Saturday, December 25, 2010

Best Music/Pop Culture Reading On-Line 2010

I read a lot this past year. 99% of it comprised student papers, student exams, tax forms, office paperwork, e-mails, and bills. So a real top 10 list of things read would give wide coverage to those aforementioned things. However, I'm choosing to focus on the other 1% of my reading matter. Only one caveat: I'm not including anything that is political, just because I think it would turn people off; ironically some of the best writing I've read this year has been political in nature. Anyway. Culture:

Mark Grief, "The Hipster in the Mirror," The New York Times, November 12, 2010: This is a surprisingly interesting take on the 'hipster' phenomenon, which goes behind the obvious aphorism that no hipster would be caught dead admitting that they're a hipster.

Zadie Smith, "Generation Why?," The New York Review of Books, November 25, 2010: Remember there was a time when everyone who was on Facebook was complaining about being on Facebook? This is not an article about that. This is a review of that movie about Zuckercorn, I mean Zuckerburg, by Zadie Smith, the very young British novelist who wrote White Teeth, who is now apparently a tenured professor at NYU.

Eliot Weinberger, " 'Damn Right,' I said," London Review of Books, January 6, 2011: The author makes the obvious comparison between George W. Bush and Michel Foucault.

David Bromwich, "The Fastidious President," London Review of Books, November 18, 2010: Completely nails it as to why Barack Obama is strangely uninspiring and like a ghost.

Steven Hayden, "What Happened to Alternative Nation?," The A.V. Club: Somebody had to do it. Twenty years later, this guy is brave enough to revisit the frenzy over 'alternative' music in the early to mid-nineties, a period that seems slightly embarrassing in many ways now. This is a six-part article taking the story from the pregnant-with-expectation of something-big-about-to-happen circa 1990 on the cusp of Nevermind, all the way through Seattle, to the inevitable and inexorable slide to Bush in the mid-nineties. There's all sorts of unexpected detours in the essay, and even if the topic doesn't interest you, it's worth reading as a reasonably good example of rock'n'roll history as personal memoir done without nostalgia.

The A.V. Club, Gateways to Geekery: There's so much good shit on the A.V. Club that it's kind of pointless to identify specific articles, but I've always liked this feature. You know how for years your friends would talk endlessly about a band or a director or a TV show or a genre and you'd kinda picked up on it but you never really committed to it and so you were never 'in the know'? And now ten years later it just seems too overwhelming to enter the canon anymore? (I feel like that with Buffy, Lost, Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa, for example). Well, these folks give you an excellent introduction to that thing, complete with how to start, where to go deeper, and where not to go. These lengthy articles, my friend, are the finest examples of public service. They have good ones on Anime, French New Wave, Roxy Music, Paul Weller, The X-Files, Humphrey Bogart, John Waters, the Fall, and a gajillion other things. By the way, I really don't like Leonard Cohen even though I've only heard one song by him. Just the concept of Leonard Cohen completely rubs me the wrong way.

"Retroactive Listening: Perspectives on Music & Technology,"
"The Secret History of Technology and Pop Music," NPR
Recently, I've become interested in the relationship between popular music and technology. Both PopMatters and NPR do a great job of distilling down the main issues in a series of articles/radio clips. If you are at all interested in the history of popular music, this is as insightful as it gets. Great stuff.

Dana Steves, "The Heat Seaking Panther: A Few Thoughts on the Mannered Weirdness of Nicolas Cage," Just cause I think Nicolas Cage is a genius; and I don't say that with irony or with a wink. He seems to possess some ineffable force within him that compels him to do things that make no sense at all. One day, they will give him a lifetime achievement award or something and I pity the person responsible for putting together the set of clips that make up his oeuvre.

Annalee Newitz, "A History of Zombies in America," I was teaching zombies this past semester. This was a fairly interesting exposition on the phenomenon which appears to have reached a zenith in the past few years.

Phil Freeman, "Captain Beefheart: A Beginner's Guide," The Village Voice: Yes, they all say the same thing: for the love of God, DO NOT BEGIN WITH TROUT MASK REPLICA.

Mark Hogan, "This Is Not a Mixtape," I've been suddenly thrust back into the world of cassettes because of two things: first, the other day, as a way of educating my progeny, I was searching for the sounds that whales make underwater and I remembered that I had a cassette tape from the early '90s of said sounds. I dug it out of a box, and lo and behold, it sounded strange and beautiful (if a little muzak-y). For those interested it's called Beneath The Waves: Vocals By Humpback Whales. The other reason I am into cassettes is because of Jet Set Siempre No. 1 by Clive Tanaka y su orquesta, available here. It was recommended by someone at work and it is only available on cassette. Beautiful music. This essay by Hogan kind of parses through the history of the cassette as an artform and its supposed resurrection these days. I'm not sure I buy the fact that it's "coming back" but I will always have an old fogey's fondness for the cassette, both in premade form and as a mix(ed) tape.

Joe Tangari, "Africa 100: The Indestructible Beat," This was a great introduction for me into the world of African pop, especially stuff from the 1970s.

"All Things Reconsidered: The 35th Anniversary of Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks," Not that there needs to be more written about Blood On The Tracks, but the set of essays makes for interesting reading. In the last decade or so, there has a been a massive mainstream media fetish for all things Dylan related, and I'm not sure I understand why this has happened. It's actually kind of annoying in a way. Dylan (like the Beatles) has been overwritten into our collective pop consciousness in way that has almost completely denuded them of any kind of mystery. All this media attention has made them less interesting, not because of the volume of it but because of the tenor of it; you know that when Martin Scorsese produces a documentary about Bob Dylan that the PBS-Starbucks-NPR-ization of Dylan is not far behind. So much for "Play It Fucking Loud." When I listen to Blood On The Tracks (which I try to do sparingly), I feel removed from it. It no longer blows my mind or makes me weep. It's still one of my favorite albums of all time (probably in the top 5) but this is because the music and words are utterly beautiful, not because they make me feel weak at the knees. I know that made no sense.

"Detours: The Strangest Albums From the Biggest Artists," I've always been fascinated by completely mainstream artists doing absurdly weird albums ever since I heard Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. The articles here break it down, and although I don't agree with many of their choices, I still feel like conceptually it's an awesome topic. What makes Tears for Fears produce a b-side like this or Paul McCartney do this? Who knows.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Best TV in 2010

I don't watch that much TV but I thought I'd do a best of 2010 in terms of TV shows. The AV Club did a list and honestly I haven't seen most of what they put it in it. But it sure seems like a lotta good TV was on last year. I suffer from a severe disability in terms of writing about movies and/or TV so I will not say much about these shows beyond a few cursory comments.

30 Rock (NBC): Continues to be very funny. Tracy Morgan may be a genius.

Being Human (BBC America): This is a British TV series originally shown on BBC Three. The premise sounds stupid: a werewolf, a vampire, and a ghost share an apartment in Bristol. Uh-huh. But you know, it kinda sucks you in.

Boardwalk Empire (HBO): Slow burner of a show about early 1920s east coast America. Meticulous attention to detail. You wouldn't think a show set in 1920 would be interesting. But it is. Even a young Al Capone is in it.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central): Well, you know the drill. It's still hit and miss and Stewart can be often be obsequious to his guests but, John Oliver continues to be a genius.

Louie (FX): This is a show starring the awesome standup comic Louis C.K. It is not the kind of sitcom that one would expect of a standup comedian. Very subversive. Synopsis of the first four episodes here.

Mad Men (AMC): Yeah, I know, everybody thinks it's great. I was introduced to it by a friend a couple of years ago. I thought the first episode was great. Fell asleep to the second one but then couldn't stop watching it. It's the only show I've downloaded onto my iPhone. I know, I'm very uncool.

Modern Family (ABC): The family sitcom mockumentary gets a new twist. Sharp writing. Ed Norton showed up in one episode as the fake bass guitarist for Spandau Ballet.

The Office (NBC): Still has not jumped the shark. Still very funny and makes you squirm to watch.

Party Down (Starz): Criminally canceled after two seasons, this was the perfect vehicle for Adam Scott, a dude who looks just like the junior swim instructor at my son's swimming class at the JCC. The show was about a catering team in LA who work a new event in each episode. It's more funny than you would ever expect.

The Walking Dead (AMC): Strangely shown at the exact time slot as Mad Men, this show is also about mad men (and women), just ones who are zombies. Based on the long-running graphic novel of the same name, this show started off with a bang and has been more or less outstanding through its short six episode run. It has a similar premise to 28 Days Later (or at least begins the exact same way) but veers into completely unexpected territory. Stark realism meets the post-zombie apocalypse.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Lizzy Mercier Descloux died on April 20, 2004 from cancer at the age of 47. She was a French singer and musician (and sometime writer and painter). I really didn't know much about her until a few months ago I ran into this:

The song ("Room Mate") is from her 1981 album Mambo Nassau. Amazing stuff. Some kind of weird mutant no-wave disco post-punk Afro music hybrid.

I look at her picture and I'm not sure what to think. I love these old black-and-white pictures from the first punk generation in New York in the mid-1970s. They're so rich with expectation. Mercier Descloux first visited New York in 1975 and became close friends with Richard Hell and Patti Smith, both of whom contributed to her first book Desiderata. A biography reads:

Self-taught as a guitarist, Mercier Descloux revealed herself as a supreme minimalist within the no wave genre, concentrating on spindly, single-note lines combined with wrong-note harmonies and funky rhythms. Mercier Descloux's singing voice, while limited in terms of carrying a tune, was devoted to rhythmic chattering, humming, and chanting lyrics that serve to cheer the music on and to build a quirky sense of excitement.

I actually read about her long before I'd ever heard of her. A long long time ago, I read Richard Hell's novel Go Now (1997). It's a really brilliant book--beautifully written--which I'm sure lots of people read when it came out and then promptly forgot. William Gibson (he of Neuromancer and cyberpunk fame) called it "vile, scabrous, unforgivable, and deserving of the widest possible audience." The main character is a dude named Mud, clearly modeled on Hell himself. A review noted, "Capable of moments of profound personal insight and revelation as well as acts of profane indecency and sexual deviance, Hell's character both seduces and repels."

Hell himself, of course, had been ground through the New York punk scene in the 1970s, forming the incredible Television with Tom Verlaine, and single-handedly creating the punk aesthetic of ripped shirts and safety pins that would be appropriated by the Sex Pistols. After Verlaine fired him from Television, Hell formed Richard Hell & The Voidoids, recording one of the best songs of the class of 1977 ("Blank Generation"), before succumbing to an eon of heroin addiction. Believe it or not, he was was a brilliant prose writer, much better than he was a musician.

Anyway, what does this all have to do with Lizzy Mercier Decloux? When she died, Hell published a statement on his website:

Lizzy Mercier Descloux has died. She was diagnosed with cancer a year ago. I met her in 1975 when she came to New York from Paris at the age of eighteen to investigate what musicians were doing on the Bowery (she would eventually make some albums herself). She was the primary model for the "love interest" Chrissa in my novel Go Now. These lines from that book are based on those first weeks I knew her:
In the course of the three weeks she first spent here she'd moved me and removed me and then moved into me, leaving me gasping--I can still feel it in my stomach when I think about it--like I was the invaded victim in a space-parasite movie, as if my heart and lungs were furniture she might be throwing out but would certainly rearrange at whim. She seemed to come from another dimension.

She was little, with matted hair. She had--she has--a strong jaw and these big marshy lips. Eyes like drains, like reality drains, like in Psycho where Janet Leigh's blood whirlpools away down the tub along with everything else in the movie. Her nose is flat, her whole face is flat. A slim body, nearly hipless [...]

She was a spectacle: carnivore and prey in one, like a walking wildlife film, with that riveting amoral charisma of nature. A complete mystery. At 17 she was more sophisticated than anyone I'd ever known, while also seeming utterly unaffected. Or at least her affectations came from such a stubborn confidence and will to defy convention that they were irresistible [...]
Having read what Hell had to say, I went back, listened to her album again. Looked at the picture above and tried to discern some secret of life. A life. A death. And all that came inbetween.

Richard & Lizzy, sometime in the mid-1970s

Thursday, December 09, 2010

You're Still Fucking Peasants As Far As I Can See

John Ono Lennon (1940-1980).
There was nothing like him before.
Nothing like him since.

Lennon playing the best guitar of his life, in 1970:

Lennon playing the best rock'n'roll of his life, in 1969:

Lennon playing the best song of his life, in 1970: