sucking in the early 80s // the Sherman Act and youth culture

Happy Sunday, folks! It’s been a delightful Thanksgiving holiday, with lots of fine food, drink, and friendship, along with the lone rehearsal for The Crooked Beat, my Clash cover band, for our one-off, 4-song gig at my book release party on 5 Dec in Oberlin. (If you’re interested, send me a note @ djaphasia [at] gmail dotty com.)

In thinking about this event, though, I think back to being 12 years old, a couple years before I traveled to the UK and my life changed forever. It was my father’s 40th birthday, and the accompanying cake and presents spoke volumes: just 5 years before, in a joint birthday with a life-long friend, the cake was decorated in the image of a Budweiser can. Now, the cake itself was in the shape of a casket, and the primary gift was a black sweatshirt with a sans serif “40” on the front. The message was clear to the kids: live it up while you’re young, because when you’re 40, it’s over.

It was, of course, nearly all in jest, but only nearly. My father stayed plenty busy with work and coaching, and had stopped playing basketball. (Chuck Taylor’s didn’t offer aging ankles much support.) Soon he stopped playing softball, in part because of his commitment to my sister and me, and our extra-curricular activities. But my image of him was a paragon of adulthood–much more so than the past 10 years, actually, since he moved into an “active adult living community,” but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Not my father’s t-shirt.

Between now and then, though, it’s as if anti-trust suit was brought against the age-based monopoly of “youth culture,” and now 60’s the new 40, and sometimes with embarrassing results. Eloquent rants by folks my age about the corruption of today’s adolescents by shiny screens are sustained with impressive durability–unless, of course, they receive a text mid-way through, and then there’s no way in hell not to respond with lightning speed.

So, while I’m delighted to have my first book come out this relatively late in the game, and to be picking up bass guitar at my age (well north of 40), I remain ambivalent about the second endeavor. I’d like to think I’m playing at being a bassist to keep up with my daughter’s growing musical prowess, and not because I had some notion that youth-is-only-a-mindset, and that my glory days in music lie just over the horizon.

Soon enough, perhaps, I’ll be the sort of grown-up that my Dad was at this age, and then–once I’m acting my age–perhaps I’ll have more credibility asking the youth to act theirs.

(post-) punk gems, v. 47 — The Clash’s “White Riot”

So much remains so raw, so inexplicable, in the wake of the grand jury’s decision regarding Darren Wilson. Music may provide a balm eventually, but not yet, not now. While I certainly understand why Mick Jones eventually found this track tiresome as a closing number, I also understand the sense of urgency, anger, and rage that led Joe Strummer to pen this tune in the first place.

Keep safe this weekend, my fellow Americans.

meeting Gary Giddins // Louis Armstrong, rebel trickster

Happy Sunday, folks. ‘Tis the season of the US’s finest holidays–Halloween & Thanksgiving–which remain secular for the most part, and of course provide a modest share of us to be thankful for what we have. Within a matter of hours, though, a less modest share of us descend upon the strip malls and big box stores and completely lose their shite.

I am especially grateful this week for having met and chatted with Gary Giddins, whose long-standing column in the Village Voice inspired me in the early 90s to imagine life as a jazz historian. (It didn’t quite work out that way, but I did write about swing-dancing and Ralph Ellison, whose own writing on jazz set the bar damn high.) Giddins was in town to present a lecture on jazz and photography, which should appear on Vimeo before too long. (I’ll update here and tweet anew if that happens.) Here’s a nice intro to a handful of jazz tunes by Giddins.

Armstrong, relaxing.

One of my favorite tales from the Giddins collection recounts, apropos, a tale of Louis Armstrong, when he was hired to accompany a pianist at a birthday party for a big figure in the mafia (probably in the early 1960s). It’s not difficult to imagine that maybe, just maybe, the don’s partygoers didn’t recognize Armstrong in all his human complexity, and got under his rather thick skin. In response, the pianist recalled, during a rendition of some pop standard, Armstrong started to scat, much to the amusement of his audience–and the gut-wrenching amusement of the pianist, who apparently was the only one in the room able to decipher the three syllables of the scat refrain: “Kiss my ass. Kiss my ass.” Armstrong smiled, and tears of sublime joy rained upon the piano keys, as the pianist kept due time as his tear ducts open (and kept his own mouth shut).

If you’re curious to see the latest news on Stealing All Transmissions, check out the latest reviews here. If you reside in Northeastern Ohio, and you’re available on 5 Dec for a book reading + dance party, send me a note at djaphasia [at] gmail for details.

post-punk gems, v. 46 — The Bush Tetras

It’s Wednesday evening, and while I’m late with my post, I’m certainly feeling groovy about a bunch of groovy new followers on twitter (@stealingclash), and about tomorrow’s release of Stealing in the UK. I can hardly wait for the Brits BTs(and the Welsh, Irish, and Scots) to weigh in, and to see if their reviews–please let there be reviews!–can match some of the more spirited American ones (here and there, to begin).

I can hardly believe how much good music there is still to be discovered akin to the spirit of ’77 through the mid-1980s (and after, really). One of the bands I missed the boat on was The Bush Tetras of New York City. Pat Place (ex-The Contortions, a key no-wave band) did the guitars, Laura Kennedy held things down on the bass, and Cynthia Sley took charge at the mic. Two singles made the dance charts: “Too Many Creeps” (a malady still plaguing downtown Manhattan), and “Can’t Be Funky/Cowboys in Africa.”

“Creeps” definitely lines up well with the Leeds-funk combos like Medium Medium, The Au Pairs, and Gang of Four. I just love this guitar style so much, I feel the inner grouch arising within: “What’s wrong with these kids today?”   They’re fine, of course, and making some pretty amazing music, really.

The Tetras are back at it, too, so look for them next time yer in NYC. Cheers!

caught between (hard) rockism and a poptimistic place, pt. II

Happy Sunday, folks! I’m still abuzz from seeing producer/engineer Glyn Johns last night at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame archive, where he shared a few stories from Sound Man, his memoir out this week, and offered brief but telling replies to questions such as:

Glyn Johns middle, between a couple blokes you may recognize, circa 1969.
Glyn Johns middle, between a couple blokes you may recognize, circa 1969.

Q: “What was the most amazing thing you saw John Bonham do in the studio?”

A: “Show up.”

No more elaboration was forthcoming, and none was needed.

Johns is a rock hall inductee, 2012, and few others can claim to have been front-and-center to the making of so many albums in the rock canon. He worked with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones (Beggars Banquet, Exile, et. al.), Led Zeppelin, The Who (Who’s Next, Who Are You), and The Clash, and he spoke affectionately about capturing what the band was capable of, not what he was capable of once the band had left the studio.

For Johns (and for many fans of a rockist variety), the resonance of the beauty was possible because of the labor time entailed in musicianship, in part, but more so in what the band is capable of together as a unit. That unit proved its mettle (to paraphrase Joe Strummer) in front of audiences, and thereby figured out what worked (and what didn’t) by way of their fans. (The late Beatles, of course, are the compelling exception.)

On the drive home last night, I had my first listen to a live rendition of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for my Man,” circa 1968, from the forthcoming anniversary packaging of Velvet Underground. This rendition of “Waiting” isn’t quite syncopated, but it abandons the drone quality of its vinyl version, and represents a band, well, I’ll turn it over here to Dave Hickey and a quote from his brilliant essay on jazz vs. rock’n’roll in Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (1997)–which, if you don’t own it, should be the book you buy right after that book on The Clash (fun review here) that just came out.

Still vital, nearly 20 years hence.
Still vital, nearly 20 years hence.

“Rock-and-roll, on the other hand, presumes that the four of us–as damaged and anti-social as we are–might possibly get it to-fucking-gether, man, and play this simple song. And play it right, okay? Just this once, in tune and on the beat. But we can’t. The song’s too simple, and we’re too complicated and too excited. We try like hell, but the guitars distort, the intonation bends, and the beat just moves, imperceptibly, against our formal expectations, whether we want it to or not. Just because we’re breathing, man. Thus, in the process of trying to play this very simple song together, we create this hurricane of noise, this infinitely complicated, fractal filigree of delicate distinctions.

“And you can thank the wanking eighties, if you wish, and digital sequencers, too, for proving to everyone that technologically ‘perfect’ rock–like ‘free’ jazz–sucks rockets. Because order sucks. I mean, look at the Stones. Keith Richards is always on top of the beat, and Bill Wyman, until he quit, was always behind it, because Richards is leading the band and Charlie Watts is listening to him and Wyman is listening to Watts. So the beat is sliding on those tiny neural lapses, not so you can tell, of course, but so you can feel it in your stomach. And the intonation is wavering, too, with the pulse in the finger on the amplified string. This is the delicacy of rock-and-roll, the bodily rhetoric of tiny increments, necessary imperfections, and contingent community. And it has its virtues, because jazz only works if we’re trying to be free and are, in fact, together. Rock-and-roll works because we’re all a bunch of flakes. That’s something you can depend on, and a good thing too, because in the twentieth century, that’s all there is: jazz and rock-and-roll. The rest is term papers and advertising.”

Now, there’s a good case to be made that the conditions available to be that sort of rock band were not democratically available back in the day–today, well, that’s a good question, one I hope to return to before too long.

Thanks for tuning in this week to Radio-SAT. On this week’s version of The Spirit of ’77 (Th., 5-6pm, EST, @, the theme is punks grown-up: I’ll be spinning discs 15 years+ into their careers, by bands and musicians who embodied the spirit of ’77. It should be fun.

(post-) punk gems, v. 45 — Essential Logic

Happy Wednesday, folks! It’s an early taste of winter here in Ohio, with the high temps through Sunday hovering just above freezing. I hope your local climate is a bit more user-friendly in the coming weeks.

Essential Logic: “Music is a better noise.”

When The Beatles were in ascent, there was an odd relationship in the US, especially, between the LP and the single: they were expected to be mutually exclusive. Then the industry figured out that the single could represent the LP, and lo: everything changed, or  not quite everything.Following her departure from X-Ray Spex, Lora Logic formed Essential Logic and, in the DIY spirit of the day, they formed their own label for their debut single, and then released wax on Virgin and Rough Trade. Shortly after the November 1979 release of their debut LP, Beat Rhythm News, they released “Flora Force” as a 7″–which, of course, was not on the album.

Within a couple years, Essential Logic flirted with a more consonant sound, and “Music is a Better Noise” stands up well, 30+ years after. (Not the original video, of course.)

East German punks, circa 1982 — hate the state, love the church

Happy Sunday, from the staff at Radio S.A.T.! The world over is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall via Checkpoint Charlie (and elsewhere), although it apparently took a bit longer to pull out the picks, drills, etc., to cart the thing away–and, in St. Vincent’s “Prince Johnny,” to be chopped up and ingested, all for a hearty laugh.

In 1982, while touring Europe with the Boy Scouts of America (in my proto-punk days), we stopped in at Checkpoint Charlie, and the area’s punks in leather, spikes, and spiked mohawks were an intimidating bunch and no laughing matter. I was 13 at the time, and regarded them with fascination from a distance, sneaking glances and photos with my Kodak Tele-Ektralite (remember film cartridges?. I’ll eventually get those photos scanned up and here & on twitter, I figure, but not this weekend, alas.)

There were punks, too, on the other side of the wall, for whom The Pistols’ chant of “No Future” must have had a special resonance.

Early East Berlin Punks, Kastanienallee, Prenzlauer Berg 1982 ©Harald Hauswald / OSTKREUZ

As noted in this lovely interview with Harald Hauswald, whose tellingly unsentimental photographs in East Berlin capture so much, the successive waves of punks in the GDR were telling. The first group included the kids of the Stasi, offspring of state officials. Their rebellion was familial, according to Hauswald, but their parents and others regarded them as a serious threat — “[a] bad advertisement for the country,” according to Hauswald. In turn, officials confiscated their ID cards, which meant they could not move freely around East Berlin. Their sartorial transgressions were politicized, though, as the perpetrators were forced into the army or tossed into prison. Hauswald himself was eventually designated an “enemy of the state” by GDR officials.

By the mid-1980s, though, the next wave of punks had contraband vinyl from the west and were forming their own bands, practicing safely in the confines of the Galilaakirche church, which hosted some of the first punk concerts in East Berlin. Since 2009, the church has had a running exhibition celebrating the youth resistance movement in the GDR, whose soundtrack of course was inspired by (and included) tracks by The Clash, the Pistols, The Ramones, and Bruce Springsteen, who rolled into town in 1988 for a concert meant to appease East German youth. The sight of 200,000 of them, though, chanting “Born in the USA” and waving American flags must have had the Stasi quaking in their (Clash) boots.

I had some fun on on Thursday’s show (5-6pm, EST) spinning a selection of great punk love songs, and I’ll see if I can get part of that show up by next weekend, when I hope to return to rockism, poptimism, and the question of taste.

Have a great week!





(post-) punk gems, v. 44 — The Lambrettas

Happy mid-week readers! I’m a bit tardy on the draw here, but wanted to keep up with my Wednesday (and Sunday) meditations or gems.

440px-Innocenti-lambretta-125I was a wee bit too young for most of the mod revival myself, and there weren’t a whole lot of scooter-y lads in the suburbs of Northern California in the early 80s. Still, there’s something about the guitars and the harmony vocals of bands like The Lambrettas that I find perfectly enchanting. The Lambrettas are named after the iconic Italian scooter pictured here, and they got started on vinyl with a bit of help from Elton John’s record label.

Their debut single, “Go Steady,” was released 35 years ago this week. The lads reformed the group with new personnel, of course, in 2009, and another batch of wax (or its equivalent) is due out this year. Woo-hoo!

For those of you keeping tabs on my book, check out this flattering review in Boston’s Fuse. Have a delightful rest of the week!

caught between rockism and a poptimistic place

Good morning, good readers, and happy All Saints Day to you all. I hope hallow’s eve allowed you to pursue transgressions of identity and bourgeois norms, which can still be found in odd forms in the west these days. Today, I have the rockism vs. poptimism archetypes on my mind, and hope to clarify the utility of these broadsides for fandom, historiography, and contemporary criticism. Today I’ll review some of the key texts, and follow-up in another post about its implications.

Twitter is, of course, good for gauging what’s trending, but twitter can be equally nostalgic, especially when it comes to music. Music in Pictures posts scores of pix from great bands from the 60s through the present day, with an aesthetic that indicates his twitter handle — “punkasfuck65” — is not nearly as stringent as you might expect. Consider The Cure, for example, an MiP fave, who were likely one of the first bands subject to the broadside of rockism when the broadside makes its debut in the English press in 1981:

“The sneers about ‘rockism’ from critics and the standard pose of many currently-‘in’ Brit bands” (Sounds, Mar. 1981).

The sneers were levied against the rise of the well-coiffed and brightly-coutured lads in the Bryan Ferry mold, too, as well as those lads who donned as much eye make-up as Siouxsie Sioux. On “To Cut a Long Story Short,” the debut single of Spandau Ballet, Alan Lewis noted in prescient terms,

“There’s nothing here that’s going to surprise anyone who’s had even a casual ear on post-synthesizer rock … It is a good record using the modern technology in a warmer, more organic way … the lead vocal [is not] the usual alienated robot wimp but a big, mature full bodied roar. This is clearly NOT the work of a bunch of out-of-work hairdressers who’ve managed to stumble through a few gigs, but a massively competent record by a band with plenty in reserve” (Sounds, Nov. 1980).

Ouch: sorry Flock of Seagulls! See-and-listen for yourself:

From the Oxford English Dictionary: “rockism (n. 2) 1. Adherence to a conventional or orthodox approach to rock music; (also) the belief that rock music is superior to other forms of popular music by virtue of its authenticity, artistic integrity, and lack of commercial motivation.”

The problem of rockism is nicely articulated in 2004 for a wide audience by Kelefa Sanneh in the New York Times, in “The Rap Against Rockism.” (You’ll need access to the Times, alas.) “The Rap” reviews the key problems: rockists’ tastes are founded upon a thousand distastes. Rockism celebrates

  • songwriting musicians (read: largely white men), rather than vocal interpreters (women, certainly, and often people of color);
  • the obscure indie band over the pop belter in heavy radio rotation (read: it’s exclusive); and
  • the political over the personal (read: The Clash over disco Rod Stewart).

No surprise, then, that it’s also about gender, racialization, and social class. Kids (and aspiring adults) who don’t have to work to pay bills have more time to seek out obscure indie poppers and rappers than those who do. Men, it seems, are much more willing to find time to do this women, if in part because the performance of the rockist attitude is almost always relational, and about the triangles of homosocial bonding between men.

The Homosocial Triangle of (Hetero-) Male Bonding

homosocial triangle -- oct 2014

The pathways for affection run from each man, through the triangulated object (Springsteen’s Born to Run, e.g.), and then onto the other man. There are no pathways for affection directly between men, since men–historically–have not communicated in this way. Yes, I’m talking heterosexual men here, who in turn exclude women from these conversations, and get to play their LPs on Saturday night, alone, in the stereophonic sweet spot of their hi-fis.

Sanneh rightly notes that “a rockist is someone who reduces rock’n’roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon.” One of the foils of the rockist has self-identified as a poptimist, and their politic has been gorgeously outlined in Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste (nice review here), and in summary form by Alex Ross.

I recognize myself as a recovering rockist, and can only wonder how especially tedious I seemed to my pop comrades back in the day. My tastes and affinities are much more inclusive these days, and I’ve spent many an hour reviewing the complexity of my “guilty displeasures” over the years. Still, I wonder if there might be more choices than life as a poptimist or a rockist, and I am concerned that, in current critical circles, anything that has a whiff of rockism is reduced to a caricature and bludgeoned with the blunt instrument of poptimism.