March 18, 2010

Dalai Lama

With all the genuine, sad, and serious tributes to Alex Chilton, with all the dark, tortured, and introverted remembrances, it's time somebody celebrated the shambles.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Belgian Waffles!, at your service.

03 Dalai Lama.mp3

March 17, 2010

R.I.P. Alex Chilton

Just found out that Alex Chilton died of an apparent heart attack today in New Orleans. He was scheduled to do a Big Star show at SXSW this weekend.

I'm having a momentary flashback to Katrina, when his absence was flashing all over the internet for about 48 hours before he was pulled off the roof of his house. This, apparently, is "actual fact", as they say.

It's odd, almost as if there were something in the air: I found a bunch of old Chilton records online & have been listening to him heavily since late last week. Tonight as I made dinner, I was listening to a bootleg of a show he did in Bloomington in '84, cracking up to him doing an impersonation of Paul Schaffer doing an impersonation of Jerry Lee Lewis. He came to Bloomington several times, and there are tapes of every show (before anyone asks, I only have the one). In every show, you can hear some drunken idiot yelling for "Dateless Nights", a song he did with Tav Falco's Panther Burns. That drunken idiot was, of course, me. The first show, he just blows it off. The second show, he says "Did someone actually request 'Dateless Nights'?", shows his band the changes, and then struggles through a version. The third time, I was sitting up front, he got about halfway through the show and asked for requests. I said "Dateless Nights" barely above conversational level, and he wheels around and says "Ha! We're ready for you this time", and then ripped through an incredible version of the song.

He was the soundtrack to one of my courtships . . . hell, at least one . . . out on a rooftop in the middle of the summer, well after midnight, staring into the night sky while Sister Lovers played on repeat in the background. He was around on my binges. He was there when I dried out. He was there on my drives. He was there when I was alone, he was there when I was hanging out. He was there in the quiet dark, he was there in the sunny celebrations. He was there, he is still here, and he always will be.

I don't know anyone who is serious about music that isn't down with something that Alex Chilton did, from the Box Tops to Big Star, to the overwrought and degenerate punk singer/songwriter shtick in the late 70's, to the rockabilly trash he did with Tav Falco, to the later Southern R & B that became the centerpiece of his 80's comeback. I once had a good friend and bandmate back in the 80's who derided me for listening to that "hack Beatles paisley pop shit", so I bet him that I could make him a tape of Chilton's stuff and he would become a fan. He listened to the tape nonstop for a month, and never made it past Like Flies On Sherbet on the first side. Ten years later, he was forcing the band to do a cover of "Alligator Man", and is a huge Chilton fan.

Chilton's best music was probably behind him, but when you set the bar that high, you can fall several notches and still be making vital music. About ten years ago, I happened to grab Set on the way out of Louisville straight through to Tucson. That record, a fairly inauspicious collection of covers all recorded in one night (and, according to Chilton, all first takes), not only became the soundtrack for that 30 hour drive, but something I have listened to over and over again through the years. It all comes down to soul . . . Chilton had it.

Alex, you will be missed. Very much.

March 14, 2010

Global Warming Doesn't Matter; plus, In Rotation: the Bookshelf

More thoughts rattling around my head crystallized by Slajov Zizek. This argument based on one Zizek credits to Jean-Pierre Dupuy.
Global warming is fact. It is clearly demonstrable that the earth's temperature is rising. What is controversial are the causes and ramifications of said global warming. Given the complexity of the global ecosystem (we have difficulty even predicting tomorrow's weather here in the Ohio Valley), these questions will never be definitively answered, except in the context of history. In other words, we will never have a clear and convincing forecast of the future. We will only fully understand the outcome of global warming, environmental catastrophe, after the catastrophe has happened.

It's time to forget global warming and start talking about environmental catastrophe. Our only solution to avoiding catastrophe is to assume the catastrophe as fact. That doesn't mean discussing possibilities; that means acknowledging that catastrophe will happen, and accepting it as part of our reality. Only if we accept catastrophe as fact (it will happen!) can we then move to solve the problem, and therefore avoid the catastrophe. Only if we fully believe in the catastrophe can we enact the measures that hindsight would tell us could solve the problem. We would be, in essence, creating a closed temporal circuit, with the ability to act on a future that we know is going to happen.

We can't know the future, of course. Our solutions will be imperfect, but we will have solutions.

The interesting thing about this idea is that we have proof that it works: this is exactly how the US intelligence agencies have approached terrorism since 9/11. Any time a representative of the US administration was asked to speculate about future terrorist acts, they were very forward about saying that "it's not a question of if, but when, the next terrorist strike will happen". This is not the normal "cover your ass" public statement; this is a way to approach a problem . . . and it has been very effective. Not perfect, but effective.

There are still questions that need to be discussed, such as the likely nature of the environmental catastrophe, the best solutions, and the costs of those solutions versus their benefits. This is exactly the nature of the discussions we have about global terrorism. We need to forget global warming and start talking about environmental catastrophe. The important thing we have to acknowledge is this: environmental catastrophe, like global terrorism, is fact.

* * * * *

Time for another In Rotation, but I've been listening to pretty much the same old things lately. So how about some books?
  • Slavoj Zizek: First As Tragedy, Then As Farce
  • Robert Creeley: Collected Poems
  • Bruno Schulz: Street of Crocodiles
  • Lester Bangs: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
  • Thorstein Veblen: The Theory of the Leisure Class
  • Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies
  • Astra Taylor, ed.: Examined Life
  • Witold Gombrowicz: Ferdydurke
That's it for now. Out!

March 13, 2010

The Most Blueswailing, Yardmerizing Yardbirds

The Yardbirds get name-dropped as one of the greats of sixties Britrock, mainly for their role as the cradle for three of the great rock guitarists: Clapton, Beck, and Page. Unfortunately, this renders them more an answer to a trivia question than a living, (fire)breathing rock band.

Clapton pushed them into the forefront of the British blues rock explosion, but they didn't really become THE YARDBIRDS until purist Clapton left in a huff over their "pop experimentalism". With Beck handling lead guitar duties and the rest of the band free to experiment with oddball pop structures, The Yardbirds quickly became the most interesting, if not necessarily the best, of the British Invasion bands.

Paul Samwell-Smith is responsible for the Gregorian Chant arrangement of this song, and Beck does some really nice accents with his tone knob. Is this a great song? Not really. But it is interesting.

For me, Jeff Beck will always be the trademark sound of The Yardbirds, and probably the biggest raw talent to call himself a rock guitarist. He sunk into horrible fuzak in the 70's (with Miami Vice theme-miester Jan Hammer!), but still, his guitar playing was often mesmerizing. Even a recent PBS show featuring Beck doing an updated version of the same fuzak managed to hold my attention for almost twenty minutes. The only thing that keeps Beck from being an immortal musician as opposed to simply a badass guitarist is his horrible taste in music.

The primetime Yardbirds were built on a blues foundation cemented by Clapton, and revolved around Relf's hipster/hippieisms, Samwell-Smith's songwriting, and Beck's gunslinger attitude . . . and there has NEVER been a guitarist with Beck's articulate aggression. Even overwhelmingly sappy crap such as "Mr. You're a Better Man Than I" is saved by a vicious Beck guitar solo. Or, for a similar hippie blast undercut by Beck, see "Shapes of Things" above.

Initially, Jimmy Page was invited to replace Clapton when EC hit the bricks. Page, who at the time played on damn near every pop song coming out of England, was hesitant to give up his day job. It was Page who recommended Beck. After Paul Samwell-Smith left, Page took over on bass until Chris Dreja could learn the instrument and Page could move to guitar. The idea was that Page and Beck would eventually end up as dueling leads, which they did . . . but only for a short time.

It was a great pairing, which is almost counter intuitive: usually, with egos (and talents) that big, you would expect them to run all over each other. Fortunately, Beck and Page complimented each well, with Page's lysergic grunge rumbling under Beck's slashing . . . Page was always behind the beat, a little funky, while Beck was always in front of the beat, always pushing . . .

They showed up together in an unintentionally hilarious scene in Antonioni's The Blow Up, lip syncing an absolutely blistering redo of "Train Kept A'Rollin'" called "Stroll On":

I love the fact that the crowd stands there like zombies with the exception of one dancing couple. Beck's playing a cheap Hoffner hollowbody which is clearly meant to bite it before the end of the clip, which it does . . . I mean, seriously, wasn't there at least enough room in the budget for him to waste a used Tele? There are bad overdubs of "guitar malfunction" to justify Beck's smashing of the guitar, and to really top it off, they couldn't get all the action in the time it took "Stroll On" to run through, so they do a bad edit and play half the song over again. And, if that weren't enough, the heretofore zombie-like crowd TOTALLY FREAKS OUT when Beck throws his guitar neck off the stage . . . a-and, the hero of the movie makes it out of the riot with the holy talisman, only to discard it when he hits the sidewalk. Here, a painfully unhip Antonioni posits The Yardbirds as the cutting edge of pop/youth culture, a position that they did indeed occupy, even if Antonioni's vision is ridiculous.

In the public's eye, though, The Yardbirds were regressing. Popular with Clapton as their guitarist, each successive release moved further away from the public's interest. It was almost as if the band were reversing the usual movement from cult band to mainstream heroes. By the time Beck was fired, the British public had pretty much forgotten about The Yardbirds . . .

The Yardbirds soldiered on with Page for a bit longer, but, as they say, the gig was up. Always experimental, they also moved away from trying to make hit singles years before a band could sustain itself with album sales. The results were unfortunate, if predictable. Page was an able replacement for Beck, but the band had run out of gas, and Page's nascent vision for the band was still not ready for prime time.

Page had a vision, but the rest of the band was not on board. No one, it seems, was interested in the guitar-heavy psychedelic rock that Page was pushing on the band. Relf and McCarty left to pursue music in a more folk/acoustic vein, while Dreja decided to pursue a career in photography. The Yardbirds left with one last blast that no one noticed. The B-side was a harbinger of things to come and, at the same time, a rocker equal to "For Your Love", "Heart Full of Soul", "Evil Hearted You", "Over Under Sideways Down", "Stroll On", "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago", and everything else they ever did that earned them a place in the pantheon:

Page replaced Dreja with session pro John Paul Jones, Relf and McCarty with unknowns Robert Plant and John Bonham. After soldiering on briefly under the name The New Yardbirds, Page, perhaps realizing that the "Yardbirds" handle no longer had any cache, took Keith Moon's suggestion and renamed the band Led Zeppelin. And so, by 1968, The Yardbirds were done.

* * * * *

The British Invasion will always be The Beatles and the Stones, with The Who, The Kinks, The Animals, Small Faces, The Zombies, and a few others just behind. Of those, the band closest to my heart will always be the Rolling Stones. The Yardbirds, though, have never gotten their due: they were more than just a world class rock guitar farm club, and more than just the band that preceded Led Zeppelin. The Yardbirds were the most interesting nexus of blues, pop, psychedelia, and hipsterism to emerge in late sixties Britain. I did this spiel because it's time The Yardbirds were recognized for what they were, instead of what they spawned.

March 8, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Mardi Gras slips by

unnoticed in the cold

gray of a northern

February, somber Wednesday

you see ashes on

somebody’s forehead,

you flash “oh”,

think about fish for

lunch, and

from ashes you came

and to ashes you shall return

40 days in the cold

the light,


March 7, 2010

Spring, Oh My!

When it comes to sports, no contest is more irrelevant than a spring baseball game. And yet, nothing cheers me up quite as much as news of the first walk-off homer of the year. You don't even bother looking at the scores; you just watch the baseballs flying everywhere and look forward to the greening of the hills.

Friday evening running up from Etown, the smell of spring was definitely in the air. I got stuck at work an extra hour, so the sun wasn't far above the horizon, but it was still a lovely day. I was in the mood for early Hendrix - maybe Are You Experienced, or even Smash Hits - so I stopped by a Barnes and Noble to pick up a copy for the ride home. Unfortunately, though they had copies of both, there's no way I'm plunking down 17 bucks for a copy when I know it's available almost anywhere for several dollars less. I would just have to make do with what I had. It was dark before I hit Lolita's off Poplar Level to pick up dinner, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable ride home.

Saturday I decided to grab lunch around the corner in Germantown. I'd never been in to Flabby's before, so I decided to stop in. Nice place, classic neighborhood joint, with bad beer jokes framed on the wall next to St. X state football championship banners. Old men controlled a corner table where they could see SEC basketball on television. A local was bellied up to the bar with his fifteen year old son having burgers, a beer for him, coke for the kid. I went up to the bar to order, only to find out they don't take cards. No problem: there's a Seven Eleven a few blocks down, so I go hit the cash machine, pick up a Courier Journal, and stroll on back to Flabby's. On the short walk, Germantown began to reveal itself to me. Tucked in amongst the close-set houses are barbershops, private clubs, beauty shops, all kinds of interesting little places. I needed to get on with my day, so I couldn't spend as much time looking around as I liked.

Back at Flabby's, I order up at the counter, and go grab the booth by the front window. There's no way to describe just how blissful that window booth can be, tucked away in the U-shaped green vinyl bench, with the late winter sun streaming through the window, lighting up your little corner of heaven on earth with a warmth that seems to come from inside of you. Even the Falls City tasted good - no joke, I commented on it when I went up to the bar, and the bartender agreed and said he even double checked the keg to make sure he hadn't hooked up a premium brew instead of the Falls City.

Back out in the weather, I spent some time replacing bulbs on my car, and just generally putzing around in the sun. After the first true winter we have had around here in years, it really is time for spring.