Hank Jr Playlist

The Hank Jr. Playlist

So, not too long ago, on a relatively good radio talk show that I frequently listen to, they were playing and discussing two things. The first was Hank Williams Jr’s rant on Fox News channel, known for its blatant conservative views, comparing a golf game between President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner to a fictional round of golf between Hitler and Netanyahu. His point was the absurdity of the meeting but it immediately turned into him comparing Obama to Hitler. He was kicked off of Monday night football and lambasted in the press while Tea Partiers were regaling him with praise  for “ saying what he really thinks”. They seem to miss the point that what he really thinks is not being stated, rather all that is stated is what he said foolishly on a Fox news show.

In my view, both sides are stupid but for different reasons; Hank’s side because what he said was dumb and his repeated comment that people are trampling over his freedom of speech is even dumber. He works for a major TV company, they pay him to use that song and if his public statements alienate someone of course they are going to can him. They want viewers regardless of their ideology. The other side is dumb for villainizing him for saying something stupid. He never called Obama Hitler but that’s what it’s become.

Between that and the Occupywherever movement, I’ve had it up to here with bullshit political rhetoric. I guess I could stop looking at the news or listening to talk radio, but then how could I bitch about it? What music does this make me want to hear?

1. “Volunteers”-Jefferson Airplane

I think this OccupyWall Street thing is kind of bullshit. I mean, so is the whole current socio-economic system and certainly bank rules and high interest rates on loans, but I mean people having the time in the worst economy in 80 years to go sleep in a park to make a point is also an issue. I agree with everything the protesters want and some part of me wishes I could go protest the wrongs in our society too. But I have student loans up the wazoo among numerous other bills and in no way could afford to drive to NYC and spend days protesting.

Hell I work three plus jobs, I couldn’t even get the time off. How do these kids do it? I know many of them have the same situation as me, massive student loans and no job to pay them off, so how does that shit work? When I heard about this movement, the first thing I thought of was this general rant above and this song by the Airplane with the chorus “Got a Revolution”. Check out the Woodstock cut, it’s in the morning and quite amazing.

Continue reading

The Cover Song: Repetition. Imitation. Innovation.

“The author is a modern character, no doubt produced by our society…discovering the prestige of the individual, or, as we say more nobly, of the “human person”. Hence, it is logical that in literary matters it should be positivism, crown and conclusion of capitalist ideology, which has granted the greatest importance to the author’s “person.”” – Roland Barthes (from The Death of the Author)
Nihil sub sole novum, Ecclesiastes

Years ago a roommate (the Historian) and I got in a furious argument about Lauryn Hill’s cover of Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You” (a ‘hidden’ track on the U.S. release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)). The Historian lamented both the lack of originality and the lameness of the cover in comparison to the ‘original’. Now, apart from the fact that Valli didn’t even write the song (Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio did, which complicates any claim of originality), Hill’s version, far from being a slavish imitation, is, I contended, a unique and worthwhile exercise that reflects her musical genre and time period and also enters into a long-standing tradition in art and literature. By updating the old, she created something new. And, as I added as an afterthought, originality is a false premise to begin with.

While my roommate retreated from his extreme “only the original and unique is good” position, he did not, lamentably, learn to love Hill’s version of the song. He has, however, come to see the importance of the cover song in popular music. Music is one area where we cherish repetition and imitation. Classical music and opera constantly revisit familiar territory; Jazz performance is built on a foundation of standards; Rap and Hip Hop made sampling at modern art form; and the history of Rock n’ Roll has the cover song as a staple of any new artist’s introduction.

Indeed, early canonical artists like Elvis and the Beatles were, at the beginning, cover artists (of course, some of this has to do with commercial viability; the rest of this has to do with re-packaging black music for white audiences). Anyone who has been in a band knows that you need cover songs to keep people listening to you and that learning and performing them is an essential part of musical and artistic development.

Somewhere along the way the cover song tarnished a bit. I suspect that part of this is a modern hang-up about “authorship” and “texts”; I suspect even further that once popular music was transported from its performance context where ‘authority’ resides in the current iteration (the performance) of the song rather than some dusty and fixed constant we started to be confused about its status.

Bear with me on this one. In classical music performances and live jazz shows, the money is for the performers—the commodity is in the moment. Since the dominant form of popular music has conventionally been the single played by the DJ and bought at the record store, the commodity is the fixed ‘text’ rather than the live performance or even the ‘transcript’ of the live performance. So, one explanation for the denigration of the cover song is that technological and cultural change facilitated a move away from a performance culture to prize the fixed recording instead.

Another explanation, and this one may be even more of a stretch, is that culturally we prize originality in artistic production because we overvalue ‘genius’. Some explanations for this phenomenon that I have encountered suggest that in a Christianized world we have followed the analogy author : text :: God : creation and that this implicit analogy has led us to devalue reinvention and repetition in favor of the divine original genius model. Another idea is that in a culture that so thoroughly praises the work of individual geniuses rather than the collective forces of human society, there is a certain psychological pressure on individuals to believe in this notion of ‘the genius’ with the secret and desperate hope that they might be one.

In truth, even the most innovative work is built on something that came before. In the ancient world, this idea permeates poetry. Telemachus claims in Homer’s Odyssey that men are always searching after the newest song—implying in some way that his song is new even as it builds on conventional and inherited language and motifs. In accepting a traditional form but claiming a different spirit, the Augustan poet Horace famously describes his poetry as “Roman wine in a Greek vase”. Imitation takes so many forms and is, like repetition, essentially paradoxical. By occurring in a different time, by having the ‘original’ behind it and in the mind of the observer/audience, a copy is never just a copy. The old is already something new. And nothing is ever truly new.

Continue reading

Music. Status. Identity.

Note: After the seriousness of the past week, we’re re-posting an earlier, lighter entry for the weekend. The following was originally published on January 9th 
“There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meaning, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all)—they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue…Nothing is absolutely dead.” –M. M. Bakhtin
“I did it all for the nookie / C’mon / The nookie / C’mon / So you can take that cookie / And stick it up your, yeah!!” –Fred Durst

I once broke up with a girl because of Limp Bizkit. Seriously. And this wasn’t some ephemeral or disposable relationship. We had been a couple on and off for over two years throughout high school—which is, in high school terms, practically being married. How did this happen? What does this say about me?

The mid-nineties were a heady time for music lovers, especially for adolescent malcontents. Before the debuts of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten when alternative music went mainstream, college music stations, independent record stores and word-of-mouth were the primary avenues to “coolness” for those who were otherwise barred by ability, class or disposition from conventional approaches. Even more crazily, for a brief period the worlds collided—in the mid-nineties, nerd chic was all the rage. At my high school, football players new Weezer’s “Sweater Song” and cheerleaders wore Dinosaur Jr. Shirts. Which, of course, made isolating and securing the “cool” that much more difficult. Today, the internet, with its damnable democratizing power, can put anyone “in the know” within a few mouse clicks. Social networking disperses “cool” like fluoride in public water. Does this dispersal make it too diffuse? How do geeky adolescents gain the higher ground any more?

Even after Pearl Jam’s Jeremy won a VMA and bands like Butthole Surfers and Jane’s Addiction were in the day-to-day rotation on MTV, there were still subsections of alternative music that remained on the margins. Sometimes, late at night, you might catch a They Might Be Giants video; but seminal bands like the Pixies and real warriors like Fugazi were still part of the realm of the select few. During these years, what and who you listened to helped to define who you were; or, whom you chose to allow people to know you listened to was an important part of the creation of self-identity. To be lame was to listen to anything in the top forty.

My circle of friends was organized by the (1) aesthetics of the obscure and unknown (Red House Painters), (2) the almost-cool but turning mainstream (Green Day), (3) the ironic but still earnest obsession (Elvis), (4) the almost lame but sort-of acceptable mainstream (Dave Matthews, Blues Traveler), (5) ‘connoisseurship’ (Pre-1990 R.E.M.; U2’s Boy but not Joshua Tree and certainly not Achtung Baby), (6) the geeky but cool (Dead Kennedys), (7) the intentionally offensive (Gwar) and then me. I couldn’t commit to one pose long enough because of my fear that any purchase on ‘coolness’ was temporary. So, I decided to hate everything (or at least almost everything).

Wanted to be Frank Black, but was really Fred Durst

The girl in question in this story just loved music—she could listen without irony to Madonna and Michael Jackson in 1994 (which, for those of you who don’t remember those days, was an accomplishment). But she also espoused the insider’s pose of knowledge as she proudly claimed to have bought Live’s first album before they were cool or as she included Fremke and Smashing Pumpkin B-sides on mix-tapes. I guess in the end it was my own continual uncertainty and insecurity that did us in. If someone loved everything and showed no disdain when it came to music, how could her opinion on more important matters (read: me) have any significance?

In truth, the relationship had been heading south well before the Limp Bizkit incident—I was going to college and, in my own mind, had stayed with her primarily because of convenience. But, when on some weeknight at her house I sat at the kitchen table and saw the brand new Three Dollar Bill Y’all$ still in cellophane, I lost it. Now, this was one album before the world learned about what Fred Durst did for the “Nookie”; two years before violence and sexual assaults at the nearly apocalyptic  Woodstock ’99, but from even my tangential knowledge, I knew that Limp Bizkit was musically impoverished, tonally challenged, wannabe hardcore.

To wit, I have no problem with hardcore, but without an ethical and aesthetic center, it is nothing but noise. Again, great artists don’t necessarily need to be musically talented. But, in retrospect, a phenomenon like Limp Bizkit was the death knell for mainstream alternative rock (if that oxy-moron makes any sense), the only nostrum for which was the several years of boy-band pop hell that descended around the same time. To give Durst his due, he was a great showman and his cover of George Michael’s “Faith”, for the time period, was genius.

In all honesty, at the kitchen table on that evening, I knew very little about Limp Bizkit. I knew I didn’t like the name; I knew I didn’t like the cover art; and I had a vague idea that ‘posers’ and ‘losers’ liked them. I asked the girl about it, perhaps hoping that it was a lame gift for or from a friend. But, to my chagrin, she said she bought it and added that she was really excited about it. I said “what?” She told me that they were “cool”. I don’t have the best memory about what happened next, but it may have started with “we need to talk”.

Of course, none of this reflects on me too well. And it shouldn’t. If anything, she was being genuine in pursuing what she liked regardless of external associations (and, regardless of my standards of ‘taste’). I was judgmental, narrow-minded and an overall prick.  I broke up with a girl over Limp Bizkit; all I can say to console myself now is that at least I didn’t “do it all for the nookie”.

The Sister Speaks (for Dad)

I am not a writer or a blogger and I really have nothing to do with this aside from reading my brothers’ entries with the hope that every day NKOTB will be mentioned. However, the first anniversary of our father’s unexpected passing is about to fall upon us, so my brothers invited me to join them in discussing some songs for our father. I was not part of the original conversation about “funeral songs”, etc., but there are definitely songs that come to mind whenever I think of my father.

For a man who was almost 100% deaf, our father loved music. He attended countless musicals, high school band and chorus concerts, dance recitals and performances of my older brother’s rock/alternative/not-sure-how-to-describe-it band. Before it was me performing, and we’d go to see my older brother’s shows, my dad would frequently ask me questions about what was going on. One particular incident that comes to mind is a concert we attended where my brother’s woman du jour was playing the flute, and he asked me, “what the hell is that girl doing?” He couldn’t hear the high-pitched sounds of the woodwind instrument and thought she was just dancing around holding a metal stick to her face.

Another memory that reminds me of his love of music is when he asked me to get him some classical music for Christmas. He didn’t specify a composer or concerto, he just said “classical music.” Since he was difficult to buy gifts for, I was happy for the inspiration and bought him a CD of a random compilation of music from a variety of composers.

Even though he couldn’t hear most music, whenever my father would drive into the driveway, no matter where I was standing, whether it was indoors or outdoors, I could almost always hear his car before I could see it—he would turn up the Oldies station incredibly loudly so that he could try to hear or at the very least feel the music while he was driving. When he got an iPod a few years ago, he asked my brothers and me to fill it with music, and we gave him everything from the Beatles to Bob Marley.

One Beatles song that he wanted to ensure was on his iPod was “Hey Jude.” The Younger specified that song as one that he remembers when thinking about my dad, but I will note at this point that the song plays a big role in my thoughts of my father—though these days, I can’t seem to listen to the whole song without crying. But I digress—onto my songs.

“Silent Night”

This is obviously an old and traditional Christmas carol, one that my father sang as a child, with his father singing it before him  and so on and so forth.  At the church where he walked me down the aisle the day I got married, (the same church where we celebrated his life with a packed service of family, friends and distant acquaintances) they saing “Silent Night” as the second-to-last hymn every Christmas Eve. While the song plays, the members of the congregation all hold small candles to light each other’s candles, until everyone in the church is holding a lit candle.

When we attended Christmas Eve service at this church, my father always sang along for at least part of “Silent Night” and it’s the one Christmas carol that really got me this year. My husband and I attended a service at a local Lutheran church in our small western Colorado town this year; and this congregation also shared candlelight during “Silent Night.” It was difficult to handle emotionally, but I felt as if somehow, during that song, on that evening, my father was with me.

“Cotton Fields”

No idea who originally sang it, but it was covered by greats such as Johnny Cash, Creeence Clearwater Revival, the Beach Boys, and Elton John.  The first time I ever heard it was on a cold Christmas morning in the back woods of Maine. That year I had received the African-American American Girl doll named Addy, and upon unwrapping the gift, my father immediately grabbed her away from me and began bouncing her on his knee, singing “When I was a little bitty baby my momma rocked me in the cradle…” (My father didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body; but he was far from politically correct.) I was confused, mortified and probably launched into one of my famous fits from that era. However, his actions that morning set the stage for a world of giggles for myself, my family and a childhood friend, Brittany, who I still consider to be a family member.

“Summer in the City”—The Lovin’ Spoonful

When I was a young child, my family spent a lot more time together as a family than we did as my brothers and I slowly grew older. We would travel by car to places like Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, or Boston. Sometimes we would not spend the extra night in a hotel and we’d drive home with the Oldies station playing on the car radio. I remember hearing “Summer in the City” several times on the radio on those car trips, especially during the night and I remember a specific instance of it playing while we rolled through a toll booth. Hearing the song reminds me of the “good times”, before my brothers and I really knew that there was stress and negativity in life, before we realized that our family wouldn’t always be together as one unit.

“Spirit in the Sky”—Norman Greenbaum

This is one song I wish had been played during the church service on the day we gathered to remember my father’s life.  Not only does it “fit” a funeral situation, but it reminds me a lot of my father. Particularly, it reminds me of my trips back and forth from Maine to Vermont during my college years, but I also remember him listening to the song when I was young. A college friend made me a mixed CD during the winter of 2003, back when mixed CDs were really something special, and “Spirit in the Sky” was one of the songs on that CD. My father and I listened to that particular CD and the song Spirit in the Sky several times during our travels. Because my father enjoyed church and read daily scriptures, he especially enjoyed the line from the song, “Gotta have a friend in Jesus” and always managed to sing that line with an extra decibel of volume.  Whether he could hear the music or hear himself sing, my father always enjoyed that particular song.

Funeral Songs for the Deaf

The following entry was composed soon after the Eldest J passed away. Time has made it possible to revisit it now. The Younger J posted on the same subject yesterday

“There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meaning, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all)—they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue…Nothing is absolutely dead.” –M. M. Bakhtin

When the Younger J and I were first discussing this blog during my commute, one of the first topics was “Funeral Music for Our Father”. Now, this wasn’t a morbid or a vindictive conversation—we had both recently read Shit my Father Says and had for years discussed the insanity, humor and uniqueness of our own father. We tell stories about his antics; his impulsive and bizarre behavior is the subject of jokes and anecdotes shared by our friends and extended family.

Since we both believe that the music we listen to (in actuality) and the music we tell people we listen to helps to define who we are for ourselves and others, it only made sense to try to characterize our father by listing the songs that most remind us of him and the songs that he claims as his own. The catch in this is that our dad became nearly completely deaf soon after he was born (almost three months premature in 1949). He spent all of his life reading lips, hearing mostly bass-lines of pop-songs, blasting out the speakers in every car we ever owned, and disappointed by every new attempt to match his disability with a ‘new’ hearing aid.

Dad was seriously deaf—as a ‘parlor’ trick when I was in high school, I used to walk up behind him and call him an asshole at the top of my lungs. To the laughter of my visiting friends, he didn’t even flinch. Before I was a teenager, he told me the only regret he had was that he never heard the sound of birds. When my daughter was first born, he confided to my mother that he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to hear her cry.

So, the Younger J and I decided that, since our father was morbid and straightforward about life (and also a sheer ox in terms of health despite many decades of smoking), he’d find it hysterical if we wrote essays talking about the music that defined the life of a deaf man. We knew he’d appreciate the gallows humor and the political incorrectness.  I remember laughing as I merged onto the highway that meant I was only 35 minutes from home and thinking about what a lark it would be for family and friends to play along.

The next day my brother called me and told me my father was in the hospital with pneumonia. We were assured that he would be all right after a couple of days. At 4 AM when my cell phone went off, I didn’t need to answer to know what happened. My brother and I didn’t choose any of the music at the funeral. We spoke to honor him, but even that was insufficient. It was all so sudden, shocking, and final. I would call it a tragedy if it weren’t so disarmingly common.

My brother and I are each are our father’s sons, but in very different ways. We spent different parts of his life with him—he had more time for me when I was very young and he was doing everything ‘right’; he was a best friend and confidant to my brother when both of them were older. Though deaf, my father made sure I had saxophone, piano and guitar lessons. He tolerated a full band rehearsal (drums, bass, PA, the whole thing) every Sunday and Thursday night for much of high school. He attended every choral, band, and theatrical performance you could imagine—and never once complained. Occasionally, he would ask me to describe what songs were like; often he would get confused when one person sang from a chorus or when there were solos for high-pitched instruments like the flute. Despite the fact that his life was defined by silence, he never once questioned the centrality of music in ours.

In fact, my father even took me to see my first concert—the Jerry Garcia Band in its final tour (on a weeknight!). Only after arriving did I realize that we were there for the ‘scene’ and not the music, but I enjoyed it all the same. I convinced him to buy me an overpriced t-shirt which I wore proudly to school the next day like a rube.  He also bought me at least three guitars, financed a sound system, watched too many crappy performances of a bad garage band, and didn’t say a thing when I sold all my music equipment to move to NYC.

Although it has been a year since my father died, the surprise and sting of his absence still seems new. I don’t know when I rested easy or slept through a full Saturday night again. I watched the Arab Spring unfold with regret, because it would have fascinated him. I wept when my son was born because now my father had two grandchildren who would never know him and a father scarred by the loss of his own. I have tried to be friend, father and brother to my brother; a good son and protector to my mother; a father to my children and husband to my wife. All without him here to guide me.

In no small part, we followed through with creating this blog to honor him. Not because he would give two shits if we did it, but because our relationship with and dedication to each other would have made him happy. Of all the things he taught his three children, one of the greatest lessons was to trust in and depend on one another. Our father wasn’t always wise, but he was when it mattered. He wasn’t always attentive, but he was there whenever I called. He couldn’t give his children everything we wanted, but he certainly gave us everything we needed. For him and for us, I started this list.

Continue reading