Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Louis Jordan, Forefather of Rock ‘N’ Roll

Do riots have soundtracks? Is there mood music for civil unrest? Should we draw a line from Los Angeles, 1992, and the bleak ve­hemence of Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” back a quarter of a century to Newark, 1967, and the buoyant pride of Aretha Franklin’s “Re­spect”? If so — and why the fuck not? This is the way introductory paragraphs get started — then what do we find when we go back yet another quarter of a century, to 1942 and the Sojourner Truth Homes riots, the Detroit confla­gration that foreshadowed even greater rioting in Detroit and New York the following year?

That trouble in Detroit 50 years ago began on the morning of Feb­ruary 28, when a group of black families, attempting to enter the new Sojourner Truth Homes housing project as instructed by the Detroit Housing Commission, was met by an angry white mob standing hard against the project’s decreed integration. It was, to be sure, a conflict precipitated by white aggression. But when trou­ble rose anew in Detroit on the morning of June 20, 1943 — the same month the so-called zoot­suit riots broke out in Los Ange­les — it began with a spree of rob­beries and assaults by blacks against whites. And when rioting erupted in Harlem several weeks later, on August 1, the violence and looting was confined to the black community itself.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727310″ /]

The Justice Department’s 1943 observation that “large segments of the Negro community hate the police” came as a surprise to no one in Detroit. “Those police are murderers,” one 20-year-old black man in Detroit was quoted as say­ing, “I hate ’em, oh God, how I hate ’em.” The sentiment was there. But there was no Body Count to take it to market.

Things were different. Billboard had continued to publish a “Min­strelsy” column until 1939, only three years before the Sojourner Truth Homes riots. But by Octo­ber 1942, midway between those riots and the riots of the following summer, the trade weekly was publishing a new chart, the “Har­lem Hit Parade.” Soon there would be a riot going on in more ways than one. Something — in time, it would come to be known as rock ‘n’ roll — was gathering in the wind.

Louis Jordan’s first hit, “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” came in early 1942, con­current with the first Detroit riot­ing. Jordan by then was 33 years old, and he had been performing since he was 12, when he found summer work with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in his native Ar­kansas. From Little Rock, where he studied music at Arkansas Bap­tist College and played alto saxo­phone with Jimmy Pryor’s Impe­rial Serenaders, he made his roundabout way to New York. There, in June 1929, in a group led by drummer Chick Webb, Jor­dan made his first recordings. Joining the Philadelphia-based Charlie Gaines Orchestra, Jordan made his next recordings in December 1932, when the Gaines group accompanied Louis Arm­strong at the Victor studio in Camden, New Jersey. In March and September of 1934, again with Gaines, Jordan played at two Clarence Williams sessions for Vocalion. At the first session, on a song called “I Can’t Dance, I Got Ants in My Pants,” Jordan was featured as a vocalist for the first time on record. In the fall of 1936, after working awhile in drummer Kaiser Marshall’s band at the Ubangi Club in Harlem, he rejoined Chick Webb, whose or­chestra, by then featuring Webb’s teenage singing discovery, Ella Fitzgerald, was the rage of the Sa­voy Ballroom. From that autumn through the spring of 1938, Jordan made 31 recordings with Webb and Fitzgerald, for Decca.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716138″ /]

Jesse Stone, who would go on to write “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and other rock ‘n’ roll classics, and who Ahmet Ertegun would say “did more to develop the ba­sic rock ‘n’ roll sound than anybody else,” was working at the Apollo Theatre in 1938.

“This was right after it had been turned over from being a white burlesque house. I worked for Leonard Harper, staging shows, composing songs,” Stone told me in the summer of 1983. “I also played with my band at the Club Renaissance in Harlem on weekends. That’s where Louis Jor­dan picked up on my style of sing­ing. I was doin’ arrangements for Chick Webb at the time, and Lou­is was playin’ third alto in Chick’s band. He asked Chick could he sing, and Chick said yeah. Louis said, ‘Well, Jesse’s gonna make a couple arrangements for me.’ So I made the arrangements. He tried ’em out one night and he went over great. Chick didn’t like that. He wouldn’t call the tunes again after that. So Louis quit. I encour­aged him, told him that if he wanted to sing, he should get away from Chick. He took my band, and they became the Elks Rendezvous Band.”

Named for the Lenox Avenue nightclub where they found their first steady work, Jordan’s band made its first recordings, for Dec­ca, five days before Christmas of 1938. Changing the band’s name soon after to Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five — a name he would never forsake, no matter how many musicians he brought onstage or into the studio — Jordan remained with Decca for more than 15 years. He became the biggest-selling black act of the ’40s with four of that decade’s 10 biggest r&b hits. More important, he made some of the greatest music that has ever been made; if any one man is to be given credit for siring rock ‘n’ roll, it is he.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717075″ /]

Let the Good Times Roll: The Complete Decca Recordings, 1938-1954 (Bear Family, PO Box 1154, 2864 Vollersode, Germany) is a magnificent collection: eight compact discs and one long-play vinyl album (Jordan’s duets with Ella Fitzgerald could not be li­censed for CD release here) com­prising and presenting the full de­velopment, breadth, and flow of Jordan’s main body of work in all its glory. Inspired in part by the popularity of the current stage re­vue Five Guys Named Moe, there has been renewed interest in Jor­dan of late. The recordings that he made, 1929-38, as a sideman and sometime singer, are now available on several compact discs in the Classics Chronological series from France. The Vintage Jazz Classics CD Five Guys Named Moe: The Best of Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five brings to­gether V-Disc and radio-pilot re­cordings from 1943-46. Jordan’s work after leaving Decca can be heard on the Capitol CD One Guy Named Louis: The Complete Alla­din Sessions and the new Verve CD No Moe! Even Jordan’s penul­timate session, done in Paris in late 1973, is now a CD, I Believe In Music, from Evidence. And there are videos as well — three compilations and a featurette. But know it: the Bear Family set rep­resents the heart of the Jordan corpus.

Jordan’s first number-one hit, “What’s the Use of Gettin’ So­ber,” recorded in New York City in the summer of 1942, 10 days before the Harlem riots, was a breezy piece of hokum, complete with an introductory comical col­loquy, that was little more than a jive-age rendering of an old-fash­ioned minstrelsy turn. The hits continued to come, and by the summer of 1944, when his “G.I. Jive” crossed over to the pop charts, Jordan’s commercial suc­cess was such that Decca brought him together in the studio with Bing Crosby, the golden idol of mainstream pop.

From 1938 through the Crosby duets, Jordan’s music remained essentially a captivating blend of swing, sweet, and jive. By 1945, however, the jive aspect — that elusive protopathic something that Jesse Stone called “my style”; that nascent poetry of hepcat ni­hilism set to the obliterating rhythm of the century’s rising pulse — began to bound forward with a rushing force that soon left swing and sweet in the dust. It can be heard, lush and wild, in the opening waves of “Buzz Me”; in the fierce, truncated saxophone breaks of “They Raided the House”; in the blare and squeal of “Caldonia Boogie” — all recorded on the same glorious day in Janu­ary 1945. Both “Caldonia Boo­gie” and “Buzz Me” became num­ber-one r&b hits and crossed over to the pop charts, impelling and forever imbuing the sound of things to come.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727086″ /]

Jordan by then had moved to Los Angeles. Back in New York, other reed-men — they had come out of the same sort of jazz bands as he — were brewing a strange new sound. By 1946, when Dizzy Gillespie and his All-Star Quintet released a record called “Be-Bop,” that strange new brew had a name; and by the summer of that year, when Charlie Parker record­ed “Lover Man,” jazz was as much about mystique as about music. Those musicians who culti­vated that mystique, that aura of the serious artist, would define jazz and the concept of hip in the decades to come. But the summer of alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker’s “Lover Man” was also the summer of alto-saxophonist Louis Jordan’s “Choo-Choo Ch’Boogie,” the biggest r&b hit of the year and a resounding smack to the face of all self-serious art and a smack as well on the ass of that newborn baby, conceived in rhythm and baptized in wine, called rock ‘n’ roll. It was a sundering smack, leaving the para­digm of hep forever cleft in twain. From here on in, one either sat squirming to the fingerfuck of ex­istentialism or one danced on the grave of pretensions.

The electric guitar had become a part of Jordan’s evolving sound in 1945, and by 1946 its presence was often as important as that of the saxophones. The electric-gui­tar licks that kick off “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman,” recorded in January of that year, would be recycled 12 years later by Chuck Berry in “Johnny B. Goode.” By the end of 1946, Jordan was at his musical peak, having arrived at a unique and consummate sound that was both a continuation of the old — he had not so much for­saken big-band swing as trans­formed its essentials into a driving force for new rhythms — and a foreshadowing of things to come. That peak can be heard in “Let the Good Times Roll,” the rau­cous birth-cry of a new era and the song that still best sums up the sound and style and achievement of Louis Jordan.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726134″ /]

Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” came out nine months after “Let the Good Times Roll” hit the charts, and by the summer of the following year, Wynonie Harris’s cover of Brown’s song was a number-one hit. Jordan continued to make fine music — “Saturday Night Fish Fry” in that summer of 1949, “Blue Light Boogie” in the summer of 1950 — but, in 1951, the hits stopped coming. The two compact discs here that cover the years 1950 to 1954 contain more than a few splendid surprises — the previous­ly unissued blues “If You’ve Got Someplace to Go”; the luxuriant, forth-bursting “If You’re So Smart, How Come You Ain’t Rich?”; the lowdown “I Gotta Move” — but they exude the lassi­tude of a man whose music was being eclipsed by others’, a man reverting more and more to the rote familiarity of past idioms, as if seeking refuge from a world whose sound was changing too fast and too deliriously. Just six months, a breath in time, sepa­rates Jordan’s last Decca session from Elvis’s first Sun session; but that breath is immense, one of expiration and of inspiration both.

As early as 1941, Downbeat, the voice of the hep status quo, damned Jordan’s music as “crap.” Since then, anything that takes a swipe at that status quo has been similarly damned, from Elvis to the Rolling Stones to Body Count. In the end, it is not the music that defines rock ‘n’ roll — the current that connects “Caldonia Boogie” to “Jailhouse Rock” to “Cop Kill­er” runs deep beneath the surface of the cultural waves — it is the damnation it evokes in its myriad disparate emanations.

Though more danceable than damnable, more conducive to ro­mancing than rioting, the blast of Louis Jordan’s music was the in­vocation that started it all. As his­tory — more important, as fun­ — this magnificent set brings that blast to life anew. ❖

[related_posts post_id_1=”725008″ /]

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Elvis Presley, Philosopher King

Elvis Presley is a supreme figure in American life, one whose presence, no mat­ter how banal or predictable, brooks no real comparisons. He is honored equally by long­-haired rock critics, middle-aged women, the city of Memphis (they finally found some­thing to name after him: a highway), and even a president. (Nixon had Elvis over to the White House once, and made him an honorary narcotics officer.) The cultural range of his music has expanded to the point where it includes not only the hits of the day, but also patriotic recitals, pure country gospel, and really dirty blues. Elvis has emerged as a great artist, a great rocker, a great purveyor of schlock, a great heartthrob, a great bore, a great symbol of potency, a great ham, a great nice person, and, yes, a great American.

Twenty-one years ago Elvis made his first records with Sam Phillips, on the little Sun label in Memphis, a pact was signed with Col. Tom Parker, shrewd country hustler; Elvis took off for RCA Victor, New York, and Hollywood. America has not been the same since. Elvis disappeared into an oblivion of respectability and security in the ’60s, lost in interchangeable movies and dull music; he staged a remarkable comeback as that de­cade ended, and now performs as the tran­scendental Sun King that Ralph Waldo Emerson only dreamed about — and as a giant contradiction.

Elvis gives us a massive road show musi­cal of opulent American mastery; his ver­sion of the winner-take-all fantasies that have kept the world lined up outside of the theatres that show American movies ever since the movies began. And of course we respond: a self-made man is rather boring, but a self-made king is something else. Dressed in blue, red, white, ultimately gold, with a Superman cape and covered with jewels no one can be sure are fake, Elvis might epitomize the worst of our culture — he is bragging, selfish, narcissistic, conde­scending, materialistic to the point of insan­ity. But there is no need to take that seriously, no need to take anything seriously. “Aw, shucks,” says the country boy; it is all a joke to him, his distance is in his humor, and he can exit from this America un­marked, unimpressed, and uninteresting.

[related_posts post_id_1=”595776″ /]

You can hear that distance, that refusal to really commit himself, in his worst music and in his best; if the throwaway is the source of most of what is pointless about Elvis, it is also at the heart of much of what is exciting and charismatic. It may be that he never took any of it seriously, just did his job and did it well, trying to enjoy himself and stay sane — save for those first Tennessee records, and that night, late in 1968, when his comeback was uncertain and he put a sear­ing, desperate kind of life into a few songs that cannot be found in any of his other music.

It was a staggering moment. A Christmas TV special had been decided on; a final dispute between Col. Parker (he wanted 20 Christmas songs and a tuxedo) and producer Steve Binder (he wanted a rough, fast, sexy show) had been settled; with Elvis’s help, Binder won. So there Elvis was, standing in a studio facing TV cameras and a live audi­ence for the first time in nearly a decade, finally stepping out from behind the wall of retainers and sycophants he had paid to hide him. And everyone was watching.

Sitting on the stage in black leather, surrounded by friends and a rough little combo, the crowd buzzing, he sang and talked and joked, and all the resentments he had hidden over the years began to pour out. He had always said yes, but this time he was saying no — not without humor, but almost with a wry bit of guilt, as if he had betrayed his talent and himself. He told the audience about a time back in ’55, when cops in Florida forced him to sing without moving; the story was hilarious, but there was some­thing in his voice that made very clear how much it had hurt. He jibed at the Beatles, denying that the heroes who had replaced him had produced anything he could not match, and then he proved it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717075″ /]

Slow and steady, Elvis rocks into “One Night.” In Smiley Lewis’s original, it was about an orgy, called “One Night of Sin.” Elvis cleaned it up into a love story in 1958. But he is singing Lewis’s version, as he must have always wanted to. He falls in and out of the two songs, and suddenly the band rams hard at the music and Elvis lunges and eats it alive. No one has ever heard him sing like this. Shouting, crying, growling, lusting. Elvis takes his stand and the crowd takes theirs with him, cheering for what they had only hoped for. Elvis has gone beyond all their expectations, and his, and they don’t believe it. Every line is a thunderbolt. AW, YEAH! screams a pal — he has waited years for this moment, and as the song ends, Elvis floats like the master he is back into “One night, with you,” even allowing himself a little “Hot dog!” singing softly to himself.

It was the finest music of his life. If ever there was music that bleeds, this was it.

“One Night” catches a world of risk, will, passion, and natural nobility: something worth searching out within the America of mastery and easy splendor that may well be Elvis’s last word.

 

They called Elvis the Hillbilly Cat in the beginning: he came out of a stepchild culture that for all it shared with the rest of America had its own shape and integrity. It was, as southern chambers of commerce have never tired of saying, A Land of Contrasts. The fundamental contrast, of course, could not have been more obvious: black and white. Always at the root of southern fantasy, southern music, and southern politics, the black man was poised in the early ’50s for an overdue invasion of American life, in fan­tasy, music, and politics. As the north scur­ried to deal with him, the south would be pushed farther and farther into the weird­ness and madness its best artists had been trying to exorcise from the time of Poe on down. Its politics would dissolve into night­riding and hysteria: its fantasies would be dull for all their gaudy paranoia. Only the music would get away clean.

The north, powered by the Protestant ethic, had set men free by making them strangers: the poorman’s south Elvis knew took strength from community. This com­munity was based on a marginal economy that demanded cooperation, loyalty, and obedience for the achievement of anything resembling a good life; it was organized by religion, morals, and music. Music helped hold the community together, and carried the traditions and shared values that drama­tized a sense of place. Music gave pleasure, wisdom, and shelter.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716127″ /]

Music was also an escape from the com­munity, and music revealed its underside. There were always people who could not join the community, no matter how they might want to: tramps, whores, rounders, idiots, criminals. The most vital were singers; they bridged the gap between the community’s sentimentalized idea of itself, and the outside world and the forbidden; they were artists who could take the community beyond itself because they had the talent and the nerve to transcend it.

Jimmie Rodgers was one. He was every boy who ever ran away from home, hanging out in the railroad yards, bumming around with black minstrels, pushing out the limits of his life. He celebrated long tall mamas that rubbed his back and licked his neck just to cure the cough that killed him; he bragged about gun play on Beale Street; he sang real blues, played jazz with Louis Armstrong. There’s so much room in this country, he seemed to be saving, so many things to do — how could an honest man be satisfied to live within the frontiers he was born to?

 

[related_posts post_id_1=”715709″ /]

By the late ’40s and early ’50s, Hank Williams had inherited Jimmie Rodgers’s role as the central figure in country music, but he added an enormous reservation: that margin of loneliness in Rodgers’s America had grown into a world of utter tragedy. Williams sang for a community to which he could not belong; he sang to a God in whom he could not quite believe; even his many songs of good times and good lovin’ seemed unreal. He was a poet of limits, fear, and failure; he went as deeply into one dimension of the country world as anyone could, gave it beauty, gave it dignity. What was missing was that part of the hillbilly soul Rodgers had celebrated, something Williams’s music obscured — the feeling, summed up in a sentence by W. J. Cash from “The Mind of the South,” that “even the southern physical world was a kind of cosmic conspiracy against reality in favor of romance”; that even if Elvis’s south was filled with puritans, it was also filled with natural-born hedonists, and the same people were both.

Growing up in Hank Williams’s time, Elvis was attuned to the complexity of his inheri­tance; he was a dreamer, and he looked for ways to set himself apart. Always, Elvis felt he was different from, if not better than, those around him. He grew his sideburns long, acting out that sense of differentness, and was treated differently: in this case, he got himself kicked off the football team. High school classmates remember his determina­tion to break through as a country singer; with a little luck, they figured, he might even make it.

But you don’t make it in America waiting for someone to come along and sign you up. What links the greatest rock ‘n’ roll careers is a volcanic ambition, a lust for more than anyone has a right to expect; in some cases, a refusal to know when to quit or even rest. It is that bit of Ahab burning beneath the Huck Finn rags of “Freewheelin'” Bob Dylan, the arrogance 0f a country boy like Elvis sailing into Hollywood, ready for whatever kind of success America has to offer.

[related_posts post_id_1=”723787″ /]

Rock ‘n’ roll caught the defiantly unrealis­tic spirit of such ambition on records and gave it a form. Instead of a possibility within a music, it became the essence; it became, of all things, a tradition. And when that form itself had to deal with reality — which is to say, when its young audience began to grow up — the fantasy had become part of the reality that had to be dealt with; the rules of the game had changed a bit, and it was a better game. “Blue Suede Shoes” had grown directly into something as serious and com­plex, and yet still offhand, as the Rolling Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which asks the musical question, “Why are you stepping on my blue suede shoes?”

Echoing through all of rock ‘n’ roll is the simple demand for peace of mind and a good time. While the demand is easy to make, nothing is more complex than to try to make it real and live it out. It all sounds simple, obvious; but that one young man like Elvis could break through a world as hard as Hank Williams’s, and invent a new one to replace it, seems obvious only because we have inherited Elvis’s world, and live in it.

***

There are four of them in the little studio: Bill Black, the bass player; Scotty Moore, the guitarist; in the back, Sam Phillips, the producer; and the sexy young kid thumping his guitar as he sings, Elvis Presley, just 19. 1954.

The kid with the guitar is … unusual, but they’ve been trying to put something on the tape Sam keeps running back — a ballad, a hillbilly song, anything — and so far, well, it just doesn’t get it. The four men cool it for a moment, frustrated, talk music, blues, Cru­dup, ever hear that, who you kiddin’ man, dig this. The kid pulls his guitar up clowns a bit. He throws himself at a song. That’s all right, mama, that’s all right … eat shit. He doesn’t say that, naturally, but that’s what he’s found in the tone; his voice slides over the lines as the two musicians come in behind him, Scotty picking up the melody and the bassman slapping away at his axe with a drumstick. Phillips hears it, likes it, and makes up his mind.

They cut the song fast, put down their instruments, vaguely embarrassed at how far they went into the music. Sam plays back the tape. Man, they’ll run us outta town when they hear it, Scotty says; Elvis sings along with himself, joshing his performance. They all wonder, but not too much.

Get on home, now, Sam says. I gotta figure what to do with this. White jocks won’t touch it ’cause it’s nigger music and colored will pass ’cause it’s hillbilly. It sounds good, it sounds sweet, but maybe it’s just … too weird?

Sam Phillips released the record; what followed was the heyday of Sun Records and rockabilly music, a moment when boys were men and men were boys, when full-blown legends emerged that still walk the land.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718343″ /]

It was an explosion, and standing over it all was Elvis. In the single year he recorded for Sam Phillips, 10 sides were released; about half derived from country songs, the rest took off from blues. The blues especially have not dated at all. Not a note is false. Nothing is stylized. The music is clean, straight, open, and free. Rockabilly was a fast, aggressive music: simple, snappy drumming, sharp guitar licks, wild country boogie piano, the music of kids who come from all over the south to make records for Sam Phillips and his imitators. Rockabilly came and it went; there was never that much of it, and even including Elvis’s first Sun singles — all the rockabilly hits put together sold less than Fats Domino. But rockabilly fixed the image of rock and roll: the sexy, half-crazed fool standing on stage singing his guts out. It was the only style of rock and roll that proved white boys could do it all — that they could be as strange, as exciting, as scary, and as free as the black men who were suddenly walking America’s airwaves as if they owned them.

Elvis’s rockabilly (the blues of “That’s All Right” and “Mystery Train,” the country of “You’re A Heartbreaker,” and the others — ­the music he left behind when he moved to RCA) deserves close attention not simply because it represents all that Elvis and those he has sung for have lost — youthful exuber­ance, innocence, haven’t we tired of that story? — but because this is unquestionably great music. It is emotionally complex music that can return something new each time you listen to it. What I hear, most of the time, is the affection and respect Elvis felt for the limits and conventions of his family life, of his community, and ultimately of American life, captured in his country sides; and his refusal of those limits, of any limits, played out in his blues. This is a rhythm of acceptance and rebellion, lust and quietude, triviality and distinction. It can dramatize the rhythm of our own lives well enough.

Too much has been made of Elvis as “a white man who sang black music credibly,” as a singer who made black music accept­able to whites; this and too many whites trying to do the same thing have corrupted any sense of what Elvis did do, of what was at stake in his personal culture. Most white blues singing is singing at the blues; what comes out is either entirely fake, or has behind it the white impulse to become black: to ask for too much without offering anything in return.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715757″ /]

Real white blues singers make something new out of the blues, as Jimmie Rodgers, Dock Boggs, Elvis, and Bob Dylan have; or, they sing out of a deep feeling for the blues, but in a musical style that is not blues — not formally, anyway. For Elvis, the blues was a style of freedom, something he couldn’t get in his own home, full of roles to play and rules to break. In the beginning the blues was more than anything else a fantasy, an epic of struggle and pleasure, that he lived out, as he sang. Not a fantasy that went beneath the surface of his life, but one that soared right over it.

Singing in the ’50s, before blacks began to guard their culture with the jealousy it deserved, Elvis had no guilty dues to pay. Arthur Crudup complained his songs made a white man famous, and he had a right to complain, but mostly because he never got his royalties. Elvis sang “That’s All Right” and “My Baby Left Me” with more power, verve, and skill than Crudup did; his early records topped the rhythm-and-blues charts; but still the implication, always there when Crudup or Willie Mae Thornton (who made the first version of “Hound Dog”) looked out at the white world that penned them off from getting anything for themselves, is that Elvis would have been nothing without them, that he climbed to fame on their backs. It is probably time to say that this is nonsense; the mysteries of black and white in Ameri­can music are just not that simple. Elvis drew power from black culture, but he was not really imitating blacks; when he told Sam Phillips he didn’t sing like nobody, he told the truth. No white man had so deeply absorbed black music, and transformed it, since Jimmie Rodgers; instead of following Rodger’s musical style, as so many good white singers had, until it simply wore out, Elvis followed Rodgers’s musical strategy, and began the story all over again. His blues were a set of sexual adventures, and as a blues-singing swashbuckler, his style owed as much to Errol Flynn as to Arthur Crudup. It made sense to make movies out of it.

There is a deep need to see Elvis (or any part of American culture one cares about) starting out in a context of purity, outside of and in opposition to American life as most of us know it and live it. Even RCA first presented Elvis as “a folksinger,” and it is virtually a critical canon that Elvis’s folk purity, and therefore his talent was ruined by (a) his transmogrification from naive country boy into corrupt pop star (he sold his soul to Colonel Tom, or Parker just stole it) (b) Hollywood (c) the army (d) money and soft living (e) all of the above. But when Elvis left Memphis to confront a national audience as mysterious to him as he was to it, he had to define himself fully, and he did it by presenting his authentic multiplicity in music. I am, he announced, a house-rocker, a boy steeped in mother-love, a true son of the church, a matinee idol who’s only kidding, a man with too many rough edges for anyone ever to smooth away.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722647″ /]

Inevitably, his multiplicity opened up the possibility that he could be all things to all people, but his eagerness to prove it, with records like “Something for Everybody,” destroyed his ability to focus his talent. He wound up without a commitment to any musical style; his music lost that dramatic shape Sam Phillips helped give it. And his ambition, the source of so much of the intensity and emotion he put into his early music, plainly outstripped itself. Two years after making his first record he had won more than anyone knew was there; he had achieved a status that trivialized struggle and made will obsolescent. His success turned his life upside down; from this point on, he would have what he set out to get, but he’d have to reach for the energy and desire that made his triumph possible.

These days, Elvis is always singing. In his stage show documentary “Elvis On Tour,” we see him singing to himself, in limousines, backstage, running, walking, standing still, as his servant fits his cape to his shoulders, as he waits for his cue. He sings gospel music, mostly; in his private musical world, there is no distance at all from his deepest roots. Just as that personal culture of the Sun Records was long ago blown into something too big for Elvis to keep as his own, so the shared culture of country religion is now his private space within the greater America of which he has become a part.

And on stage? Well, there are those moments when Elvis Presley breaks through the public world he has made for himself, and only a fool or a liar would deny their power. Something entirely his, driven by two decades of history and myth, all-live-in-per­son, is transformed into an energy that is ecstatic — that is, to use the word in its old sense, illuminating. The overstated grandeur is suddenly authentic, and Elvis brings a thrill far beyond anything else in our culture.

[related_posts post_id_1=”613761″ /]

At his best Elvis not only embodies but personalizes so much of what is good about this place; a delight in sex that is sometimes simple, sometimes complex, but always open; a love of roots and a respect for the past; a rejection of the past and a demand for novelty; the kind of racial harmony that for Elvis, a white man, means a profound affinity with the most subtle nuances of black culture combined with an equally profound understanding of his own whiteness; a burn­ing desire to get rich, and to have fun, a natural affection for big cars, flashy clothes, for the symbols of status that give pleasure both as symbols, and on their own terms. He has long since become one of those symbols himself.

Elvis takes his strength from the liberating arrogance, pride, and the claim to be unique that grow out of a rich and commonplace understanding of what “democracy” and “equality” are all about: No man is better than I am. He takes his strength as well from the humility, the piety, and the open, self-ef­facing good humor that spring from the same source: I am better than no man. Elvis Presley’s career defines success in a democ­racy that can perhaps recognize itself best in its popular culture: No limits, success so grand and complete it is nearly impossible for him to perceive anything more worth striving for. But there is a horror to this utopia — and one might think that the great moments Elvis still finds are his refusal of all that he can have without struggling. Elvis proves then that the myth of supremacy for which his audience will settle cannot contain him; he is, these moments show, far greater than that.

All in all, there is only one remaining moment I want to see; one epiphany that would somehow bring his story home. Elvis would take the stage, as he always has; the roar of the audience would surround him, as it always will. After a time, he would begin a song by Bob Dylan. Singing slowly, Elvis would give it everything he has. “I must have been mad,” he would cry, “I didn’t know what I had — until I threw it all away.”

And then, with love in his heart, he would laugh. ♦

This piece is condensed from a 25,000 word essay on Elvis Presley from “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” to be published May 8 by E. P. Dutton and Company.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Jimi Hendrix’s Stadium Stomp

Riffs: Stadium Stomp
August 29, 1968

“WHERE the fuck are the SIGNS?” Howard is furious. Two signs lead you off the Long Is­land Expressway (too appropriate initials) “To Stadium.” Presum­ing the stadium to be Shea, presumably the lead-off will take you near the Singer Bowl, too. It takes you into an unmarked Moses maze of intersecting cir­cles and crossroads. If you’ve been there before you can pro­bably make it, if not maybe a VW longhaired vanload will perceive your sweaty plight, jammed six in a Mustang, late already, unable even to see the Bowl: “This way,” they shout. Follow, park hip a half mile’s walk to the light haze in the sky, hanging presumably over the Bowl. It’s probably better than the bumper-to-bumper road that pro­bably led to what had been a freaked-out parking lot; certainly better than 18 subway stops from Times Square or uncertain LIRR trains to Shea, game nights only; certainly less expensive than a Friday night LIE taxi ride. New sandals today; I’m limping already.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717029″ /]

We finally get close enough to hear the Soft Machine hard bass throb; then clear around the Bowl to the right entrance; in­side, clear back across the Bowl to where we are told our seats are. Mercifully, there’s Gerald, who gets us settled. It’s very bright; huge banks of lights blast down on the field, others blast into the bleachers. Funny, the Soft Machine sounds exactly the way it did outside — all bass throb, nothing else. The huge speakers suspended over the bandstand project too high to reach us, the big ground-level ones don’t reach our back-of-the-bus “field box” seats. If we had binoculars and were seven feet tall we could see. The seats would have been $7.50 each if we weren’t press. Imagine the seats two or three times as far from stage and sound, up in the corners of the bleachers. There are damn few good seats in proportion.

Gotta pee anyway. The guides or guards or whatever they are are in distinctive costume: white shirts — very white-on-white, just like the audience, although the latter is dressed Alexander’s mod. The way you can spot the guards is that they’re men who are noticeably uptight. The sec­tions are totally unmarked, the seats nearly unmarked, nobody knows where the hell to go, and they’re responsible. Back teeth floating, finally get the information that the only johns are back across the stadium where we came in. “Oh God” “Yeah, I know what you mean.” Notice that the sound is better than at our seats just about every place between our seats and the john. Return. For the first and last time in history the Chambers Brothers sound exactly like the Soft Machine, except that where before an occasional piercing or­gan shriek came back to us, now we get an occasional rimdiddle. You know exactly where the beat is, though. Everybody’s clapping on or near it. Much milling around. House is sold out, 18,000 tickets at $3.50-7.50; untold numbers more have bribed the guards at $2-5 each; 4000 have vaulted the fences. End of set.

“BIG BROTHER and the Holding Company I don’t know,” in girlish Brooklynese behind us. Oh God. I want to hear, I want to hear; only possible solution is taken: up into the bleacher section to a fairly close diagonal bird’s-eye view of the stage, stand against rail with a lot of other seat-leavers, oh my ach­ing back, are the cops going to scramble us from here? No. They’re all down around the stage, ready by sheer numbers to instigate a riot. Somebody’s ex­pecting something. There was one, or nearly, the last time. The sound here is much better, but the system’s basically bad — fuzzy. The sight-line is infinitely better but the carousal bandstand (on a larger square stage) is bad. Rock-in-the-round stinks. You miss exactly half the action. When the band “faces” the two set­tings opposite, you see only the back of a high bank of amplifica­tion equipment.

jimi hendrix wipes nose with confederate flage

“Did you SEE what just hap­pened?” laughs Janis, off-balance at the first turn of the bandstand. She’s swilling it down up there from a pint bottle. I wonder idly if the bottle contains weak tea, a stage set. These days, even the best have a shuck, right? I won­der how much it matters to her that they’re getting a bad finan­cial deal because the deal was made a long time ago. It’s an off night for her. Every seat is filled, yet it’s like she’s wailing to an empty house. She never gets with it, and it’s a mediocre set. Something missing — the fire. De­spite a perfectly respectable re­sponse, it’s not her night, not her house.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715757″ /]

THAT THE HOUSE is Jimi Hendrix’s is clear the minute he comes in sight, with that funny, private, oddly modest bearing he has when he’s not playing. Audi­ence is up and shouting. He wipes his nose with a Confederate flag. The monster lights are finally dimmed. The lazy-susan is back-side to us for the first two num­bers. Our turn, we get a slow blues, groovy, then another turn and “Purple Haze.” I didn’t know till tonight he was “discovered” at the Cafe Wha?, which justifies just about everything that has gone down on MacDougal Street. He’s getting better than $500 a minute for this show, one hour, and that’s not an inflated price. He’s worth it. But he shouldn’t be playing this date. Rock out­doors is a gas, but stadium con­certs should be left to groups like the Rascals or the Four Seasons, not anyone who has original musical ideas. The free Central Park Mall concert last spring was the best, and the Schaefer thing in Central Park is okay — at least it’s proscenium and it’s cheap, even if seating isn’t the best. But Yan­kee Stadium, Forest Hills, Singer Bowl — they don’t have anything to do with music. The lack of intimacy induces a spectacle, not music. Stadiums are for sports.

[related_posts post_id_1=”621600″ /]

We get another good look at the back of the equipment as they do “Foxey Lady.” Then they revolve back to us. A kid who’s been sitting quietly on the steps of the stage (what are those kids doing there anyway?) unexpec­tedly dashes onto the carousel. The house lights blast back on. In a flash two equipment men get him back to the steps. Mike Jeffery, Hendrix’s manager, who hasn’t been visible all night, and Jerry Stickles, his road manager, who has been, in his usual be­leaguered pose, are instantly at the foot of the steps. The music never stops. The kid lies down. Stickles wants him off-stage altogether. Kid protests angrily. There have been dozens of cops around the stage all night, none on it even now, thankfully. Cop pulls kid off, a little force there. I’m looking back at the carousel to see how the musicians are far­ing, thinking Howard is probably flipping if he is still back where we all were originally, missing this. So I miss what happens next. Horrified, the girl next to me says, “My God, all those cops on that one kid!” Awful things are happening at another corner of the stage, in the audience. It’s the same kid, and I see a cop, among what look like three dozen solid, forcing the kid to the ground by using a nightstick some way on his shoulders. Then some guy has one of those long 2×8 or 2×10 crossbars of a police barricade up in the air. It’s an exquisite instant, the point of balance before the point of no re­turn. I’ve never been in a riot. Shaken, I am suddenly aware of a weak, watery physical sensa­tion that tells me a story of cowardice. I wouldn’t be any good. I’m not going to Chicago anyway… nothing in Chicago that a monkey woman can do. As suddenly as it started it’s all over, a phalanx of uniforms hustling out the musicians’ entrance, the kid apparently in the middle, the barricade apparently back in place.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715709″ /]

THE BEAT GOES ON. Jimi, Noel, Mitch. The boys. I met Mitch and Noel once, in a Miami Beach hotel room 10 storeys above a swimming pool where a square dance was about to com­mence: Mitch, gassed, rushing out to the balcony with his super­-8, Noel wandering around in leop­ard-print jersey skivvies, relaxed as he had been three minutes be­fore when Mitch was stomping around, refusing to play the night’s gig because they were being hassled about working papers: “You can bet if we were Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr nobody would expect us to go stand in line…” Mike Gold­stein cooled that. The occasion was a slapstick rock festival that someday, someday yet I may write about. It had its moments, none of them news and none of them musical. I like Mitch and Noel, and I think they’re fine musicians. And Jimi… I met him too, later, I so tongue-tied he finally commented on it, trying to ease my discomfort, only aggravating it. I try to avoid meeting the musicians I admire most. They scare me. Some business. Hassles back-stage, hassles on-stage. The beat goes on.

So the question now is whether Jimi will go ahead with his freak­out climax. Earlier he had eaten his guitar. Yeah, he finishes it off, a sort of subdued version, charging his equipment guitar­-neck first, carefully deflecting so as not to really bust the speakers or his ax, then squatting obscene across the ax, merry-go-round-round-round-round-round. For what? He’s a genius — what’s he need that corn for? You don’t really think he plays with tongue and teeth, do you? After all, you’ve seen him hold his guitar at arm’s length and play one-­handed with his fingers on the neck. Well, it sells a lot of seats to people who could care less about the music (they ate it up on Friday), and if there’s plenty of music going down besides there’s really nothing wrong with selling seats if you weren’t born so affluent you can disdain what money can buy if Mummy can’t. Anyway, it’s a put-on and I think he probably has fun doing it and sharing the fun — if you’re experi­enced. Of course, it doesn’t have anything to do with the music, because Jimi Hendrix is a genius.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716833” /]

IN ANOTHER CONTEXT, Mike Zwerin, talking with Earle Brown, discusses in his column this week the limitations of a form so free “you can’t make a mistake.” I think maybe those forms are themselves mistakes. Hendrix works in a form that, as avant-garde music goes these days, is pretty tame and inflexible. Yet to some extent he has made his own form, to the extent that his amalgam of blues, rock, some jazz, the improvisation, the things he does with his guitar that produce a pure electronic sheet, results in a unique sound. The best of his myriad imitators sound fifth rate. Altogether the form is hardly so unlimited as that referred to by Zwerin and Brown, yet in a broad sense their conversation does apply. It’s difficult if not impossible for me to imagine Hendrix making a mistake, just as difficult to imag­ine a performance of his not be­ing absorbing. The issue, as al­ways, is it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, which doesn’t necessarily mean a hard beat. It’s a matter of being to­gether, whatever music you’re making. Satie might be said to rock, Mozart doesn’t, but they both sure swing, and so does Sun Ra. But the Soft Machine, which is more into experimentation than any group I know that is in any way classified as rock, didn’t the one time I heard them (not Fri­day). Maybe it was a bad night. Friday, when the lights weren’t dimmed when they began their set, most of the audience thought their first number was a period of tuning up (according to my — as Richard Goldstein says — usu­ally unreliable source). They sound that way to me all the time. But Hendrix is unerring, his authority absolute. He had an off-night of his own Friday, but his off-nights are better than the best moments of most contem­porary musicians. If he did make a mistake it would probably be the most exciting musical mistake of our time.

Never mind. Their limousine is probably back in Manhattan by the time the subway finally leaves, 18 stops to Times Square, if you live on the East Side it’s 16 to Grand Central, a few more to get downtown.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

1980-1989: Rockism Faces the World

Let’s wrap it up, OK?

The ’80s were above all a time of international corporatization, as one U.S. major after another gave it up to media moguls in Europe and Japan. These acted locally while thinking globally in re audiences/markets (will it sell in Germany? Australia? Venezuela? Indonesia now that we’ve sunk the pirates? the U.S.S.R.?) and artists/suppliers (world music, anyone?). After a feisty start, independent labels accepted farm-team status that could lead to killings with the bigs. Cross-promotional hoohah became the rule — it was the time of the soundtrack album, the sponsored tour, the golden-oldie commercial, the T-shirt franchise, the video as song ad and pay-for-play programming and commodity fetish. Rock was mere music no longer. Reconceived as intellectual property, it was a form of capital itself.

The ’80s were when stars replaced artists as bearers of significance. The ’70s yielded its honorable quota of Van Morrisons and Randy Newmans and Patti Smiths and John Prines, and all those guys were still around, as were new variants like Blood Ulmer and Laurie Anderson and the Mekons and Kid Creole. Those are only my nominees, however; yours are different. So though nobody blinked when break-even commercial nonentities like Morrison and Newman were ranked with the Stones and Stevie Wonder among the crucial rockers of the ’70s, but in the ’80s the only list that computes is pure megaplatinum — Prince and Bruce and U2 and Michael J. and Madonna, with maybe a few million-selling status symbols like Sting, Talking Heads, R.E.M., or Public Enemy (no, not Elvis Costello) tacked on for appearance’s sake. When art is intellectual property, image and aura subsume aesthetic substance, whatever exactly that is; when art is capital, sales are intrinsic to aesthetic quality.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719323″ /]

The ’80s were when ’70s fragmentation went kerblooey. The “adult contemporary” market took out its wallet as the teen audience became more distinct than at any time since the Beatles. Even within a domestic market that counted for so much smaller a piece of the whole enchilada, enormous new subsets arose, from rap’s slouch-strutting B-boys to the affluently spiritual ex-bohemians of New Age. Tiny subsets got serviced, too — by hardcore crazies and lesbian singer-songwriters and disco recidivists and jazzbo eclectics and pigfuckers and Christians and a dozen varieties of messenger from the African diaspora. The metal and country audiences split at previously invisible seams; folk music came back. Leading the semipopular parade as it exploited an unpaid army of interns was college radio, a growth industry designed to expose hungry hopefuls from enterprising Britannia, American college dropouts with day jobs, and other marginal pros who’d made a cult for themselves. Behind every subset were small-time entrepreneurs with vision; when and if profits mounted, these visionaries were handsomely reimbursed for their foresight by somebody with better distribution. The system worked so equitably that sometimes a visionary would have money in the bank when the dealing stopped, and sometimes a subset wouldn’t get fucked in the process.

The ’80s were when rock became less and more political. After the Clash faltered, white musicians of pop mien left revolution to the Tracy Chapmans and Public Enemys to come, and there were no metaphorical musical revolutions either. But with a few dismaying exceptions (Neil Young, Paul Westerberg, Joan Jett) and a few predictable ones (Johnny Ramone, John Anderson, Duran Duran), rock and rollers had no use for the reactionary chiefs of state pollsters said their demographic supported (pollsters also discovered that clubgoers constituted America’s most electorally apathetic subculture). In the U.K. Paul Weller worked to revive Labour, in the U.S. Bruce Springsteen turned union benefactor, and from Amnesty International to the Prince’s Trust, charity/cause records/concerts/tours signified varying admixtures of rock resistance and rock responsibility. The socially conscious lyric didn’t displace the love song, but politics became a sexy pop topic; by a strange coincidence, rampant reactionaries and responsible liberals united in a censorship drive at about the same time. Dylan was big in Tiananmen Square, and even as I write, an ad hoc group of democratic socialists is singing “Imagine” or “Give Peace a Chance” somewhere in Eastern Europe.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721398″ /]

The ’80s were a time of renewed racial turmoil after 10-plus years of polite re-segregation. As they began, AOR was 99 per cent white and Ray Parker Jr., who later created the decade’s preeminent kiddie anthem, couldn’t get on pop radio because he was “too r&b”; as they ended, AOR was 98 per cent white and the Beastie Boys, who earlier created the decade’s best-selling rap album, couldn’t get on “urban” radio because they had “no street credibility.” In between came the “Beat It” video, Purple Rain, Yo! MTV Raps, Professor Griff, Living Colour vs. Guns N’ Roses, and race-baiting comedians who entered to “Whipping Post” the way white-and-proud rock bands entered to “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

Technology changed everything in the ’80s. Cable brought us MTV and the triumph of the image. Synthesizers inflected the sounds that remained. Sampling revolutionized rock and roll’s proprietary relationship to its own history. Cassettes made private music portable — and public. Compact discs inflated profitability as they faded into the background of busy lives.

The ’80s were contradictory. The ’80s were incomprehensible. The ’80s weren’t as much fun as they should have been.

Half a score years ago, I brought forth a mammoth tribute to the rock and roll of the ’70s, and I had a ball. Working from the theoretically depressing themes of fragmentation and the semipopular whilst thumbing my nose at ’60s crybabyism, I argued that the ’70s were when the music had come into its own: only in the wake of countercultural upheaval could individual musicians buck rationalization’s conformist tide to create oeuvres and one-shots of spunk and substance in the belly of the pop beast. The title of this enormous precis, “Decade,” was also the title of a three-record compilation released in 1978 by the unreconstructed weirdo I fearlessly designated Artist of the Decade: Neil Young, who beat out my equally eccentric choices for numbers two and three, Al Green and George Clinton.

Rereading now, I’m amazed by my own confidence, which I can see was bolstered by a consensus more sustaining than Monterey or Woodstock or Chicago ’68 or the Mobilization or any number of excellent Grateful Dead concerts. To affirm historical continuity and momentarily finesse the Brit “rock”-“pop” distinction, let’s resort for the millionth time to the old-fashioned term and call this consensus the rock and roll community. Its core comprised colleagues and correspondents of shared yet far-flung musical enthusiasms, its body and soul the larger cohort that materialized at any number of punk-etc. gigs. On the one hand, an inferred community of music-lovers cum discophiles; on the other, a lived-in community of music-lovers cum night people. Predicated here on a shitload of discrete sound-objects whose aesthetic was so legible you could build a canon around it, there on a burgeoningly inchoate scene that didn’t shrivel up and die when the Sex Pistols quit on us — not even in Thatcher’s London, where the hopes the Pistols engendered were so much more desperate than in New York. Predicated here on the biz, there on bohemia.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718856″ /]

For anybody who loved punk, 1979 was an exciting time, because punk — or rather its flakstorm, christened postpunk in the twinkling of a convolution — was still raging. Just like real revolutionary movements, it was at its best before the world got it down, but that doesn’t mean its diffusion into strictly musical issues was a perversion — a view now promulgated by both passionate partisans and fellow travelers who’ve gone on to better things. However reduced our ambitions, the growing legions of postpunk fans and postpunk musicians were fighting all kinds of battles at decade’s end — for airplay, for venues, for viable business structures. Maybe John Rotten-Lydon claimed to hate rock and roll, but we didn’t — we just thought we understood it better than the keepers of the pop machine.

The promise of postpunk, however, was only half of what made 1979 an up. The other half was the pop machine, which was still belching out major music — Rust Never Sleeps and Into the Music, Chic and Donna Summer. The end of the ’70s is remembered as the time of the dinosaurs, and that was the dominant perception in the rock and roll community. But though intergenerational aesthetic comprehension (not to mention pleasure) was already eroding, the banal notion that the biz was the root of all banality was not yet an article of faith. For one thing, the biz was still where records came from. Young CBGBites may not have thought Rumours was a better album than Talking Heads 77, or Some Girls a better album than This Year’s Model, but at least they recognized all four as competing aesthetic objects — that is, accepted the terms of the comparison. So when in early 1979 I asked the gods of history for a fusion of the two great subcultural musics of the ’70s, the smart punk then establishing a commercial beachhead and the dumb disco then sopping up venture capital, my petition was regarded as misguided, but not preposterous by definition.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]

I’ll say. Somewhat to my surprise — I always plead ignorance when asked to predict the coming trend — the fusion I posited is what happened. Yet I’m not having a ball. I hear as much good music as ever these days, but little of it is punk disco except in an impossibly broad sense. And though the average pop fan doesn’t complain much (about anything), not many veterans of the rock and roll community are feeling groovy. The various colleagues who scooped me on the decade story — notably Simon Frith in his monthly Voice thumbnail, Bill Flanagan in Musician, and a 14-headed monster at Rolling Stone — all did their best to sound chipper, but only the young people at Spin, which seized upon a readers’ poll proclaiming the Smiths the greatest group since the Beatles to point out that time was on its side, were more than bemused about it. And after all, what other decade did they have?

Writing about writers in a music piece goes against my grain, but if the poststructuralist/postmodernist blitz has established anything, it’s that the proper study of discourse is other discourse. And though I’m far from buying the postmod fallacy that that’s end-of-story, neither do I intend to describe the decade without exploiting its preeminent critical fashion, which not only holds that theory always refers to other theory, but has loads of auxiliary themes going for it — international media net, cross-promotional recontextualization, compulsive recycling, etc. The idea that rock and roll isn’t merely music is nothing new: before the invention of progressive radio, the great lost rock critic Ellen Willis was arguing that Dylan’s songs were an aspect of his persona. But over the past 10 years the aforementioned postmod hallmarks became pervasive, definitive. It’s fitting that when the upstart trade mag Hits, the ’80s’ answer to Creem, tried to steal ad bribes from indie tipsheets and leisure weeklies by expanding its “alternative rock” coverage, the new section was entitled “Post Modern.” Regrettably, the Hits nickname “PoMo” hasn’t caught on, maybe because it’s so glitzy it deflates everything in sight. Not even postmod prophets of disposable pop are ready for that.

Somehow it doesn’t seem propitious that as the ’80s ended, the freshest and most profound new insight into the aesthetics of rock was that surface was all. Yet in his quiet, complex, obliquely confident way, that was where Simon Frith — the decade’s most searching and consistent critic, an unflinching leftist who chronicled underlying patterns of corporatization with great diligence and irony — seemed to end up. His ’80s sketch zeroed in on a 19-year-old Smiths fan who’d gotten hooked on the dance music she’d been clubbing to for social reasons. She queues for “new indie tracks” more than what she once considered “pop, chart fodder, music for the mindless,” but the point is the same: she’s discarded rock that means the way the Smiths do for functional pop that fetishizes its own status as aural construct.

Though I’m sure Frith likes the new house-identified Eurodisco, I don’t see enough of his reviewing to have any feel for the pleasure he takes in it, which may be why I wonder how much of its appeal is theoretical — whether what really turns him on is the modes of consumption it makes possible. The blanker music is, the more you can project on it — the more listeners (and also professional interpreters) can bend it to their own whimsies, fantasies, needs. Hence, pop function empowers the consumer (who in Frith’s example, and don’t think he didn’t know it, happens to be female) where rock meaningfulness privileges the author (and by implication patriarchy and hierarchy). Call it revolutionary metaphor the postmodern way. For although Frith is too realistic ever to put it so baldly, a part of him believes that, ultimately, the people know enough to struggle with the pop machine, and that sometimes they win.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718291″ /]

This vision is an end result (or way out) of the “rockism” debate that raged through the U.K. music press in the early ’80s. Near as a body could tell from here, rockism wasn’t just liking Yes and the Allman Brothers — it was liking London Calling. It was taking the music seriously, investing any belief at all not just in its self-sufficiency, which is always worth challenging, but in its capacity to change lives or express truth. Rarely was it noted how blatantly the terms of this debate favored the growing nationalism/anti-Americanism of U.K. taste. Irony, distance, and the pose have been the secret of British rock since the Beatles and the Stones, partly because that’s the European way and partly because rock wasn’t originally British music — having absorbed its usages secondhand, Brits who made too much of their authenticity generally looked like fools. This polarity was reversed briefly around 1976 — American punk was an unabashed art pose, while the British variant carried the banner of class struggle. But when the Sex Pistols failed to usher in the millennium, lifelong skeptics who’d let their guard down for a historical moment vowed that they wouldn’t get fooled again. Hence, Dave Rimmer’s unauthorized Culture Club bio, Like Punk Never Happened, a key ’80s rockbook that’s almost unknown here. Hence, “rockism” — and rock versus pop.

The distinction is obviously imprecise, and over a quarter-century of commerce hybrids and exceptions have proliferated, but make no mistake: even today, American rock really is more sincere. Or to add a little precision, American rockers act more sincere — they’re so uncomfortable with the performer’s role that they strive to minimize it. Often their modus operandi is a conscious, and rather joyless, fakery. But sometimes they end up inhabiting amazing simulations of their real selves, whatever exactly those are. The early ’80s proved an especially rich time for this aesthetic, especially in L.A., where singer-songwriter sincerity had been perfected a decade before. Roots-conscious postpunk Amerindies X, Los Lobos, and the Blasters, together with two Twin Cities bands, the virtuosically posthardcore Hüsker Dü and the roots/junk-inflected quasihardcore Replacements, spearheaded a U.S. rockism revival just as the New Pop was dwarfing a U.K. indie scene symbolized by Joy Division-styled gloom merchants. The Amerindies didn’t sell much, of course, but among observers with any use for white American rock at all, only a few daily critics and the more-sincere-than-thou Rock & Roll Confidential crew doubted their artistic standing. In the U.K., on the other hand, three new, cannily differentiated slicks — first Smash Hits, then The Face, then Q — provided a field of anti-rockist discourse where the new pop (as well as dance music from the Caribbean or the South Bronx or Africa or Paris or Chicago or Miami or even England) gained panache under intelligent scrutiny. By the time the Amerindies finally achieved some credibility over there, mostly with the shrinking readership of the older music tabloids, Boy George and Annie Lennox had shared the cover of Newsweek.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717668″ /]

Trendhounds announced a second British Invasion — bigger than the first, some said. Well, whatever — five years later it had evaporated. It was hard to see how Boy George or Annie Lennox could reconquer the charts without picking up pointers from Elton John and Phil Collins, who in the end were the biggest British hitmakers of the ’80s as well as the most boring. A later New Pop idol, George Michael, has sold almost as many copies of Faith stateside as Culture Club did of its entire album catalogue, and looks to have staying power, too. But in 1989 the nearest thing to New Pop on the U.S. charts was the Fine Young Cannibals, who were British, Milli Vanilli, who were German if anything, and Paula Abdul, a California girl whose video-powered ascendancy mimicked the British model, and it seems significant that none of the three was white, although calling them black would be more misleading than usual — their café au lait images were intrinsic to their half-sincere appeal. And then there was the strange success of Depeche Mode and the Cure, two English bands who were more or less pop in their native land but snuck into U.S. arenas via college radio, and the even stranger success of New Order né Joy Division, who took the high road from indieland to the disco — all more durable and profitable, though certainly not more starlike, than any New Pop brand name except George Michael and maybe Duran Duran, whose December 1989 compilation sported a droll title: Decade.

Please don’t mistake kidding for contempt — drastic shifts of fashion are to be expected when you valorize disposability, and whatever the contradictions of postmod pop theory, I meant it when I said there was nothing better out there. Just try on the competing discourses if you don’t believe me. Flanagan’s “The Age of Excess” in Musician, which has assumed Rolling Stone’s responsible-progressive music-mag mantle on an economic base of equipment ads, is responsible and progressive. Although I’d quibble with a few details (in the great Rolling Stone tradition he doesn’t know shit about dance music), his facts are solid and his analysis is judicious. But scratch the objectivity of a responsible progressive and you’ll discover somebody with turf to protect: there are evasions and moments of queasiness all too predictable in responsible progressivism for would-be rock and roll professionals. “West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys — whose melodically accessible, rhythmically hip, machine-generated gold albums represent a postmod ideal, confounding safe distinctions between surface and substance (and also, postmods, between “performance” and “authenticity”) — is listed among the “Top 25 One-Hit Wonders of the 1980s,” ha ha ha. And neither Flanagan nor Jock Baird’s accompanying MIDI-focused tech wrapup has anything to say about sampling and the copyright wars, which aren’t what you’d call musician-friendly developments.

Perhaps most revealingly, Michael Jackson makes Flanagan twitch: “his enormous fame seemed to have less to do with his music than with his recreating himself as the perfect product for a decade when surface was trumpeted over substance and the media feasted on soundbites.” Like any thoughtful person, you probably have your own reservations about imagemongering in general and poor loony Michael J. in particular, but please, reflect on the middlebrow seriousness of a passage that epitomizes why postmods have no use for authenticity: its interlocking commonplaces, its hand-wringing smugness, its automatic assumption that music is what matters. Doesn’t there have to be a more enlightened way to understand the rock-pop conundrum, or dilemma, or crisis?

[related_posts post_id_1=”713841″ /]

Not that responsible progressivism can’t help. It’s the way of inadequate working assumptions to reveal their own truths, and I’d still rather read Musician than Q, or even Hits, though not Spin, because however undefinitive the musician’s point of view may be, it’s always essential. Mark Rowland’s endpaper tribute made Madonna the mag’s unmusicianly choice for Artist of the Decade (recalling the long-ago when he and she belonged to the same “semi-seedy health club,” he concludes that Madonna “is the winner” because “she worked the hardest, or at least she worked out the hardest”). And give Flanagan credit for thinking socially rather than reducing his decade story to art and artists: “In fact, the lesson of the ’80s may be that musical trends are now shaped more by delivery systems than by any act. The next Elvis or Beatles may be a technology.” Smart, even if Frith among others has been saying something similar for years. A lot smarter than (haul that dead reptile in here now, willya?) Rolling Stone.

Inspired by the newsstand sales of similarly ridiculous issues and its well-established distaste for thought, the old apatosaurus lumbered up to 1990 with a typical piece of product: “The 100 Greatest Albums of the 80’s.” Naturally the display was preceded by a brief apology for the decade’s failure to provide a rock “revolution, or true revolutionaries,” and naturally it didn’t mention that come the revolution, Stone is always on the other side of the barricade with assault rifles, tear gas, sticks and stones, anything (and by the way, if Bowie and “punk and New Wave” count in the ’70s, why don’t Prince and rap count in the ’80s?). But there’s no point quibbling with a nonexistent argument. In fact, there’s no point quibbling with individual choices, either — the list is presentable enough, raising the unthinkable possibility that Stone‘s editor and publisher left the selection to his 14 critics, who have their deaf spots but know their trade. There’s no point quibbling at all. The problem’s not substance and it’s not surface. The problem is formal, and total. For as somebody who’s reviewed six or seven thousand rock-etc. albums over the past 23 years, I have no doubts: the ’80s is not a decade that can be understood in terms of its albums. It’s the decade when the Great Album died.

I know, I know — that’s putting it ass-backwards. Write about what happened, not what didn’t happen. And forget Rolling Stone — the idea that the album defines anything is a known dinosaur itself. The past 10 years have been terrible for singles sales — the vinyl 45 is outta here, and despite a possible cassingle boom the RIAA has halved the gold certification threshold to 500,000. But structurally the single has been coming on. It’s once again an all but essential sales device — only in metal, new age, and street rap (and rarely there) do albums go platinum without a boost from a “hit.” Not counting dance DJs — who’ve kept the single alive with 12-inches but will groove to anything, the odd LP track included — the album’s only significant new outlet is college radio. MTV is a singles medium, as is the hottest (warmest?) new radio strategy God help us, “adult contemporary”; even AOR devotes the contemporary portion of its programming to putative singles. And from traditionalists to postmods, singles fans are on a critical roll. “Singles are the essence of rock and roll,” declares Dave Marsh’s 1989 release, The Heart of Rock & Soul, which details “the 1001 greatest singles ever made,” and if he certifies fewer than 100 of them from the ’80s (highest: “Little Red Corvette” at 45), well, there’s no accounting for traditionalism. Across the way Newsday‘s John Leland, the best American postmod critic (the best new American rock critic period), found his voice as Spin‘s singles columnist. In Minneapolis’s City Pages recently, he cited a factlet from Q that sums up postmod critical wisdom: the average American album buyer, he noted, played his purchase one-and-a-half times.

[related_posts post_id_1=”675261″ /]

Leland allows as how this statistic may not be too well-documented; I’ve yet to find an informed source who believes it. But it’s got poetic resonance for damn sure, meshing cunningly with a countervailing trend I’ve left discreetly unmentioned: the rise of the CD. After all, since everyone knows those pricey little pieces of eternity have saved the biz from perdition, how can the single be coming on? The usual answer is demographic. The CD is thought to suit what Frith calls “casual adult consumption” — past-30 yuppies in search of atmosphere and/or the pleasures of their youth, as opposed to kids buying music because it shapes their lives. Me, I’m not so sure. The CD has generated so much catalogue action — not young people discovering rock history, but older ones repurchasing their faves in “permanent” form — that its profits could flatten fast (whereupon the biz will discover that aluminum erodes and reresell the same music in “indestructible” DAT). But the claim that it’s purchased more “casually” than other configurations — even singles, which as we’ve seen aren’t much purchased anyway — seems tendentious. Really, who knows?

Nevertheless, there’s something about CDs that’s always bothered me — a peculiarity that dovetails with both the casual-consumption and Great Album ideas. It’s that they only have one side. Because listeners don’t program their CD players — because it’s standard to insert the thing and press play — they now consume a whole album at once. This may be the way God planned it, but it’s inhuman: except in the flush of rapt concentration or first acquaintance (or when enjoying an illicit C-90), the typical vinyl or cassette owner uses an album one 17-to-23 minute, four-to-six-song side at a time, usually developing a preference for one side over the other (after passing the one-and-a-half-play threshold, of course). Crucial perceptual habits have grown up around this timeframe, which is based partly on vinyl’s physical limits (it dims when loaded with more than 25 minutes of music) and partly, I suspect, on an attention span bound up in the mysteries of the industrialized sensorium. Even classical compositions, which are knit together far more intricately than any song collection, honor a similar parameter. Most concertos and sonatas run under 30 minutes; symphonies crept up to 45 under the influence of Beethoven and went into decline after Mahler and Bruckner pumped them over an hour.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692572″ /]

Almost unnoticed, albums are headed in the same general direction. Song lengths over five minutes and album lengths over 50 are now common, with many albums close to an hour and a few over, and the reasons are manifold — because rock professionals love the age of excess, because CDs cost 12 bucks on sale, because 50 minutes won’t fit on one side of a C-90, because it’s there. In any case, there’s nothing tendentious in the assumption that people don’t listen hard to CDs. Who has the time? So even if they’re not purchased more casually than vinyl, CDs are almost certainly heard more casually, the technological counterpart to the luscious languors of new age. The only question is whether a more concentrated listening pattern is desirable.

The myth of the Great Album makes both assumptions. You’d hit up Layla or The Clash or Court and Spark or What’s Going On or The Dark Side of the Moon for the 20th time, and once its familiar pleasures had spirited you to new depths and heights and patches of shadow, you’d go out into the world enriched and refreshed, your weltanschauung altered yet again. But though as an aesthetic ideal this myth clearly has its origins in the age of pot — no albums were ever examined more minutely than late-’60s Beatles-Dylan-Stones — as an image it reeks of the post-’60s ’70s. When art has this kind of aura, it’s possible to imagine that your great work of choice — Never Mind the Bollocks, Tonight’s the Night, maybe even Sex Machine — can straddle a musical era. Do the folks at Stone really claim the same for London Calling or Purple Rain or The Joshua Tree? I certainly don’t for Wild Gift or Of Human Feelings or my beloved Indestructible Beat of Soweto. If it’s reasonable to name a compilation in a foreign language the most meaningful, organic, and enduring album of an era, something has changed.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721404″ /]

For Frith, an inveterate singles booster himself, this change has an economic correlative. Envisioning a world where consumers dial music up from a central computer, he sees both crosspromotional hoohah and simplified electronic piracy transforming records into “bundles of rights,” with secondary income (permission fees for movies or commercials or videos or Personics-style cassettes) soon outstripping primary (software sales). This is a double-whammy theory, privileging the song (as carrier of secondary rights) over the album and 86ing the reactionary concept of the heroic artist whose unique expressive works transcend social determinations. The futurist part (like Frith’s parallel notion that the remix robs songs themselves of definitive status) strikes me as vastly overstated if not just silly — the bizzers I talk to think album sales will be their bottom line for many years to come. The anti-Romantic part, on the other hand, is why I take postmod so seriously. Supporter of Eastern European self-determination though I am, I want my collectivist music metaphors. Anything that pumps the audience and disses genius is jake with me.

Insofar as it’s rooted in a viable rock and roll community, fragmentation works against the Great Album — Purple Rain and London Calling may still be competing aesthetic objects, but the world where the same can be said of Thriller and Madonna and Wild Gift and Of Human Feelings has shrunk as the audience for the first two has exploded. Insofar as it’s culturally bound, internationalization works against it — rock is hegemonic, but that doesn’t mean a kid in Japan (much less Poland, or Senegal) loves the same Joshua Tree a kid in California does. Insofar as it’s human, the primacy of technology works against it. Insofar as it’s artistic, the primacy of capital works against it — as does, above all, the rise of the star as bearer of significance.

I know, I know — you still have your reservations about imagemongering, soundbites, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and people who don’t play their own instruments. In an Age of Reagan that hasn’t quit, so do I. But as somebody who was cheering wildly from the sidelines back when Ellen Willis was telling Commentary that Dylan was more Andy Warhol than Robert Burns, I’m not especially disturbed by the spectacle of artists recreating their (“real”) selves as products. That this is as much a Romantic phenomenon as a postmodern one — there’s a sense in which the first art star was Lord Byron, whose persona has more impact than his work to this day, and if you think that’s an anomaly, tell me you remember Valentino and Monroe for their movies — is just a good joke on the postmods.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715299″ /]

Back in the early ’80s people used to ask me who’d be the next Elvis (“or Johnny Rotten”), and after providing the usual product warning about my crystal ball, I’d ponder the lines of historical force and say nobody — and that if I was wrong the new hero would be black or a woman. Then I would add: “Not Prince.” I was right — there wasn’t one. But if there was, he was black (Prince, of course — about that I was wrong) or she was a woman. Madonna, of course, and not because she worked hardest — a true formal innovator, she showed profound understanding of Andy Warhol. From Dave Marsh to Sonic Youth to Mark Rowland to Sandra Bernhard, she has broad support for rock hero of the ’80s (runnerup in Marsh’s case), her attraction and problem being that she’s so plastic (“capable of being molded or receiving form”) she doesn’t have all that Much To Say. Andy would approve; I, well, understand. What I’m not postmod enough to sit still for — and I say this with “Open Your Heart” one of my top 10 singles of the decade — is the “reassessment” of her musical achievement that’s sure to come. Because though it’s easy to overlook, rock evolved tremendously as mere music over the past 10 years, and Madonna for one barely kept pace. No way has that evolution been self-sufficient, but it’s certainly been essential. It may even have changed rock and roll utterly.

First there’s the synthesizer, which as quasi-organ keyb has transformed the timbral identity of a music that’s always been about sound more than notes, and in its even more crucial sampler form undermined rock’s reduction to capital, set traditionalism on its head, and gave James Brown something positive to shout about whether or not he ever admitted it. And the synthesizer wasn’t even the big story, because the ’80s was a rhythm decade like no decade since the ’50s. Albums didn’t matter. Drummers and drum programmers, funk grooves motorvating the most piddly PoMo and New Pop and CHR, B-boys and -girls who talked more musically than their churchified counterparts sang, disco over the edge, Tommy Ramone, Charlie Watts, Africa, James Brown — all that stuff mattered. Maybe attitude was the secret of punk, maybe not; the secret of postpunk was rhythm, young drummers coming out of nowhere by the hundreds. Only it turned out they weren’t good enough, for if anything was killing indie rock by decade’s end (and something sure was), it was the death-rattle of solid four and its fancier variants — or else the inability of its practitioners to come up with a message, attitude, chord change, or whatever as interesting as a decent dancebeat. So if I had to choose a rock hero of the decade, I’d go with Prince, a synth maven who’s great at rhythm, solid four included.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716127″ /]

But if you don’t mind I’d just as soon not choose. I love sex, but I said “Not Prince” because I don’t consider loving sex a worldview, and damned if I think he has Anything Else To Say. That is, I still look to rock and roll to Say Something, and not just musically, not just formally or structurally, not just in how it’s consumed — literally, in so many words, words that change lives and express truth. That possibility is a ’60s myth, of course, but Eastern Europe reminds us that those myths aren’t exhausted, and while their current go-round may prove as subject to capitalist illusion as left anticounterculturists have always claimed, who knows what Pulnoc, say, will make of them? Similarly, though the proposition that the future is acid house is a classic, parochial British trend-hop, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the new dance subcultures tried to put their new pretensions into words, a development that could go somewhere even if it doesn’t change that many lives. The dance-sucker proponents of rap, easily the decade’s most vital genre, have been on that case for years, and they’ve gotten somewhere already.

One aspect of internationalization that even a critic as balanced as Frith sometimes seems to forget is that the U.S. and the U.K. are no longer very closely linked. That’s why important Brit rock books never reach U.S. retailers, why reasonable people can believe acid house is worth anything more than a subset here. As Europe develops its own artists/suppliers and even its own roots and Afro-hybrids (not to mention its own Economic Community), Old World loyalties and cultural habits (and economics) pull powerfully against the familiar linguistic ties. And as its pop world becomes more distinct, its example becomes less relevant to the enormous market where pop music as we know it was born.

Certainly the U.S. has a lot to learn from Europe musically. Though in the end Americans dominated world pop in the ’80s — U2 was the only non-American star in the international megaplatinum constellation — that’s unlikely to continue. Pondering the lines of historical force, I think the rock hero of the ’90s will be nobody. But if I’m wrong, he or she (or they) will almost certainly be dark-skinned (racial turmoil will heat up further) and from some other place — maybe won’t even speak English as a first language. (Not Youssou N’Dour.) As bad as the Age of Reagan has been for the American psyche, the Age of Thatcher has been sheer grinding pessimism, a good reason to take the dour projections of postmod futurism (which is often Anglophile when it isn’t Brit) with a grain of salt. The death of the (Romantic) subject is real, and overdue, but things don’t change as fast or as utterly as those weaned on a phenom-a-week music press instinctively expect.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692594″ /]

In fact, a lot of how one views the rock-pop/albums-singles dichotomy has to do with the related question of how deeply one craves epiphanies. Scanning Marsh’s book, I kept thinking how I’d rather hear this Smokey or that Randy Travis song on an album, because as much as I loved them I knew that for me they no longer had the spark, the impact, what John Sebastian and Rolling Stone used to call “the magic that will make you free” — that in fact their impact could only be experienced retrospectively as part of a broader if less intense vision. The myth of the Great Album held that this sort of pop epiphany could be sustained, and for a while it could, but the end of that possibility shouldn’t surprise or even disappoint us. Internationalization has its dire aspects — multinational corporations scare the shit out of me, thank you — but as we absorb the plastic images promulgated in a bright and hooky world-pop lingua franca, it’s also inevitable that we’ll familiarize ourselves with the semi-legible aesthetics of somewhat grainier local cultures — collective realities epitomized by representative individuals. Just the kind of thing the nongreat album is made for.

Hope that’s chipper enough for you. And enlightened enough too.

***

PERSONAL BEST

1. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (Shanachie); 2. Ornette Coleman: Of Human Feelings (Antil­les); 3. X: Wild Gift (Slash); 4. Sonny Rollins: G-Man (Milestone): 5. Franco & Rochereau: Omona Wapi (Shanachie); 6. Double Dee & Steinski: “The Payoff Mix”/”Lesson Two”/“Lesson 3” (Tommy Boy promotional EP); 7. DeBarge: In a Special Way (Gordy) 8. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam); 9. Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. (Co­lumbia); 10. Replacements: Let It Be (Twin/Tone)

1. Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill); 2. T. S. Monk: “Bon Bon Vie” (Mirage) 3. Public Enemy: “Bring the Noise” (Def Jam) 4. Michael Jackson: “Beat It” (Epic); 5. Imagina­tion: “Just an Illusion” (MCA); 6. Madonna: “Open Your Heart” (Sire); 7. Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock: “It Takes Two” (Profile); 8. Afrika Bambaataa & Soul SonicForce: “Looking for the Per­fect Beat”(Tommy Boy); 9. Taana Gardner: “Heartbeat” (West End); 10. Beat: “Twist and Crawl” (Go-Feet import)

***

This and other classic Voice stories can also be be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Rock Death in the ’70s: A Sweepstakes

I think it was about five years ago that I noticed the term “survivor” had become the cant word of the seventies. The word used to denote one who lived through a concrete threat to life — a fire, a natural disaster, a plane crash. (You know the old joke: A plane from Texas crashed in Mexico. Where do they bury the survivors? Ha, ha, ha. They don’t bury survivors!) As a description of one’s identity, the word fit only one who had undergone conditions at once so harrowing and so remarkable that it could be said with some certainty that the experience had marked — indeed shaped, or reshaped — the individual’s personality irrevocably, to the point where everything else — parentage, intelligence, vocation, etc. — became secondary. Thus the word could be applied fairly to many victims of concentration camps (though not, say, to the Japanese victims of internment in the U.S. during the Second World War, since the threat of violent death was not present, and starvation conditions did not exist), to certain political prisoners, victims of torture, and to some who had escaped famine, epidemics, or wars (though the word would not automatically apply to soldiers: One might say, “He survived the Battle of the Bulge,” but one would not , when asked to sum up such a person, respond, “Oh, he’s a survivor”). The term implied no particular approbation, let alone celebration. It was a statement of fact, suggesting not moral neutrality but a moral limbo.

Today all of this has changed. “Survivor,” perhaps first corrupted as a reference to those who had taken part in some of the willful adventures of the 1960s, now applies to anyone who has persevered, or rather continued, any form of activity, including breathing, for almost any amount of time. One who keeps his or her job for a couple of years is “a survivor.” A couple who have celebrated a fifth anniversary are “survivors.” An actor or actress who, though without a role, can still get booked onto the Carson show once a year is “a survivor,” and will be identified as such within five minutes of conversation (“You’re a real survivor, Elizabeth Ashley!” “You’re a survivor yourself, Johnny!”) Anyone, in fact, who is not legally dead is a “survivor” — and those who are legally dead, but later turn up among the living, are preeminent survivors.

It must be emphasized that the word now definitely does imply praise, and that (paradoxically, one would think) it has been severed from authentic contexts of will and endurance altogether. Indeed, the world has acquired certain class-bound, Social-Darwinist, and racist tones. It is applied to virtually any white, middle-class person, regardless of lack of achievement or lack of hardship, but is almost never used anymore to designate one who has suffered real adversity, and surmounted it. To use the word in such an old-fashioned manner would recall its original moral connotations — the suggestion that the word “survivor” bespoke a world in which morality had been defeated, suspended, or destroyed — and the ’70s use of the word has subverted the reality of morality: the sense that one’s life is a product of choices made within a hard context of conditions that one does not choose and probably cannot change, and that the proper response to such a fact is struggle.

[related_posts post_id_1=”595776″ /]

The ’70s version of “survival” trivializes struggle, mocks it. As Bruno Bettelheim wrote in 1976, in an attack on Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties and Terrence Des Pres’s much-touted The Survivor (a study of Nazi concentration camps), the present-day celebration of “survival” is a self-justification for those who today do not wish to consider the problems [the camps] posed, and instead settle for a completely empty “survivorship.” Survival is elevated above all other values: “Survival is all, it does not matter how, why, what for.” Bettelheim might have been writing in a dead language; use of the term multiplied exponentially after his article appeared.

I became especially interested in the new application of the word in rock and roll, because it appeared everywhere: as a justification for empty characters, washed-up careers, third-rate LPs, fake comebacks, burnt-out brain-pans. (This is not even to mention the use of the word in current fiction, where it became a surefire way to make vaguely neurotic, white, middle-class protagonists seem heroic in their depression, inadequacy, and cowardice.) I grew obsessed with the phenomenon — it seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the decade, for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. I couldn’t get away from the word; week after week, it arrived in the mail. Grank Funk’s Survival. The Rolling Stones’ “Soul Survivor.” Barry Mann’s Survivor. Cindy Bullens’s “Sur­vivor” (a great recording, and ruined!). Eric Burdon’s Survivor. Gloria Gaynor’s cheesy “I Will Survive.” Adam Faith’s I Survive. Randy Bachman’s Survivor. Georgie Fame’s Survival. Lynyrd Sky­nyrd’s Street Survivors (the only band made to pay for the conceit). Just a couple of weeks ago, the Wailers’ Survival. Every time, an artist covering him or herself with glory (just as novelists continued to cele­brate their hapless autobiographical char­acters and their lack of anything worth saying). So I railed against it all; I wrote about the word every time I came across it, tried to kill it.

Like Bettelheim, whose efforts were far more prescient and more probing than mine, I got nowhere. The word, or its perversion, gathered momentum, and it gathers momentum still. Look through this issue of The Village Voice, and you will find it; look through next week’s, and you will find it again.

And so, as an envoi to the ’70s, I decided there was only one appropriate gesture: a piece about those who were not survivors. If the concept cannot be discredited per­haps it can be turned back on itself.

So let us get down to bones and teeth.

[related_posts post_id_1=”613761″ /]

One might think the enormous toll the rock and roll life has taken in the last decade gives the rock use of “survivor” some credence: when so many have fallen, to continue must be a real accomplish­ment. But this is not true — what we’re faced with is still a replacement of values and standards by a fraud on both. To perform in the context of the death of one’s fellows may be an act of nerve or per­severance, worthy qualities both, although it’s more likely a refusal to surrender pos­sibilities of financial reward and personal adulation. But in any case such a per­formance accomplishes nothing and says nothing by itself. The word “survivor” is used to hide these truths, and to hide the banality, falsity, stupidity, and enervation of what a performer’s perseverance may actually produce. When Brian Wilson made his famous “return” in 1976, he received unanimous acclaim as a survivor (of, it turned out, himself); that made it almost incumbent upon fans and writers not to examine what he had returned with too closely: survival, dayenu. Today, when writers and fans call Neil Young “a sur­vivor” they didn’t even know they’re insult­ing him, because Neil Young, so obsessed with rock death, is performing to tell us that survival is never enough.

When rock and rollers call themselves “survivors,” it is because they want the attention and approval the term now brings, or because they want to distract us from the question of whether or not their work is worthy of attention or approval. It is no homage: anyone can wear the crown of survivor, and by so doing mock those who are not around to wear it, and tacitly devalue whatever they might have left behind.

If this were not reason enough for an anomalous gesture — a study of rock death — the evidence is piling up that such a gesture might not be without its com­mercial possibilities. It was only a few months ago, after all, that a promoter­ — probably the same one who appears in the last verse of “Highway 61 Revisited” — ­suggested that he and I collaborate on a book about “all the people in rock and roll who had ever died.” It was just weeks after that that I received a new book called Those Who Died Young, which grants almost the same status to the likes of James Dean and Brian Jones as your aver­age survivorship journalist might bestow on James Taylor. Given the obscenity of the survivorship cult, then, why not an equal, no, a further obscenity: why merely make a study of rock deaths when one could rank them? If, as the just-issued Jimi Hendrix Christmas EP (heard “Little Drummer Boy” yet?) indicates, necrophagy in rock is a tradition at least as honorable as that of the survivor’s greatest hits album, do not the dead deserve an accounting at least as irreproachable as the survivors receive with each week’s edi­tion of Billboard?

Rock deaths, therefore, have been rated on a tripartite scale: Nonsurvivor’s con­tribution to rock and roll up to time of death; contribution nonsurvivor would have made in the time after death had death not occurred before the allotted three-­score and ten; and manner of death. Up to 10 points could be scored in each category. Points were awarded generously in the first category; strictly in the second. Cal­culations in the third category were by their very nature somewhat subjective. Information, almost all of it taken from news clippings, was always sketchy; cor­oners are prone to attribute the mysterious death of any long-haired person to “drugs.” Factors taken into account in­cluded respect for tradition, degree of choice, imagination, degree of violence, drama, uniqueness, appropriateness, and divine intervention. Death by travel, a genuine risk of rock life, rated fairly high. Death by heroin, on the other hand, rated low — it has been called “the common cold of rock death” — save when special circum­stances were involved, such as murder. Death by heroin onstage (see Stephen Holden’s rock death novel, Triple Plati­num), as opposed to death by heroin in a cheap room with a chenille bedspread and, outside the window, a neon sign flashing “HOTEL,” would have scored well, but no such incident has been recorded.

Blues, gospel, country, and authentic folk performers were not included in these calculations unless they had some direct connection to rock and roll, like a hit. Mere influence on rock and roll was not sufficient to bring these people the finan­cial rewards generally available to (if not always secured by) rock and roll performers, and thus it has been decided to withhold the concomitant lack of respect. As for the symbols, RD stands for Rock Death; PC, Past Contribution; FC, Future Contribution; M, Manner of Rock Death; and T, Total Score. Rock Deaths are rated in ascending order — but only for suspense.

Have a nice day.

RD PC FC M T
Miss Chrissie, age unknown, 1972, formerly of the GTOs, Frank Zappa–backed “groupie-rock” band, hero­in. 1 0 1 2
Vinnie Taylor, 25, 1974, Sha Na Na guitarist, drugs. 1 1 1 3
Tommy Bolin, 25, 1977, former Deep Purple and James Gang guitarist, drugs. 3 0 1 4
Brian Cole, 28, 1972, former Association vocalist, heroin o.d. 3 0 1 4
Rich Evers, 31, 1978, Carole King songwriter, cocaine o.d. a 2 1 2 5
Scott Quick, 26, 1976, Sammy Hagar band guitarist, “drug seizure.” 2 2 1 5
Tim Buckley, 28, 1975, singer-songwriter, accidental heroin o.d. b 1 0 4 5
Jimmy McCulloch, 26, 1979, former Wings guitarist, drugs 3 2 1 6
Ross Bagdasarian, 52, 1972, Chipmunks creator and multivocalist, natural causes. 3 0 4 7
Billy Murcia, New York Dolls drummer, age unknown, 1972, drugs 3 3 1 7
Lowell George, 34, former leader of Little Feat, drugs. 4 2 1 7
Mike Patto, 36, 1979, former Spooky Tooth, Boxer, and Patto vocalist, throat cancer. 2 1 4 7
Gene Davis, 58, 1970, Fats Domino band member, car crash. 1 1 6 8
Terry Kath, 31, 1978, Chicago guitarist, Russian roulette. c 1 1 6 8
Bill Chase, 39, 1974, leader of Chase, “jazz-rock” band the members of which wore long-hair wigs, plane crash. d 0 0 8 8
Van McCoy, producer, songwriter, and solo artist (“The Hustle”),
age unknown, 1979, natural causes.
3 1 4 8
Phil Reed, age unknown, 1976, Flo and Eddie guitarist, probable suicide in leap from hotel window. e 1 1 7 9
Don Robey, 71, 1974, head of r&b and gospel labels Duke and Peacock, natural causes. f 8 0 1 9
Ron “Pig Pen” McKernan, 27, 1973, Grateful Dead organist and vocalist, cirrhosis. 3 1 5 9
Cass Elliott, 32, 1974, former Mamas and the Papas vocalist, choked to death on sandwich, inhaled vomit. 3 1 5 9
Stacy Sutherland, 31, 1978, former 13th Floor Elevators guitarist, shot to death. 3 0 7 10
Charlie “The Redman” Freeman, 31, 1973, legendary Memphis rocker (see Stanley Booth’s “Blues for the Redman”) and Dixie Flyers guitarist, drug and alcohol abuse. 5 3 2 10
People’s Temple Band, 1978, suicide/murder, in concert, with audience, by cyanide. 1 1 8 10
Pete Ham, 28, 1975, former Badfinger singer, suicide by hanging. 2 0 8 10
Donny Hathaway, 39, 1979, songwriter, singer and piano player, defenestration. 2 2 7 11
John Rostill, age unknown, 1974, former Shadows guitarist (not an original member), electrocuted in studio by guitar. 1 1 9 11
Bobby Darin, 37, 1974, heart failure during surgery. 5 1 5 11
Mal Evans, 40, 1976, “Sixth Beatle” (road manager), shot to death by Los Angeles police (“justifiable homicide”) while preparing memoirs. g 3 1 7 11
Billy Stewart, 32, 1970; vocalist (“Summertime”), car crash. 3 2 6 11
Tom Wilson, 47, 1978, former CBS producer (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “rock” version of “Sounds of Silence,” etc.), heart attack. h 6 1 4 11
Chris Bell, 27, 1979, of Big Star, car crash. 3 2 6 11
Rick Garberson, age unknown, 1979, Bizzaros drummer, carbon monoxide poisoning. 3 3 5 11
Clarence White, 29, 1973, former Byrds and Burrito Brothers guitarist, car crash. 3 3 6 12
Graham Bond, 37, 1974, legendary British bandleader, later with Ginger Baker’s Air Force, fell or threw self under subway train. 4 1 7 12
Pete Meader, 35, 1978, first manager of the Who, Mod crusader and philosopher, pill o.d. probable suicide. i 4 0 8 12
Paul Kossoff, 25, 1976, former Free and Back Street Crawler guitarist, heart and kidney failure. j 3 2 8 13
Nick Drake, 26, 1974 singer-songwriter, accidental overdose of Elavil. (PC and FC ratings by Ed Ward.) 4 5 4 13
Peter Laughner, 24, 1977, Pere Ubu founder, alcoholism. 5 5 3 13
Florence Ballard, 32, 1972, former member of the Supremes, coronary thrombosis while on welfare. 6 0 7 13
Danny Whitten, 29, 1972, Crazy Horse guitarist, heroin. 7 5 4 13
Junior Parker, 44, 1971, r&b pioneer (“Mystery Train,” “Feelin’ Good,” “Driving Wheel”) heart. 7 2 4 13
Rory Storm, 32, 1972, former leader of the Hurricanes, Ringo Starr’s pre-Beatles band, double suicide with mother. k 3 0 10 13
Jim Croce, 30, 1973, plane crash. 3 3 8 14
Robbie McIntosh, 24, 1974, Average White Band drummer, heroin o.d. at the hands of another, manslaughter conviction obtained. l 3 3 8 14
Freddy King, 42, 1976, bluesman (“Hideaway”), heart and ulcers. 6 4 4 14
Jimmy Reed, 50, 1976, r&b legend, natural causes with alcohol abuse. 8 1 5 14
Ray Jackson, 31, 1972, Stax songwriter (author of “If Loving You Is Wrong”), producer, and piano player. 5 4 5 14
Berry Oakley, 24, 1972, Allman Brothers Band bassist, motorcycle crash. m 4 3 7 14
Bobby Ramirez, 23, 1970, White Trash drummer, beaten to death in Chicago bar because of his long hair. 2 2 10 14
Slim Harpo, 45, 1979, r&b singer (“Baby, Scratch My Back”), heart attack. 6 4 4 14
Lowman Pauling, age unknown, 1973, former leader, guitarist, and writer (“Dedicated to the One I Love”) of the “5” Royales, natural causes presumed. 8 2 4 14
Marc Bolan, 29, 1977, former leader of Tyrannosaurus Rex, later T. Rex, car crash. 5 3 6 14
Les Harvey, 23 or 25, 1972, Stone the Crows guitarist, electrocuted onstage by microphone. 2 3 10 15
Al Wilson, 27, 1970, Canned Heat singer and writer (“On the Road Again,” “Going Up the Country”), probable suicide by sleeping pills. 7 3 5 15
Keith Relf, 33, 1976, former Yardbirds lead singer, electrocuted by guitar at home. 7 0 9 16
Phil Ochs, 35, 1976, suicide by hanging. 5 3 8 16
Cassie Gaines, 29, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd backing vocalist, plane crash. 3 5 8 16
George Goldner, 52, 1970, founding rock producer (Crows, Frankie Lymon, Chantels, Red Bird label), heart. 10 2 4 16
Tammi Terrell, 24, 1970, Motown vocalist solo and with Marvin Gaye, death officially attributed to brain tumor. n 6 0 4/10 10/16
John Ritchie (Sid Vicious), 21, 1979, former Sex Pistols bassist, death attributed to heroin o.d. o 5 1 1/10 7/16
Keith Moon, 31, 1978, Who drummer, accidental overdose of sedatives. 10 3 4 17
Jim Morrison, 27, 1971, Doors lead singer, “drowned in bathtub in Paris.” p 7 4 6 17
King Curtis, 37, 1971, stabbed to death. 6 4 7 17
Clyde McPhatter, 38, 1972, former lead vocalist of the Dominoes and Drifters, solo performer, liver, kidney, and heart disease with alcoholism. 10 2 5 17
Steve Gaines, 28, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist, plane crash. 4 6 8 18
Janis Joplin, 27, 1970, heroin o.d. 10 7 1 18
Sandy Denny, 31, 1978, former Fairport Convention and Fotheringay lead vocalist (also guitar and drums), cerebral hemorrhage after fall downstairs. q 9 5 6 20
Al Jackson, Jr., 39, Hi and former Stax drummer, shot to death 8 6 7 21
Gram Parsons, 27, 1973, country-rock pioneer (International Submarine Band, Flying Burrito Brothers), drugs. r 7 7 7 21
Paul Williams, 34, 1973, former Temptations vocalist, shot to death. s 8 3 8/10 19/21
Elvis Presley, 42, 1977, multiple drug abuse after lifetime of professed clean living. t 10 7 5 22
Duane Allman, 24, 1971, sessionman and Allman Brothers Band guitarist, motorcycle crash. 9 8 6 23
Ronnie Van Zant, 28, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd lead vocalist and writer, plane crash. 6 9 8 25
Jimi Hendrix, 24, 1970, inhalation of vomit after use of sedatives, complications due to poor emergency treatment. 10 10 5 25

Thus, rock death in the ’70s. If no one matched the all-time scores of Buddy Holly (10-8-8) or Sam Cooke (10-9-8), there was at least no dearth of attempts. Rock death made the decade what it was: without plenty of nonsurvivors as a yardstick, survivors and their chroniclers (for, after all, when one praises another as “a survivor,” the praise rebounds upon oneself) would have no standard against which to measure themselves. It shows no disrespect to those who are gone, then, to give ourselves a little pat on the back for having outlasted them; by so doing, we help keep them dead.

a. One M point added for oddity.

b. Involuntary manslaughter conviction obtained; three M points added.

c. As the means to the very first rock death, that of Johnny Ace in 1954 (see Don Robey), Russian roulette is worth eight M points. As Kath’s questionable rock status had the effect of demythicizing the act, however, he is docked two points.

d. Though, as with Terry Kath, Chase’s questionable rock status has the effect of diminishing the overall impact of the plane crash rock death, and would thus warrant a two-point reduction in the M score, he has been awarded two M points for appropriateness, which make up the difference: the plane that did him in was making a Vegas run.

e. First known instance of musician-as-TV-set rock death.

f. It has long been rumored that rather than shooting himself while playing Russian roulette, Johnny Ace was in fact shot by Robey. Were this provable, it would affect Robey’s score, though it has been impossible to determine in precisely what manner. It should be noted that while death by natural causes before the age of 70 is worth four M points, it is worth one M point thereafter.

g. Two PC points added for Beatle association.

h. Two PC points added for Dylan association.

i. Two M points added for appropriateness, given centrality of pills to Mod lifestyle.

j. Died once previously: in 1975, but was revived after 35 minutes. Four M points added for necrophilia.

k. Two PC points added for Beatle association.

l. Two M points added for Cher involvement.

m. One M. point added for augmentation of minor tradition of Allman Brothers rock death, which began the previous year.

n. According to widespread belief, Terrell’s brain damage really resulted from a beating by one of any number of famous entertainment figures. Deduct six M points for disbelief in this explanation.

o. Ritchie/Vicious’s death is rumored to have resulted from a hot shot, i.e. murder. Deduct nine M points for disbelief in latter explanation.

p. Should it be established that, as has long been rumored, Morrison is still alive, he would either gain four or lose six M points, but since it’s impossible to determine which, these factors have not been taken into account.

q. Two M points added for uniqueness.

r. Body stolen and burned in desert. Add six M points for melodrama.

s. Add two M points for belief in Mob involvement.

t. Four M points added for shock value.

[related_posts post_id_1=”712416″ /]

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Camp Cope Aren’t the Openers Anymore

On an early summer afternoon in Greenpoint, Georgia Maq and Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich of the Australian rock trio Camp Cope are talking about confidence, or, more specifically, the lack thereof that defined their coming-of-age in punk. “I was involved in music for such a long time, but there were so many things I believed I couldn’t do,” says Hellmrich, who plays bass in the band. “I’m still learning. I still have to remind myself, ‘You can do that.’ ”

“I’d always be the acoustic female opener on a bill of dudes,” deadpans Maq, the band’s guitarist and vocalist, who started playing solo at eighteen. “That was the norm. I thought, ‘This is just how shows are, I guess.’ And I was so much better than all of them.”

“She played with some pretty shit bands,” confirms drummer Sarah Thompson, who they all call Thomo.

The confidence gap is a plague on society — the cultural reality that makes women more likely to underestimate their abilities, while men overestimate, get more opportunities, and earn higher pay. In 2018, “carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man” is a line so commonly told to women that an Etsy search yields more than a dozen results, with cute items like tote bags and cross-stitch kits. In her Melbourne music community, Maq knew things were unfair. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence,” she says.

“People around you kind of make you feel like that’s what you deserve as well. They kind of put you in your place,” says Hellmrich, turning to Maq. “You played first, and had the biggest crowd.”

That kept happening. “I kept having the biggest crowds,” clarifies Maq, “and getting paid less than all of them.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”588877″ /]

Camp Cope’s latest record, How to Socialise and Make Friends, sounds like a revelation. Not because three women playing in a band in 2018 is novel, or because women are saving rock music. But because of its clarity and bravery and emotional scope. Over its 38-minute running time, you can hear a band that’s been through the ringer and come out stronger on the other side.

“The Opener” is its grand entrance, an epic, searing anthem that tells the story of the band’s year leading up to its genesis. Its verses detail what women in music still deal with on a regular basis: unsolicited advice, backhanded compliments, the near-constant mansplaining. In her lyrics, Maq takes some of these off-the-cuff comments verbatim and pieces together a constellation of reality.

“Almost everything in that song is a quote,” says Maq — things the band was told over the course of a year by specific people. “That’s why I was so impressed the first time I heard it,” says Thompson, laughing. “I was like, ‘Georgia literally rhymed all these things.’”

The song is the album’s opener, but it sounds like it should be playing as the credits roll. In some ways, for them, it is: if the entirety of the male-dominated music world that they came up in was actually just one long, bad movie of sexist cliches, mansplaining and constant one-upping — maybe this is point where it stops.

“You worked so hard but we were ‘just lucky’
To ride those coattails into infinity
And all my success has got nothing to do with me
Yeah, tell me again how there just aren’t that many girls in the music scene!”
— The Opener”

Lately, when I think about the hatred for women that seemed to hang in the air in the emo and pop-punk music spaces I came up in — similar to the scenes members of Camp Cope came up in, they tell me — I am consumed by thoughts about those women who were most failed by the deep-rooted sexism there: the women who just stopped, who endured enough, said “fuck it,” and never went to another show again, who ceased playing, booking, or writing about music at the whim of men who wanted to stomp them out. Who could blame them? That’s partially why, speaking to the women of Camp Cope, their existence feels like such a victory.

Hellmrich says she had all but given up playing music before Camp Cope. In high school, she played in metal and shoegaze bands, but was always the token woman, playing with men who belittled her and would rewrite her bass-lines. At seventeen, she moved into an apartment above the now-defunct all-ages Sydney venue Black Wire Records, where she helped run shows. “I knew that venue in and out,” she says, but still, men would regularly speak down to her, “as if they deserved the space more than me.” She eventually met women musicians there, and joined a band dubbed “suburban feminist screamo,” an experience she describes as “infinitely better” than those other bands. But when they broke up, she just stopped: “I moved to Melbourne and I was like, ‘I give up on music. I only liked that one band. I’m never playing in a band again.’ ” 

Thompson had also given up playing music for seven years before Camp Cope. A self-described Hole-loving ten-year-old in the mid-1990s, by age twelve she had found some other girls who liked Nirvana and started a band in her family’s garage. She played in bands for years despite the challenges (“It was either be one of the boys or just go away”), but ultimately decided to stop: “I always played in bands, but I also always worked in music.” (Thompson works at Australia’s Poison City Records, who have released Camp Cope records, as well as the likes of Cable Ties, Iron Chic, Pity Sex, and a long roster of others.) “I couldn’t do both,” Thompson says. “You get treated like shit in one and you get treated like shit in the other. I was like, ‘I’m gonna lose my fucking mind…it’s one or the other.’ So I quit playing music for seven years.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”579077″ /]

Then they each met Maq. Georgia Maq describes herself as a lifelong singer and feminist. As a child, growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne, her musician father (Hugh McDonald of the chart-topping political folk-rock group Redgum) would teach her Green Day covers on guitar. When she was about ten, she organized a wage-gap protest at school. She loved playing piano, too, but ultimately dropped out of music lessons (“I hated the bureaucracy of it”) and studied nursing in college. All the while, she began playing shows, just an acoustic guitar and her maximalist, folk punk–tinged songs on topics ranging from dumpster-diving to “white male propagandists on the outskirts of the truth.”

“I always wanted to start a band but nothing ever felt right,” Maq says. “I was too self-conscious to do anything with boys. They didn’t get me or what I wanted to do.”

In 2015, she formed Camp Cope, recruiting Thompson, whom she knew through the local punk scene, and Hellmrich, whom she met while getting a tattoo. Though the band is still relatively new, when the trio came together, they brought collective decades of experience playing and booking, working at labels and venues. They knew what they did and did not want to deal with as a group. By 2016, Camp Cope released a debut, self-titled record, and on the strength of those songs, they’d soon be opening up tours for the likes of Against Me!, Modern Baseball, the Hotelier, AJJ, and Waxahatchee.

How to Socialise and Make Friends is a louder and more collaborative record than their first record. It’s an album that contains multitudes: blunt criticism of sexism in music, but also slow burners on love and death and friendship, ripping pop songs on anxiety and empathy. Maq’s songs tell stories, and within them there are women who have agency, sleazy men who get left behind, images of herself out at night alone. “I can see myself living without you,” she shouts on the title track. “And being fine! For the rest of my life!”

Like their debut, How to Socialise… is an emotional roller coaster, where Maq’s bandmates’ dynamism makes her all-caps poetry all the more potent. Among its most devastating moments is “The Face of God,” in which Maq recounts a sexual assault by another musician, an encounter in which she had to say “no” too many times, where boundaries were crossed. “Could it be true? You don’t seem like that kind of guy,” she sings from the perspective of the subsequent skeptics, drawing out every word. “Not you, you’ve got that one song that I like…”

The album “just depicts the year we had,” says Hellmrich. “The anger is in that album.” Performing the songs now is cathartic, she adds: “Even the quiet songs have loud messages. It’s unforgiving.… Playing these songs, even though I’m not shouting, I can feel the same things as Georgia and I’m getting them out too. We always talk about how amazing playing ‘The Opener’ is. It’s this huge relief. Of all that shit we went through. And finally getting to let it out.”

It’s equally cathartic to listen to. Maq’s raw, booming voice makes each line feel visceral. “I’ve always been very loud and emotional. That’s my whole thing,” she says. “When I first started playing shows, I was very loud, very unapologetic. Then there was maybe like a year where the boys’ club slowly ate away at me, so I started writing songs that were quieter, where I didn’t yell as much. Then I started yelling more.”

“It’s another all-male tour preaching equality
It’s another straight cis man who knows more about this than me
It’s another man telling us we’re missing a frequency
Show ’em Kelly!”
— The Opener”

When we meet up in mid-June, the band is passing a few days before taking off on a six-week, full U.S. tour with fellow pop-punk-adjacent indie rock band Petal (a tour that wrapped up last weekend in NYC). While they wait for the tour to start, Camp Cope have been crashing in Brooklyn on the floor of their previous tourmate Jeff Rosenstock. Today they spent their day off getting manicures with Jeff’s wife, Christine, who is also their good friend; Maq and Hellmrich flash their newly painted nails for me to check out — baby blue, highlighter orange. Maq sips water from a bottle donned with a sticker reading MEN ARE TRASH.

“I remember when you sent it to me,” Kelly says, reflecting on the first time she heard “The Opener.” “I put it on in my kitchen. I was living with a bunch of people, and they were sitting at the table, and I was cooking. And we all had to just stop. Almost every sentence, we were like… OK! Yeah! OK! We’re gonna do this!”

“I had that too,” says Thompson. “I was at work. I sit at a desk with my boss, and he’s putting the record out. I put the phone down and I press played. And I’m like…,” she continues with a big smile and a sarcastic shrug. “Sorry, Andy!”

Although Camp Cope has only existed for three years, they seem like sisters — a tight-knit unit, the type of support system necessary when doing the sort of work Camp Cope has taken on. Together, the band has been unafraid to call out gender inequity in music at a time when on the surface level it seems that things have changed. Their approach seems to be: just uncovering the truth. Earlier this year, for example, they played Australia’s Falls Festival, and onstage they sang, “It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up a tent/It’s another fucking festival only booking nine women,” swapping some lyrics on “The Opener” to criticize their surroundings. Their commentary made headlines. “It was weird. People said it was a controversy when all it was was the truth,” Thompson said in an interview earlier this year.

Camp Cope recognizes that visibility doesn’t always equate to support — that although this is indeed a moment where more women artists are being given wider platforms, there is still a great disparity in terms of the scope of opportunities provided to underrepresented artists, not to mention the persistence of day-to-day sexism. And sometimes shallow industry “support” can actually be a means of exploitation that serves to benefit the appearances of the festivals and the publications more than it helps the artists. “It may appear that there’s all of this diversity in music, but so many of our friends are in the industry and we can see the people who are suffering,” says Hellmrich. “The ones that aren’t getting by, the ones that are getting exhausted, the ones that are burning out the most are women and queer people. It gets incredibly personal and frustrating. They may be getting a spot on a bill because people are trying to champion diversity, but they still can’t afford to live. It’s not working.”

After her seven years away from playing music, Thompson feels like not much has changed — not enough to celebrate, at least. “Coming back to the music scene, it was literally the same,” she says. “There’d been no progression in seven fucking years. Men are still being pieces of shit, sound guys are still fucked, other bands are still fucked. It’s all still fucking the same. I got so mad. I was like, ‘No, fuck it, I’m going to just do it, and I’m going to rip all of your heads off if you’re being cunts.’”

“It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up the room
It’s another man telling us to book a smaller venue
‘Nah, hey, c’mon girls we’re only thinking about you’
Well, see how far we’ve come not listening to you!
“‘Yeah, just get a female opener, that’ll fill the quota.'”
— The Opener”

Thompson is a bit like the tough mom of the group. (Her bandmates sing her praises and also say lots of people are “scared of her.”) About a decade older than Maq, who just turned 24, Thompson is a long-time employee of their label, which puts them in the empowering position of not needing a manager or agent. Instead, Thompson is the manager. On tour, she does everything: playing, managing the band, advancing shows. “And people will still come in and be like, ‘you should do this, you need someone to do this, you need someone to do that,’” says Hellmrich.

With Thompson’s expertise, they’ve stayed staunchly independent even as they gain mainstream attention in Australia: from airplay on major radio stations to attention at national award ceremonies — winning Best Emerging Act at the Age Music Victoria Awards and the Heatseeker Award at the NLMAs, and nominations for the J Awards and the Australian Music Prize.

“We’re in a super lucky position,” Thompson says. “We’re a fully independent band. We’ve never had a cent of debt. We’re in a much better position than most people we know. They appear to be doing so well, but they probably owe fucking $50,000 to somebody. In ten years time, when they’re still paying off their debt, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, well, I’m glad that you tried to tell me what to do.…’”

[related_posts post_id_1=”595820″ /]

The band is critical of music business in general. “The way the industry works is backwards,” says Hellmrich. “Art isn’t valued, artists aren’t making money.” But mostly they want to exemplify that artists have choice — that quickly signing away 20 percent of your income to a manager “doesn’t have to be the only way.” 

“It was super important for me to see people like me playing music in order to make me feel like I could do it,” says Hellmrich, who last year was inspired to release some solo music of her own, under her nickname, Kelso. It’s a collection of dreamy guitar-pop, self-described “cute weird songs for cute weird people.”

We carved our own path of what we wanted and what we wouldn’t accept from people,” says Maq, who these days also fronts a more aggressive five-piece rock band called Würst Nürse, harkening back to her nursing school days. (First single: “Dedication Doesn’t Pay the Rent”.)

“I feel like this is meant to happen in our lives. We were put on this Earth for each other,” Maq says, looking at her bandmates. “We’re soulmates. We were meant to start this band. We were meant to change this little bit of the music scene.”

January of this year, Camp Cope filmed a session playing “The Opener” at the Sydney Opera House. As Maq belts out her lines about not listening to shitty music industry men, the ones who worked so hard while her band was just “lucky,” her expression says it all: she scrunches her face, rolls her eyes and screams it all out. This week, the band returned to the Opera House to play its iconic, 2679-capacity venue. And they weren’t the openers — they were headlining.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BlrCWW3gMYu/?taken-by=camp_cope

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

On Bruising Debut, Beechwood Nod to Their Heroes

Beechwood’s Gordon Lawrence, 24, looking not unlike a young Thurston Moore, hair covered by a plaid cap, sits with his bandmates in a back booth of stalwart East Village bar 2A. They’re directly above cool-kid underground venue Berlin, where, a few weeks prior, Beechwood held an album release for their debut LP, Songs From the Land of Nod (Alive/Naturalsound Records), a darkly shimmering rock ’n’ roll record of bruising timelessness.

Drummer/vocalist Isa Tineo, 25, a dark beanie obscuring his head/face tattoos, perches on a stool. His visual counterpoint is Beechwood’s newest, member Sid Simons, 21. The bassist’s blond shag is straight off a Sweet album cover, and his faint Australian accent and easy demeanor make him an effective foil for his more formidable-seeming Jersey-bred bandmates.

The allure of Beechwood’s powerful onstage rock star insouciance — which is only somewhat less pronounced offstage — can come across as slightly studied, an assertion the band contests, bolstering the denial with tales of their shambolic misspent youths. But at least they’re studying the right bands. Over two-for-one happy hour beers, the trio share teen tales of skateboarding over the George Washington Bridge to see bands in Manhattan; then, a few years later, being escorted out of Arlene’s Grocery during one of their own gigs (“We started rolling around, and things got knocked over, broken. We were just younger. Honest aggression. We’re more composed now”); and various other angst- and substance-fueled shenanigans.

While Beechwood exude an honest cool that can’t be bought, any hipster factor is shattered when Tineo leans into the tape recorder and shouts: “We’re going to take over the fucking world!”

If the heady, garage-y, spooky compositions on Songs From the Land of Nod are any indication, Tineo could be right. Of the provocative title (the song “Land of Nod” closes the record) Lawrence explains, “There are biblical, childhood, and drug references. There was a two-year period that led up to that album. I went through a lot of stuff, physically, emotionally.”

“I put myself through something that I’m through now. But at the time…the biblical reference, East of Eden…” he says haltingly. “I could see what Eden was and where I wanted to be, but I felt I was constantly outside the gate looking in. I felt that way, honestly, my whole life. Outside. Trying to get in and not knowing how. Eden was being happy. Being OK. Not waking up every morning and wanting to die. Or not waking up at all. Not being able to fall asleep.”

The lanky singer, polite and soft-spoken, declines to elaborate on his issues, but the hazy melancholy and changing tempos of “C/F” — referring to the guitar chords — was one written from the depths. (On the lighter side is a more jaunty entry, Beechwood’s most popular song on Spotify, the two-minute pop-dream “Heroin Honey,” written and sung by Tineo, which, he clarifies, is “about a girl, not drugs!”).

Beechwood seem to possess the rock ’n’ roll knowledge of their combined ages, which is 70. They easily cite Brian Eno, Jim Carroll, and other darkly creative underground icons. Names are not dropped, but leak out. Actor (Last Days, Boardwalk Empire)/musician Michael Pitt insisted on directing the band’s surf-guitar-ish rave-up “I Don’t Wanna Be the One You Love” video after catching a Beechwood soundcheck at a small Brooklyn club. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong met the group at Armstrong’s own party, and he asked to hear Beechwood music. “A lot of that shit finds you when you have good energy,” says Lawrence. “We’re just very intrigued. We resonate, on a certain level, with that stuff.” 

Beechwood began, as the best do: in the basement, and for all members, with a strong paternal influence. “My dad was a painter. He hung out, on the outskirts, with Steve Albini and Urge Overkill in Chicago,” begins Lawrence, who named the band after the street he grew up on. “We went to see Elliott Smith, the Stones, when I was a little kid. When I got a guitar, instead of lessons, he gave me the first Ramones record. From there, I found out about the Stooges and bands like that. He introduced me and took a step back and let me figure out shit. I was ten years old and going to see Gang of Four.”

Simons, who has been in the band about two years and was not on Songs From the Land of Nod, credits his dad (stage name Mike Lezbian), the singer for the Scavengers — “the first punk band from New Zealand” — for starting him off on the musical good foot.

Tineo’s father was an influence on his son — and countless others. “My dad (JuJu Gigante aka Jerry Tineo) played a really important part in music, in hip-hop. In the early ’90s he was a drummer in a famous group called Beatnuts. They were iconic. My dad started traveling with that group when he was 19, 20 and hasn’t stopped. He’s played every genre of music, I grew up with it all — there was no genres…”

Gordon jumps in… “It was ‘diggin’ in the crates.”

“I just knew what I liked and what I didn’t,” says Tineo. “But rock ’n’ roll specifically was the first genre of music that found me. I’m Dominican. Gordon grew up with rock, but rock found me. The shit hit me like a ten-ton truck. It fit my lifestyle, the way I wanted to live my life.” Tineo’s dad taught him beats, but the drum set “didn’t speak to me until rock. My dad also bought me a guitar, which I didn’t end up learning until years later.”

Beechwood’s founders “learned to play, more or less, with each other,” says Lawrence. “Isa and I met through mutual friends who all skated together. We’d all meet up at some local skatepark for the day and then hang out afterwards, try to find someone over 21 or with a fake ID to buy us some 40-ouncers from the bodega, and then go out looking for some party or whatever at night.” The pair’s first recorded endeavor, Trash Glamour (2014), was cut in Lawrence’s parent’s basement. “In my head, it was Exile on Main Street, but we were in a basement. It sounds awful,” Lawrence confesses.

Sartorially, musically, and interest-wise they’re from the Deuce/Vinyl era of NYC. However, they claim, vociferously, they were not born in the wrong era. “I’ll fucking answer for all of us,” Tineo jumps in. “Only because I have words of wisdom I want to pass down. It’s a great question for us, especially as far as what we like and our music. I’ll give you a little story. I stayed with [Ramones manager/punk author/publicist] Danny Fields for a little while. I posed that question to him, myself. I was a lot younger, I was 17, 18, a teenager, whatever.”

He notes my eyebrow raise.

“No, really, I lived with him. For real.”

“He likes having young little handsome boys around,”’ Lawrence adds, sotto voce. 

“I told him, ‘I have the Ramones tattooed across my stomach,’ ” Tineo says. “And this is Danny Fields. I told him I should have been born when the Ramones were around. And Beechwood — he’d never even seen us — I told him, ‘We’re the best!’ [Fields] said, to enlighten me: ‘You, know, you wouldn’t have been the Ramones, or you wouldn’t be as great as you are now, because there’s only you, only one of you, one of your band. Only you can do what you’re doing now.’ ”

Indeed, their septuagenarian fore-musicians are revered but not imitated. Live, Lawrence and Tineo switch instruments; they all write songs. Rife with prolific creativity, youth, and constant change, a next record, Inside the Flesh Hotel, is in the can and will be out this summer. It aurally showcases a happier headspace for the Lawrence, and marks Simons’s writing and recording debut.

As Tom Petty, Bad Company, and Joe Walsh play over 2A’s PA, Beechwood concur that “music is just as shitty today now as it was back then. There’s just as much need for a good band like as there was back then for the Ramones. The Ramones were listening to Styx on the radio, and I’m listening to…I don’t even know,” Lawrence laughs.

There’s one cover song on Songs From the Land of Nod, and it’s lyrically telling. The Kinks gem “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” resonates as much musically as it does lyrically for the band: “I don’t want to live my life like everybody else / And I won’t say that I feel fine like everybody else / ’Cause I’m not like everybody else.” Production on Land of Nod comes courtesy of Lawrence’s uncle in Chicago, who has a “Brian Jones/Brian Wilson vibe” that’s evident in the album’s intricate, creative layers, and the scary-beautiful intensity of dark, driving songs like “This Time Around.”

Reasonably apt comparisons to bands like Suicide and the Velvet Underground pepper Beechwood’s press kit. Those references, Lawrence points out, often come from older journalists. “When people listen to something, they want to put it in a certain context that makes sense to them. You experience through the filter of your past, a reference point,” he notes. “We’re not doing anything new, not starting some new genre. We’re just playing rock ’n’ roll music the best that we can. The guys writing these articles grew up going to the Ramones. When they listen to us, it’s a compliment, knowing that the same energy they felt as a kid going to see those bands is what they’re feeling when they see us.”

“I think we’re a really great band, and [comparisons are] OK for now. But you know what?” the irrepressible Tineo offers. “I think we’re going to make such a mark on music that other bands, any other great band, will be compared to us at some time.” 

 

Beechwood play Thursday, March 29, at the Kingsland, Brooklyn.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Lovehoney Are Ready to Be Your New Favorite Rock Band

It’s rare that you come across a rock band that takes rocking as seriously as Lovehoney. It’s not that they carry that existential weight of being “serious musicians,” but they understand that the breed of mud-caked, rhythm-and-blues-driven music that Chuck Berry started and Led Zeppelin continued and Black Sabbath turned to 11 is less central to New York’s music scene than it used to be. Sure, the Black Keys were the biggest band in the world for a while, until they traded in blues for bouncy, polished pop, and Jack White is headlining half the major festivals on the circuit this summer in support of a new album set to drop later this month. But dense, blues-driven sounds are a rarity in today’s music landscape.

The reality is that rock stars feel increasingly like relics, with their rightful heirs in all things excess and relevance firmly planted in hip-hop: Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, Future, the Migos. That’s where the star power is, and rock has been woefully left behind.

Lovehoney wants to change all that. “What rock and roll needs is people who want to be rock stars,” says guitarist Tommy White, 34. “We go to bed thinking about playing the Garden and the people that we idolize felt the same way. We don’t want to play for a bar tab, we want to make this our careers.”

“We’re playing so we can quit our jobs,” bassist Matt Saleh, 31, agrees.

White and his bandmates don’t think that spirit has been around in New York since the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and the rest were hellbent on rock stardom from their home bases on the Lower East Side and in Williamsburg. “I think that after the Strokes and all that, the scene plateaued here,” drummer Tom Gehlhaus, 33, said.

“It was the same scene that inspired me and Matt, and it fizzled out,” White continues. “A lot of pop garbage came out after it, but now, you know, people are saying, ‘Oh, we want to hear people with guitars and songs.’ So for us, we want rock ’n’ roll” — at least the kind they like to play — “to be known again.”

LoveHoney recording their EP “Feelin’ No Way in Site B at Backroom Studios on September 22, 2017 in Rockaway, New Jersey.

Lovehoney may be getting close. The band has released a series of EPs over the past 18 months of what White calls “heavy R&B.” Their most recent, a tight, three-track project named Feelin’ No Way, released last October, drips with heavy distortion, the fuzzy feedback like the White Stripes at their grimiest. Alysia Quinones bursts into the recording, a controlled vocal detonation in which you can hear her background in metal, soul, and hard rock bleeding together. The EP sinks somewhat in the middle with the claustrophobic, muddy “Come Over,” but thunders back on its closing track.

The band formed in New York, after each member had gone through fits and starts in other bands. White served as the initial fulcrum; Quinones, Saleh, and Gehlhaus all knew him separately through the city’s rock scene, and bonded over a shared love of all things R&B and blues. Gehlhaus and Quinones are both native New Yorkers — Queens and Brooklyn, respectively — while White and Saleh are from southern Connecticut. They’ve run the gauntlet of club-size venues dotting Brooklyn and Manhattan, but they’re still waiting for a breakthrough that will let them graduate to the kinds of spaces that will let their music roar.

Devil Woman, an EP they released early last year, showcases the kind of sound that can fill the city’s larger stages. The title track finds Quinones at her most playful, letting her force skip over White and Saleh’s turbid string work. But it’s on the other two tracks — the band has an affinity for short, concept-driven projects — that you can hear the disparate background of all four musicians fusing together beautifully. “Beauty in the Struggle” is equal parts Alabama Shakes and No Doubt, by far the gentlest track in Lovehoney’s library. “I’m Gone” plays like an updated blues standard, White’s slick guitar work giving Quinones’s considerable vocal talents room to exhale completely.

Quinones, 28, knows that she has a responsibility to expand musical opportunities for women who look like her. (Quinones is Puerto Rican, Surinamese, and Guyanese.) “It’s really important for me to show my face for other girls out there that are just like me,” she said. “Spanish girls from New York that don’t think they fit into that demographic of, like, ‘rocker girls.’ There’s a lot of girls speaking for girls, but there’s not a lot of girls in rock music talking for urban girls.” There aren’t many role models for that cause other than Quinones, and she wears the purpose with pride. “Brown girls are in. We have so much soul, we’ve been through so much. Let’s take it back to all these girls that had, like, these rough voices.”

Gehlhaus chimes in. “It’s not like [Quinones] is from Michigan who just moved here two months ago. She’s born and bred New York and she’s real,” he said. “We’re all real here. This is not like let’s move here and be a band. We’re not trying to be something we’re not.”

A focus on authenticity can only take a band so far, but Lovehoney thinks their brand of rock can be a soundtrack to escape in the current climate. “We’re just trying to be that music for those people that are like, ‘I’m mad. I want some really good, dirty rock ’n’ roll. I want to just not think about anything,’ ” White said. “We try to have a feeling behind everything we do, because, if we wanted to, we could make whatever music to be popular. But then for us, we wouldn’t inspire anybody. We’d just be another fad.”

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Style THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Fab 5 Freddy Remembers Glenn O’Brien, Downtown Icon

I cannot stress enough how influential Glenn O’Brien was on my life. I went to Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn for about two semesters in the Seventies, and around that time I started reading Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. I became a huge fan of this column in the back: “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat.” Glenn would write about all kinds of music, from punk to disco to funk to reggae to dancehall reggae, and I would read his column and then I would go and get those records. And I would hear exactly what Glenn was writing about. At the time, I had a weekly college radio show focused on Caribbean music. We called it The People’s Beat, and had an idea to reach out to Glenn O’Brien: Maybe he would come and do an interview. And Glenn O’Brien responded yes.

We set up a date, and Glenn came to Brooklyn. We interviewed him at the station, and when I was walking him back to the train, I told him some of my ideas about how I was envisioning myself being an artist, how I saw these connections between graffiti and pop art. Glenn was totally encouraging. He told me that in a couple of months he was going to do a public access TV show on cable called Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, and he wanted to interview me on it. Now, at the time in New York, cable was a luxury. For the outer boroughs — Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx — cable was something that other people had.

Two months later, I get a call from Glenn to come on his show. It was going to happen. So I show up at this funky little bar on 23rd Street in Manhattan called the Blarney Stone. There were all these cool new-wave, punk-rock folks, and we walked across the street to the studio, which was no bigger than your average living room. And it was very low-tech, very lo-fi; the video cameras we used were actually black-and-white. Glenn had explained he wanted his show to be like Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark, which was like a very sexy cocktail hour on TV. At the beginning of each show, he would say, “TV Party is the television show that’s a cocktail party but which could be a political party.” You can see tons of it on YouTube. At the taping of the first show, which I also appeared on, the guy who was supposed to work the camera didn’t show, and Glenn was like, “Fred, man that camera!” And that began a change in my life.

Glenn O'Brien and Fab 5 Freddy

This is where I met Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie. David Byrne. The B-52’s. Filmmakers, writers, poets, other painters, photographers. It was amazing. It led me to meet Charlie Ahearn and pitch an idea to him for a movie that connected all this rap and graffiti stuff: Wild Style. And the downtown scene connected to the new culture of graffiti/street art, rapping, breakdancing, and DJ’ing now known as hip-hop.

At almost the same time, Glenn was working on another movie, New York Beat (a/k/a Downtown 81). Glenn wanted it to center on a cool downtown guy, and in the end he chose Jean-Michel Basquiat, who I was very close with. Everyone in that film was friends, and a lot of the movie mirrors actual things that were happening around us. That’s why that film feels so much like a documentary at times. It felt so real. We walked those streets every day. All of that really started the wheels turning on a journey for me. The key players on our scene definitely wanted to make a big impact on culture. Cool is subjective, but confidence — the courage to be different and go against the grain — was a trait among leaders of the scene like Glenn. That’s what was going on with those in our creative circle. Glenn totally understood what our mission was and what we were trying to do. He had such an impact on me, on New York, and on culture at large.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Regrettes Bring Their Teenage Riot To New York City

Five years ago Lydia Night posted on Facebook: “I am now a TWELVE year old singer/songwriter from Santa Monica, California! Yay! Can’t wait to see Marlhy and go to Rocky Horror Picture Show at Midnight!” Marlhy being her bff—and the 9-year-old drummer who played with Lydia that year at SXSW in their band Pretty Little Demons.

Fast-forward  to 2017, and Night, now 16 and a senior in high school, has been playing music half her life.  At the moment, she’s in the back seat of a mini-van driven by her dad, Morgan Highby Night, somewhere off  California’s Interstate 5. She’s on tour with her buzzy band, The Regrettes, supporting its Warner Bros. debut, the utterly infectious punk-pop album Feel Your Feelings, Fool!

Night—along with bandmates Genessa Gariano (guitar); Sage Chavis (bass); and Maxx Morando (drums)  – is headed to a gig in Stockton, and while she’s not sure what town they’re in, she reports: “no cows,” but “beige buildings.” And a Starbucks, her current location.  Dad’s driving (Lydia failed her permit test) and tour managing, because “he does it all for free, and he’s good at it.” The Regrettes stay in AirBnB’s or at Motel 6, boys in one room, the three girls in another.

 

Lydia Night, in action
Lydia Night, in action

Age and adorableness factor aside, The Regrettes are the real thing for a band of any age. Lydia’s years of seasoning—playing with School of Rock in Burbank, California, attending Southern Girls Rock & Roll camp, and leading three bands—are evident in her writing, playing and singing chops. A favorite pre-teen birthday gift? A ’64 Gibson. When she was younger, her powder-blue Fender looked like it weighed more than she did.

She’s a good kid who doesn’t forget Mother’s Day. But instead of a Hallmark card, in 2013 her gift to mom was YouTube video of 13-year-old Lydia doing an acoustic rendition of Danzig’s “Mother.” It’s not a song Night’s particularly enamored of, nor does she share her mom’s taste for death metal.  (“To each her own” Night quips.) But she does take influences from her parents: Dad’s a Joan Jett fan, mom digs Patsy Cline (when she’s not head banging.)

“Both of my parents have pretty good taste,” Night allows. To wit: her first concert was Fats Domino. “That’s my first memory, too. I love him to this day. I wanna say I was like 2 or something. It was some outdoor festival.  When I was about 5, Brett Anderson and the Donnas was the first concert that I went to that made me want to play music.”

For the Regrettes, influences include: “Ronettes, Kate Nash, YYYs, Detroit Cobras, 50’s Doo Wop, Bleached, Deap Vally, King Tuff, Hole, Ty Segall, Peaches, Joan Jett, HAIM and Devendra Banhart.” And the 15 songs on FYFF reflect and channel those artists. But the young quartet is not retro. “It’s fair to say retro-inspired,” says Night. “There’s definitely a lot of that style, 50s melodies and chord progressions and ‘60s harmonies, but we’re not a retro-style band. We don’t try and go for that. If it comes through, it’s because we like that kind of music. It’s a part of who we are, but it’s not who we are.”

Night, though she has a typical Cali 16-year-old’s speech patterns and enthusiasm has ambitions, though she doesn’t state it as such. “I started a band when I was 6 or 7, all girls, called L.I.L.A., which stood for  Little Independent Loving Artists,” she says with an embarrassed laugh.  Their first gig was 2009 (she was 9), at L.A.’s storied McCabe’s Guitar Shop. That lineup morphed into Pretty Little Demons, who recorded an EP of original music in 2012 at Hicksville Trailer Palace in Joshua Tree, California with producer Ethan Allen (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Cult, Gram Rabbit). Now, five year’s later, Night has Regrettes.

Though she’s two years away from voting (all the Regrettes are teens: only she and Morando are still in high school; she’s taking a month off from home-schooling to tour), Night’s far from immune to the current state of the nation. She recently penned what she “hopes” will be thought of as a feminist anthem. In “Living Human Girl” she saucily runs down a personal yet universal litany: “I don’t exercise and I don’t read books / And if you want to criticize me, go ahead, take a look / I’m not being bossy, I’m saying how I feel /And I’m not a bitch for stating what is real /Sometimes I’m girly and sometimes I’m not / So let’s take a listen, hit me with your best shot.” Stretch marks, razor stubble, dating, Night puts it all out there. “I think that anyone who is not a feminist is either misinformed or uneducated in that department.” At an LA gig, the frontwoman dedicated the song “Seashore” to President Trump, because “I wanted everyone in the audience to know that it’s important to be who you are and stand up for what’s right, even during this divisive political climate. Lyrically ‘Seashore’ is an expression of that.”

Feel Your Feelings, Fool!’s cover features a pink cake with fluffy white frosting, and a parental advisory sticker, which sums up the group’s sweetly subversive approach. Night’s too young to go to an R-rated movie without her parents, but is right at home in front of a beer-swilling festival crowd. (Though, of course, no drinking for the band, and when The Regrettes play 21+ clubs, they can’t stay in the venue post-show to hang or meet their fans at the merch table.)

The world is opening up for Night, and her future writing will reflect that. She covered the January 20th Women’s March for Noisey, writing: “I have never in my life felt so accepted and appreciated as I did on Saturday. Nobody questioned my age because I was one of many minors not OK with having a misogynistic, racist, and fascist man as our president, and we’re not OK feeling like we don’t have full control and safety when it comes to our bodies.”

Now she feels hopeful, and is seeing that reflected in her art. “That experience completely inspired me musically. I think [the election] that’s happened, and a lot of my music recently was taking that kind of turn, more of the darkness of the world. I write a lot. And only a small portion of the songs get out. But after that march, I took a turn to a more hopeful point of view.”

Thus far, the response to their major-label debut has been mostly positive, and after playing out for more than a decade, the 16-year-old is pretty confident in her abilities. “The only negative things maybe I’ve read or heard was that ‘Pale Skin’ (a slower, darker, more meditative five-and-a-half-minute tune) was so different from our other songs. But that’s the point,” she says, before adding in a perfect-teenage-sing-song, “and I don’t care!”

The Regrettes play Mercury Lounge on Friday, March 24 and Rough Trade on Monday, March 27

Mercury Lounge
217 East Houston St.
New York, NY 10002
(212) 260-4700
mercuryloungenyc.com

Rough Trade NYC
64 North 9th St.
Brooklyn, NY 11249
(718) 388-4111
http://www.roughtradenyc.com