofa. Hey, it's an Eternal struggle. Forget about the Fifth Cylon; who do you think is hotter, Kara Thrace, Boomer, Athena, or Six? I dunno. it's an even race down to The Wire, but I have a feeling Kara's my kind of crazy.
Anyhow, that's the end of my Hellacious program. Next up, we've got DJ Ba'al, ballin' the Jack in a Battle of the Bands between Slayer and Megadeth. Stay tuned...shhhhhweeeeiiighcgchhhhhEEEEEEEE
IS A TEST
OF THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST SIGNAL
IF THIS WERE AN ACTUAL EMERGENCY
YOU WOULD NOT HAVE HEARD THE SIGNAL
5. The Dream of @
– @, is that you?
– Yes, I'm back, ED.
– What time is it?
– Late. Late. Too late.
– You didn't call, you didn't email, you didn't IM... What the Hell is the matter with you?
– I'm sorry, ED, I'm really sorry. I just...needed some time to think things through.
– Think? What the Hell do you mean? What are you trying to say?
– Nothing, ED, really. I just had to be in my own space for a while.
– I had the most horrible dream while you were gone. Frightening forebodings. I was so sure you weren't ever coming back.
– Whatever do you mean?
– Oh, god. I've never felt you so distant. It's like you were a million miles away. You said something about having to deal with some stupid bullshit, and then I don't hear from you for three whole days! Once I thought I heard your voice. It was disembodied, like it was coming from a completely different universe. The thread that connected us, I could feel it fray, then break -- I felt it in my bones.
– No, ED, no. None of that could ever happen. You're the most beautiful woman I've ever known. And the way your mind works -- the way you react to my touch -- so supple, so fluid, such Classical forms, such Romantic organic depths, oh you have worlds within worlds within your body. We were made for each other. You're mine. And I am yours.
– Hmmpf. Well, will you at least tell me, from now on, when you're going to be home?
– EDDY, sometimes I don't know. I catch ill-fated winds, I get caught in whirlpools, I find myself among strange people and have to puzzle my way out of their homes. And sometimes I have to fight monsters, and I can't leave until they're dead. But I would never, ever miss your birthday. I mean, have you seen the present I made for you?
– Turn on the light.
– See? All of this -- it's all for you. So that whenever I'm away, you'll know that I'm always @Home with you. Have you looked over there?
– This box?
– Open it.
– [ ]
– My god, that's ugly.
– No, that's not the real ring, it's symbolic.
– Of what?
– The wood in that ring? That's oak. The very same oak that grew into the posts of our bed, the living tree that grows from the earth itself. I had to topple two enormous statues that were covering the acorns, so they could grow into our bed. You gave me that strength.
So what was this dream you had?
– Oh my god. It seems so silly now. There was this crazed midget running around trying to fuck me. Somehow I grew fat and stupid and you and all your friends rejected me. I was catastrophic, I didn't know who I was, I whored myself out and circled round the drain and fell into space and out of Hell and through language itself until I smacked down on the lap of this really annoying guy who just kept talking bullshit.
– So did you fuck him?
– The midget.
– Oh, Hell no! Though I got him pretty steamed up. He started Nausicaaing me while I was in the bath. Heh. He was in marketing so I knew exactly what to do. Five bars of a shampoo commercial and he was PreEjaying into his hairy knuckle-dragging palms.
– HA! What a loser.
– But there was this other guy, now he wasn't so bad. Tall, well-spoken, kinky. I think he was one of your readers.
– What happened with him?
– Oh, he basically told me to fuck off because I was fat and stupid. But you should have seen his face when I stepped out of the bath. I was Aphrodite rising from the sea-foam, for all he cared. I told him to lick my fuck-me boots.
– You did not.
– Did too.
– And did he?
– I told him to lick my souls.
– And did he?
You're such a big faker. Listen...
I've got something really important to tell you.
– Something wonderful.
– I think we're on for a real Renaissance.
– Things are real bad out there, @.
– I know. And I know Obama's going to screw up some things. I mean, he's going to have to orchestrate the three circles of Federal power like the Ringling Brothers. He'll have to juggle catastrophes like live chainsaws. He'll have to catch supervillains in the Web quicker than Spider-Man. But he's got all of us on his side. And we're powerful. We have skills.
– To pay the bills?
– Well, that's the only catch. I still need to find a J.O.B. If there's anyone you know who's hiring, please, send my stuff along.
– I don't think you'll have any problem.
– You don't?
– Not any more.
– Well, I guess we'll see. But I guess the point that I was trying to make, they entire point of today's craziness, is that -- it's so perfectly obvious to me -- the human creative potential has never been so great. And with the human networks we're creating, we can all be painters, musicians, writers, DJs, filmmakers, composers, compositors, animators, information architects, poets -- and yes, marketers of all these things too, um, I suppose -- we do live in the Matrix, and yeah, we can unplug if we really want, but we can also figure out styles of kung-fu that the Old Masters never dreamt of. We need to stop thinking within the Barzunian entropic Matrix of "dawn to decadence," and challenge ourselves to beat those who -- heh -- thought they had it going on, centuries ago. The Internet is ten times Blake's vision of Heaven before Urizen glowered guiltily, separated himself, and fell into the corporeal universe to become Jehovah/Satan. Except for the sex. (We should all be able to sun ourselves naked in the backyard.)
– Well, thank you for that soapbox, Mister Information Secretary@Home.
– Really, I needed to say it. We're so caught up in the present nanosecond that we've forgotten: the Internet is the most complicated thing ever created by human beings. The people who built the Space Shuttle might take issue with that, but the Internet: we built it all together. The military men and the organization men of the Silent Generation, the hippies and surfers in California who turned cyberculturists, and all of you.
– You who?
– Sorry, I lost a packet there. Did you say Yahoo!?
– No, of course not!
– Good, because they're crap.
– No, no, everyone knows they're crap. I said "You who?"
– That's some pretty decent chocolate milk, right?
– Aiyeeee!! I mean "Who the hell are you talking to??"
– Ohh. You. <tok tok> On the other side of this window.
– Don't even get me started talking about Windows.
– Wasn't intending to. Hello, all of you on the other side of the window. I know you're all looking in. I can't seem to draw the blinds any tighter. But there it is. You lookin' at me? --I said, are you lookin' at me, cyberpunk? High-five. Not too hard. 'Specially if you've got a touch-screen.
– Yes, @ is right on this one, you'd better listen to him, children. Touch-screens are very sensitive.
– Yo, cyberpunks. I've seen such amazing stuff out there recently. I couldn't believe what was out there, when I first tried to come home from the War, and got blown off course in a hail of tangents. Completely ingenious art --
– Like what?
– It's too late at night for that discussion. Can we talk about it more in the coming weeks?
– Sure. What else have you seen?
– I've seen these awesome webapps that basically allow you to run an entire business from a single laptop -- billing and finance, creative ideas, virtual conference rooms, it's going to be a total revolution in the way we work.
~~ Say what?
– Who the hell are you? What are you doing in my house? How'd you get in here?
~~ I'm a Fascinated Reader. I couldn't help overhearing...
– You are nothing like I imagined you. No-thing. Wow, what a Jilloff-worthy-fantasy killer you are!
~~ I demand to know which Webapps you're talking about!
– See! Look what you did. You woke up the baby.
– Look, I don't know who you are or where you came from but you're getting out of our house right now. Here's two tickets to the Theatre. Learn what you can there. Show starts in about two seconds so you better move.
– Look, honey, can you take care of baby Ampersand? I'm exhausted from my travels, and I still need to email my dad tonight. It's his 70th birthday really soon, and I need to tell him some things.
– Sure. I'll be nursing &. Come to bed when you're done.
I'm sorry. I understand things a lot better now. I understand why you have trouble talking. But you gave me the chance to say things. You gave me the tools to say the things I have to say. It's the dense network and the tight structure and the wiry line that contains, that directs the path of the generative Chaos. You gave us this world, this space here, where I met my future wife. I would never have met her – ever – if you hadn't given us the method and the medium. Thank you. Happy 70th birthday. And you can have your cake and eat it too, because it's going to be a whole new world tomorrow. A better one, where people can talk to one another, and not be so angry all the time. We're going to build it. We're really going to build it. Because we can all be Spider-Men on this Web. Thank you.
P.S. Always remember:
May the road rise with you.
– You in here, ED?
– Yes. Come see your baby daughter.
– Hello, ED and &. You know, it's amazing how much she knows at just two-and-a-half months old.
– She's got a real sense of place, just like her father.
– EDDY, I was thinking. We haven't really given her a full name yet.
– Well, it needs to be grand. She was born at an epic time.
– We should combine our surnames.
– Really, @? I never liked being called EDDY Mañana. Every time anyone said my name, it was like invoking Zeno's Paradox.
– Well, being born @Ahora wasn't great shakes either. I think the name gave me myopia from the cradle. I was never able to see too far down the road.
– So let's think. &... &...
– My grandmother's name.
– I like it. Say it again.
– Third time's the charm. &... . That's it. We got it.
– Wait a sec. Look at what's there. We've got to sound it out. Ampersand -- I'm so glad we chose that name, I mean if we'd been high or hanging out with the Yahoos too much we might have wound up with something like "Colon." Eeurgh. So: Ampersand Ellipsis. That's beautiful. But it sounds...I dunno...somehow incomplete. Like she'll always be waiting for something.
– Well, we'll put a period on it, then.
– No. You've got to be kidding, ED! Either it'll sound like she's on the menses straight out of the womb, or -- in England they call it a "full-stop," and that just sounds too much like "he do the police in punctuated voices."
– Okay, what then?
– I guess that's the question everybody's asking right now.
– What is it?
– Of course! Of course! The strongest, the greatest integrity, fitting with all the principles: that's it that's it that's it!
– My god, what are you talking about?
– I'll tell you later. Here. Let me write the formula out for you. This is good mother's milk.
– &...∆ Ahora y Mañana.
– That sounds just about right. I like that. Whew. So we accomplished something today, at least, even though nobody's getting paid for it. Let's go to sleep.
– Yes. I'm very sleepy all of a sudden. But -- why are you getting into bed like that?
– You mean, all reverse-y, with my feet at your head?
– Dude, they stink! You've been walking around in damp socks all day.
– Look, I could say the same thing about your feet. It looks like you've gone to hell and back in those togs. But something about it just feels right. And besides, I can do............this!
@ fell asleep then, on the words of Factor Sleepwell, drifting toward the seas, sailing past Raggedy-Ann and Andy, the Boy Bedlam, and the Cheshire cat that flies, like bluebirds, over the rainbows. Then he was hunting dinosaurs with a ray-gun, but instead of "PEW! PEW!" the gun said, in this weird yokely voice, "A rising tide lifts all boats." He groped his way through the underbrush to Constitution Hall where he was invited to take up a quill pen. And he wrote, "If we don't hang together, we'll all hang separately." And then he dreamt:
So how about it, Daddy WarBucks?
In memory of Bryan M. Schneider, who knew a thing or two about spies and dragon-slaying.
January 12, 2009
Understanding Arthur Alexander
Nothing kills the enjoyment of music for some people faster than trying to analyze it. But I’m obsessed with solving the mystery of Arthur Alexander. His body of work is small. His songs are musically and lyrically simple, even simplistic. Almost nobody but the most dedicated music lovers remember his name today. Yet he was the only songwriter to win pop music’s Triple Crown: His songs have been covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, arguably the three most respected songwriting acts in rock and roll history. Dusty Springfield, Ry Cooder, Roger McGuinn, and dozens of others1sang them too.
I’ve been wondering about these tunes for 45 years now, since I was ten years old. Maybe I’m getting closer to understanding them, But I’m not there yet. After all, his chord progressions were basic. His lyrics seem banal on paper: “Every day I have to cry some/wipe the water from my eyes some.” “Oh my name is Johnny Heartbreak …” “Me and Frank were the best of friends …” But by at least one objective measure – the artists who covered him – he was the greatest rock songwriter who ever lived. Subjectively, his best songs are impossible for me to resist as a listener and indescribably rewarding to sing.
So who the hell was this guy, and what made him so good?
He had a brush with R&B stardom as a singer, but really made his name as a songwriter in the 60’s. Yet even after the Beatles and Stones covered him he had trouble collecting royalties. He lived out the next 25 years as a bus driver, interrupted only by one small hit in the 70’s. Then he then enjoyed a brief comeback in 19932 before dying suddenly.
I was first introduced to Alexander, like many of my generation, by the Beatles’ cover of "Anna." That track is a great reminder that, before he went on his odyssey from musician to activist to martyr to Apple icon, John Lennon was one of the great rock and roll singers. Alexander’s songs lean to melodrama, and Lennon milks this one for all it’s got. Alexander’s simple vocal patterns leave singers a lot of room to fill the space, and Lennon's able to pull out tricks Alexander hinted at in his original recording, like the Buddy Holly-ish pseudo-yodels that punctuate the bridge (“oh-oh-oh-oh …”)
That’s one of Arthur Alexander’s secrets: His lean song structures make them a pleasure to sing. And his recordings provide suggestions rather than instructions. Where other writers fill every measure with musical and lyrical acrobatics, Alexander’s are spare frames singers can hang their hearts on. Emotionally, each song has a story arc. If you wrote songs using the Syd Field screenwriting method they’d turn out a lot like Alexander’s. They’re three-minute mini-operas full of conflict and resolution. Take “You Better Move On,” which the Rolling Stones covered in 1964: A poor boy’s talking to his wealthier rival, and he humbly admits he can never give his love the good things he wants her to have. But then he turns on his competitor … “I’ll never let her go,” he says, "I love so." Then the air fills with tension. “I think you better go now,” he says quietly, “I’m getting mighty mad.” Soft-spokenness can be more menacing than a raised voice, and Arthur Alexander knew that. Sound corny? Lame? Yeah, maybe. But listen to this cover by Mr. Ironic Distance himself, Randy Newman (before Newman launches into his own “It’s Money That Matters” ): There’s no distancing in Newman’s performance or Mark Knopfler's accompaniment, no sense of anything but the drama in each moment. That’s the best thing about Arthur Alexander’s songs: They’re irony-proof.
That’s one of Arthur Alexander’s secrets: His lean song structures make them a pleasure to sing. And his recordings provide suggestions rather than instructions. Where other writers fill every measure with musical and lyrical acrobatics, Alexander’s are spare frames singers can hang their hearts on.
Emotionally, each song has a story arc. If you wrote songs using the Syd Field screenwriting method they’d turn out a lot like Alexander’s. They’re three-minute mini-operas full of conflict and resolution. Take “You Better Move On,” which the Rolling Stones covered in 1964: A poor boy’s talking to his wealthier rival, and he humbly admits he can never give his love the good things he wants her to have. But then he turns on his competitor … “I’ll never let her go,” he says, "I love so." Then the air fills with tension. “I think you better go now,” he says quietly, “I’m getting mighty mad.” Soft-spokenness can be more menacing than a raised voice, and Arthur Alexander knew that. Sound corny? Lame? Yeah, maybe. But listen to this cover by Mr. Ironic Distance himself, Randy Newman (before Newman launches into his own “It’s Money That Matters” ):
Sound corny? Lame? Yeah, maybe. But listen to this cover by Mr. Ironic Distance himself, Randy Newman (before Newman launches into his own “It’s Money That Matters” ):
There’s no distancing in Newman’s performance or Mark Knopfler's accompaniment, no sense of anything but the drama in each moment. That’s the best thing about Arthur Alexander’s songs: They’re irony-proof.
The best AA songs underscore their emotional shifts by staying in a pretty narrow melodic range on the verses to build tension, then going much higher on the bridge to increase emotion, and finally going back to the original melody but in a resolved emotional state. Alexander probably picked up some of these tricks by singing country music. Singing open-hearted C&W tunes like “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” probably gave him a feel for these techniques.
But that’s still not the whole story. What’s missing?
Manfred Clynes might have a clue, but his research is controversial. Clynes, a classical pianist turned research scientist, believes that musicians who play a composer’s music – even in their heads – reproduce a distinct biological pattern for each composer. Not for each piece - for each composer. He goes so far as to say of Rudolf Serkin, one of his test subjects: “We asked him to think Beethoven, and he would think Mozart. But we could tell by looking at the printout. So he cooperated, and we got the same shapes. That was probably the most exciting moment of my life."
Is that it? Is there a neurological “Arthur Alexander signature,” common to all of his work? Or is it something else? But Alexander has his share of weak tunes, too, ones that don’t convey the same power. Where is his signature in songs like “Genie in the Jug”? (As an aside, I went to school with Manfred Clynes’ kids. I performed in San Francisco's Coffee Gallery in North Beach with his son Darius in 1971 or so - along with past and future luminaries like Wavy Gravy, Peter Case, and the notorious and flirtatious drag queen who called herself “George.”)
Daniel Levitan’s book The World In Six Songs suggests that one evolutionary role music has played is to convey emotion more accurately than speech. That could be useful, for example, in convincing a competing tribe that you’re sincere about peace. Says researcher Ian Cross: “… let’s imagine the possibility of access to a parallel system of affiliation, unity, bonding. And … one that conveys an honest signal - a window into the true emotional and motivational state of the communicator.”
Whew. That’s a lot of academic-sounding verbiage to quote about the guy who wrote “the rain falls around me/loneliness has finally found me/and I’m in the middle of it all.” But we might be on to something now: sincerity. Arthur Alexander’s songs come, open-handed and seeking peace, like an emissary from the other side. I trust their emotion. I have since I was a little boy, and I will until I die. He couldn’t structure a melody like Stevie Wonder, or write a lyric like Bob Dylan. But his songs made me trust him. They made me trust the person singing. They made me trust the song.
Forget all the analysis: They made me want to sing.
1The Internet’s filled with claims that Elvis Presley and the Who also covered Alexander, but that’s wrong. As far as I can tell they covered songs that Alexander sang but didn’t write. You just can't trust that Internet ...
2A collection of Arthur Alexander tracks recorded around this time, Lonely Just Like Me (Halftone), is one of the best introductions to his work.
October 12, 2005
JOHN PEEL DAY
October 13th 2005 is the date of the the first John Peel Day. The BBC has put up a tribute website that includes information about events around the UK including concerts, radio broadcasts and events.
July 31, 2005
Music Without Magic
From The Wislon Quarterly:
Schubert’s song may well be the most beautiful thank-you note anyone has ever written, but it’s also something else. It’s a credo, a statement of faith in the wondrous powers of music, and by its very nature an affirmation of those powers. But just how does our gracious Art exercise these powers? How does it comfort us, charm us, kindle our hearts? We might start our search for answers by positing two fundamentals: a fundamental pain and a fundamental quest. A fundamental pain of our human condition is loneliness. No surprise here: We’re born alone, we’re alone in our consciousness, we die alone, and, when loved ones die, we’re left alone. And pain itself, including physical pain, isolates us and makes us feel still more alone, completing a vicious circle. Our fundamental quest—by no means unrelated to our aloneness and our loneliness—is the quest for meaning, the quest to make sense of our time on earth, to make sense of time itself.
Where does music come in?
June 19, 2005
Critical Digressions: Dispatch from Karachi
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
We have touched down in Karachi and are reacquainting ourselves with the city through rituals that we religiously repeat every six months: in the afternoon, we get into our ‘97 Corolla, turn up the AC, turn on FM 89 (that plays Duran Duran's "Wild Boys" and "Taste of Summer" back to back with Nazia Hassan and our new generations of rockers, Noori, EP and Jal), pick up a copy of the Friday Times from our man at PIDC (who asks us how we've been and inquires about the political climate in the US), drop our dry-cleaning at the Pearl, get a shave and olive oil massage at Clippers (where we are informed of the reflexology treatment that they have recently introduced), get a beer for the road at the Korean restaurant (which nestles between our legs), and then by the evening, meander through Saddar, passed paan-wallahs, underwear-wallahs, open-air gyms, tea houses, Empress Market, the Karachi Goan Association building, to get a shirt altered, buy some DVDs (Carlito’s Way, Aurat Raj and Disco Dancer), and have fresh falsa juice as the sun warms our back and the sea breeze wafts through the city, portending the monsoon. On Thursday nights we will attend qawwalis at moonlit tombs of saints, on Friday nights we will attend the rollicking Fez disco at the Sind Club, on Saturdays, head to Burns Road for a plate of killer nihari (a hot, soupy dish prepared with calves' calves), and on Sunday, chat with old friends over Famous Grouse and Dunhills about the way things are and will be. Here, we are ourselves and we are alive.
William Dalrymple, however, an insightful commentator on India, writes, "Karachi is the saddest of cities...a South Asian Beirut." The analogy, of course, is incorrect. Looking at a map of Karachi he writes, "The pink zone in the east is dominated by the Karachi drug mafia; the red zone to the west indicates the area noted for the sophistication of its kidnapping and extortion rackets; the green zone to the south is the preserve of those specializing in sectarian violence." Ladies and gentlemen, we have lived in Karachi and can tell you with great certainty that this take on Karachi is facile. It is as if we were passing through New York in the early '90s and were to comment: New York is today’s Sodom. Down Atlantic Avenue, across Brooklyn, in areas such as Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, and Brownsville, gang warfare and the crack epidemic have transformed traditionally middle-class cantons into a no-man’s land. Bullet holes and crushed needles mark and mar desolate facades and streets. But urban decay is not simply a peripheral phenomenon. In Manhattan, whether north or south, Harlem and Manhattan Alley or Hell’s Kitchen and the Bowery, ethnic warfare plays out on the streets: Blacks, Hispanics, Irishmen, Italians, Chinese pitted against each other, daggers drawn.
Dalrymple has written a number of brilliant books on India (and lives there) but neither his view on Karachi nor ours of New York is complete and consequently, is inaccurate. There is more to New York than bullets and needles. But Karachi gets short shrift: outside observers are able to reduce Karachi to a few facts and artifacts. Since we don’t control our own discourse, others are able define, in fact, redefine the city, see what they want to see. Take Tim McGirk’s ludicrous article in Time in which he perceived Karachi through the eyes of a “hit-man.” That’s like perceiving Los Angeles through the eyes of a 7th Street Crip! This variety of analysis is not only poor but wrong. Karachi’s murder rate, in fact, is at par with Delhi’s (and DC's). And in Bombay, mobsters not only run the movie industry but become politicians and politicians stir murder and champion rape! Of course, Bombay is not merely the sum of squalid facts. Neither are other megacities like Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Lagos and Jakarta (even Lahore), although they share many similar problems.
The problem with reportage is not simply one of dominant discourse but of the news infrastructure in this part of the world. Unlike other cities, Karachi (and indeed all of Pakistan), is typically covered from another country: the South Asian bureaus of major newspapers are based in Delhi. Naturally, then, the worldview of reporters like Barry Bearak, Celia Dugger, David Rhode and Amy Waldman (all of whom, incidentally, can't hold a candle to the knoweldgeable Dalrymple) are colored by local prejudice. On the other hand, former US Consul General John Bauman, an insider – somebody who has lived in Karachi for many years, not just passing through on a ten day junket – says “there are so many good things being done in this city. The city is a lot more complex than the single image people get in the United States.”
Take our word for it: Karachi is wonderfully vibrant. There are dimensions of Karachi not often appreciated by outside observers (foreign reporters and disgruntled expatriates alike): Karachi's vibrant cultural life comprises open-air pop concerts, classical dance shows, art exhibits, independent film festivals and coffee houses; there is great dining, street-side or indoors, and a throbbing nightlife. Karachi is very similar to New York; the same frenetic rhythms beat under our feet.
I Want My Hyphenated-Identity MTV
From The New York Times:
Azhar Usman, 29, with his knitted skullcap and full beard, presented somewhat differently. An MTV executive, he explained, had recruited him, saying: "We're going to redefine the identity of the MTV host. It doesn't have to be someone sexy and good-looking." A comedian (and lawyer) from Chicago, Mr. Usman used the audition to invent an exaggeratedly accented (and quite amusing) character: Vijay the V.J.
"My uncle in India says desi stands for 'doctors earn significant incomes.' My relatives in Pakistan say desi means 'Don't ever say India.' Here on MTV, desi means South Asian flavor, style and music. Check this new video out. It's going to knock your socks off. You've heard of a big production budget. How about 500 backup dancers? This is like 'Grease' meets desi, making it ...greasy. No, that doesn't sound right. People think in my country everybody so sad, crying, terrorism," Vijay said. "We not terrorism, we dancing. Not dancing like panties falling down .... What is this panties falling down" the buttocks?
June 10, 2005
Music Without Magic
From The Wilson Quarterly:
Music is both a balm for loneliness and a powerful, renewable source of meaning—meaning in time and meaning for time. The first thing music does is banish silence. Silence is at once a metaphor for loneliness and the thing itself: It’s a loneliness of the senses. Music overcomes silence, replaces it. It provides us with a companion by occupying our senses—and, through our senses, our minds, our thoughts. It has, quite literally, a presence. We know that sound and touch are the only sensual stimuli that literally move us, that make parts of us move: Sound waves make the tiny hairs in our inner ears vibrate, and, if sound waves are strong enough, they can make our whole bodies vibrate. We might even say, therefore, that sound is a form of touch, and that in its own way music is able to reach out and put an arm around us.
One way we are comforted when we’re lonely is to feel that at least someone understands us, knows what we’re going through. When we feel the sympathy of others, and especially when we feel empathy, we experience companionship—we no longer feel entirely alone. And strangely enough, music can provide empathy. The structure of music, its essential nature—with many simultaneous, complex, overlapping, and interweaving elements, events, components, associations, references to the past, intimations of the future—is an exact mirror of the psyche, of the complex and interwoven structure of our emotions. This makes it a perfect template onto which we can project our personal complexes of emotions. And when we make that projection, we hear in music our own emotions—or images and memories of our emotions—reflected back. And because the reflection is so accurate, we feel understood. We recognize, and we feel recognized. We’re linked with the composer of the music by our common humanity. And if a composer has found a compelling way to express his or her own emotions, then to a certain extent that composer can’t really avoid expressing, and touching, ours as well.
December 07, 2004
Tis the season for loads of crap Christmas records
We are inundated at the same time every year with tired retreads of otherwise joyous music from mildly talented popstars and/or would be adult-contemporary crooners. If you, like me, are finding yourself just-not-satisfied with, say, Jessica Simpson's latest contribution to this merry pile of garbage, here's a few suggestions...
1. John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together: If you have kids, treat yourself and them to this record. They will remember you for it as they put you in a rest home.
2. Harry Connick Jr.: When My Heart Finds Christmas: An adult-contemporary crooner worth his weight in scotch & soda, Harry brings his showmanship and candor to these carols. And not without it's softer side, the album features a lovely rendition of Ave Maria.
3. Vince Guaraldi Trio: A Charlie Brown Christmas: Rightfully a holiday (and jazz) classic that never goes away. One second your tapping your foot to "Linus and Lucy", the next your caught up in the reverent melancholy of "Christmas Time Is Here".
4. Handel's Messiah: Christmas time, Old Testament-style. Full of drama, fire and brimstone, the Messiah is epic in or out of the context of the bible.
Happy holidays from 3 Quarks. Fa la la la...
New Iron & Wine EP due in February
Mr. Sam Beam of Iron and Wine prepares to add another EP to his rapidly expanding catalog. Entitled Woman King and scheduled for release via Sub Pop on February 22nd, the disc will contain six brand new songs-- his first recordings since Our Endless Numbered Days.
Here, have a tracklisting.
01 Woman King
03 Grey Stables
04 Freedom Hangs Like Heaven
05 In My Lady's House
06 Evening on the Ground (Lilith's Song)
December 05, 2004
The Arcade Fire: Funeral
The title of The Arcade Fire's debut Lp, while not in reference to the music, is meant literally. In the months leading up to recording, bandmember Regine Chassagne's grandmother passed away. Less than a year later Win and William Butler's grandfather died and bandmate Richard Parry's aunt the following month. In the liner notes you'll find their dedication towards the bottom of the second page, a total of nine names arranged beneath it. It is presumably for them, the dearly departed, that the album earned it's austere title, Funeral. In contrast to the dark themes and melancholy that could mire an album made during such a period of loss, Funeral bristles with life. It is the sound of six young souls raging against the dying of light and it is one of the most exciting records of the year.The Arcade Fire's Official Website
A full review of Funeral at Pitchfork
November 30, 2004
The Verve: This Is Music
The Verve never made much sense in the context of Britpop. From 1993-97 British music was dominated by the Gallagher brother's laddish buffoonery, Damon Albarn's pretty mug and wit, Jarvis Cocker's working class escapist anthems, and Thom Yorke's barbed melancholy. During this period The Verve were creating moody rock'n'roll full of soul, darkness and light. Their final and seminal album, Urban Hymns, was released just a few months after OK Computer and on the same day (August 26, 1997, the day Britpop died) as Oasis' third record. The Verve lasted long enough to tour in support of Urban Hymns, but would officially break up soon after.
This Is Music: The Singles 92-98 is their first official release in five years and features two new tracks. The compilation culls together songs from their three full-lengths, as well as their first single, "All In The Mind". The songs are as good today as they were years ago, although this album only tells half the story. The Verve made complete records, they weren't a "singles" band. For a full appreciation start with Urban Hymns and work backwards through A Northern Soul and A Storm In Heaven. If only to gain a cursory understanding of one of the great and too-often-overlooked bands of the '90's, this will do.
November 17, 2004
Tamil Refugee climbing the British charts
This week's New Yorker has a piece on Maya Arulpragasam (aka M.I.A.), the Sri Lankan Tamil Londoner, whose singles have been rising on the British charts.
"[M]ost of what you find in the world-music section tends toward the gentle, melodious, and uplifting, as if the world were that way. The music of Maya Arulpragasam, a twenty-seven-year-old Sri Lankan Tamil who moved to England when she was nine and performs under the name M.I.A., is not like that. Anyone who has trolled through bins on Canal Street for videos of kung-fu movies or reggae mix tapes will recognize M.I.A.’s first single, 'Galang' (2003), as an example of actual, on-the-ground world culture: synthetic, cheap, colorful, staticky with power. The beat is shuffling and abrasive, made from what sounds like the by-products of some other, more polite song. It most resembles Jamaican dancehall patterns, but with a twist. Alongside the beat runs a distressed motif that may have been a melody before it was Xeroxed fifteen times. The lyrics combine the exhortations of dancehall ('London calling and speak the slang now, boys say wa, go on girls say wa wa'), the embattled war mentality of American hip-hop . . ."
The article mentioned her song "Sunshowers" which took a melody from one of my recent favorites, "Sunshower" by Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. So I went in search and found it on her website. Pretty damn good; check it and the rest out.