In the days of my youth I was told what it means to be a man by mattsteinglass
April 2, 2010, 8:46 am
Filed under: Music, Uncategorized

A few friends dropped by the other afternoon and wound up staying for dinner, and I had to walk up to Xuan Dieu to the Italian grocery run by our neighbor Dominico to get some extra pumpkin ravioli. On the way home, I passed by our neighbor’s house to hear him blasting Led Zeppelin at full volume with all the windows open. I can’t quite communicate the effect this has in a little Vietnamese villagey neighborhood with houses separated by alleyways about 2 meters across, but it’s pretty funky.

The thing is, I have absolutely no objection to hearing Led Zeppelin blasted at full volume at pretty much any hour of the day. Nor do I have a problem with hearing the Grateful Dead on the days when that’s his ear candy of choice. I’m not sure what effect it produces on the rest of the neighborhood. On the one hand, most of our Vietnamese neighbors have never heard any of this stuff and probably find it rather strange. On the other hand, most of our Vietnamese neighbors seem to have a mind-boggling tolerance for noise, so maybe it doesn’t matter. Most significantly, the only neighbor who actual had a visibly irritated reaction was a fellow American who really doesn’t like heavy metal.

The point being I suppose that it’s striking what a powerful influence on one’s state of being this kind of acculturation can have. Here we’ve got this massive sonic input which to me is pleasantly nostalgic and to other American neighbors is just ghastly, because we’re on two sides of some kind of discrete cultural argument about what constitutes good or bad music. And to our Vietnamese neighbors I think it may just be anaesthetic gibberish, neither good nor bad but simply loud.

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Alex Chilton is dead by mattsteinglass
March 18, 2010, 4:31 am
Filed under: Music, Uncategorized

Of a heart attack, in New Orleans, two days before Big Star was scheduled to play SXSW.

This song was important to me even though, or perhaps because, the lyrics don’t quite seem to clearly mean anything.

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Don't put the words 'this is a disaster' in the video by mattsteinglass
March 15, 2010, 10:27 pm
Filed under: Music

…if you don’t want people to make fun of it. Conor Friedersdorf wonders why Lady Gaga didn’t get a better lyrics writer for such a high-profile project. Seems to me the problem isn’t so much the quality of the lyrics as their utter disconnection from the conceit of the video. It’s jarring and silly to watch someone standing in a prison cell, banging on the bars, and complaining that their boyfriend is texting them too often on the dance floor of the club and they can’t respond with a drink in their hand. Though maybe 14-year-olds have some kind of higher post-narrative consciousness that isn’t bothered by this type of incoherence.

Fugazi fans are counterintuitively common in Hanoi by mattsteinglass
January 8, 2010, 1:54 pm
Filed under: Music

Last night, for the second time in a month, I met someone who lives in Hanoi and has interviewed Ian MacKaye. As with the first person I met in Hanoi who had interviewed Ian MacKaye, I met her at Tadioto. (It’s almost redundant to say that something I did at night in Hanoi happened at Tadioto, as this is the only place where anything ever happens to me at night in Hanoi. Similarly, it would be redundant to say that Tadioto’s owner-publican, the great Nguyen Qui Duc, was present, since Duc is present at everything that happens in Hanoi.) The first person who had interviewed Ian MacKaye was from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The second was from Adelaide, Australia.

Anyway, what struck me in part about each of these very interesting people was that they were far too young. The second is 28. The first was, if I recall correctly, also 28. Yet each said they had spent their teens as huge fans of Fugazi and related period bands. What were they doing listening to the same stuff I had listened to at that age? Shouldn’t they have been listening to something that came along 13 years later, and which I knew nothing about, having in the interim become a pathetic old fogey?

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Both cases felt rather bizarre. On the first occasion, I had earlier that day gone looking for a video of “Waiting Room” for posting purposes and found, by chance, one of a December 1988 Fugazi show at the Wilson Center where I had been present. I then walked into Tadioto, was introduced to a young man from Albuquerque with a nice full beard, told him I had grown up in Washington in the ’80s, and found him interrogating me about Fugazi.

The second case was yet more thematically crisp: I had just read David Hajdu’s interesting piece in The New Republic lamenting the way Guitar Hero seems to have frozen young people in a pastiche version of the classic-rock musical universe of his youth. I then walked into Tadioto, got into an interesting hour-long political discussion with a young woman from Adelaide, then moved on to describing the Hajdu article and said it reminded me of how I had earlier in this very bar met a young fellow who turned out to be a huge Fugazi fan and had interviewed Ian MacKaye…at which point she responded “I interviewed Ian MacKaye!”

Both of us then agreed that the fact that the internet makes the visual and audio reality of earlier musical and stylistic epochs instantly available has indeed to some extent frozen people’s creative impulses and channeled them towards reproduction or burlesque rather than cross-pollination or innovation. (She contrasted this with the mail-order vinyl and zine epoch of her teenage years.)

In retrospect, however, I’m not sure that recognition of Fugazi signals these late-20-somethings had been captured in an infinite regressive loop; I’m not actually sure it’s any different from the time-lag on which my generation experienced music. We listened to classic rock all through high school, at a time lag of 15-20 years, along with Elvis Costello, the Clash and the Specials at a time lag of 5-9 years. By college we were all constructing iconographies of “seminal” work, which you might decide included anything from the Damned to Queen to Sun Ra at removes of anywhere from 10 to 30 years. So maybe it’s all the same thing.

French people, desiring the impossible by mattsteinglass
July 3, 2009, 8:37 am
Filed under: Music, Philosophy

John Quiggin Holbo thinks Matthew Yglesias is wrong: the answer to the question on the French Bac exam is that it’s not absurd to desire the impossible. What’s clear is that if French teens consider this question a serious one, it’s because they have quite rightly been listening to plenty of Paris-based Swedish musician Peter Von Poehl.

A wrap-up of the trivial news of the last few days so I can get back to important things by mattsteinglass
June 26, 2009, 6:57 pm
Filed under: Music, Oddities

What’s going on in Iran remains the most important story in the world, for many reasons, but as ever in the news cycle it’s been supplanted by a bunch of genuinely interesting if ultimately pointless little stories that are still compelling enough to make me want to say something about them. So just to get this out of the way:

  • In contrast to Hilzoy, I not only think Mark Sanford’s confession was genuinely human and compelling, I actually sympathize with almost everything about his entire situation, including his attempt to break off the affair without telling anyone where he was going. There may have been nobody in his office he could trust with this information. He could have broken off the affair via phone or email, but if you actually are in love, that feels demeaning and irresponsible. Trying to get four or five days off to disappear and handle a personal problem seems like a perfectly understandable approach. If he were a CEO, that is. As a senior elected official, obviously, you simply can’t do this. But I find Hilzoy’s “leaving his kids without a father” rhetoric quite overblown and puritanical. The episode shows Sanford lacks the extra stability and responsibility one requires in a governor, but it doesn’t make him a terrible person. (The way he handled the stimulus money, however, does make him a terrible governor.)
  • Farrah Fawcett was the most famous woman in the world for about six months when I was in fourth grade. Many years later, she used her celebrity to do several morally and artistically good things, which is laudable. Sex symbols should generally be encouraged to do the same; the only problem is that some of them are idiots.
  • Michael Jackson: I still don’t entirely understand why people like “Thriller” qua music; “Billie Jean”, in particular, is an extremely mediocre and irritating number. But as cultural text, the disco zombie thing is seminal and has to be a major part of any exploration of racial identity in America, and from this perspective MJ’s subsequent madness is, unfortunately, all wrapped up in why he was important. Regardless of that, “Off the Wall” was great, the Jackson 5 stuff was joyous, and anyone who’s seen MJ’s childhood appearance as Sinatra on “The Tonight Show” (which for some reason I can’t find on YouTube) knows he was one of those figures who at some point in their lives transcend the human and become earthly avatars of the gods of music and dance.

Sar Oomad Zemestoon by mattsteinglass
June 23, 2009, 9:59 pm
Filed under: democracy, Iran, Music

Commenter Matt tells me I simply must share this Iranian protest song with my readers. And he’s right. It’s incredibly beautiful.

Matt writes:

“Sar Oomad Zemestoon” (”The Winter Has Come to an End”)

This song, whose melody is apparently taken from a very old Armenian love song, was popularized during the 1979 Iranian revolution by the Fedayeen Khalgh (”The People’s Sacrifices”), a secular Marxist group. It was eventually appropriated by the revolution as a whole.

I bring it up, because the song has been resurrected by the contemporary Mousavi campaign (see below), an interesting fact in its own right. I don’t know what this says about him. Perhaps some of your readers could tell us….

…A translation of the Farsi lyrics (be sure to read them while you listen):

“The winter has come to an end, the spring has blossomed.
The red flower of the sun has risen once again, the night has escaped.
The mountains are covered with tulips, the tulips are awake.
They are planting sunshine in the moutains, flower by flower by flower.
In the mountains, his heart is awake, he is bringing flowers and bread and will defend
In his heart, he has a forest of stars.
His lips wear a smile of light.
His heart is filled with the flames of emotion.
His voice is like a spring.
His memory is like a deer in the forest of light.”

Iran RT RT RT by mattsteinglass
June 21, 2009, 10:02 pm
Filed under: Iran, Music

So I was thinking about Iran all the time and I ended up cranking up the ol’ Apple GarageBand and recording this song. That may appear to be a silly and undignified thing for a journalist to do, but I believe that in the new Internet age all of the arbitrary categories into which we have subdivided our personalities are being blown away by pure technological weltgeist. If the events in Iran move any actual rock artists to want to write serious reflective journalism on their blogs, I encourage them to do that as well, and judging by Roger Cohen’s latest amazing column I imagine that when he gets back he may need to get some stuff off his chest via some heavy interpretive dancing. Anyway. The images here come from the amazing photography at .faramaz’s #iranelection set. Thanks.

I know that I am an old fuddy-duddy… by mattsteinglass
April 21, 2009, 9:57 pm
Filed under: Music

…because I find myself agreeing with Michael O’Hare that OSHA should set decibel limits for rock concerts. However, I know that I am a reasonably not-pathetic old fuddy-duddy when he writes that rising deafness among the young and musically inclined must account for “the increasing simplicity and sloppiness of current popular music,” and I think: huh?

I give you the increasing simplicity and sloppiness of current popular music:

Love in 1970: Close Your Eyes, Case Of You by mattsteinglass
March 22, 2009, 12:04 pm
Filed under: Music

I’ve been on an intermittent Joni Mitchell kick for a few months now, driven by the new YouTube availability of a lot of video of her performances, which make it clear how spectacular she was in a way I didn’t grasp from the recordings I heard while growing up. Along the way I started to find a couple of songs on which she was accompanied by James Taylor on guitar. And for whatever reason, one of the videos that turned up in the YouTube search box while looking for Joni Mitchell material was a video from a 1977 television interview of James Taylor and his then-wife Carly Simon performing Taylor’s “Close Your Eyes” in what appears to be their home studio.

There’s something off about this video. For most of it, Taylor looks down at his hands, or at nothing, while Simon gazes at him, smiling glowingly. The performance is gorgeous, but for the first half of it, you get the impression that Simon is ostentatiously playing one half of an adoring musical superstar couple, while Taylor is off somewhere else. Of course he’s focused on playing guitar, but if you’ve seen other video of him performing, you know he doesn’t need to watch his hands like this, or close his eyes the way he’s doing here. At times he almost looks like he can feel her eyes on him and is refusing to look up and meet her gaze, to do the “we love to sing together” schtick. And then he seems to wake up towards the end, look over at Simon and snap back into the appropriate enthusiasm.

My impression from other interviews is that Carly Simon is a highly demonstrative and self-dramatizing personality, while James Taylor is famously ironic and introverted. Also, Taylor was still using heroin at that point. And it’s easy to project backwards from the fact that the two divorced in 1983, and that Simon in a 2000 interview with Charlie Rose praised Taylor as a completely present father and then, just four years later, said in fact Taylor had erased her completely from his life and had almost no contact with their children. So maybe it’s projecting backwards. But it seemed to me that what we were seeing here was a couple experiencing tension because Simon wanted to project an idealized image of the two of them, and Taylor didn’t feel comfortable with that pretense. And the song throws the discrepancy in their faces: Taylor has to sing “I still love you”, and to make that “musical couple” performance work, he has to make it clear he’s saying this directly to Simon. But he doesn’t. Simon sings “I still love you” straight to Taylor, and Taylor sings “I still love you” to the middle distance, to something in his mind’s eye.

Who’s he thinking about?

This is Taylor playing “Close Your Eyes” in 1971, at the start of a performance that was part of a tour he did with Carole King, Russel Kunkel, Lee Sklar and a generally pretty swinging band. Here Taylor seems to oscillate between an intense aesthetic engagement and a resigned, matter-of-fact expression that looks like a manifestation of his chronic depression. This was the period when he was plying his troubled-WASP image into huge celebrity — he was on the cover of Time magazine in March 1971.

The 1971 show is striking for anyone who grew up with Taylor’s 1980s image as the incarnation of safe white liberal soft rock. In these clips his musical excellence and his detached, judgmental, brooding manner are gripping — see also this version of “Love Has Brought Me Around” or this hilarious blues schtick, “Come On Brother”, with Carole King rocking out as backup singer/dancer. Probably most striking is the irony. Taylor doing blues, or King doing R&B, is an intellectual exercise — a “check it out, I can do that too” performance, tongue in cheek. (It’s amazing to watch King doing a little R&B backup-singer dance, pretending to be one of the Shirelles, and then to realize that in fact she wrote the material for the Shirelles. So who was authentic, and who was doing the schtick?)

But all that irony only renders the stark sincerity of Taylor’s delivery on his personal songs that much sharper. And we have the matter of the chronically depressed opening number, “Close Your Eyes”, where Taylor looks like he’s going to finish the song, get up from his chair and swallow a bottle of Demerol. What’s up with the man?

This is a recording of Taylor playing the song in an October 28, 1970 concert at the Albert Hall in London shortly after he’d written it, with the woman he wrote it for, Joni Mitchell.

As recounted in the Sheila Weller’s excellent “Girls Like Us”, Taylor and Mitchell had been a couple since that summer. With Simon, Taylor sings the melody and lets her sing backup; here, he gives Mitchell the melody and he sings backup. The relationship didn’t last a year, but it was serious enough that Mitchell met Taylor’s parents, his chief-of-surgery father and ramrod-straight patrician mother, and was intimidated by them. She was older than him, and he was somewhat in awe of her; to compensate, he acted controlling and insulted her taste. She couldn’t decide: she says she wrote “Case of You” using actual incidents about Taylor, but that the person she really had in mind was Leonard Cohen. After the breakup, she went off to Canada, announced she was quitting music, and wrote five of the songs on “For the Roses” about him. And he went off and did the Jo Mama tour. What else did he write about her? “Love Has Brought Me Around”? (“Goodbye lonely blue, it shall all come true”? Who else would have rightly told Taylor that his lyrics were hackneyed — “I know you know what I’ve got to say is an old cliche anyway, so they say. Love has brought me around”?)

Who the hell knows what was actually going through James Taylor’s and Carly Simon’s heads in that first clip. But it suits my imagination to think that what you’re seeing there is Taylor’s wife trying to inhabit a role he created in his head for an earlier lover, and Taylor reacting with distance and avoidance. To quote the guy who Carly Simon opened for in the first show she ever played, the first cut is the deepest.


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