The Power Of Pop

I’ve had a Pop fetish that dates from the time I heard the first “woo!” (at :08) in the Jackson 5′s “The Love You Save” on the bus in first grade. It likely started earlier, but that is the first historical evidence I have. I may have been a solitary, frightened, stripe-trousered, snaggle-toothed kid, but I knew a good hook when I heard one. I’ve been chasing that first potent bolus of Pop energy ever since. Admitting this ain’t easy.

You see, Pop has a philosophical problem, especially with the music intelligensia (self-appointed and otherwise), and that problem is right there in the name. The equation goes like this: Pop = popular = the unschooled hordes = immediately suspect. It’s the old Bread & Circuses conundrum. Complicating matters is 50 years of wretched pop music, and of songs lazily called Pop that actually aren’t. For instance, Michael Jackson will never be the King Of Pop, because he didn’t make pop music as Michael Jackson…but he sure as hell did with the Jackson 5.

So what’s the difference? I suspect–though have never verified–that it could be proven scientifically that certain chord progressions and melodies hit that sweet spot in the Western brain. For want of a better word, let’s call them “hooks,” since everyone else does. I am a hook junkie and the best Pop artists manipulate them to their advantage. ABBA, for instance, leads with the hook in “Dancing Queen” (an undebatably brilliant Pop song…just ask Jeff Tweedy). In “Go All The Way,” the Raspberries get to the hook in short order and drive it home no less than 6 times in 3 minutes and 25 seconds. Hooks don’t have to slap you upside the head like these, but there they must be! Listen to Pernice Brothers, Big Star, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, and Lambchop for just how sophisticated and infectious these can be.

Out of sheer laziness, I will say that Pop is ultimately undefinable or, at least, is best served through examples. I will have at least 30 of these at your disposal this Sunday from 1 to 3 on Left Of The Dial, only on Grow Radio!

Doc Watson And My Grandfather

When my grandfather came back from WW2, he bought a Gibson L-7 and became the best Travis-Atkins style guitarist I have ever seen. In a series of events that would claim a blog post of its own, that guitar now sits in my closet, dried rattlesnake rattles resting against the unparalleled Gibson craftsmanship inside its hollow body. The best part of our regular visits to South Carolina farm country involved all of us sitting around to watch him play this guitar. On a good day, my great grandmother would  accompany him on autoharp and the rest of the family would kick in with improvised vocal harmonies. For me, this was the musical equivalent of writing in wet cement, and goes a long way toward explaining my obsession with music.

The incomparable Doc Watson passed this week. Blind, both proud and humble, he was the best flatpicking guitarist ANYONE has ever seen. Doc was rooted firmly in the hills of North Carolina, not too far from where my grandfather, his contemporary, plied his skills on the local gospel circuit. So this music (Doc, Earl, Merle, Chet, Bill) has always felt like home to me, because in my small way I participated in it. About 5 years ago, I found a number of acetates my grandfather made in the 1940s and 50s. The lacquer was peeling off and many were unplayable. On them I found full and partial songs, radio takes, and the sound of my family years before I was born singing and playing together. What I did manage to salvage, I recorded, cleaned up, and dubbed onto CDs.

Like Doc Watson, everyone on those CDs is now gone and, honestly, I don’t know if our generations have come anywhere close to carrying on their legacy. I do know that since my grandfather died in 1997, the only family gatherings we have had are funerals and, although my brother and I consider ourselves musicians, neither of us have ever played with the younger generations at our feet, freshly bathed and sitting transfixed in their pajamas

Please join me tomorrow for “Left Of The Dial” from 1 to 3 Eastern on Grow Radio as I honor the music of Doc Watson and others.

1979

…was the year I learned to hate Disco, a fortunately short-lived phase that I now know to be the result of cultural trends having their way with me without any critical thinking on my part. As soon as I saw my first “Disco Sucks” t-shirt in Creem magazine, I knew that the disco 12-inchers and 45s had taken their last spin on my Panasonic turntable…or so I thought.

See, like any year (arbitrary time markers, at best), 1979 was a pivotal one. Disco and funk were trending down, and punk and New Wave were trending way up in the US, while punk itself had already reached its sell-by date in the UK. Yet 1979 was THE year for Post-Punk in the UK. See how that works? Mark any date and any given cultural trend is either ascendant or descendant. That’s why it is so much bullshit to say “Music sucked in the 70s.” Because it did not suck, not by a long shot.

1979 was the most important year in my musical life. I was playing the guitar at least 4-5 hours a day, learning every Stones lick (incorrectly, I later found out), and buying more records than I ever had before or ever have since. I had discovered the Clash, the Ramones, Graham Parker, had seen the B-52′s, the Who, and the Ramones live…at the same time that I was still nursing a heavy metal jones that was, for the most part, misguided.

Help me revisit this crucial year tomorrow (Sunday, 2-26) on my show, “Left Of The Dial” from 1-3 Eastern on http://www.growradio.org.

Columbia House

My jones for more, more, more music was lit early and has yet to wane. It started with a Kool And The Gang 45 when I was nine, picked up ferocious speed the day I got my paper route at 13, and has totally overwhelmed me in the digital age. If I use drug metaphors to describe my relationship with acquiring music, that is because what I am describing is addiction. I am not alone.

At least that’s what Columbia House Record Club bet the farm on way back when. Anyone close to my age knows exactly what Columbia House was. In the 70s and 80s the magazine ads were ubiquitous: “12 Records Free” and then something about how you need do nothing else…but let the (wretched) Album Of The Month arrive at retail + $5, and some other fine print that read like a mortgage document.

The Columbia House business model took a page from the anti-drug speeches we listened to in school. They would “front” you the free stuff up front, and then slam you with outrageous commitments you had no idea you signed up for. As far as I know, there was no age limitation for sign up either. Practically every parent who raised a child in the 60s, 70, or 80s has penned an irate letter to Columbia House. I remember at least three times I re-uped with them, defaulting on my obligation each time.

The result is that I have a huge number of Greatest Hits compilations in my vinyl collection, many of which I would never have purchased had I been paying “real” money. They never had the good stuff at Columbia House, for some reason. It was always the Dylan album that sucked from 1972 or a perfectly awful Aerosmith live record. What it did do is obvious to anyone who has taken a look at the shelves in my living room, or at the external hard drive(s) I cart around: it made my appetite for more music, more tweaks to my dopamine receptors, insatiable. So, thank you, Columbia House, I guess.

STOP SOPA AND PIPA!

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January 12, 2010

In Port Au Prince one afternoon, I passed a naked man bathing in the water of an open sewer. In the logic that possesses you once you’ve been there for a day or two, it made sense to me that he would make use of the only running water around. I marveled at his resourcefulness. Only later, when I was safe inside the building where I worked, was I able to absorb the reality of what I saw, maybe not even then.

It is now almost a year since I first went to Haiti, and I experience similar lapses of mind about it even today. Most of the time I forget I was even there, and then a story about an uprising or a corruption scandal will pop up in my feed and I am sucked right back. Today it was the posting by a friend of a cartoon written by Pharés Jerome and drawn by Chevelin Pierre. The writing is basic reportage, but the images are more accurate and evocative than most photographs of the place. I’ve walked down these same streets, past these same tents, felt this same wind coming down the mountains.

Today is the 2nd anniversary of the earthquake, an event that remained distant and Other until I became acquainted with many of the people who survived it somehow. How Jean-Pierre, with the huge laugh and Clark Gable moustache, had to walk over bodies and limbs for miles to pull his wife out of a collapsed office building. Or how Stéphane managed to still come to work the day after he lost his mother and father. Or even Leon, safe somehow up in his villa, who barely felt a thing and saw it on the news before he saw any damage. No such luck down in the heat of Port Au Prince. By the time I got there a month later, the kind of recovery that only a Haitian can know had begun. I realized then, and remember now, that I know nothing about what survival means. That’s good to remember.

Why Actor Bands Will Always Suck

For the purposes of this post, I have subjected myself to music by the following people: Keanu Reeves, Jared Leto, Zooey Deschanel, Bill Paxton, Sylvester & Frank Stallone, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Bacon, Lindsay Lohan, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, Juliette Lewis, and Scarlett Johansson. Oh, the lengths I will go. Hollywood is the most insular place on the planet…so much so that despite the embarrassment of virtually every other movie star that has gone before them, nothing seems to stop the next star from thinking he or she will be the first to release a legit rock and roll record. But it will never, ever happen. Here’s why.

Brand Management

Every single movie star you see is the result of meticulous and relentless branding. You think you’re the first person to enjoy Morgan Freeman’s paternal warmth? Zooey Deschanel’s “quirky” sexiness? Owen Wilson nasal drawl and lovable smartassitude? Nope. Those personas were designed in a bungalow conference room and supported by countless tweaks and decisions. By all rights, every movie star should be branded with a TM tramp stamp. Conversely, no real rock and roll band was formed in a conference room. And those that were simply suck. Every single time.

Hunger

Go watch “Control” (2007), a film about the life and death of Joy Division. This is the environment in which great bands are formed. They are hungry, underemployed, desperate, and in their brief existence, Joy Division never recorded a song that was less than great. The Clash, The Rolling Stones, The Velvet Underground, Black Flag, hell, even the Beatles all began in deprivation: the whole band living in the same flat, playing music 18 hours a day, eating and sleeping whenever those human necessities were available. No great band has ever been formed from the 1%…and most bands get worse as they get richer.

You Can’t Trademark Credibility

Movie stars believe their stardom gives them a pass for any other artistic endeavor they may want to pursue. This delusion is as old as Hollywood itself: see Tony Curtis’s paintings and Jimmy Stewart’s “poetry” for examples. Others attempt to buy credibility by latching on to an already proven artist. Scarlett Johansson recorded an album of Tom Waits songs. (I’m not kidding. She really did.) Zooey Deschanel has teamed with credible musician M. Ward to form She & Him, only to have their Christmas album (!) included on the list of the Worst Albums of 2011 by popmatters.com. The fact that Deschanel’s schtick has been outed as that of the latest Manic Pixie Dream Girl does not help her cause.

What Can A Movie Star Do Then?

Nothing. It won’t work. Ever. Comfort is the enemy of rock and roll. If you are a movie star, thank God, Ron Hubbard, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster that you hit the lottery and leave music to the people who know how to make it.

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