Monday, February 26, 2007

beta is a mixtape (side 2)

I made two mixtapes recently, both concerned with jazz music. One was for a friend who knows little of the genre but wished to learn. Knowing that her inclination is towards indie-rock, I picked hummable selections (Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud"; Miles's "Freddie Freeloader"; Mingus's "Hora Decubitus"), a few interpretations of "Everything Happens to Me" and "Come Rain or Come Shine," and the sweetest song on an otherwise oddly-angled 'out' album, Eric Dolphy's "Something Sweet, Something Tender." Of course, the honoree accuses me of 'dumbing it down' for her.

The second mixtape was in response to a discussion with Mark Richardson, stemming from his recent Resonant Frequency column about "difficult" music and the rewards it can provide over the course of a lifetime. We bandy about some similar records, from John Coltrane's OM to Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. I wonder what he thinks of other notoriously difficult listens, such as Royal Trux's Cerebus-headed junkie mess, Twin Infinitives, the Butthole Surfers' Hairway to Steven or Cecil Taylor's bustling, bristling Unit Structures.

To my shock, he admits a blindspot for the music of Taylor, saying that his taste in jazz had been in a holding pattern of sorts: Coltrane, Ayler, Jarrett, Bill Evans. Having spent more than a decade chipping away at such alien monoliths of Taylor, especially Structures and Conquistador!, I seek to remedy that with a mix of my favorite "New Thing" stuff on Blue Note: Taylor, Lee Morgan's shimmering Search for the New Land; Grachan Moncur's tilted and anxious Some Other Stuff; Tony Williams's assured mature debut Life Time, Jackie McLean's suspended Destination Out!; Bobby Hutcherson's woozy and drunken Dialogue.

And yet, the first CD of songs is the more arduous to assemble. All of my listening life, I've flown towards the abstract and obtuse; to compile something focused on songcraft is far more difficult for me. The first jazz CD I ever heard was Coltrane's OM. Mark commented in his column that he still hasn't gotten his head around it, and despite having it on the shelf for more than a decade, I can't say I've figured it out myself. My subsequent reaction hasn't grown far beyond my initial one, hearing that morass of voices, moans, bells, soul cries, and thinking, "This is Jazz?!?"

How did I learn to appreciate such difficult listening? What allowed me to bypass my gag reflex and choke it down for digestion and appreciation? there's no way I would've 'gotten' Trout Mask Replica the first two dozen times, no matter how many joints we smoked, yet there was always something to hook me, to draw me back. Looking back nearly 15 years now, it took me forever to figure out just what that gateway was. It vilifies me to concur now with Frank Zappa's question as to whether or not humor belongs in music, yet being able to laugh along with this audacious, unbearable, teeth-gnashing noise no doubt sprung me. It was worth suffering the pink fish head with the shuttlecock top hat cover of TMR knowing that at some point I would get to:
"Fast'n' Bulbous!"
"That's right, the Mascara Snake! Fast'n'bulbous."
"Bulbous also tapered."
"Right, but you've got to wait till..." cryptic still, ultimately unknowable, but fun to try and recite when the dialogue came around. And what's more knee-slapping than the serious groans of OM, the loosed howls, and the line about clarified butter? I still get the rat creeps from that Royal Trux album, and there's nothing inherently funny about an ocean of black bile and junk-sick, but I found the vomit sounds and stiff drum programming to be somewhat non-serious. The Butthole Surfers were noxious, fucked sounding, yet I would make the loogie-spitting sound on Psychic, Powerless, Another Man's Sac's "Lady Sniff" or the dialogue that opens "Sweatloaf." And it was impossible not to crack up at the creepy little boy voice that would crop up on Hairway and squeal "Oh Daddy, don't touch my little peeeeeenis."

beta is a mixtape (side 1)

By my count, I lost at least half-dozen editors last year. They all exacted a great toll (such as the firing of Chuck Eddy) but none was as devestating as the leaving of my third editor (and second editor of that calendar year) at City Pages, Lindsey Thomas. Which may sound odd to say, since I never met her and she was only my editor but for a few months before she moved to New York with her boyfriend, writer Keith Harris. It was his abdication that really affected me, as the move meant that he had hung it all up to attend law school here.

Harris (who I think I briefly met once) was a writer who simultaneously thrilled me with his clarity, wit, and insight and made me despair for the exact same reasons. Why would I even attempt to write about, say, Sleater-Kinney or Lil Wayne when Harris could bazooka me out of the pond? To have a mind like that arrive at the endgame of criticism was a clarion call of sorts, though it's nice to have a flash of him appear every once in awhile, as in this recent piece on Rob Sheffield's Love is a Mixtape.

I haven't gotten to read the Mixtape book yet, but look forward to such writing about music that connects to time/ space, to a listening that has emotional levity at its root. It's what I hope to accomplish with the paper I will be presenting at EMP this year in Seattle, about how overhearing a song in a Brooklyn bar conjures decade-old listening with my best friend from high school in San Antonio. And as I sit and listen to that song spin again, admiring how the turntable moves clockwise yet the spiral scratch moves counterclockwise, in the direction of the unconscious, I come to realize that my father and his best friend listened to the exact same song some thirty years previous...

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

my bluebeta nights

As I explained to someone recently, my days are being spent on My Blueberry Nights, my nights with a girl that baked me a blueberry cobbler. Together, we watch Wong Kar Wai's simultaneously opulent and constrained In the Mood for Love, swooning at the wallpaper hues, the purl of cigarette smoke, the mirror shots, Maggie Cheung's high-neck collars, Nat King Cole's eee-nun-cee-a-ted Portuguese.

There is constant traffic of people desperate to work on the film, to work with the man. Surely the list of stars is testament to that (Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Ed Harris, Chan Marshall), as is the number of film students who are wide-eyed as they take out the man's office trash. One particularly jittery kid shows up, begging to work with Kar Wai. Such zealotry is a problem though, as recent production notes for the re-shoots recently wound up online. I guess it puts the kibosh on me starting a new blog wherein I scan the office's lunch order for Grand Sichuan and then post them online.

At dinner last night, I meet a fellow whose girlfriend basically runs Janus/ Criterion. How that two-faced Roman deity altered my life down in central Texas, with videos of Bergman, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Fellini expanding my perceptions. I recount going to my college job fair and swooning upon gazing on that stone visage hanging from one booth. How crestfallen I was to learn that it's also an investment banking firm.

Our dinner guest also tells me that Criterion tends to temper access to film fanatics. If certain persons let show their fandom, they never gain admittance. Having just received a newsletter announcing a two-disc version of Carol Reed's The Third Man, two of Jules Dassin's pre-blacklist movies (The Naked City and Brute Force) not to mention Jean-Pierre Melville's chilly and gray-blue Army of Shadows, it's all I can do to play it cool.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

beta's mind is enlarged

I met Dennis Hopper last night, as part of a lecture series at NYU. When I mention a project I'm working on that I need to interview him for, his eyes widen and shine. For a man as renowned for madness, for willful trepanning his cerebellum with chemical "combo plates," his memory is surprisingly lucid, expansive.

Discourse on the night ranges:

• James Dean (they worked together on Giant and he recounts how Dean took a piss before 200 people so he wouldn't be so nervous in his scene with Elizabeth Taylor)
• Andy Warhol (he bought one of the first Campbell soup cans and a visit to Hopper's pop playground pad out in LA blew Warhol's mind much like how a visit to the Factory blew Hopper's mind)
• Dean Stockwell (the boy with green hair who wrote a screenplay to accompany Neil Young's After the Goldrush)
• Rod Serling (from his work on The Twilight Zone)
• Miles Davis (on the displaced junkie jazz scene that hung in LA and how if Miles hadn't turned his back on the crowd, jazz might still be America's dominant art form)
• Marcel Duchamp (he tells of a displaced Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Man Ray hanging out in Hollywood)
• David Lynch (he is the real deal, the quintessential scout leader)
• Bruce Conner (who bursts into tears when Hopper offered him a deal with Universal to make his films, crying ""What do you think I am?!" before storming out. Apparently Conner is in the hospital right now and very ill)

He talks about how stuntmen provided him with his education of physicality, as did Dean and his ability to project with his body. He doesn't dig Godard's movies but realized how the man enlarged his mind. In the studio system, "they built Europe on the lot. (Post-Godard) the world was a soundstage." Duchamp was revelatory, telling him in 1963 about the artist of the future, a person who will "just point his finger and say, 'it's art' and it'll be art." If only Rrose Selavie coulda watched some YouTube. If only The Last Movie could've been shot on digital, he now laments, perhaps to take its rightful place alongside Lynch's Inland Empire and Anthony Hopkins's forthcoming Slipstream.


Explosions in the Sky - The Flood That Was Remarkably Similar to the One that Hit Spiderland in 1991

Matt Valentine & Erika Elder were Too High To Reply to My Questions feature

VA HEAVYbreathing compilations of Hot Air

The Psychic Paramount Shouldn't Read The Book of Law whilst enrolled in the School of Rock

Monday, February 05, 2007

little beta in slumberland

Per my Vashti Bunyan feature, Friday night finds me seated next to a fellow Voicer as well as Ric and Paulina in the creamy gilded majesty that is Carnegie Hall. This is my first trip to the vaunted, vaulted concert hall, and I'm pleased to find that they don't mind contraband such as water bottles, or in the case of what performer Devendra Banhart continually nips from throughout the night, lil brown jugs.

It's but one night of David Byrne's curation, banding together some of his favorite artists, all under the heading of "Welcome to Dreamland": Banhart, Adem, Coco Rosie, Sibelle, Vetiver, and Vashti Bunyan. All of these performers are of the genre that dare not speak its name, freak-folk. The night, despite a constant shuffling of players (up to 14 at one point), has a theme of sorts, in that all of the music from these six acts eschews forward movement, tending instead to hang indolently and linger, much like incense smoke, windchimes, or dudes crashing on your couch. Not for nothing is one song of the night called "Pillows." It's all carefully crafted music though, taking its time to unfurl or else wander off, the lack of dynamism and extroverted passion replaced by extremely affected personas.

The first to delve into the forbidden genre is Coco Rosie, who I've thankfully never had the occasion to hear before. Against distorted loops of My Little Pony cartoons (as well as some slo-mo Parisian B-girl mime), they soundclash cloying folkiness with two friends beatboxing. Whether the backdrop is harp and cello or else these mouthed break beats, they share subject matter with Khia: necks, backs, pussies, cracks. Why they continually play dress up in Bjork and Tom Waits's kooky wardrobe and creaky mannerisms is beyond me. They need to ditch all that fairy unicorn shit and get with some bubble crunk and quick.

I have stayed away from Devendra Banhart's music for a while now, as my harsh reaction to Cripple Crow warranted. Some 18 months on, I see nothing to dispel my notion that he is still the genre's spokesperson, meaning he still seeks to unseat Raffi with inane songs about spiders and birdies. Against such hammy affections, the plainspoken songs of Adem seem far too normalized to stand out.

The most propulsive set of the night belongs to Vetiver. Rather than rely on outsized personalities, the band just digs into a great bag of songs and does them justice in the new auspices. Drummer Otto Hauser and guitarist Kevin Barker in particular are content to lay back and augment the songs, never overspicing or drawing attention to their soft-spoken talents.

When Vashti Bunyan finally takes the stage and introduces songs into the mic, you still cannot make out a single word she says, it's rendered oh so softly. Whether she selects songs from Diamond Day or else Lookaftering, they alone attain the night's goal, mingling bliss with dreaminess.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

beta's new gigs

Idolator's Assumer Guide
(feat. Deerhunter, Sophe Lux, Bunny Rabbit, the Shins)

New York Sun
(Vashti Bunyan)

The Stypod
(on Anne Briggs)

beta getting ready for the big game

With Super Bowl Sunday imminent, I've been reading Joan Didion's Miami to get myself all hyped up for the big event. Of course, her premise of Cubanos vs. Gringos reads more like a Negro League match-up than "The Big One" (Communists vs. Capitalists or Bears vs. Colts). A hundred pages in, there's a paragraph el exilio group, Omega 7, who were really men about town in New York City during the 1970s: bombing the TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport; Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center; the Venezuelan Mission to the UN on E. 51st; twice on Lexington Ave.; the Soviet Mission to the UN on E. 67th; the offices of El Diario on Hudson St.; a ticket office on 5th Ave.; a sporting goods store across the street from MSG. Who knew the 21st century was a slow decade for terrorism?

Elsewhere, Didion quotes a speech Ronald Reagan made during his weekly radio address about Nicaraguan freedom fighters: "The communist interior minister is engaging in a brutal campaign to bring the freedom fighters into discredit... communist operatives dress in freedom fighter uniforms, go into the countryside and murder and mutilate ordinary Nicaraguans." Didion frames it all another graph on, perceiving "not just a vulgarity of diction" but:
When someone speaks...of the "freedom fighter uniforms" in which the "communist operatives"... disguise themselves, that person is not arguing a case, but counting instead on the willingness of the listener to enter what Hannah Arendt called, in a discussion of propaganda, "the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world."
Not knowing about how routine terrorist bombings were a few years ago is one disquieting thing, but this argument about operatives playing dress-up stuck out because of something else. Well after reading the outcomes between Bears vs. Saints and Colts vs. Patriots from a few Sundays back, I turned to the front page of the Times, where an article stood out:
Gunmen who stormed the provincial governor’s office during a meeting between American and local officials were wearing what appeared to be American military uniforms in an effort to impersonate United States soldiers...officials said the gunmen disguised their intent with uniforms, American flak jackets, guns and a convoy of at least seven GMC sport utility vehicles, which are usually used by American officials in Iraq...The sport utility vehicles also held clues of the attackers’ elaborate efforts to pass as American. One had a sign on its back window warning drivers to stay back, in English and Arabic, the authorities said, a close copy of those used on some official American vehicles. They also said a bag of civilian American clothing, guns and body armor had been found in the vehicles.
The only real tip-off was that "the disguises were imperfect — officers at checkpoints saw that the men were bearded (emphasis added)."

Which is a sorta long-winding introduction to this article in New Yorker about 28-year-old Adam Gadahn, also known as "Azzam al-Amriki" (Azzam the American). Raised on a goat farm in rural California, he is now one of "Osama bin Laden's senior operatives." Of course, he is --in addition to being the first American charged with treason in fifty years-- on that rogues' gallery of 21st Century American icons like John Lindh Walker, the "dirty bomber" and "shoe bomber," citizens who have crossed some ideological threshhold, some line in the sand, growing beards and becoming the frightening spectre of an enemy that can now "pass as American."

The article reveals a few interesting bits on Gadahn though. One is that his father was Phil Pearlman, a hippie guitarist of underground renown, who had a clutch of his privately-pressed psych records re-emerge in the past few years. The Beat of the Earth and Relatively Clean Rivers were bootlegged on Radioactive, while The Electronic Hole (which appears to be the only title in print) seeped into a few NY record stores. After cutting such esoteria (his band was deemed "the west coast Velvet Underground"), Pearlman continued to "live the dream" by raising goats on his land. Of course, that also meant no running water and a trench that served as a toilet.

Relatively Clean Rivers - "Babylon"
Relatively Clean Rivers - "A Thousand Years"

Isolated, showering in the forest and shitting in a self-dug trench, Adam went to live with his grandparents, and as is often the case when hanging with septuagenarians, got into death metal. He even made his own handmade cassettes as Aphasia (some titles: Non-Relativistic Quantum Mechanics and Delirium: 7 Hallucinatory Interludes, Op.2). A self-scribed catalog descriptor goes: "The music can be described as an experimental symphonic ambient electronic industrial noise collage, depending upon the listener's point of view." You can hear what you want in this mess.

No article I've come across quite explains how a rabid fan of extreme/esoteric music turns into a religious zealot, but there are a few clues in the piece. Post-Metallica, one of Gadahn's tapes lashes out with a vengeance against sell-outs: "commercial death & thrash metal, and the rest of you losers! Die and burn in Hell!!!" The vitriol isn't so far removed a decade hence, when, as al-Amriki, he alludes to non-believers and "the dismal fate of thousands before you" or that quintessential imagery of the Crusades, where blood runs in the streets. Quite the fate for a sell-out.

A working theory for how an all-American boy who records music in his bedroom featuring "samples of death metal, classical music, and bleating goats" turns into "the American" is given by forensic psychiatrist/ CIA case officer Marc Sageman, who proffers his "bunch of guys" theory. Herein, a closed society provides "a sense of meaning that did not exist in the larger world...(where guys get) radicalized through a process akin to one-upsmanship, in which members try to outdo one another in demonstrations of religious zeal." A rather jock-ish theory to cover both underground music and radical Islam, bundling up such natural questing and questioning, as well as the search to "outdo one another." Nothing says enlightenment like being able to out-enlighten your neighbor.

Azzam reached a breaking point when someone driving an SUV in a parking lot yelled at him to "Worship Jesus." Let the backlash begin. He goes on to evoke Abu Jahal, a seventh century enemy of Islam deemed Father of Ignorance. "What, you don't know?" goes the punchline to the joke: "How many hipsters does it take to change a lightbulb?" Underground music only offers divisive exclusivity, zealotry. Why be satisfied with the Velvet Underground or Metallica or Jay-Z or the Shins, the slings and arrows of mainstream media when you can seek out Phil Pearlmen or Aphasia, when you can lash out at fake metal and wannabes and sell-outs, when you can instead perceive that someone isn't a true fan, isn't a true believer? Why see yourself when you can just see the opposing side instead and their ignorance, believing that they are your enemy? And if they dress like you, well...what isn't deceptive about a game in an entirely imaginary world?