Well, well: I’m delighted to report (on 4 Feb) that a more elaborate version of this essay on Bowie will be appearing in a forthcoming issue of Louder Than War, the glossy version.
Update: and here it is!
My, oh my, it’s June, so I’m moving on to ch. 6 in Stealing, and the second trip of The Clash to the US in late summer/fall.
On the night after Paul Simonon’s iconic impersonation of Paul Bunyan, at the Palladium in NYC, on 20 Sept 1979, The Clash played the Palladium again, and the show was broadcast live on WNEW-FM. This transmission was the source of the *Guns of Brixton* bootleg, during which you can hear Joe Strummer riffing between songs on the headline in the NY Post.
And, while the show never did materialize, it wasn’t so far-fetched, given recent events among the former Beatles. McCartney, to begin, in his new contract with CBS, included a clause allowing him to make any recording with “John Lennon, Richard Starkey and George Harrison recording together as The Beatles.” The industry could get weird about stuff like this (recall reedist Eric Dolphy playing with John Coltrane under the name “Harold Land” on the *Ole* LP), so this clause was a big deal.
In 1976, promoter Sid Bernstein offered the not-quite-lads a cool $230 million to reunite for an American tour. Lorne Michaels of SNL fame offered the band $3,000 to reunite for three songs on the show. And, in 1979, Bernstein took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to invite The Beatles to reunite for a concert to benefit Vietnamese refugees. Again, they took a pass. See here for more info.
Also, for folks in the SF Bay Area, I’ll be reading at 1-2-3-4 Go! Records in Oakland, 7pm, on 20 June. I don’t know that a cover band has been confirmed, but please put it on your calendar. It should be a gas either way. For those of you linked to something called facebook, you can find the event listing here.
In celebration of the Sleater-Kinney box set release (yes!), including full color vinyl, and next January’s new album (woo-hoo!), I’m sharing in today’s post an experimental writing piece of mine from 2003, which appeared in Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies. Late in summer 2000, in a basement club at Oberlin College, I saw Sleater-Kinney for the first time. They put on amazing, amazing show (The White Stripes opened!), and repeated listenings to All Hands on the Bad One (2000) inspired me to subject the inspiration to prose, and to try the format of a set of theses.
As I note below, my ideas below have some correspondence to Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), as I found Bad One to be distinctive in its aesthetic effectiveness, its political effectiveness, and the ways in which the songs implicated the singer and the fans in different moments in the circuits of production and consumption.
This piece long precedes, of course, the current debates about rockism and poptimism, and reflects my own becoming as a thinker. Below I’ve included six of eleven theses, and I’ll post the remaining five on Sunday. Enjoy—or let my younger self have it, via the comments below.
Theses on Sleater-Kinney (2003)
Abstract: Marx wrote the “Theses on Feuerbach” in 1845 in preparation of The German Ideology, which he co-authored with Friedrich Engels. Engels only discovered the “Theses” after Marx’s death, and he regarded them to be “the brilliant germ of the new world outlook.” In postmodernity, our outlooks are certainly less sweeping, and here I offer a set of cultural materialist theses on the sound of the all-female rock trio Sleater-Kinney, in a dialogue often faithful to Marx’s original work.
The chief defect of much previous post-punk (Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill, and Pavement, to begin) is that the materiality and responsibility of subjective, everyday life is conceived from standpoints of the abstract subject—urban dweller, riot grrl, or suburban malcontent. The preservation of the dialogic force of rock, in which the singer-song-music—the text, if you will—is phantasmatic extrapolation, refraction, a fiction, into which the lyric-music listener can situate herself comfortably: think Cibo Matto’s “Working for Vacation,” or nearly every song by every singer, in which love/disappointment/anger is ideal, idealized, preserved perfectly for negotiated readings. One size fits nearly all.
In the opening verse from All Hands on the Bad One (2000), Sleater-Kinney in word and sound collapse the parallel planes of the dialogical imagination to implicate and position both singer and lyric-music listener in a new, practical-critical location.
Eye cream and thigh cream, how ‘bout a get
Nothing I do smoothes out the feelings
of being used
“The Ballad of a Ladyman”
In the rock canon, the question of objective truth is not new: think Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” John Lennon’s “God”—“Yoko and me, that’s reality”—or Public Enemy’s “Prophets of Rage.” In S-K’s “The Ballad of a Ladyman,” in the narrative, the straight male listener is on the outside, de-scribed from the responsible, practical activity of the narrator or object of desire, situated anew, in a condition naked, objective, and distant.
I could be demure
like girls who are soft
for boys who are FEARFUL
of getting AN EARFUL
but I GOTTA ROCK!
But the sound’s a bit different, one relatively autonomous from Patti Smith’s androgynous confrontation, or PJ Harvey’s banshee blues. This sound undermines the text, invites him in, to stand where she stands, with crimson lips, dacron skirt, and polyester blouse. It’s the affirmation of desire, as singular and social. Pop as political once again becomes urgently personal, generating material effects.
Amid a crunch of vocal chords and drums and wires, Sleater-Kinney’s “show us your riffs” doctrine displaces the ironic detachment of postmodern affect, affirming the integral nature of self-change and revolutionary practice—i.e., strumming, picking, singing, and pogo-ing, be it onstage, on the club floor, or in the bedroom.
You don’t own the conversation, honey
You don’t own the stage
We’re here to JOIN THE CONVERSATION
and we’re here to RAISE THE STAKES
Now do … you … hear that sound
as the Model bre-hey-hey-eaks
TAKE THE STAGE!
The shift in voice is from narrowly autobiographical to openly dialogical, for the stage is actual and metaphorical, always already multiple, and there for the taking.
Forerunner as foil: Liz Phair on Exile, for example, for contemporary suburban boy listeners, starts out from the fact of private self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into the private and public spheres. Her work reifies the personal in the realm of intimacy, discrete from the social, secular world. The former must, therefore, be understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice. Certainly, Phair’s voice, lyrics, and sound disrupt old notions of gender, power, and sexuality, and in concert she invites audience members to breach the footlight divide, to join her onstage, among props comprising house beautiful. Her invitation into her home, however, reproduces the private-public problematic. In this moment, sensuous affirmation by a different mode of practical, human activity is deferred, rather than affirmed in the negative.
In contrast, in concert, in Sleater-Kinney’s forceful ushering of belligerent men from the center to the edges of the floor, the band problematizes the gender privilege of height, creates space for grrl power in practice, and fosters practical, egalitarian power as possibility in the rock formation.
The ideological gap between art and commodity often bemoaned so clumsily is tarried here with sharp eloquence. Rather than deny the ubiquity of the circuits of production, Sleater-Kinney cast themselves in each moment of that circuit, as raw material, commodity form, and consumer.
But they took our ides to their marketing stars
and now I’m spending all my days at girlpower.com
trying to buy back a little piece of me
“#1 Must Have”
But this condition is merely the raw material for new songs, new affirmations, the soundtrack for sensuous, creative activity.
And for all the ladies out there I wish
We could write more than the next
Culture is what we make it Yes it is
Now is the time, Now is the time, Now is the time
To invent, invent, invent,
INVENT, INVEN-HEN-HEN-ENT, invent
“#1 Must Have”
# # #
Greetings from radio K-SAT! I’m still waiting for a single hour in the 2-day forecast that doesn’t include a chance of rain, but in the meantime the tomato plants look awesome! (Speaking of tomatoes (and potatoes), does anyone else yearn for those bygone days when Dan Quayle was the most polarizing figure in US politics?)
As some of you know, Stealing All Transmissions tidies up a limited number of loose ends, and I figure it’s about time I apprise you of the whereabouts of a handful of the protagonists, aides, and abettors. Meg Griffin, of course, is still spinning discs for Sirius-XM Radio, and is also one of the key subjects of a new documentary, I Am What I Play. (Roger King is one of the masterminds of this project, and he’s a good guy, so do check this out when it arrives in your city.) Here she is with rock photographer extraordinaire (and insanely sweet guy) Bob Gruen, who still keeps busy on the other side of the camera. They’re pictured, of course, with Mr. G.’s book on John Lennon.
Joe Piasek, Meg’s partner-in-crime at WPIX, followed up their “Elvis-to-Elvis” experiment to work at Nickelodeon, where the management better understood the ethos he fomented at WPIX. As of August 2010, Piasek is behind the scenes (and occasionally on the air) at radio station WIOX-FM, out of Roxbury, New York. The station is this odd public-private partnership that broadcasts 24/7, with roughly 19 hours a day of live programming made possible by more than 80 volunteers. The facility is a former Masonic Lodge with plenty of space for in-studio performances, dances–the works. I had the chance to visit Joe there in 2012, and he’s still as properly restless as he was circa 1980 when it comes to business-as-usual. If you’re looking for a good cause to support, tune into WIOX, and consider joining their underwriting forces. (I’m presently tuned into Lizzie Douglas, who’s just schooled listeners that the inspiration for The Beatles’ “Good Morning, Good Morning” was a Corn Flakes commercial in the UK–just the thing that US historians might miss.) The transmission is analog and digital, and you can download the WIOX App for free at the iTunes Store. Given the struggles of radio in general, watch for this model to spread–all it takes is a few more mavericks who are willing and able.
Two more items of note: check out this lovely Clash fan site, which hosts over 3000 photos of the lads and descriptions in French.
Toronto, of course, played a big role in Clash history. As the tour bus readied in September 1979 to return to the US, Mick staged a sit-down strike until someone secured some marijuana. Luckily, some fan procured the necessary goods, and I’d like to offer my thanks to that person, as the legendary shows at the Palladium a few nights later might have otherwise never commenced. In case there’s interest: I am making a quick visit to Toronto on Thursday, 18 July, and while I wasn’t diligent enough to arrange a reading/signing that evening, I’d be delighted to meet folks for lunch and a chat about The Clash, the book, aging with punk and dignity, etc. If you’re interested (or know someone who’s interested), please e-mail me by 12 July, so we can make arrangements at a downtown eatery. Cheers!