Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hippie Bongos of Conformity

Guitar strapped across my back, downtown belched aspirations of success and conformity. Music and sound ripped across the breeze like a seagull after a fish, and no one could snuff the flame of performance. Bar bands squeeled popular tunes while a black man strummed his guitar to death. Authenticity defied the cover bands and I bestowed its title on the sphere of energy emminating from the man skrunched up in fetal position, rocking back and forth, and singing a beautiful song at breakneck speed. I admired him as I walked by with my own guitar stagnant and across my back. My path brushed by some women singing in an alcove of an oyster bar and finally to a hippie with a bongo and a crusty old man with a saxophone. The hippie asked me to play and I reluctantly agreed, throwing out warnings of my lack of ability and differing aesthetic. Persistently, the hippie requested that I strum him some music, and so I abliged him. My out of tune guitar sang in the evening breeze and skronked across the downtown landscape.

The hippie cringed and offered, "Hey, I can fix your guitar for you."
As if the deer in the headlights expression was not enough, I explained, "Please don't touch it. This tuning is very important to me."
He skoffed, "Well it's all wrong," as he took the guitar from me and attempted to drag some eric clapton blues out of the awkward tuning. Failing at this he seethed, "These strings aren't even tuned to notes. This is terrible and wrong." Vanquished, he returned the guitar to me and I started debating aesthetics and skronk and bla bla bla. The crusty old man chimed in, "You're never going to make it, playing like that."
I stared at the hat on the ground containing two dollars and fifty three cents and thought... Firstly, I don't want to "make it," and if you represent "making it," I am definitely not interested...

Just then another, more political hippie bounded down the sidewalk brandishing a bob dylan shirt. This imagery really excited hippie number one, and he began relating to me on the merits of dylan. I explained, "I have a gripe against bob dylan because he always wanted to have the appearance of cutting edge without doing any of the work. All he did was change genres when it wasn't what people expected."

The hippie, completely abstracted with anger, clenched his teeth and threatened, "You'd better watch what you say about bob."
I tried to explain my thoughts on celebrity and how I thought no one was safe from criticism bla bla bla but it fell on deaf ears. The hippie was now ignoring me so I said something snotty like, "Well, thanks for ignoring me, talk to you later," and walked across the street. I started strumming some chords (not the correct ones) and began singing
come gather round people, wherever you roam/
and admit that the water around you has grown/
bla bla bla
the times they are a changin

I belted these forgotten yet familiar lyrics across the downtown st. petersburg landscape, and I felt vaguely satisfied. Complacency and acceptance of tradition guts our generation and makes our corpses ripe for maggot infestation. Maggots of corporate homogenization and settling for what is presented to us as art and culture will surely continue with or without my resistence. Just like pissing in the wind, I spit in the face of violent, conformist hippies, just as I breathe the polluted air and pretend I acheived something.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Velvets part 5- White Light Blistering and Live

White Light/White Heat was released in 1968, after the zenith of the “psychedelic” recordings of the Beatles and Rolling Stones. While the first record was played in real time in the studio through the motherboard with low volume in the studio itself, the second record cut out the middle man. They decided to try to capture the intensity of their live set by recording everything as loud as humanly possible. Naturally, according to guitarist Sterling Morrison:

[t]here was fantastic leakage because everyone was playing so loud and we had so much electronic junk with us in the studio – all these fuzzers and compressors. Gary Kellgran the engineer, who is ultra-competent, told us repeatedly: ‘You can’t do it – all the needles are on red.’ And we reacted as we always reacted: ‘Look, we don’t know what goes on in there and we don’t want to hear about it. Just do the best you can.’ And so the album is all fuzzy, there’s all that white noise… We wanted to do something electronic and energetic. We had the energy and the electronics, but we didn’t know that it couldn’t be recorded… What we were trying to do was really fry the tracks, (Heylin, “Velvets to the Voidoids” 25).

There are several important points within this recollection of the White Light/White Heat sessions. Firstly, the band knew what they wanted regardless of knowledge of the process regarding how to make it reality. This sense of experimentation carries through to the record itself with the sound described by Morrison. The recording is much muddier than the first album, although the band maintains its sense of boundaries regarding instruments and pitch. The aesthetic of electronics in Rock n’ Roll music was nowhere to be found in 1968. This sound of instruments drenched with distortion was something completely new. The execution of these ideas is best expressed by the title track and the last song, “Sister Ray.”
“White Light/White Heat” starts the album of the same name with a very rapid tempo and fuzzy instruments. The pulsing guitars are juxtaposed by a Jerry Lewis hammered out piano line. The bass is interesting because it is more prevalent than in other bands. In fact, “[m]ost bass players play two-dimensional notes, but john plays three-dimensional granit slabs (it’s a question of intonation and density, not volume; it’s like the difference between Rauschenberg’s two-dimensional Coke bottles and Warhol’s three-dimensional Campbell soup cans) which reveal an absolute mastery of his instruments and a penetrating awareness of the most minute details of his music,” (Heylin, “In Print” 75). Besides texture, these bass lines are very simple and inspired by minimalism’s repetition. At the end of the track, the bass cuts through the fuzz and hits a series of high notes that oscillate until it ends. This relationship results from the live interplay of the studio pushed to its limits as far as volume is concerned. The fuzz of these recordings makes the music very textured so that it seems that there is something new to hear every time the record is played. This is especially true with the Velvet Underground’s magnum opus, “Sister Ray.”

Thursday, May 17, 2007

When I Say I'm in Luv, You Best Believe I'm in Luv L-U-V

I know three bands that have prefaced a song with the line that titles this article: The Nation of Ulysses, The New York Dolls and The Shangri Las. The importance and influence of the latter on American rock n roll perpetuates to this day. Most importantly, their aesthetic informed the Ramones directly as an example of the alternative to the bloated mid 70s rock acts that dominated the scene. Mary Weiss was only 14 when the Shangri Las started recording around 1963, which puts her about the same age and generation as Fred Cole (who recorded the single "Poverty Shack" that year as Deep Soul Cole when he was 14). This trend of young performers resulted from the growing marketability of the teenagers with disposable incomes. After all, the teenager had only been invented as an age group about a decade before. Relatable icons gave consumers a direct relationship with the performers, and once the Beatles exploded in 1963, promoters grasped at the chance to exploit these trends.

The Shangri Las oozed with the sexuality of the young Mary Weiss's voice. Regardless of age, those recordings captured her powerful yet sultry voice while allowing the instrumentation to fully manifest the atmosphere behind the tunes. Leaving behind the seeds of influence and legend, The Shangri Las broke up in the mid 60s and Mary Weiss disappeared off the face of the planet. I accepted the recordings I found and assumed that nothing new would spew from this lineage. The news of a Mary Weiss album forty years later blindsided anyone the least bit interested in the history of rock n roll. With the deaths of Arthur Lee and Syd Barrett still lodged in recent memory, a new record from an infamous legend of the 1960s poured down our throats to welcoming bellies.

Norton Records released Dangerous Game by Mary Weiss earlier this year. Greg Cartwright, a garage rock legend in his own right, and his band the Reigning Sound provided the penmanship and backing of this album and subsequent tour. Overall, the recordings once again capture the essence of Mary Weiss on wax while not attempting to emulate the Shangri Las style of music. This album completes the circle of influence as some of the songs reiterate the legacy of the Ramones with Mary's powerful voice filling in perfectly. Joey Ramone wet dream aside, this album succeeds as a complete expression and return of a legend. Mary Weiss's voice remains drenched in mature vs childish sexual energy that defies age as it did when she was 14. We expect art created by our elders to be safe and cleaned up because they somehow lose the vulgarity of youth somewhere along the path to adulthood. Alternatively, this album is called Dangerous Game for a reason. Mary Weiss maintains an aura of danger regardless of how many years have passed since she was born. She is still dangerous and still sings with conviction and power that will convert any strays back to the flock of rock n roll.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The First Two Velvet Underground Records-part 4: European Son and Live Improvisation

While “Heroin” exemplifies all this about the aesthetics of The Velvet Underground and Nico, “European Son” explains the direction of the band in terms of loose song structure and lack of precise mimicry between performances.

This track serves as a culmination of all the ideas throughout the record. There is plenty of interplay between instruments, primitive drums, etc. “European Son” also addresses the question about the relationship between music as live performance and a recorded document. It is a departure from the notions of pop music found in the other songs on the album, and has avant-garde leanings. For example, “there’s a chair being scraped across the room by Cale, at which point he stops in front of Lou, who drops a glass… The engineer, he’s saying, ‘My God, What are you doing?’… It was tremendous, because it is in time, and the music starts right up. I don’t know how we timed it like that… [but ‘European Son’] was just different every time. There was no structure, we just did it,” (Heylin, “Velvets to the Voidoids” 20). The choice to abandon pop sensibilities and structure was very ambitious in 1966. Even the Beatles would throw in their versions of John Cage in their pop records in a few years. On the other hand, the Beatles did their avant-garde leaning work in the studio exclusively. They never presented it in live concert for whatever reason. The Velvet Underground not only played “European Son” live, but did not value the aesthetic of perfect reproduction. Instead, they decided to embrace how different they could make their songs, avoiding the jukebox feeling of playing the same songs over and over ad nauseam until something snapped. The Velvets allowed for songs to be interpreted differently every time and made their sets more interesting for them and more engaging for the audience. At the same time, they captured only one possible performance of a song like “European Son” on record. Instead of just mass reproduction, they recorded a unique version of their song that could not be reproduced by the band note for note. This addresses the theory of aura put forward by Benjamin. This song maintains its aura and authenticity even though it has been mass reproduced because it was a unique performance. If Benjamin was worried about classical music being mass produced instead of being seen live, he might be comforted by music that was not notated or written down to be preserved, but just recorded one time. This song also helps to push the record past the point of music as entertainment and moves it toward the world of art. This is another statement against pure mass production for the sake of mass consumption. It does not pander to the audience but rather speaks for itself in terms of artistic quality. This trend would not disappear during the second album, but instead was explored in a different way.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Fight for Every Losing Cause

Memory fades and blurs but the past remains as events that transpire before the moment we currently find ourselves experiencing. Regardless of what we can remember, something has happened. I was born in an area of northern Maine called Aroostook County. The climate taunts the citizenry to stay warm and sane with nine months of harsh winter and enough snow/ice to keep anyone down. The Air Force base closed before I was halfway through grade school and the economy imploded without a forced citizenry. Businesses closed, schools were shut down and the population simply decreased. My father was a chiropractor, and he fought against public opinion/stereotypes, insurance companies and the standard medical profession for 25 years. Aroostook County continued to limp on without a lifeline, but growth and stability were fading memories. I grew up thinking that I could make a difference because so many people around me were appreciative of my patronage. Born to support lost causes and failing ideas, I naturally thought my experience represented the status quo. As everything around me crumbled and began to deteriorate, I remained defiant by maintaining faith in the natural course of events, and optimism guided my decisions to support local business and independent thought.

As I write this, Aroostook County is dead. My hometown, Presque Isle, was once the artery of a vast logging and potato industry. Now, boarded up cinemas and businesses fester while jobs scamper away like fleeing mice from a flaming building. Amazingly, I refuse discouragement. I still fight for lost causes everyday and attempt conversions to my point of view. Post modernism sucked this fight out of most of the populace and entertainment keeps the rest occupied, but I suffered Aroostook County salvation. Nothing discourages me to the point of quitting because I personally witnessed the destruction of an entire community. I will not be the savior by any means, but nor will I relent in my discourse against the apathetic quicksand that demoralizes our youth and justifies our elders. Impossibilities inherent in the words "lost cause" construct mentalities that destroy confidence in dramatic change and support apathy in every way. If hope means naivete and conviction means pipe dream, then we are lost. Dreaming about a future free from boundaries on thought and discussion should not be seen as dangerous or taboo, but embraced as a treasure to the collective human experience.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The First Two Velvet Underground Records-part 3: Heroin

Leaving behind all shock value and taboo of the title, “Heroin” is a very infamous song. It has been regarded as one of the best Rock n’ Roll songs ever written by some and frivolous garbage by others. Basically, two guitar chords alternate with a droning viola and some primitive, Bo Diddley inspired out of time drums filling out the track. There is a gradual build up of the music and tension until a release of noisy improvisation. The repetition of the two chord song is destroyed by this departure because the guitars start playing really fast, sloppy lead and the viola turns from a drone to a screeching wail. This interaction is possible through the live instruments and the build up and release adds an immediacy that could not be replicated by separate studio recordings. By the time of the crescendo, the tempo is very fast. The aesthetic of speed supports the immediacy of the live performance as well. The droning and belching of the electric viola do not fit the aesthetic of catchy pop music. It encompasses the backdrop of the melody and remains stubborn and not catchy for the whole track. The live interplay creates competition between the droning electric viola and the biting two chords of the clean guitar, but the separate tones do not clash or overpower one another. Instead, the instruments spar and create some very interesting sonic connections. This relationship makes the music sound like a complete statement because there is nothing that has been left out, and every note, whether it’s in key, strummed properly or not, is necessary to the overall picture.

The drumming on “Heroin” is the best example of favoring mistakes rather than vying for perfection. The three other instruments were “plugged directly into the board,” (Hamelman, 79). Since Maureen Tucker (the drummer) could not hear the output of the instruments and could not see Lou Reed’s lips as he sang, “throughout the original track, Tucker’s drums [were] out of synch with the other instruments. She [battered] her two tom-toms at a tempo either behind or ahead of the guitars and vocals… at one point she stopped thumping altogether,” (Hamelman, 79). The funniest part of the recording was that for Tucker “They didn’t have their amps up loud in the studio, so of course I couldn’t hear anything… And when we got to the part where you speed up... it just became this mountain of drum noise in front of me. I couldn’t hear shit… So I stopped, and being a little wacky, they just kept going, and that’s the one we took,” (Heylin, “Velvets to the Voidoids” 23). This incident exemplifies the recording style of the first Velvet Underground record. On first listening to “Heroin”, it could be inferred that the drumming inequalities could have been done on purpose, for the sake of art. It could also be conjectured that the drummer could have been completely inept and possessed no skills of timing at all. In fact, neither of these myths is true. Since the recording was live and the choices were made to keep the take with the most glaring mistake on it, i.e. the entire drumming track, the song represents the Velvets desire to take the music as it came.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Sound Collage and Fighter Jets

Tampa drowns itself out with noise from highways, fighter jets, construction equipment and motor vehicles. It is not different from any other city in that regard, but it seemed very concentrated last night while I was sitting on the trunk of my car outside of Transitions Art Gallery. Bands came and went (as did huge trucks careening over us on the interstate) but Hal Mcgee and Ironing referenced and destroyed these tendencies of collaged sound throughout the evening. Textual noise ripped apart shards of prerecorded spoken word while two men dressed in black hovered over electronic apparatus and tape machines. Sound filled the room and attacked my ears with an ocean of textures and waves of frequencies not common to the human register. All at once, tapes began twirling through the air at break neck speed, while the music continued to howl and a voice was caught between screeches and repeated "the song...the song...the song." The tapes vacated into the audience and the sound began to fade... the means of creation had been dispersed and broken up so that the collage could never be duplicated in the same way ever again.

Friday, May 4, 2007

The First Two Velvet Underground Records-part 2: Banana Banana

The Velvet Underground recorded as live as they could in the studio, while favoring influences from the American minimalist and avant-garde movements rather than just ordinary Rock n’ Roll or Blues. This also challenged conventional notions concerning the relationship between entertainment and art in Rock records and performance. Their decision to record live rather than embrace the tendency of contemporaries was a statement about the authenticity of recording values. The Velvet’s aesthetic favored creating sounds on record that were produced by four people in a room together. The most interesting point of this scenario is that the first two Velvet Underground records sound much more freakish and experimental than anything done by the Beatles.

The Velvet Underground and Nico was released in 1966. This record changed the boundaries of Rock n’ Roll records by creating exciting new sounds through live interaction, repetition and the electric viola. The aesthetic that was exemplified by this record was not one of precise replication, but rather just playing the songs the way they came out. Further, they chose not to fix mistakes or discrepancies in the recordings in any way. These notions can be best explained through two tracks, "Heroin" and "European Son."

When playing live directly the motherboard of a recording studio, it is very difficult to distinguish between different sounds. The Velvets consciously set up each instrument to fill a different pitch of music. There is a twangy, “ostrich guitar” (Hamelman, 79), droning or screeching electric viola, bass and drums. The drums are focused on tribal thumps and use very few symbol or crash noises. This dynamic separated the music and recorded every sound in a very specific realm.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Indie Rock and other Marketing Terms

Indie rock dwindles and staggers without moving forward. I am becoming more and more ashamed of liking bands donning this title at one time or another. I'm tired of gimmicks and full to the brim of this moderate rock nonsense without any conviction or soul. Amazingly, the term indie now applies to a barrage of major label music, not just independent. I am not against bands with record contracts with major labels as a whole or anything so one sided, I am just confused concerning our use of the English language. Maybe I'm just naive, but I always thought that indie meant independent. Corporations have stolen this word to splash their Wilcos and Modest Mouses with the authenticity of Fugazi. That does not make one better or the other, but it is essential for survival in this post-modern culture to define our terms accurately. Isn't it important that Fugazi worked really hard to manage a record label and charge reasonable prices for their shows without corporate sponsorship? Bands like the Killers are cashing in on this sentiment by writing songs about "Indie Rock n Roll"- and we are letting it happen! Let's start with sacred ground: Sonic Youth is not an indie band, and they haven't been since before 1990. They were independent before they signed to Geffen Records, but now they are not. That does not diminish from what they have accomplished, but they are not allowed to keep that label. The musicians still involve themselves with their own labels and projects that are independent, but that does not transfer to the band. Does anyone call Pearl Jam indie because Eddie Vedder played a few shows with Mike Watt? I hope not. This may sound like inconsequential drivel, but think about it... there are "independent" movies being distributed by Warner Brothers as we speak! Doesn't anyone see a problem with this!? If we let them have this label like we allowed them to steal punk and shit out new wave on us, then we gained nothing since Nevermind. Major label albums can be moving and relevant and punk rock can sell albums and still retain vitality. It is very important to understand that independent is to indie as punk is to new wave. The powers in control are so quick to figure out how our counterculture works and exploit it that we do not stand a chance; especially if we allow them to steal the fervor for resistance.

Complaining will not get me anywhere, so allow me to address the positives of this debacle. More and more, the enemy is revealing itself to us. We do not need to fear bands that are on major labels- that is a business decision. If they are making music that is thought provoking or challenging the lowest common denominator in any way, then the manufacturer is irrelevant. I fear bands that sign major record contracts and still label themselves indie. This music is just another clique that stubbornly retains the high school herd mentality into early to late 20 something culture. Increasingly, understanding whether a band is honest or full of beans can be measured by emphasis on labels like indie, punk or whatever in a corporate setting. The battle is not independent versus major anymore- rather, the line rips between us at the point of real or fake.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The First Two Velvet Underground Records-part 1: The Psychedelic Recording Trends of the Late 1960s

Music production values in the rock and pop world of the 1960s were increasingly based on fidelity and clarity of reproduction. Multiple track recording allowed these intense layers of music to be piled on top of each other. Also, the instruments and sounds could be recorded at different times or places. This pushed the music toward the aesthetic of being more layered and combining sounds that could not necessarily be reproduced by a group in real time. The recording history of the Beatles is the best measure of aesthetic value during this period. In the beginning of their career, the Beatles’ records were representations of their live sets. As the decade continued, their production became more complicated and disjointed. The albums Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour were the pinnacle of this path. These recordings emphasized a big sound created by studio production and new recording techniques bred out of the use of multiple tracks to record. However, this aesthetic did not occur in a vacuum. Their Satanic Majesties Request by the Rolling Stones is another record that manifests this trend. The myth surrounding this album is that the band recorded everything in separate rooms and put it together afterwards because they were not getting along at the time. These albums came to be titled psychedelic, but more appropriately represented the attitudes and practices of late ‘60s recording techniques. While these efforts to become trickier in the studio were culminating in 1967, the trend had already been addressed and completely ignored by the Velvet Underground in 1966.