Songs of the Year 1996

She said it’s cold
It feels like Independence Day
And I can’t break away from this parade
But there’s got to be an opening
Somewhere here in front of me
Through this maze of ugliness and greed
–The Wallflowers

Songs of the Year: “Novocaine for the Soul”, the Eels; “One Headlight”, the Wallflowers

Runners Up: “What I got”; Sublime; “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, Smashing Pumpkins

Honorable Mentions: “Old Apartment”, Barenaked Ladies;  “California Love” Tupac, Dr. Dre

1996 was the year that I dropped the transmission on the Ford LTD station wagon; but it is still filled with memories of music playing in that car. I can see the road I was turning on to when Sublime’s “What I got” was playing on the local radio station for the first time. I can remember where the snow was falling when I first heard the terrible and memorable lyrics “The world is a vampire / sent to drain …”

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On the Radio (Flashback): Time Bomb

In the mid 1990s I used to work about 45 minutes away from home at a gas station–much to the chagrin of my parents who couldn’t understand why the hell I had to drive 45 minutes to pump gas when there were perfectly good places to pump gas in our home town.  The long and the short of it was: (1) I didn’t want to be caught pumping gas by someone I actually knew and (2) there was a girl involved (the place was owned by her father).

As with most things, the law of unintended consequences had a powerful showing here.This was the glorious year of the Ford LTD Stationwagon.  First of all, since I was young and driving a lot not only did I get into my first fender-bender, run out of gas during a snowstorm and receive my first, second and third traffic citations, but I also got to listen to the radio constantly at a time when alt-rock was king. During many of my long drives into the cold, I heard songs by the band Rancid.

I can’t listen to this song without getting happy now. What the living hell was wrong with me?

As I mentioned a few months back when I was going through my obsessive phase with Palma Violets, I was dismissive of almost everything in second-wave punk for no good reason. Although I grudgingly acknowledged the quality of Green Day (and who didn’t? the radio played us all into submission), Rancid–with its snarling vocals and stripped down sound–seemed easy to mock and easier to dismiss. And yet, when I listen to it now, it seems so much more transgressive, immediate, and authentic (again, whatever that means) than a lot of the other schmaltz I thought was good. (“Wonderwall? What the fuck?)

I think that a good deal of my suspicion of punk’s second sailing has to do with poorly held and even more poorly defined ideas of authenticity and originality. At 16, I thought that such words had meaning and had no concept of things like appropriation, homage, and metamorphosis. Even worse, when it came to a band like Rancid, I was too fucking ignorant to know that two of the members were old-timers from Operation Ivy who had enough cache and real DIY punk character to make the members of Green Day blush. Hell, Rancid never even signed with a mainstream label.

So, I guess the lesson here is that if you’re worried that someone else is a poseur, you should probably check into their bona fides and, even before that, do the whole monkey in the mirror thing and make sure you’re not a complete fake. I’m trying to make amends for this and many other asshole moments in my youth.  Just today I downloaded the album.  My kids are going to be rocking out with safety pins this afternoon.

And what do you think of all this, my brother?

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.

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On the Radio (Flashback): Second Acts, The Rentals, “Friends of P”

“There are no second acts in American Lives…” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Back in the 1990s when I was tooling around southern Maine in a rapidly deteriorating Ford LTD Stationwagon, I relished the pure joy of a few months of low-advertising and risk-taking on the local alternative rock station. One of the few things I remember about this period is the overwhelming airplay bestowed upon Weezer’s first album. Despite the overwhelming success of this debut, the band couldn’t stay together.  The bassist, Matt Sharp, departed and formed his own band, The Rentals.

For a brief period, it seemed like Sharp made the right decision. I remember cold winter nights, frost on the wind shield and touring around the back roads listening to the enigmatic and beautiful “Friends of P”:

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(Re-Play) Songs of the Year 1996

Do you ever sit around and wonder what you were doing or thinking about a year ago? One of the things about the internet age is that you can almost always come up with some documentary evidence to discover if not what you were thinking, then at least what you were saying you were thinking (or something like that).

With a blog, it is a bit more official. last year, around this time, I was thinking about the songs of 1996. So, in the spirit of all things being cyclical, let’s go back there again.

She said it’s cold
It feels like Independence Day
And I can’t break away from this parade
But there’s got to be an opening
Somewhere here in front of me
Through this maze of ugliness and greed
–The Wallflowers

Songs of the Year: “Novocaine for the Soul”, the Eels; “One Headlight”, the Wallflowers

Runners Up: “What I got”; Sublime; “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, Smashing Pumpkins

Honorable Mentions: “Old Apartment”, Barenaked Ladies;  “California Love” Tupac, Dr. Dre

1996 was the year that I dropped the transmission on the Ford LTD station wagon; but it is still filled with memories of music playing in that car. I can see the road I was turning on to when Sublime’s “What I got” was playing on the local radio station for the first time. I can remember where the snow was falling when I first heard the terrible and memorable lyrics “The world is a vampire / sent to drain …”

Continue reading

On the Radio (Flashback): Skydiver!

Way back in the halcyon days of the Ford LTD stationwagon and the suspiciously convenient birth of an alt-rock radio format in my home state, there were certain songs that were in heavy rotation that didn’t quite make it to the pantheon of alt-rock hits. Every once in a while, while trolling around on the internet, or wandering in a reverie, I think of them.

See, for better or worse, songs get reborn in my bind like Athena sprouting full-armored from Zeus’ noggin. Before I can focus on anything else, I need to hear the song, to confirm that it is real, to get drawn back into the memory and to travel through time, even if in a non-corporeal way.

(My wife knows that I can get obsessive if a song gets in my head and that, bidden or not, I will start to sing almost any song. To cause me great discomfort, she needs only to utter the phrase “Turn Around”. Even as I type this, I am humming “Total Eclipse of My Heart”, a song I love to hate and hate that I love.)

So, the other day I saw the word ‘skydiver’ printed on the page of some article. See, some guy (Felix Baumgartner) took a dive from 24 miles up and set a new world record for insanity. And, of course, his accomplishment only made me think of a song.

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On the Radio (Flashback): Spacehog

While writing posts about songs on the radio that stick with me but do not compel me to purchase them (or their albums), I have been thinking about how many songs used to enter my life that way. Before songs could be easily shared, before a single song could be downloaded, if you liked a song, but didn’t love it, and you didn’t have a lot of money, you only heard it on the radio.

And, as I have made clear in earlier posts, some songs are only ok until you hear them 100 times. Then, suddenly, you like them. They become part of your life’s sound track. And, if you spend a lot of time driving and listen only to one radio station (because those were primitive times and cars only had radios, no tape decks or cd players), even songs you only liked a little became a part of your life.

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On The Radio (Flashback) PJ Harvey

I have been posting lately about the intense and temporary relationship often caused by hearing songs on the radio. While some of these posts have been in response to new songs, I also realized that I hadn’t been completely aware of how deeply songs I had completely forgotten had affected me

Something else I had missed was the place a radio station can occupy in your life.  A good radio station, or even a mediocre one, can function as a point of content, as a common experience, for people of a region and, frequently, people of the same age group. Part of the loss of the corporatization of radio is that many stations have lost their local feel in exchange for brands like “magic”, “kiss”, and the new bot-radios, Jack and Bob.

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Songs of the Year—1996

She said it’s cold
It feels like Independence Day
And I can’t break away from this parade
But there’s got to be an opening
Somewhere here in front of me
Through this maze of ugliness and greed
–The Wallflowers

Songs of the Year: “Novocaine for the Soul”, the Eels; “One Headlight”, the Wallflowers

Runners Up: “What I got”; Sublime; “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, Smashing Pumpkins

Honorable Mentions: “Old Apartment”, Barenaked Ladies;  “California Love” Tupac, Dr. Dre

1996 was the year that I dropped the transmission on the Ford LTD station wagon; but it is still filled with memories of music playing in that car. I can see the road I was turning on to when Sublime’s “What I got” was playing on the local radio station for the first time. I can remember where the snow was falling when I first heard the terrible and memorable lyrics “The world is a vampire / sent to drain …”

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