Re: “That’s A Bad Lyric And You Know It”- Thinking About Value in Pop Lyrics


Eleanor Friedberger


Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino

I have some sympathy with this piece on the NPR music blog (by James Toth), since I too care a lot about lyrics within pop music, and I’m grateful to Toth for making me think more about the question of how we think about lyrics in pop today. I think the analysis is limited, though, in its treatment as an unaccountable oversight what is actually a highly developed and historically-conditioned ideological-aesthetic stance.  Toth complains that

a person taking a survey of several leading print and online publications might be forgiven for concluding that a song’s words are no longer a measure of its failures or successes, but an arbitrary component unworthy of serious discussion. Albums instead seem to be judged on a criterion of attitude, atmosphere and that nebulous catchall imprecisely referred to as “production.”

What would have been worth explaining, and thinking more about, is the degree to which post-Robert Christgau/ Ellen Willis/ Lester Bangs/ Greil Marcus pop/rock criticism (that is, something like Village Voice criticism as opposed to Rolling Stone criticism, in the 70s/80s context– at some point in the 1990s, the strands merged) defined itself significantly according to the tenet that the pop lyric must not be understood as poetry but as words-accompanying-sound. Christgau articulated this position in his 1967 piece “Rock Lyrics Are Poetry (Maybe).”

Perhaps you are one of those people who plays every new LP with the treble way up and the bass way down so you can ferret out all the secret symbolic meanings right away. Personally I think that spoils the fun, and I suspect any record that permits you to do that isn’t fulfilling its first function, which pertains to music, or, more generally, noise.

It is by creating a mood that asks “Why should this mean anything?” that the so-called rock poets can really write poetry–poetry that not only says something, but says it as only rock music can. For once Marshall McLuhan’s terminology tells us something: rock lyrics are a cool medium. Go ahead and mumble. Drown the voices in guitars. If somebody really wants to know what you’re saying, he’ll take the trouble, and in that trouble lies your art.

Christgau influentially argued that the worst rock lyricists were those who, like Paul Simon (Christgau actually later became a big Simon fan, FWIW), create highly-crafted, self-consciously poetic lyrics, as in

Simon’s supposed masterpiece, “The Dangling Conversation,” which uses all the devices you learn about in English class–alliteration, alternating concretion and abstraction, even the use of images from poetry itself, a favorite ploy of poets who don’t know much of anything else–to mourn wistfully about the classic plight of self-conscious man, his Inability to Communicate.

Christgau made the case here (and in all his subsequent writing) that the greatest rock/ pop lyricists were those who managed to create just the right compelling, memorable, weird, charismatic combination of language, sound, and noise. Like the New York Dolls’ David Johansen, or Lou Reed, or Patti Smith.  Their lyrics might or might not be “poetic”, but in tandem with their bands’ often-abrasive sounds, they became an autonomous art, rather than imitation poetry.  Bob Dylan was a truly great rock poet, but this was not because his lyrics functioned as poetry on the page, but because of a completely different alchemy that occurred in the performed and recorded musical song; “Once upon a time you dressed so fine/ Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” wasn’t in fact great poetry, but in Dylan’s timbre and with Al Kooper’s organ, Mike Bloomfield’s guitar, etc., it became unforgettable.  Same for David Johansen’s “Something must’ve happened over Manhattan.”  Or Lou Reed’s “I’ll be your mirror/ reflect what you are/ in case you don’t know.” And so on.

This position subsequently allowed hip critics to defend disco and seemingly “vapid” pop music against “rockist” Rolling Stone canonizing-type critics in the 1970s and 80s who tended to defend “well-crafted,” “lyrically-complex”, yet boring music in a singer-songwriter tradition (James Taylor, say) and to woefully under-rate the most exciting contemporary music in which lyrics were often minimalist and intentionally simple or even “stupid” (punk rock, Funkadelic, etc).  So, the argument gets extended to, say, the Ramones: “Beat on the brat/ Beat on the brat/ Beat on the brat with a baseball brat/ Oh yeah.”  Or Chic: “Good times/ These are such good times.”

What gets tricky here is to consider the difference, if there is one, between an effectively demotic/ colloquial lyric, on the one hand (a lyric that is good without being “poetic”), and on the other, a lyric that perhaps has no particular value on its own, but that works effectively within a great song.  So, is the Chic line itself “good”?  Or does it kind of not matter?  (I would argue that almost always, the lyric does matter, but that a strong lyric defines its own context and conditions for assessment.)

In any case, hip modern pop music criticism came to see as perhaps the worst possible critical error the knee-jerk, “rockist,” former-English-major tendency to approach pop music as lyrics that happen to be put to music.  Looking back, we were all very embarrassed to see some of the boring, over-crafted singer-songwriter dreck that was praised to the skies in the early Rolling Stone guides, while truly innovative, ground-breaking music was often dismissed as primitive or dumb.

So a critical de-emphasizing of pop lyrics became strongly linked with the championing of punk and disco and a denigration or at least down-grading of folk & rock singer-songwriters.

One could take a sociological perspective here to think about a disciplinary tension between literary analysis as taught in English and literature departments, vs. more musical or musicological analysis.  The average pop music critic was much more likely to be a former English major than a music student (or a musician), and he or she came to be a bit embarrassed about any analysis that invited the accusation of treating pop recordings as primarily verbal– precisely because that was what often came most naturally.  (I’m speaking partly out of personal experience here…)

I do think Toth has a good point that this “anti-poetic” perspective on lyrics has by now become so absolutely dominant within pop music criticism that it has, arguably, gone too far, to the point that a more old-fashioned, important American pop tradition of intelligently crafted lyricism, in the Tin Pan Alley or Cole Porter mode, say, tends to be under-rated.  Toth is right, I think, that “intelligence” and craft in lyrics sometimes is a good thing, that sometimes verbal “stupidity” and vapidity offers nothing beyond its surface, and that pop music today could probably use a greater degree of lyrical craft.

But, Toth should do more to acknowledge the context and historical development of the current critical stance.   And to admit that there is no way properly to evaluate pop lyrics purely on the page or as text. He implies that Eleanor Friedberger’s line “Today was perfection — the axis of bliss/ I was calm in your arms waiting for the kiss that never came” is self-evidently superior to Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino’s “And I don’t know why/ The sun’s in the sky.”

But it is pointless to argue over that without consideration of the context of the songs’ music, noise and attitude.  Since if either of these lines say anything at all, they say them as only pop music can.

Pere Ubu in Bloomington, Rodriguez, and the Sorites Paradox

We saw that documentary Searching for Sugar Man the other night.  An amazing story and a fun movie, although I actually found it just slightly manipulative.

Here a summary from Rolling Stone:

The Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man tells the almost unbelievable story of a Mexican-American songwriter whose two early Seventies albums bombed in America, but who wound up finding a huge audience in Apartheid-era South Africa. Sixto Rodriguez had no idea he was a legend there until a group of fans found him on the Internet and brought him to the country for a series of triumphant concerts.

Rodriguez is an incredibly appealing character… so peaceful, zen, sort of ego-less, at least apparently.  After his career tanked (or went nowhere) after recording a couple albums in the early 1970s, he started doing construction work in Detroit, ran for city council, and lived a thoughtfully progressive, low-income life until (we’re told) he was re-discovered in the late 1990s.  The Rolling Stone piece buttresses my my sense that the documentary has its manipulative side, though.

By the late 1970s, Australian concert promoters tracked down Rodriguez in Detroit. He arrived in Australia with his two teenage daughters for a 15-date tour in early 1979. “He was just stunned by what we put together for him,” promoter Michael Coppel told Billboard at the time. “He had never played a concert before, just bars and clubs.” He played to 15,000 people in Sydney, almost as many fans as Rod Stewart drew a few weeks earlier.

The movie does not mention this at all, and implies strongly that from the moment Rodriguez’s American career failed, he lived in total obscurity until the events of the 1990s chronicled in the movie, when a couple of South African fans and journalists tracked him down.  This Australian late 1970s interlude totally messes up the narrative.  And that was my larger problem, that the movie so clearly arranges the story for absolute maximum surprise and sentiment, in ways that occasionally felt a little untrustworthy to me.

Anyway, though, it’s certainly a fascinating story.  Even if it sometimes puts its thumb on the scales, it does underline the ways that the rise of the internet absolutely transformed the meaning of fame and stardom.  So incredible that Rodriguez could be a superstar in South Africa in the 70s and 80s, selling hundreds of thousands of albums and viewed as a musical icon, while living in obscure ignorance in Detroit.  We all lived in comparatively isolated pockets back then, and values, reputations, and images could remain bottled up, not communicating at all with the rest of the world.

I thought about Rodriguez when I saw Pere Ubu play at the Bishop Bar in Bloomington a week ago.  Pere Ubu meant a lot to me in the 1980s when I was in high school and college — I ranked them with Television, the Talking Heads, Blondie and so on as among the greatest and most important post-punk/ late 1970s groups.  (Strange to think about how recent that was then!) “Non-Alignment Pact,” “Heart of Darkness,” “Final Solution,” “the Modern Dance” were some of the best, weirdest, most gnarly post-punk non-hits of that era, led by the lumbering, broodingly intellectual, Boris Karloffian David Thomas, one of the most eccentric frontmen in rock and roll history.  The Modern Dance (1978) and Dub Housing (1979) are both incredible albums — the latter especially is a bizarrely compelling synth-punk, Cold War masterpiece I still feel I’ve never gotten to the bottom of.

So, I went to see them in 2013, 35 years (!) after their first album, at this little Bloomington club, not really knowing what to expect (although I also saw some version of the group in maybe 2000 in Chicago).  Certain ontological questions are raised by this kind of performance.  Is this Pere Ubu?  Or a single band member with a capable backup band doing cover versions of old Pere Ubu songs?  David Thomas is the only original member.  But is the concept of an “original member” even relevant?  What if the transition occurs slowly, with band members dropping out and getting replaced gradually over time, à la the Ramones?

The problem is a version of the so-called “sorites paradox” or the philosophical problem of the “heap”:

The sorites paradox is the name given to a class of paradoxical arguments, also known as little-by-little arguments, which arise as a result of the indeterminacy surrounding limits of application of the predicates involved. For example, the concept of a heap appears to lack sharp boundaries and, as a consequence of the subsequent indeterminacy surrounding the extension of the predicate ‘is a heap’, no one grain of wheat can be identified as making the difference between being a heap and not being a heap. Given then that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it would seem to follow that two do not, thus three do not, and so on. In the end it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap. We are faced with paradox since from apparently true premises by seemingly uncontroversial reasoning we arrive at an apparently false conclusion.

When does Pere Ubu become not Pere Ubu?  The simplest way to think about this might be in terms of minimum number of original band members.  Can it still be the Pixies without Kim Deal?  But then, is it still the Beatles without Pete Best?  It can’t simply be a matter of numbers– I suppose one would need to measure from some moment of peak achievement or success.

Anyway.  There couldn’t have been more than 50 or so people at the Bishop which did not feel quite right for such an incredibly important band in the history of modern rock and roll.  David Thomas is a creaky, slow-moving dude now who performed seated from a chair, possibly out of medical necessity.  He was very cranky and sarcastic, mostly in a witty way; I was occasionally scared he’d say something awful or disturbing (as when he engaged a young woman in front in an extended, not entirely consensual dialogue about her love life), but he never really did.  He talked a lot about “the ladies” in a mordantly amusing way.  Best line was something like, “look around you.  For every woman you see at a Pere Ubu show, know that there will be five other kinds of people there.  And for every 58-year old, balding, ponytailed dude you see, there will be five other people who didn’t come to the show.”

They or he did “Final Solution,” “the Modern Dance,” “Street Waves,” and “Heaven.”  (No “Non-Alignment Pact” or “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”)

I kind of felt as if David Thomas were Rodriguez, stuck in a world in which he’s in disguise as an unknown obscurity.

I don’t know if this was really Pere Ubu, but it was great to hear those songs.

[cp my experience seeing Jonathan Richman, also at the Bishop– Richman is a somewhat comparable figure to Thomas in certain ways.]

Living, Loving, Partygoing with the Future Bible Heroes and Henry Green

It appears that the new Future Bible Heroes single, “Living, Loving, Partygoing,” is a tribute to the English modernist novelist Henry Green. And more specifically, to the Penguin edition that collects all three of those novels.  (Penguin is onto this.)

I’m not all that surprised that Stephin Merritt would be a Henry Green fan.  Perhaps his recent hearing problems/ tinnitus led him to the “odd, haunted, ambiguous” Green, who is famous for his Altman-esque overlapping conversations.  From a Paris Review interview with Terry Southern, “The Art of Fiction” #22, from 1958:

TERRY SOUTHERN: I’d like to ask you some questions now about the work itself. You’ve described your novels as “nonrepresentational.” I wonder if you’d mind defining that term?

GREEN: “Nonrepresentational” was meant to represent a picture which was not a photograph, nor a painting on a photograph, nor, in dialogue, a tape recording. For instance, the very deaf, as I am, hear the most astounding things all round them which have not in fact been said. This enlivens my replies until, through mishearing, a new level of communication is reached. My characters misunderstand each other more than people do in real life, yet they do so less than I. Thus, when writing, I “represent” very closely what I see (and I’m not seeing so well now) and what I hear (which is little) but I say it is “nonrepresentational” because it is not necessarily what others see and hear.

Another good moment from this interview occurs when Southern asks how Green came to the plot/story for Loving:

I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.

I’ve kind of been waiting for the ripples from Downton Abbey-mania to reach Green. Henry Green Revival!

Merritt’s lyrics seem less faithful to than perhaps generally inspired by the mood of Green’s novels, e.g.: “At Mink Stole’s birthday/ in gay Provincetown/ I came to DJ/ and left with the clown.”


Rilo Kiley: I can do the frug, I cannot fall in love

Rilo Kiley was one of my very fave rock/pop bands of the Oughts… I really-like-to-love their four original albums, Takeoffs and Landings (2001), The Execution of All Things (2002), More Adventurous (2004), and their attempted/ unsuccessful major-label mainstream/ pop bid, Under the Blacklight (2007). (My favorite is More Adventurous.) (There’s also the Jenny Lewis solo album Rabbit Fur Coat which I kind of forgot about, need to go back to that one… and it looks like she had a second one that I did not even know about.) So I was happy to get this new odds-and-sods unreleased collection, RKives, which is of high consistency and offers a good tour through their various sounds & styles– indie pop, Nashville-y faux country, folky, rock and roll, even a dance-rap collaboration with Too Short (that one maybe a bad idea).  You can get the MP3s on Amazon for $7.49.

I’d always wondered where they got the band name, and it turns out to be pretty funny: “On the syndicated radio show Loveline in August 2005, [Blake] Sennett explained that he had a dream in which he was being chased by a sports almanac: “when it got me, I leafed through it…and I came upon an Australian rules football player from the 19th century named Rilo Kiley. It’s kind of embarrassing.” When asked by co-host Drew Pinsky if he had ever seen this name in reality, Sennett said, “I don’t think so, I don’t think that character exists.”

I think I’d put Jenny Lewis with Stephin Merritt and the Drive-by Truckers guys as, IMO, the best American singer-songwriters of that period (late 90s-late oughts) working within a pop/rock approach.  She was a former child actress: made her debut in a Jell-O commercial; appeared in teen movies like Troop Beverly Hills. Most of Rilo Kiley’s music didn’t exactly fit with what you might expect from someone with that backstory, sounding more like smart-English-major fare: literate, well-crafted and -played, with thorny, ironic lyrics.  Lewis became an indie-pop female star in a Liz Phair mode: smart & sexy, feminist, frank about sex but with a pastoralism in the generally pretty music. Then Under the Blacklight felt like a concept album about a seamy L.A. underworld of “money for sex” and other varieties of selling oneself– perhaps an acknowledgment of the Hollywood sleaze that Lewis must have known about from her child and teen-actress days, and maybe making an implicit point about the process of signing with Warner Bros.  (Being a sexy singer for a pop band must sometimes feel like “money for sex.”)  I think a lot of fans found it disappointing, and I didn’t care so much for the album’s first single (“the Moneymaker”– kind of hard rock, sounds almost like Heart?), but I liked the attempt to go somewhere new and I think at least a few of the songs are totally brilliant, e.g. these two:

This one the “money for sex” song:

Considering Lewis, Merritt and the Drive-by Truckers’ Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley together underlines the pull of country music on any pop songwriter these days who cares a lot about storytelling. Country is so dominant as the mode for songwriting of this type that even artists like Lewis and Merritt may feel compelled to drop in and out of country or country-inflected modes.  (Merritt a more marginal case: I’m thinking of the Magnetic Fields’ The Charm of the Highway Strip (1994), a kind of thematic “country music” album.)  It’s almost as if, when you write a song in any genre that tells a story, you are in effect working within country music, even it can only be recognizable as such with a certain accent and particular references.

I should say something more specific about Rkives.  (Oh– I just got the title– say it out loud if you didn’t.) Maybe this is the obvious single: a bubblegum dance tune revealing brief glimpses of heartache: “And I can do the frug/ I can do the Robocop/ I can do the Freddie/ I cannot do the Smurf/ And I can hate your girl/ I can tell you that she’s real pretty/ I can take my clothes off/ I cannot fall in love.”

Here’s a video from 1999:

Richard Hell: Cold, angry days on the houseboat


I had Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ Blank Generation and Destiny Street in high school and although those were never albums I listened to from start to end a whole lot, I’ve always really loved a few of Hell’s songs: e.g. “Time” (“Only time can write a song that’s really really real”), “Love Comes in Spurts,” “Kid With the Replaceable Head,” and “Blank Generation.”  He was a bit of a punk-rock Zelig: a founding member of the great Television before his high school buddy Tom Verlaine kicked him out; briefly in Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers after the breakup of the New York Dolls; slept with Nancy Spungeon for a while before she got involved with Sid Vicious; opened for the Clash with the Voidoids in Britain in 1977.  That year Time dubbed him “the demon-eyed New Yorker who could become the Mick Jagger of punk” (it didn’t quite work out that way). I don’t think I had really known this, but Hell’s memoir (I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp) makes a convincing case that when Malcolm McLaren spent a while hanging around NYC in 1974-5, he admired Hell’s style — his good looks in torn leather jacket, the safety pins, spiky hair, aggressively graphic hand-printed text on t-shirts, a Situationist-influenced collage aesthetic — and that when he couldn’t recruit Hell to form his own band, McLaren just appropriated the look and gave it to the Sex Pistols. (Hell admits to spending some time feeling frustrated about his unacknowledged role as the originator of punk’s signature style, but seems Zen about it now.)

Robert Christgau claims that with the memoir Hell equals or exceeds Patti Smith’s achievement in the National Book Award-winning Just Kids.  I definitely disagree; overall I found I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp hit or miss. It has some great stories to tell, but eventually it devolves into a dispiriting narrative of heroin addiction, reflexive promiscuity, and missed opportunities– somewhat redeemed by the awareness that Hell eventually got clean and turned into an apparently healthy person.

Some examples:

Our record company was another source of disgust and disappointment.

Later, as the monotony and discomfort of the tour became more and more horrible, the great [Clash friend/ roadie] Roadent introduced me to his antidote for ennui — self-inflicted cigarette burns.  It worked and I still have the cherished memory on my left forearm.

Jake did a creative thing for us in London by renting a houseboat on the Thames, off Cheyne Walk, for the band to live in.  But it turned out not to be a good idea to cram us all into a tight space.  By the end of the first three days I was junk-sick and irritable… My hopelessness grew… It got labyrinthetically self-repellant… The entire… tour was just a stretched-out version of those first few cold, angry, nauseated days on the houseboat.

Some friend or editor also really should have gotten Hell to ease off on of the punk-groupie sex stories, which also get monotonous and depressing. He indulges too much in plain old objectification of the array of women who pass through his various fleabag Lower East Side bedrooms. “Although he’s self-deprecating about it of course,” Christgau writes (unfortunately), “Hell was New York punk’s great ladies’ man.”  Sabel Starr is one example of his conquests.  “Sabel was fifteen (Johnny [Thunders] was nineteen) when they met and she was already notorious as an L.A. groupie.  Word was she’d slept with Iggie Pop was she was thirteen… She always had the cheeriest healthy smile.  The smile was real — happy and friendly.  Everything about her was real.  She was heroic.  At least from the point of view of a musician she liked.  She truly lived for fun and joy, and the thing that was the most joyous of all to her was to make a meaningful rock musician happy.  That was her mission, the way someone else might join the Peace Corps.  Instead of digging wells and planting crops and offering medical care, she provided pretty and entertaining companionship, astute and sincere encouragement, favorite drugs, and magnificent blow jobs…. She was a soulful, sane, self-aware sweetheart of a committed groupie.”

Eww. As he comments at one point, while on coke his “brain and cock were one”… and he was high most of the time in the late 70s and early-mid 80s.

Hell is a pretty smart guy, one of the better-read and more intellectual of the punk generation (he always saw himself as a writer/artist who happened to decide to make music for a while), and there are some good/fun things about the book… he knew everyone in those days, and it’s fascinating to see the emergence of punk from the perspectives of one of its conceptual architects.

He observes interestingly at one point that “the British punk culture also seemed strangely asexual.  There were some classic teenage sexpectations among stray members of bands, but for the most part the relations between the boys and the girls seemed infantile, like prepubescent.  People kidded and cuddled and might even share beds, but it seemed to be in bad form to regard one another as sexual prospects.”  The book brought out the prude in me: I kept thinking, “stop doing drugs and chasing groupies, focus on your opportunities.”  Punk saw itself as an alternative to the excesses of 1970s rock and roll culture, but people like Hell got caught up in an arty downtown version of those same excesses, to the point of sleeping with the very same groupies.  Although he definitely gets the problem of drug addiction, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that there might have been something valuable in a (relative) prudishness and “asexuality” in the London scene, which may have helped to prevent punk from reverting into just a new form of rock and roll.  (Just read this Bookforum review which comments of Hell, “he’s a scumbag with an intimate, articulate understanding of scumbag psychology.”)

The “clean”/chaste vs dirty/ “tramp[y]” [vis. the book’s title] dichotomy may also relate to Hell’s complicated feelings towards Tom Verlaine, who is the closest this book comes to the Robert Mapplethorpe of Smith’s Kids — e.g. the roommate/ best buddy/ co-conspirator from the early days.  Hell still seems to feel rejected by and angry at Verlaine to some degree, perhaps in part because of Verlaine’s aloof, un-rock-and-roll fastidiousness: he didn’t do drugs, didn’t hang out much, and you don’t hear a lot about his girlfriends.  I guess he just dedicated all his energy to making genius music… (Although to be fair, Verlaine does sound as if he could be a pain in the neck, a bit of a control-freak J. Mascis type, with Hell as the bewildered/rejected Lou Barlow).

But then, I was always much more of a bookish Verlaine than a bad-boy Hell type (sans any musical talent), personally.

Sonic Youth/ New Order

Playing ‘Schizophrenia’ for Paul Smith on Eldridge Street, Moore was taken aback when Smith said, ‘I can’t believe you made a record like this.’ Moore didn’t know what to make of the remark; maybe Smith was disappointed it wasn’t noisy enough. No, Smith said; he loved it because it reminded him of New Order.

Smith was spot on. Love both of these videos (we just have to get Thurston into some white shorts).

New Order, 1984:

Sonic Youth, 1987/ 2012:

Dreaming about Kim Gordon

I picked up Goodbye Twentieth Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth (by David Browne) at my mother in law’s house (have no idea whatsoever what it was doing there).  I enjoyed it and it sent me off on an ongoing Spotify tour of Sonic Youth’s music from the past 10-15 years that I ignored or gave short shrift to at the time (e.g. I’m enjoying A Thousand Leaves).

Here are a few things I learned or found edifying:

  • Reading the book and going back to some of the music, I was struck by how very Catholic Thurston Moore’s songs are.  No wonder he loved Madonna!  There’s the great “(I Got a) Catholic Block,” of course: “I got a Catholic block/ Inside my head/… Guess I’m out of luck.”  But so many others.  “She said Jesus had a twin who knew nothing about sin/ She was laughing like crazy at the trouble I’m in.”  Have any Religious-Studies types gotten on this?
  • I guess I always realized that the band’s name was inspired by Big Youth, but I don’t think I ever thought about their serious debt to reggae & dub.  “The deep, undulating rhythms of reggae and dub had infiltrated the downtown music scene.  Moore was so invested in the genre he’d begun taking subway trips to a warehouse in Queens that specialized in reggae LPs, and he told Gordon to practice at home by playing along with the bass lines on a Black Uhuru album.”  This actually makes perfect sense as a way to think about the claustrophobic sound & rhythms of their early music: No Wave meets Lee Perry.
  • This was a favorite moment of mine:  “Phil Morrison, the up-and-coming filmmaker who’d directed the “Titanium Expose” video, starting having dreams in which [Kim] Gordon would suddenly appear, casting a judgmental eye on whatever he was doing.  Talking with friends, he discovered he wasn’t alone. “Lots of people dreamed about Kim,” he says.  “That was a real phenomenon.  And it wasn’t about sex.  She was the person you’d be most concerned about whether they think you’re cool or not.”  This most perfectly encapsulated the band’s role as taste-makers, cool-hunters and -arbiters, commanding the hipster unconscious of their era. I do think some of the music absolutely stands up as some of the greatest of the era (Sister is my personal fave), but the book kind of makes the case that their greatest importance lay in their stewardship of the underground as “the imposing older siblings of the new alternative world order.”  Thurston was the ultimate record-collector boy (someone hypothesizes that they invited Jim O’Roarke to join the band primarily so Thurston would have someone to go record shopping with on tour!) and Kim the arch-cool underground art/fashion diva.

  • They had the kind of career that creates a bit of a letdown in the last third of the book.  Their big pop push with Goo and Dirty in the mid-90s never really happened, and so there’s a little disillusionment as they soldier on making new records to diminishing expectations every year or two.  That said, they’re actually really impressive as a model of a band that figured out new models for their career as they went along (e.g. Thurston’s immersion in experimental & improvised music, the band’s own SYR Records, and so on).  There are some funny lines from Geffen execs or others expressing their mild frustration or resignation about the band’s increasingly willfully anti-pop moves.  “The cover [of 1998’s A Thousand Leaves] was given over to “Hamster Girl,” a piece by L.A. artist Marnie Weber.  In keeping with Weber’s disturbing cut-and-paste montages, “Hamster Girl” juxtaposed a small rodent with a young girl… who was sporting animal horns.  ‘It was obviously not something they put together to sell a lot of records,’ recalls Farrell…”

*In the latest SY-related news, Thurston Moore has apparently just joined “black metal supergroup” Twilight.  He does keep himself busy.

Lee Ranaldo @ Landlocked Music

Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth is touring in support of his new (& first full?) solo album, and appeared for a free performance and reading at our estimable local record/music store Landlocked Music.  The cool hook of the visit was that it was promised that Ranaldo would do a reading of a poem, ‘Bloomington Indiana Autumn’, that he’d written on his only previous visit to town, in 1990, when Sonic Youth performed at IU.

The store was full, though not a mob scene — I think you may have needed to be on Landlocked’s email list to hear about this one. Apparently a press in Louisville, White Fields Press, don’t know if it still exists, produced this broadside/poster of the Bloomington poem back in 1995, and they had signed copies for sale for $10.  Although I’m not crazy about the image of a mid-90s Ranaldo looking broody in a hoodie, I had to buy a copy.

Ranaldo, who’s gone grey in an nicely distinguished way, alternated songs from the new album, with two guys playing along with him*, and some recited poetry.  The poems maybe work best as song lyrics, by and large, although I actually enjoyed the recitations, too.  I have not listened to the album itself (which Pitchfork kind of panned, I see) but in this context the songs came across as somewhat blurred or abstract songwriter folk.  He seems like an unreconstructed Beatnik, in a way.  There was a funny bit where he reminisced about a summer when he was 16 or 17 and did a lot of drugs hanging around with friends in a parent’s backyard.

[*did not realize until now that these two guys were Alan Licht and original S. Youth Steve Shelley drummer on cardboard box!]

Since his Bloomington poem includes a reference to Sylvia Plath, I wanted to tell him about the Lilly Library afterwards — he may not realize that the major Plath holdings including all of her juvenilia and a lock of her hair are here in town– but he was chatting with a kind of line of kids afterwards so I decided not to wait.  The crowd was young, btw; a few other old-timers like me, but mostly 20-something.

In the bookstore I can barely see/ to let a few words from some page through/

All these words collide/ and jostle one another: Anne Sexton/ I open at random and find “Sylvia’s Death”/ which then bumps against biographical blurbs on Dylan, and Joni.

He said that the poem was written to his wife (then girlfriend) who is back in NYC while Ranaldo explores the college town:

The courthouse square, my head still for a moment/ The breeze scattering jewel-like leaves all at my feet/ Burnt yellow, bright yellow, mottled reds and oranges/ I press a few into my book, why?/ Have you kicked through leaves, in the city?/  Let them come up under your toe?/ Well I have, out here, while thinking of you.

“Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror:” Camus probably wished he was Milton too or whatever

I just discovered (via this neat online comic by Lewis) this excellent song about artistic self-doubt.  Singer-songwriter Jeffrey Lewis tells the story of the time he thinks he saw Will Oldham on the subway in Brooklyn.

I kinda thought I was gonna grow up to do stuff that would benefit humanity
But it’s getting harder to tell if this artist’s life is even benefitting me
Cause I was gonna waste some time and money today to remaster some dumb old album
And on the L train in the morning, I was totally sure I saw Will Oldham,
He was wearin’ the same big sunglasses he had on stage at the Bowery Ballroom
And since I was feeling in need of answers I just went right up and asked him, I said,
Will Bonnie Prince, Palace or whatever ‘What do you think about it?
Is it worth being an artist or an indie-rock star, or are you better off without it?’
Cause I mean maybe the world would be better if we were all just uncreative drones,
No dead child, hood dreams to haunt us, a decent job, a decent home,
And if we have some extra time we could do real things to promote peace,
Become scientists or history teachers or un-corrupt police at least,
‘Come on Will, you gotta tell me!!’ I grabbed and shook him by the arm…

As the shaggy-dog song continues, Jeffrey Lewis’s own self-doubt about his own identity as an artist, with Will Oldham in the role of the successful, envy-producing artist, spirals outward such that Lewis starts to imagine Oldham himself feeling inadequate next to Dylan; and then in turn Dylan “wishing he was as good as Ginsberg or Camus;” and “Camus probably wished he was Milton too or whatever”…

I was starring into his sunglasses and I was really freakin’ out i was like,
Steamboat Willie Bonnie Prince of all this shit, you’re like the king of a certain genre
But even you must want to quit like if you hear a record by Bob Dylan or Neil Young or whatever
You must start thinkin’ ‘People like me, but i won’t be that good ever’
And I’m sure the thing is probably Dylan himself too stayed up some nights
Wishing he was as good as Ginsberg or Camus
And he was like ‘Dude, I’m such a faker, I’m just a clown who entertains
and these fools who pay for my crap, they just have pathetic punny brains
and Camus probably wished he was Milton too or whatever, you know what i’m sayin’?!’

It is tough being an artist!!

Jonathan Richman and the eternal “Boston”/”New York” dialectic

We caught Jonathan Richman at the tiny (capacity 100 or so?) Bishop last night.

My first “rock show” ever was Richman at a folk club in Harvard Square (am forgetting the name, long gone… oh, Jonathan Swift’s!) in probably 1983, after he released the great Jonathan Sings! which was in effect his comeback album after disappearing for a while (after the demise of the Modern Lovers) in the late 1970s.  (I learned from Wikipedia that “following the Modern Lovers’ final breakup, Richman went on sabbatical for a few years staying in Appleton, Maine and playing at a local diner in Belfast, Maine, called Barb’s Place.” In those pre-internet days, did people even realize this was happening?)

Funny to look back and realize how little time had passed since the heyday of the Modern Lovers, whose first records were not even released until 1976/7 (although they’d been recorded several years earlier).  Richman was about 32 years old in 1983.  But from my perspective, as a 14 year-old who’d recently immersed myself in the rock and roll canon via Robert Christgau among others, he felt like a legendary elder coming in from the cold.  I went to the show with my father and I think my friend Sam (is that right Sam?).

Richman slowly turned into a new kind of institution in the later 1980s and 1990s, going further and further down his particular rabbit-hole of wide-eyed, child-like, earnest folk music with a slightly delusional/out-of-it edge.  I stopped paying close attention to the recordings long ago, but I was very glad when his role as Greek-chorus troubadour in the Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary seemed to give him a new level of mainstream visibility (and presumably a good chunk of living money).

So I was surprised that he’d play a tiny place like the Bishop… and not necessarily even sell it out (it wasn’t clear to me if he did).  Someone said he’s played in Bloomington a lot, although if this is true I somehow missed it.

Here’s a video someone made a few days ago in Ithaca.  This, I think a new, unrecorded song, was also a highlight last night.

Bohemia by Jonathan Richman at The Haunt in Ithaca, 10/24/11 from Armin Heurich on Vimeo.

My parents didn’t stand in my way when I was 16 years old… They knew I had to find, they knew I was pining, for the door to the art world… They knew that I had to find the door — to Bohemia.  I had my pretentious artwork, but my parents didn’t laugh too bad… I needed to be reined in once in a while.  But they didn’t have a hateful vibe, they didn’t demean.  In fact, I’m grateful because they didn’t… stand in my way, when I was — standin’ in Harvard Square, pretentious artwork in my hand.  The New York hipsters saw me standin’ there, and they knew this young man was looking for the door…. To Bohemia.  There I was standin’ in the square, pretentious artwork folio, but they knew I had to find the way…. To Bohemia.

I was bratty.  Bratty… but sincere.  Yes, I was bratty… But I had to know, they knew I had to go.  Pretentious Artwork Folio, it showed me the door, to Bohemia.  High school was night.  But they showed me light.  When they helped me find the door to Bohemia.  Desperate, desperate, hook or crook… I searched for Bohemia in the high school dusty art book.  Faintly, faintly, conjured I — I searched for Bohemia in the darkened Boston sky.  And once they saw that I wouldn’t back down, well they showed me the door to Bohemia.

It reprises old themes of Richman’s, going back to the Modern Lovers album.  Boston vs. New York, “Old world” vs. modernity, parents vs. rock and roll, squares vs hipsters, “straight”/”stoned,” finding a life in art and music.  Richman moved to NYC in 1969 as a teenager and slept on the floor of the Velvet Underground’s manager, determined to make it in music; he gave up and came back to old Boston, but a few years later, John Cale produced the Modern Lovers sessions.  Keith Gessen argues in a nice piece of a few years ago that “the power of The Modern Lovers is that it’s simultaneously about leaving and not leaving Boston, or about leaving it and coming back,” with “Boston” representing tradition, family, resistance to the new.

I guess one could explain Richman’s career for the last 25-odd years as a full acceptance of “Boston,” in those terms (although what he does now can’t really be explained as simple “tradition”).  He certainly didn’t play a single song from the Modern Lovers or 1970s Richman songbook last night, although presumably at least some of us would have absolutely died for a “She Cracked” or “I’m Straight” or even “Government Center” — let alone “Road Runner.”  Does he ever play that?  How odd to have written one of the THE GREATEST ROCK AND ROLL SONGS EVER, up there with “Satisfaction,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” etc. (robbed when Rolling Stone named it the #269th greatest rock song, but hey, that was still a few notches above “Born to Run”), one of the few songs covered by the Sex Pistols, and never to play it, never apparently even to consider the possibility of playing it?

That’s some strange career management.  This aspect of Richman’s career made me think of Alex Chilton.  He knows everyone’s dying for him to play “September Girls” but instead he plays “Volare” — and this is a surprisingly exact parallel, as Jonathan now sings a bunch of songs in Italian for some reason and often seems to be going for some kind of louche Italian lounge/ folksong mode.

Perhaps because last night was a Friday, he sang “I was Dancing at the Lesbian Bar,” an audience favorite, with its catchy refrain, “In the first bar things were just alright/ At this bar things were Friday night,” spun off in numerous variations: “Well at the first bar things were stop and stare/ But in this bar things were laissez faire,” “Well in the first bar, things were okay/ But in this bar things were more my way,” “In the first bar things were so controlled/ In this bar things were way way bold.”  Another version of the Boston/ New York dialectic, I suppose.

He has a somewhat manic gleam in his eyes, and certain songs get pretty close to self-help or therapy-talk.  (He also dances a little like a Hare Krishna.)  I enjoyed “When We Refuse to Suffer” last night, in which Jonathan casts his lot in with suffering, sorrow, and stink against air conditioning, air fresheners, and Prozac.

There was something quite moving about the show.  I hope that Farrelly bros. and “Road Runner” money (there must be some of that, right?  Is it on Guitar Hero or anything like that?) is funding a comfortable late middle age –the guy’s 62!  Could pass for much younger, though.