A Man Called Destruction (Alex Chilton biography)

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I just read Holly George-Warren’s A Man Called Destruction: the Life and Music of Alex Chilton.  I was a huge Alex Chilton fan in my not-so-wayward youth in the 1980s, as I discussed in this 2010 post (prompted then by the 33 1/3 book on Radio City and the Big Star box set), so it was great to fill in a lot of details and to understand parts of the story that had always been hazy or sketchy for me.  Overall it’s an excellent biography, I thought –at least for a fan; you might not have the stamina for the whole thing if you weren’t already one.

A few observations:

  • This isn’t news, but reading the whole biography made clear how incredibly strange Chilton’s career was, with some weirdly history-defying twists and diversions. He’s a teenage star as the singer of the somewhat manufactured pop group the Box Tops in the mid and late 60s.  When the band finally fizzles out in 1970, Chilton is all of 20 years old.  When Big Star similarly (well, very differently) fizzles out in 1974/5, the guy is 25 years old, having already lived through two full lives in the music business. What I hadn’t really fully understood is that in the immediate post-Big Star years, Chilton spent quite a lot of time in NYC and was even a semi-fixture at CGBGs right in the dawning of the punk scene.  He “stayed in New York for much of 1977, the year punk broke… Ball and Ork had already booked another prime gig: opening for Talking Heads at CBGB March 3-5, two sets each night.”  Chilton told a fanzine, “Everybody loves me here, it’s incredible.  In Memphis everybody thinks I’m a jerk.  Come up here, get respect, girls wanna sleep with me.”  “CBGBs soon became Alex’s second home…. ‘I could drink free at CBGBs,’ Alex said. ‘The Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads were all coming out of that scene and were already too big to get close to or to be friends with.  But Richard Hell was omnipresent… The Dead Boys lived right across the street; I enjoyed their company.”  “Alex and the band opened at CB’s for Lester Bangs… The previous night, two of Alex’s favorite bands had been on the bill with Bangs– the Ramones and the Cramps… Alex had become obsessed with the Cramps and saw them whenever possible.”  Etc.  There’s something about all of this that just seems so strange.  Chilton was/ should have been a total legend at this point. But instead he’s this punk fanboy hanging around CBGBs waiting in line to see the Dead Boys.  And he’s still just 26 or so.
  • Perhaps the most mind-blowing such detail, with Chilton as a strange Zelig figure of the late 70s scene: “Alex still had his derelict apartment on East Ninth Street, which now had no electricity. He hadn’t paid rent in two months and was about to be evicted, so he packed his duffel bag once more and headed back to Memphis in time for his 27th birthday. A week later the Sex Pistols played their second show in America… in Memphis… Arriving early, Alex helped set up equipment… and tuned Steve Jones’ guitar for him.”  !!??!!
  • Something else I probably should have realized: Lou Reed’s Berlin was a big influence on Sister Lovers/ Big Star Third.  That makes sense. (That the album contains a cover of a Velvet Underground song (“Femme Fatale”) somehow kept me from considering Reed’s later music as an influence.)  In 1981 a New York Rocker writer and musician (Glenn Morrow), reviewing a dissolute live performance, observed, “Like a Memphis version of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal,… Chilton reminded me a bit of Lou Reed, circa 1975, slightly paunchy in plan t-shirt and jeans mixing banality with the occasional glimmer of greatness.”  Morrow concluded (wonderfully), “To be so fucking talented, a great songwriter who doesn’t seem to be writing anymore, a gifted guitar player who chooses just to sing, a singer who chooses to warble off-key.  It doesn’t take much to sit in the corner laughing while the bull trashes the china shop.  Come on, Alex, ain’t it about time you took the bull by the horns?”
  • Few others are likely to care about this, but I was fascinated to come across a citation from a thoughtful piece on Big Star published in 1975 or something by Mike Saunders, later “Metal” Mike Saunders of the Angry Samoans!  I knew that he’d been a rock critic, but this still surprised me.
  • Speaking of the Sex Pistols, Chilton’s on-again off-again relationship with the beautiful Lesa Aldridge (a lot of the songs on Sister Lovers are about her) eventually degenerated into Sid and Nancy territory.  Not pretty.  (There’s also at least one verified report of Chilton making an offhand anti-semitic comment, although it’s not entirely clear to what degree this reflected real prejudice, as opposed to being more about trying to shock and piss off the journalist.) The drug intake at times becomes pretty startling even by rock ‘n’ roll standards.  Jim Dickinson on working on the Sister Lover sessions with Clinton: “”The first night of the first session I watched him shoot Demerol down his throat with a syringe,” said Dickinson. “That set the tone.””
  • The biography left me pondering some large questions about causality, character, talent, and luck.  What most explains Chilton’s fucked-up career and the fact that he never really got the recognition he deserved?  The book sometimes feel like it could be titled, Operation: Undermine Music Career. The book can suggest various different possibilities.  One relates to trauma and depression. Chilton’s beloved older brother Reid suffered a powerful seizure (he was prone to them) while taking a bath in 1957, just after graduating from high school, and drowned.  This hit the 7-year-old Alex hard, and he later attempted suicide twice (cutting his wrists), and once passed out in a bath and almost died as his brother did.  One gets the distinct impression that Chilton’s drug abuse was partially (as it usually is, probably) self-medication.  Or, one can read his drug & alcohol problems less as effect of something else, and more the central thing itself: perhaps he just happened to have an addictive personality, a tendency toward self-indulgence, and a dangerous profession for someone with those tendencies.
  • And then, when it comes to his relationship with the music business, do we see him mostly as a victim of a system that couldn’t recognize his genius? Or as bearing more culpability or at least agency in the process?  There’s a lot of evidence for the first view, as Big Star couldn’t have gotten much unluckier when it came to the way their records were handled.  OTOH, Chilton had opportunity after opportunity that he either squandered or passed up, either out of perversity, bohemian intransigence, integrity, drug-addledness, depression, just not caring, following his own muse, not working well with others (choose your own theory).
  • One detail that was fascinating to me: Alex’s older brother Howard got (or worked towards) his PhD in philosophy at Indiana University, and through Howard, Alex got turned onto the ideas of Wilhelm Reich.  He later cited Reich’s 1933 book Character Analysis as a major influence, saying that after reading it, “I began sorting things out.  Character Analysis helped me understand myself and the people around me… From then on, I kind of knew what I was doing and where I wanted to go.”  He also seems to have taken astrology pretty seriously, to the extent that he had to vet any potential musical partners to ensure compatible astrological signs.  (Well, it’s better than Scientology.)
  • I just read Carl Wilson’s good review of the book, in which he makes the nice observation that “Chilton’s story is … a mystery about whatever drives a handful of artists to be great at the expense of being good, to gamble double or nothing on the long odds.”

Waka Waka– Shakira’s and Zangaléwa’s

I’ve listened to Shakira’s “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” at least 30-40 times in the past week.

Celie and Iris play it over and over and my response to it has passed through various phases.

My reaction:

  • Listens 1-5:  This song is sort of dreck.
  • 6-10: But very catchy.
  • 11-15: Now I’m really getting sick of it.
  • 16-20: Oh god, please no, not this again.
  • 21-25: [eyeing sharp instruments to gouge out my ears]
  • 26-30  Weirdly coming out the other side and starting to kind of enjoy it again.
  • 31-40  The song feels natural, inevitable, beyond judgment, part of the environment

They are doing some kind of school dance to the song tomorrow morning, so this may end soon.

The backstory to the song is kind of fascinating.  It’s basically a cover/rip-off of this absolutely great, beautiful Cameroonian song:

Wikipedia explains that

Tsamina or Zangaléwa is a 1986 hit song, originally sung by a makossa group from Cameroon called Golden Sounds who were beloved throughout the continent for the dances and costumes. The song was such a hit for Golden Sounds that they eventually changed their name to Zangaléwa, too. The song pays tribute to African skirmishers (a.k.a tirailleurs) during WW II. Most of the band members were in the Cameroonian Army themselves[1] and used make up, fake bellies, and fake butts for comic relief.  The song was used extensively in the frontlines by the Nigerian Army during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). It was also popular in some Nigeria schools as a marching song in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The Nigerian Army Band, The Mercuries, based in Kaduna also did cover this song in the 1970’s on live Television appearances.  The song is still used today almost everywhere in Africa by soldiers, policemen, boy scouts, sportsmen, and their supporters, usually during training or for rallying[1]. It is also widely used in schools throughout the continent especially in Cameroon as a marching song and almost everyone in the country knows the chorus of the song by heart.

What gets fascinating is that the song is apparently — or is sometimes turned into — an anti-militaristic anthem:

The men in the group often dressed in military uniforms, wearing pith helmets and stuffing their clothes with pillows to appear like they had swollen butts from riding the train and fat stomachs from eating too much. The song, music historians say, is a criticism of black military officers who were in league with whites to oppress their own people. The rest is Cameroonian slang and jargon from the soldiers during the war.

According to Jean Paul Zé Bella, the lead singer of Golden Sounds, the chorus came from Cameroonian “sharpshooters who had created a slang for better communication between them during the Second World War”. They copied this fast pace in the first arrangements of the song. They sang the song together for freedom in Africa.

So… it kind of makes sense, a little bit, as an African World Cup anthem — with the literal opening lines, “you’re a soldier, choosing your battles,” turned into a metaphor for football.   To re-deploy it in this way, though, sung by a blonde from Columbia, scrubs it all of its cultural specificity, history, and pointed political significance.

The comments thread on Youtube is interesting; I’ll cite a few:

beautiful. so much better then shakira’s version. shakira is someone i can’t really relate to africa.. but this.. this is perfect.

This song isn’t about ‘singing good’. It’s a chant, a protest song, a empowering tune, a cheer for your cause. You want to hear this from ‘the people’, and not from a individual artist. Shakira’s song is nice, but in a stadium, you just want to scream it.

shakira didn’t do anything wrong – it’s actually even admirable. It’s just that we hate her ignorant fans – but lets get it straight – it’s not her fault who listens to her.

I dislike how Shakira lied, and said that she made up this song. However, I do think that she’s gotten the ORIGINAL song a lot of good recognition. People who actually give a crap about Africa and their culture will definitely pass by here.

Celie and Iris have stayed out of the controversy.  They just listen to Shakira’s version 24/7 and work on their dance.

Now, if only I can convince the girls to dress up for the performance “in military uniforms, wearing pith helmets and stuffing their clothes with pillows to appear like they had swollen butts from riding the train and fat stomachs from eating too much.”   If I do, I’ll be sure to get a photo…

M.I.A. and Ginger Insurgency

Intense new video (almost a mini-movie) for the new M.I.A. song “Born Free.”  (Caveat: nudity and a lot of violence.)

Spoiler alert: it’s sort of derivative of “District 9” with grittier/ more violent depictions of brutal (and multiracial) U.S. troops terrorizing, beating, arresting, & assassinating innocent civilians… who turn out to have been singled out because they have red hair.  So, it’s a clever and somewhat absurdist re-imagining of racism as directed at red-heads, and an indigenous insurgency (a la the Tamil Tigers) led by outlaw gingers… until you realize/remember/learn that prejudice against “Gingers” is a apparently a real phenomenon in the U.K.

E.g. this blog Gingerism, “documenting the existence of gingerism in mainstream society;”

This British comedian Catherine Tate’s show’s episode about a victim of prejudice and abuse being offered refuge at a shelter for Gingers:

“I am what I am!… The people in the village spit at me, the children throw dog matter in the letter box, and you’re telling me to accept myself!  It’s just not fair!”

“I know, Sandra; but at the end of the day there will always be those who can’t bring themselves to accept people who are…”

“You can’t say it.”

“… Ginger.”

OK, I guess this is a much more widespread meme than I realized:

In modern-day UK, the words “ginger” or “ginga” are sometimes derogatorily used to describe red-headed people (“ginger” is not often considered insulting; the abbreviation “ginge” is much more commonly used derogatorily), with terms such as “gingerphobia” (fear of redheads) or “gingerism” (prejudice against redheads) used by the media. Some have speculated that the dislike of red-hair may derive from the historical English sentiment that people of Irish or Celtic background, with a greater prevalence of red hair, were ethnically inferior. Redheads are also sometimes referred to disparagingly as “carrot tops” and “carrot heads”. “Gingerism” has been compared to racism, although this is widely disputed, and bodies such as the UK Commission for Racial Equality do not monitor cases of discrimination and hate crimes against redheads. A UK woman recently won an award from a tribunal after being sexually harassed and receiving abuse because of her red hair; a family in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, was forced to move twice after being targeted for abuse and hate crime on account of their red hair; and in 2003, a 20 year old was stabbed in the back for “being ginger”. In May 2009, a British schoolboy committed suicide after being bullied for having red hair. The British singer Mick Hucknall, who believes that he has repeatedly faced prejudice or been described as ugly on account of his hair colour, argues that Gingerism should be described as a form of racism. This prejudice has been satirised on a number of TV shows. The British comedian Catherine Tate (herself a redhead) appeared as a red haired character in a running sketch of her series The Catherine Tate Show. The sketch saw fictional character Sandra Kemp, who was forced to seek solace in a refuge for ginger people because they had been ostracised from society. The British comedy Bo’ Selecta! (starring redhead Leigh Francis) featured a spoof documentary which involved a caricature of Mick Hucknall presenting a show in which celebrities (played by themselves) dyed their hair red for a day and went about daily life being insulted by people. The pejorative use of the word “ginger” and related discrimination was used to illustrate a point about racism and prejudice in the “Ginger Kids”, “Le Petit Tourette” and “Fatbeard” episodes of South Park.

As a member of a family full of red-heads, I deplore this senseless bias!

“We spent as much money as we could”

Weird/ surprising Victorian lit reference of the day: a line from Great Expectations as epitaph for the American reconstruction effort in Iraq:

At the end of his narrative, Mr. Bowen chooses a line from “Great Expectations” by Dickens as the epitaph of the American-led attempt to rebuild Iraq: “We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us.”

This is really mind-bending: Pip and Herbert Pocket, living beyond their means at Bernard’s Inn, miserable but pretending they’re having a great time, as an analogy for the American occupation of Iraq.  Pip as a figure for the U.S. in its indebted, improvident ways.  So does this make “the Avenger” (Pip’s personal servant, whom he despises) the Iraqi resistence?  Or, I suppose a better analogy would be to the Iraqi forces working with the Americans.

What the Frack?: Battlestar Galactica

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We’ve been making our way through the first season of Battlestar Galactica.  I’d heard good things about it, but I’m not the biggest filmed sci-fi fan and it felt like a big commitment.  What finally inspired me was running into an old acquaintance who has pretty hip/smart taste who declared that he believes it may be the best t.v. show ever.

Not sure I’d go that far, but it’s definitely excellent.  It’s overwhelmingly a post-9/11 narrative: a comfortable, complacent way of life suddenly shattered; nothing will be the same; life in wartime; our way of life threatened by “others” who may be infiltrating our world; a return to wartime/military ways of thinking and feeling that had felt decades out of date, with the rise to prominence/call out of retirement of old military heroes; the enemy is like us but different/evil; strains of religious fundamentalism and old prophecies.

And of course, interrogation scenes.  There’s a painful one of the interrogation of a Cylon in which the interrogator gives a free rein to the most violent methods on the grounds that, of course, “he’s not actually human.”  The Cylons are, basically, robots who have “evolved” and surpassed human beings; one of their talents is the ability to mimic perfectly human form.  So they are not-human but human; the most interesting twist is that there are Cylons who have been placed as embedded spies in the human world and do not yet know that they are not human.

So, one of the clever aspects of this remake is the way this hoary sci-fi kind of plot is in effect re-purposed as a post-9/11 allegory.  It could be read as quite “conservative” in its literalization of the instinct that “the enemy is not really human” — certainly the interrogation scenes are disquieting in this way — although I tend to interpret it as self-aware in smart ways.

We got Grandma Suzy into the show on her visit last month.

I’ve been amused by the show’s neologism “frack.”  This is a substitute for the obvious curse word, as in “what the frack.”  What’s funny about it is that it comes across as a bleeping-out of “fuck” for network t.v., sort of like when Sex and the City or the Sopranos ran on non-premium t.v. they absurdly dubbed out the curses: “I’m gonna kill that [twerp]”, etc.  But I suppose the idea is supposed to be that in this futuristic society, “frack” is the form into which the original term has evolved.  (Since contemporary human society is the ancient, mythical past of the Galactica humans.)

But — doesn’t that mean that “frack” is to “fuck” as Cylon is to human?????

End of the Southern Strategy?

Two NY Times articles today suggest that the Southern Strategy — the Republican party’s coded appeals to racist working-class whites to peel them away from the Democrats — may now be dead.

Less than a third of Southern whites voted for Mr. Obama, compared with 43 percent of whites nationally. By leaving the mainstream so decisively, the Deep South and Appalachia will no longer be able to dictate that winning Democrats have Southern accents or adhere to conservative policies on issues like welfare and tax policy, experts say.

That could spell the end of the so-called Southern strategy, the doctrine that took shape under President Richard M. Nixon in which national elections were won by co-opting Southern whites on racial issues. And the Southernization of American politics — which reached its apogee in the 1990s when many Congressional leaders and President Bill Clinton were from the South — appears to have ended.

“I think that’s absolutely over,” said Thomas Schaller, a political scientist who argued prophetically that the Democrats could win national elections without the South.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have “become a Southernized party,” said Mr. Schaller, who teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “They have completely marginalized themselves to a mostly regional party,” he said, pointing out that nearly half of the current Republican House delegation is now Southern.

Wow.  Could this really be true?  It’s been an infuriating constant in my adult consciousness of national politics that the prejudices and whims of racist Southerners have always exerted a disproportionately determining influence on elections.  And this electoral dynamic has surely allowed this racism to flourish, since it in effect normalized it and rewarded those who practiced it.

It didn’t occur to me until someone else pointed it out that McCain’s obsession with Obama’s “socialism” was linked to this tradition, since “redistribution” of wealth has often been code for “giving money to black people.”  I had been bemused at why on earth working-class folks would be upset by Obama proposing to raise the taxes of people earning more than a quarter million a year.

What a great thought, that racists in Mississippi who believe that an Obama victory may mean that that there will “be outbreaks from blacks” will be marginalized and mostly ignored in national elections.  It’s very satisfying to look at the “racism map” that shows the relatively small Southern region that supported McCain more strongly than it did Bush in 2004.  (Satisfying to see how self-enclosed and cut off that region is from the mainstream, not Sarah Palin’s “real America” in the least.  And of course, satisfying and a relief to see that Indiana is definitively not part of that region.)

Here’s a related Op-Ed piece.

Ice Cream Social

Everyone’s feeling kind of happy and giddy.  Last night we went to an “ice cream social” at Obama headquarters downtown for volunteers.  It was nice.  The building they’ve been in used to house Tortilla Flats, but then (Steve tells me) they sold their liquor license and later lost all their business and gave up.  So the Obama folks took over the building, and now it is going to be destroyed next week.  They had paint and markers and were drawing and writing on the walls.  Celie and Iris really liked that — made a bunch of heart people and flowers, and wrote their names.

We ran into someone we know, a retired prof, who has been volunteering for the campaign since the summer of 2007!  It was cool to reflect that Indiana went blue because of all the people like him.  We found out that a number of other people we knew were also canvassing in Bedford on Tuesday.  Maybe it made a difference.

Let’s see, what else to say.  Iris and Celie were most interested in Obama’s line about Malia and Sasha having “earned that puppy.”  Possibly they are trying to figure out how they too can earn a puppy.  (Focus on earning the two kittens you already have, is my advice.)  I missed this, but apparently Sarah was watching Obama’s acceptance speech on tape with the girls and Iris cried: “because he’s just so good,” she said, overcome by all the emotion.

In a way, thinking about Malia and Sasha in the White House is one of the most surreal things.  So amazing that they will be the first children of the country.  I hope they can manage to enjoy it.