Thursday, July 20, 2006
Lucky Thursday Doubles

Usually the things I find lately are written by my same favoritos, but that's the way it goes.

1. Here's Jason Gross talking about "Freak Folk: A Genre by Any Other Name" and pointing to his current read, "Summer of Love Redux". I loved the part about biblical beards, the place nicknamed "Little Berkeley" (that small pinpint on the coast full of big ideas and some genuinely creative and interesting types who despite all that I can't describe as large or heroic in any way, a real and physical locale which the more cynical or professional journalistically jaded of my generation designate as "where hippies go to die"), and the reconditioned chicken coops. I remember when a fierce summer rainstorm came up thereabouts just last summer (one of the chilliest-billiest, drenched with cold icy rain and counted as displaying the fewest days of sun managing to peek out of the usual grey sky due to an unseasonal and mercilessly unremitting overhang of fog, and generating the wettest and best weather for ducks in historic record) and my feeling of being ill-at-ease and cooped up that summer was growing apace. Still in the city and with paved streets, though bordering the old cowfarm, the street lined with old wood houses that seemed to stand alist, as if sinking and tilting in the gooey loam, likely with their narrow beadboard ceilings creaking and weighted with the ever growing stalygmites of mold, there was a farmette (a plot of land with a typical old wooden house and with structures assembled from salvage, an outbuilding and a plastic sheeted greenhouse). The people attached to this place usually were walking about barefoot even on the coldest wettest days, and one always carried a banjo even into the field with the tall grass. That particular night, the winds and rain were exceptionally fierce, buffeting and slapping everyone's houses, and the storm raced and tore through the area all evening. I knew the thin floppy plastic sheeting on their greenhouse could not have survived. I was certain their dream would fail, and I knew the precise instant of their recognition when I heard a woman's voice wail: "Oh .... bummer!"

Would I like freak folk as a "genre". I'm not sure. I tend to be a hard sell, and I've heard a few groups recently who are pointed that way. One of which had way too many members in the assemblage (as though that is supposed to mean there are a lot of folks like that out in them thar hills that you just don't normally see or know about until they creep out of the corn patch, though I realize perhaps there is also the safety in numbers theory in operation), and they sounded pretty much like a jugband as they bounced out naughty lyrics to a banjo beat, their multitude of voices also combining in warbly harmony on what struck me as a preposterous and pretentious new volk song composed in German. I didn't like those two bands too much.

2. Simon Reynolds on "Prose and Cons", the current state of the universe in music criticism. (I don't know if this writing is new, per se, but it is new to me today). Simon says:

"This may make me feel more positive, but I’m not sure I believe it. There’s plenty of well-written music journalism out there. But Great Rock Writing means pieces that make my blood boil with excitement, and these have become infrequent enough to be singular events.

"Rather than there being a drought of genius, though, I think the reasons for this situation are structural and historical. The same conditions that mean giant figures no longer stalk the stage of Rock (Rolling Stones, Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Public Enemy etc.) also explain the dearth of rock-writer colossi of the order of Nik Cohn, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Paul Morley et al. As much as they’re motored by their own aesthetic vision and will-to-power, epoch-defining bands are condensations of social energy, which is what gave songs such as ‘Gimme Shelter’ (1969) or ‘Rebel Without a Pause’ (1988) their impact. If records aren’t freighted with that sense of something at stake, the words written about them will lack an equivalent weight.

"There’s a sense, too, in which almost all of the stark, grand statements were used up some time ago, and what’s left, for musicians and critics alike, is complexifying and filling in gaps. The cutting edge of criticism today involves a subtlety that goes deeper into music rather than reaching out to connect the sounds to the wider world. There is a smallness to music writing today that is appropriate to its subject; the endless proliferation of micro-scenes and sub-genres requires fine distinctions and specialist terminology. This sort of writing can make the epic language of older rock criticism – the exaltations, exhortations and denunciations – seem overblown and clumsy, based as it was in the idealistic investments in music that took first hold in the 1960s and then resurged fiercely with Punk and post-Punk. That kind of over-estimation of music’s power can seem hopelessly naïve from today’s standpoint of scaled-back expectations. But the effect on the writing is a reduction in temperature: from fiery ‘n’ fevered to the cooler registers of expertise and irony.

"There are a host of qualities that make for Great Rock Writing – too many to list – but a few less obvious ones are worth highlighting, if only because the current climate renders them extinct. One is being prepared to take things so seriously you make a fool of yourself; another is a taste for meta. By this I mean a willingness to question the assumptions of a given scene, and then go beyond that, to address the largest questions of all – the whys and what-fors of music and music-writing. All the aforementioned true greats had a penchant and flair for assessing the ultimate worth of the endeavour."

Oddly, all this reminded me of something I didn't do in Venice 1965. I had heard about a classically trained fellow there named "Joe" Byrd. I think of him today because he's settled in that damp Northern geography teaching music at a college there and also in that same vicinity were to be found some of Frank's old schoolmates and workmates. Just as Zappa and Byrd had once been in propinquity or within easy commute once before, I thought to myself. Anyway, because Byrd was rumored back in 1965 to be working on a rock opera (and I don't know to this day if that was true or not), and because he had good footing in classical music, I was going to try to introduce them. That was an intention on my part and I even set about to try to make that happen. It was just an idea, but something or other happened to dissuade me. I think I read his c.v. or heard something about him that made me think they wouldn't get along. Now years later, as the result of an online encyclopedia, I discover that they likely had heard about each other early on from the music happenings they were each involved with long about 1965-66, and guess what? "Joe" said he didn't like Frank's music then. So I say to myself this morning my intuition about that all these years ago was right. Funny how you can think about things you set aside and didn't do and take comfort that you were justified in not pursuing these things. The movie making the rounds at the arthouses of LA at that time in 1965 was an old classic made in the late '30s or early '40s, "Freaks" ... about sideshow freaks in a traveling carnival who'd formed their own little society and genuinely cared for one another, pitting themselves against the outside world that regarded them as the freaks they were, and that world also sold tickets and made money from their freakiness. [highnoon update: "Freaks"]This was an immensely popular film in the small arthouse theaters of that time, and you can kind of guess and follow the squiggly line where the motif of freaks and carnivals and sideshows went from there, as it obviously made it onto a number of Los Angeles artists albums, and not just California artists, but a rather famous foreign rock star also caught that film in that exact era and location and time and used the concept later on himself on some album art. This is a hackneyed overused thing to say right now, but it's still true. I know that for a fact that he caught that flick in an LA arthouse in 1965. Well, I've kind of gone off point here, but I'm rather thankful I didn't run away and join the kind of circuses some people dreamed up for themselves. One of the other underground movies of the time was announced by an 8x10 handbill written in elaborate cursive, beginning with "the moving finger writes, and having writ moves on") but I can't for the life of me remember what that one was about, but I remember a real sense of darkness with no redeeming light.

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Compiling the best online articles about music so there will be more of both in the future. In periods of drought, the reader will be innundated by my own blogs on the matters.

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