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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The Shows We’ll Never See

The Younger J and I are true believers in the live show—when it is possible nothing matches the experience of seeing a band perform. Now, while at times the experience is sublime, at other times, it can also have a deleterious effect on your view of a band. Despite the outcome, however, the experience of witnessing a musical performance and, more importantly, absorbing the reaction of other audience members as well, alters your relationship with the music irrevocably.

(I was not a Bare Naked Ladies fan (back in the Gordon days) until I saw them live; their energy and improvisation made me respect a band I would have otherwise ignored. Conversely, my heart was broken at a Dandy Warhols show, but that is a story for another time…)

These days, I leave most of the concert going to my brother. I am old an ornery: most good shows start after my bedtime . (Old, Old Man.) But I do have some experience to draw on: my first show ever was Jerry Garcia; my last concert was the Austin City Limits. There are many and varied acts between.

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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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I broke up with a Girl over Limp Bizkit: Music. Status. Identity.

Note: I find myself beginning a chaotic and promising semester. I can’t say I won’t blog as much, but I can say that it won’t be as consistent. I can also promise that after two years of writing pretty heavily, we may re-post some oldies (but goodies?) on and off. Here is one of my favorite (because every horrible world is true). Yes, Bakhtin and Limp Bizkit. 

“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”.

(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 …”

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The Telecaster

Still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild.
A million dead-end streets and
every time I thought I’d got it made
tt seemed the taste was not so sweet.
So I turned myself to face me
but I’ve never caught a glimpse
of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test

“Changes”, David Bowie

Mostly, the younger J and I talk about the music we listen to and the way it not only shapes our lives but allows us to jump around in time, to experience the same moments over and over again from different vantage points. In this way we celebrate, or at least observe, the way that music shapes our perception of the past, conditions our experience of the present and helps us to make sense of the relationship between the two.

Music, as sound, is at once transcendent and ephemeral—like the smell of an autumn day or the lilacs just blooming, you can recognize it as it embraces you but are cursed never to touch it. There are, however, more tangible aspects to music. CD jewel cases, vinyl album sleeves and even posters provide fodder for the tactile memory.

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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 Shows We’ll Never See

The Younger J and I are true believers in the live show—when it is possible nothing matches the experience of seeing a band perform. Now, while at times the experience is sublime, at other times, it can also have a deleterious effect on your view of a band. Despite the outcome, however, the experience of witnessing a musical performance and, more importantly, absorbing the reaction of other audience members as well, alters your relationship with the music irrevocably.

(I was not a Bare Naked Ladies fan (back in the Gordon days) until I saw them live; their energy and improvisation made me respect a band I would have otherwise ignored. Conversely, my heart was broken at a Dandy Warhols show, but that is a story for another time…)

These days, I leave most of the concert going to my brother. I am old an ornery: most good shows start after my bedtime . (Old, Old Man.) But I do have some experience to draw on: my first show ever was Jerry Garcia; my last concert was the Austin City Limits. There are many and varied acts between.

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Better than Good?

Well, maybe I’ll call or write you a letter.
Now, maybe we’ll see on the Fourth of July.
But I’m not too sure, and I’m not too proud.

Listen...

Sometimes songs stick to a moment in time and every time you hear them you pull a Billy Pilgrim (Bam! You’re unstuck in time). More often than not, for me, when a song exerts a strong enough gravity it pulls in divergent directions.

Songs that do this don’t have to be ‘great’; shit, I don’t even have to like songs all that much to begin with for them to become anchors or bookmarks in time. One example is “Good” by Better than Ezra.

(Side Note 1: I had the fortune (from my perspective) of becoming friends with someone named Ezra soon after Better than Ezra’s popularity had peaked. He single-mindedly abhorred the band. But, then again, he professed undying affection for Semisonic and spent most of his free time copying Pearl Jam bootlegs. Needless to say, I used the phrase “better than Ezra” around him whenever humanly possible. Yes, I am that charming.)

Now, Better than Ezra was/is a quintessential bubble band from the mid.-late 90’s. I call it a ‘bubble’ band, because like tech stocks at the end of the millennium and housing prices in Nevada five years ago, the band’s ‘value’ was artificially inflated by the time—a period during which producers, labels and djs were all in search of the next big band, all desperate to make money off of the unheralded talent, the diamonds in the rough.

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The Mix Tape Girl: A Lament

“Anyway, I’ve started to make a tape, in my head, for Laura. Full of stuff she’d like. Full of stuff that’d make her happy. For the first time I can sorta see how that’s done.” High Fidelity
“Remembering you falling into my arms / crying for the death of your heart…”  The Cure, “Pictures of You”

In 2000’s High Fidelity (based on Nick Hornby’s novel) John Cusack’s love-challenged, musical snob Rob Gordon is a mix tape-ologist. His advice for making mix tapes functions as a plot device for the movie—each new bit of information structures the plot by acting as transition or anticipating climactic moments. The variety and pertinence he achieves with mix tapes, however, contrasts with his paralysis in real life. Throughout the movie, Gordon makes tapes filled with songs that express who he is or represent some final judgment on music; it is only when he decides to fill the movie’s final tape with music that his estranged love actually likes that he makes the transition from stilted adolescence to adulthood.

Well, that’s one way you could put it.

This is not a post about High Fidelity. This is not about the creation of mix tapes (there are plenty of “how to” articles on Google on that topic). This post is a lament. You see, even in 2000, Rob Gordon’s obsession with the mix tape marked him as an anachronism. The movie came out a few years after burning CDs on home computers became cheap and easy; in the same year, Napster dominated online music sharing.

A year after the movie’s release, Apple began to transform the way we listen to, move, purchase and categorize music with the release of the first iPod. So, even during its release, High Fidelity’s presentation of the man who communicates through the mix tape was a nostalgic lark for the internet generation, a fateful nod to those older, and a paean to an analog dream.

This is a lament for a lost art. The very fact that the internet presents so many mix tape how-to posts indicates a dying form. And, with some certainty, it was technological change that both made the mix tape possible and brought its era to an end. The digital era has made the making of mixes so easy that no one I know takes it seriously any more. We live in the era of the Shuffle. We don’t listen to albums; we always have the song we think we want for the moment whenever we want it.

Even in the construction of “playlists” we are reckless because we are not limited. The 90 minute audio cassette gave us boundaries. Recording each song from record, tape or CD was so labor intensive and consuming as to constitute a type of worship. Even before the Shuffle and the Playlist, music streaming, digital downloads, and album uploading made making mixes easy. People don’t make good mixes anymore because mixing songs is too quick. With ease comes carelessness. The sacred becomes commonplace. The art form dies.

 

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