Music: August 2002 Archives


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A teacher I had few years ago had a theory about “comfort foods.” She believed that the food you liked best as a child was a source of comfort as you got older. I don’t remember any foods in particular. But I do remember music.

Growing up in the 70s, I hated popular music. That is, except for the late-night FM stuff, where they would play songs that went deeper than three-minute pop tunes. I’ve always had a tendency to take things far too seriously, and I was genuinely outraged by disco, and most pop phenomena. I suspect I was far too humorless about the whole thing. My first long term relationship ended because “I wasn’t funny.” Having someone leave you for someone else is always traumatic, but more than the trauma I remember the way I discovered how to cope.

I’d heard a few Frank Zappa tunes on the FM before, like “Stink-foot” and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” Right after this woman left me, Zappa released a new album called Sheik Yerbouti. I decided to give it a try. It hit me at just the right time. As the needle dropped in the groove, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first song was a mellow send-up of syrupy AOR which parodied a recently released Peter Frampton album, I’m In You. Zappa’s version was “I Have Been in You.” I was amused, but when it got about halfway into “Flakes,” I was sold:

I’m a moron, and this is my wife
She's frosting a cake with a paper knife
All what we got here’s American made
It's a little bit cheesy, but it’s nicely displayed
It was so refreshing to hear someone make fun of the “American Way” with such humor. But still reeling from the breakup, when the next song kicked in I found strange comfort:
*Hey! Do you know what you are?*
*You’re an asshole! An ASSHOLE!*

Some of you might not agree
‘Cause you probably likes a lot of misery
But think a while and you will see . . .
Broken hearts are for assholes
Broken hearts are for assholes
And you’re an asshole
Broken hearts are for assholes
And you’re an asshole too
So whatcha gonna do, ‘cause you’re an asshole . . .

What kind of artist calls his audience assholes by the third song? This was before I crossed over into punk, mind you. The remainder of the song is positively hilarious. The album traverses from incredibly complex modern jazz, to bone-crushing hard rock, the guy was just all over the planet. If someone this talented could take life a bit less seriously, maybe I could too. From that point on, I became a devout Frank Zappa fan.

I was watching a recently downloaded copy of the Zappa’s movie Baby Snakes yesterday, and decided to pull out Sheik Yerbouti for the first time in many years. It was perfect timing. Going to academic conferences, there’s a lot of smoke blowing about. People take me far too seriously. Yes, I’m passionate about things but that doesn’t mean I’m humorless. This record has always been a comfort for me in moments of tragic seriousness. It’s my version of “comfort food,” I suppose.

Yes, Zappa’s humor can be puerile. “Disco Boy” and “Jewish Princess” aren’t exactly politically correct. But as the saying goes, “fuck’em if they can’t take a joke.” I also downloaded a Dutch documentary on Zappa from 2000, which has so much truth in it that I watched it twice yesterday. The closing lines are the most perfect description of the rhetorical concept of Kairos I’ve ever heard. Zappa looks gray and ill, as he emphatically states:

What something is depends on when it is more than anything else.
Gail Zappa also contributes a bit of Zappa wisdom that has been bothering me tremendously, as I attempt to write about the development of documentary photography in the 1930s:
He’s a guy who lived by the idea of “expect the unexpected” . . .

Or, judge everything simultaneously so that you’re not judging at all, in essence . . .

Always judge everything every moment or not at all.

Don’t stay fixed in the idea of a previous moment, because things can change and they do.

Unraveling history is difficult because of this. There was so much going on, from so many different directions that it is hard to write a sketch of the fabric of time. It’s so much easier to write about a single person than it is the confluence of events. Everything changes everything else, nearly simultaneously. It’s hard to create the concept of when, because it is not merely a linear series of cause and effect. But there are moments of comfort, when the confluence of events actually make sense, if only for a moment.

Rewriting History

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Rewriting History

I watched a couple of movies today that really pissed me off. First, Lady Sings the Blues with Diana Ross smoothing out the rough edges of Billie Holiday. Every time Ross diva-fied a classic Holiday tune, I kept wanting to pull out the a CD and listen to the original again. It dawned on me that what troubles me the most about writing about the history of photography is that the beauty is in the phrasing. The nuances of an individual can’t easily be captured by trends or movements, or generalities of any kind. I was thinking about the “American quilt” metaphor, and thinking that the parts of that quilt are not held together by delicate embroidery, but by harsh sutures of raw bits of flesh. From a distance, it looks well put together, but up close there are rough spots that have never, and will never heal. It’s such a sham to try and plaster them up with cosmetics, and turn ugly or tragic people into beautiful stars.

But the worst re-write of all was Rock Star. A fictitious plastic 80s metal star is transformed into a Kurt Cobain prototype. Wahlberg is great as a 70s or 80s hairy loser, and Jennifer Aniston is perfect as his plastic Barbie girlfriend. But the script! I can forgive Cameron Crowe’s wistful sentimental view of rock stardom, but the arc of this thing was totally irritating. Horatio Alger updated for the new millennium. Some tropes just refuse to die. Truly, truly, bad. Don’t get me wrong. I love crappy movies, I really do. But this abused even my surreal sense of cinematic rhetoric.

Pondering who would win a battle between the toilet duck and the scrubbing bubbles is more intellectually challenging than either of these movies.

Disney Girl


Eviscerated dreams

Exploring the Axis

I was thinking of the first song I heard Thin White Rope play live. It was from their first record— a record that I bought in anticipation of the gig. The pressing was faulty, and the entire second side was filled with a whooshing sound. As I waited for them to come on, I could hear other people talking about the record at the next table. Their copy was faulty too.

In the 80’s indie scene, records were largely promotional material to get you to go to a show— shows were not done to sell records, instead, the business model went the other way around. I think that’s where the music industry got off track— but I digress. Exploring the Axis was a promising rough start for a band that helped shape my consciousness.

Disney Girl starts with a strange shaped feedback. For an aficionado of feedback, old cartoons, B movies, and photography the lyrics made sense:

We both know the moonlight’s just blue filters on the daylight
But we don’t go south anymore cause backroads echo phantom saws

You are my disney girl, too many fingers for your world

We should go in white, top down, see quiet streets in tiny towns
Love in swamp-cooled Bates motels, your tailfin glasses, scarves as well

You are my disney girl, too many fingers for your world


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the yellow starthistle

Still Prickly

When the CD started with “Dark Green Car” I remembered standing against the monitors at the Music Machine in Hollywood entranced by Thin White Rope. I once owned a dark green car. The melody was similar to “The Ruby Sea” but the illusion faded. Though Guy Kyser’s distinctive growl kicked in quickly against the driving backdrop of his distorted tone, moments later a female voice chimed in.

Mummydogs isn’t Thin White Rope. It’s thinner and sleeker with some unusual twists. But it’s still prickly and I like that. The headphones came out quickly; I needed to hear it loud.

After listening to it twice, I decided to see if any new information had popped up on the web and found the links I placed above. “Guy Kyser was reported to be involved in botanics”?— This called for closer study. Kyser was only a coffee addict when I saw him.

The interview from 1997 mentioned that he had gone back to school. Further research on the UC Davis site showed that Kyser became deeply involved with weed. Yellow Starthistle that is, with a huge number of publications listing him as coauthor. How many musicians can claim credit for publication in Weed Science?

A stubborn prickly weed. It seems fitting.