Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Small towns

This one's inspired by a conversation at Kevin Drum's. Drum made note of fellow blogger Tyler Cowen's list of his "Anti-American" attitudes, specifically Cowen's observation that "I could not live in rural America and be happy".

"Rural America" is one of those descriptions that means different things to different people. To a New York City native, virtually the rest of the country is Rural America. To me, Rural America implies something that's not as populated, mostly agricultural and slow-paced.

Most of my experience with rural America comes from visits to my grandmother in Lamont, Oklahoma (population 465) when I was young. Lamont is about six blocks long and six blocks wide, and my brother and I thought it was neat to walk from one end of town to the other. A special highlight was walking to the ice-cream stand two blocks from Grandma's house. Later, when I was in college, I'd go to visit Grandma a few times a year until she passed away. I usually got bored stiff quickly on those visits, but at that time anything not involving music, sex, drugs or alcohol bored me in a hurry. I haven't been back to Lamont since Grandma's funeral.

I've lived most of my life in suburbs of fairly large cities. Pole Hill is semi-rural; there's a lot of open space where I live, but civilization is only over a couple of hills and a couple of right turns away. The hills make running the sewers out my way cost-prohibitive, which is the main thing keeping the open space from getting too developed.

The places I've lived for the most part are places where you can drive 15 minutes one way and be in the heart of the city, and drive 15 minutes the other way and be in the country. I guess it's spoiled me in a way. Sometimes I think I'd like to live further out, but I've also enjoyed having proximity to good bookstores and record shops. Having nice restaurants nearby is good, too, but we don't go out to eat often enough that it would bother me if we lost that.

I dunno, just thought I'd throw that out there for folks to chew on for a while.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Album project: 666

Aphrodite's Child, 666 (1972): Calm down, everybody, this one's not nearly as scary as its ominous title suggests. Although 666 stirred its fair share of controversy at the time, today it stands as a relic of the tail end of European psychedelia.

Aphrodite's Child founders Vangelis Papathanassiou and Demis Roussos were veterans of successful Greek pop-rock outfits of the mid-60's. They recruited Lucas Sideras and Argyris Koulouris to complete the new band's lineup. When political unrest broke out in Greece in 1967, the band decided to leave their home country in search of a more hospitable creative environment. Kouloris chose to stay in Greece and join the military; the other three group members set out with intent to settle in London. Problems with obtaining British work permits combined with a French transportation strike left them stranded in Paris, which they decided to make their home base for the remainder of their existence.

Having settled down in Paris, the group recorded "Rain And Tears", a reworking of Pachelbel's "Canon In D Major". The song became a sizable hit in many European countries, and reached the Top 30 in the UK. Aphrodite's Child remained on the European charts through 1969 with a series of hits, including "I Want To Live", the country-rockish "It's Five O'Clock", and the French #1 "Let Me Love, Let Me Live". Despite their sudden success, the band feared being pigeonholed as a pop act, and sought to record more adventurous material. Vangelis wished to record a rock opera in the vein of The Who's Tommy. Roussos and Sideras, on the other hand, felt such a move would endanger the band's commercial standing. The differences of opinion were already threatening to break up the group when Vangelis began working with lyricist Costas Ferris on a concept loosely based on the Book of Revelation, the inspiration for numerous works of avant-garde art and bad horror movies. Roussos and Sideras were far from enthusiastic about recording a concept LP, but agree to work on 666 in order to fulfill the band's recording contract obligations. Guitarist Kouloris returned from military service in time to work on the album as well. 666 takes over a year to record and produce, and by the time the LP is ready for release, the members of Aphrodite's Child had gone their separate ways.

A website detailing the making of 666 summarizes the concept of the LP, since I still haven't quite figured it all out:

A big circus Troupe, giving a big circus Show, based on the Apocalypse. Acrobats, dancers, tumbelines, elephants, tigers and horses. Of course, the reference to the "Beatles" "Sgt Peppers" is obvious.

While the show goes on, light and sound effects in all their glory, something is happening outside the circus tent. It is the real revelation disaster going on, staged by God himself.

The audience believes that what is happening outside, is part of the show. But the narrator, who understands that something strange is happening, gets hysterical.

At the end the big tent disappears. and the two "shows" unite, in a great battle between Good and Evil, between the real Revelation-End-of the-World, and the its staged representation.

In other words, about what you'd expect from Eurohippies interpreting the Bible.

666 was originally released as a double LP, and the first disc holds up surprisingly well. Starting with a chorus of voices chanting "Fuck the system", the album segues into the propulsive "Babylon" (Fallen fallen fallen is Babylon The Great!") A child's voice recites the lyrics to "Loud, Loud, Loud", a hippie's vision of the apocalypse:

The day the cars will lay in heaps
their wheels turning in vain
we'll run along the empty highways
shouting, screaming, singing
loud, loud, loud, loud.

This fades into the album's best-known track, "The Four Horsemen", featuring Demis Roussos' operatic range describing the bearers of disease, war, famine, and death, as well as some amazing guitar playing by Kouloris during the coda. "Four Horsemen" became an underground FM radio classic, and is the Aphrodite's Child track most familiar to US rock listeners. (The Verve's eclectic Richard Ashcroft quotes "Four Horsemen" at the end of his group's "The Rolling People".) The remainder of the first disc continues in the same vein, with more of Roussos' colorful singing, Kouloris' fine guitar work, Vangelis' agile keyboard improvisations, and lyrics that get stranger and stranger.

Unfortunately, the concept runs out of steam on the second disc. Most of the second half of 666 is dominated by Vangelis' keyboard noodling, punctuated in the middle of side three by a track denoted by the infinity symbol, which consists of five minutes of suggestive chanting and orgasmic moaning contributed by actress Irene Papas. Side four consists of "All The Seats Were Occupied", a nineteen-minute recap of everything on the first three sides reminiscent of The Beatles' "Revolution #9", before concluding with "Break", a seemingly out-of-place ballad which gave Aphrodite's Child their final European hit single.

The release of 666 was delayed for months while Vangelis haggled with record company officials over the LP's content. The label was uncomfortable marketing a project prominently featuring the Biblical Mark Of The Beast, and the execs were outraged by Papas' sensual performance. Vangelis agreed to edit the infinity track, but refused to delete it altogether. Fundamentalist religious groups were predictably up in arms as well, particularly noting a phrase in the liner notes, "This work was recorded under the influence of Sahlep". Religious groups claimed that "Sahlep" was some sort of Satanic ritual; in actuality it is a hot drink popular in Greece and some Middle Eastern countries. By the time the problems with the record label had been ironed out and 666 finally released, Aphrodite's Child had long since ceased to exist, and Vangelis, Roussos, and Sideras were all at work on solo projects.

Demis Roussos enjoyed a fair amount of pop chart success as a solo artist in Europe during the 70's and 80's. Roussos also became famous for his struggles with his weight; at one point he ballooned to 350 pounds. He dramatically lost weight in the early 80's. In Europe, Roussos' saga is as well known as Oprah Winfrey's and Kirstie Alley's weight-loss battles are to Americans. Vangelis moved to London, and was offered a job with Yes, which he declined. He would record several albums with Yes vocalist Jon Anderson in the 70's and 80's, as well as recording a diverse body of solo work. Vangelis' big moment would finally come in 1982, when his soundtrack to the movie Chariots Of Fire became a huge worldwide success, winning an Oscar for Best Original Score, and gaining an international #1 hit with the main title theme.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Recycled book meme

Still adjusting to the night shift schedule, I was sleeping when I heard a loud thump on the front porch. I opened the door of the Sanitarium to find something that looked as though it had been drug out of a garbage dump. I then looked up and caught a glimpse of the Complaint Department Manager's ass skedaddling back to Missouri as fast as he could run.

We've seen this one before. Wot the hell - it's cheap, easy, and I wasn't planning on posting anything today anyway...

The rules of this meme, for those who haven't seen it yet:

1. Find the nearest book.
2. Name the book.
3. Name the author.
4. Turn to page 123.
5. Go to the fifth sentence on the page.
6. Copy the next three sentences and post to your blog.
7. Tag three more lucky souls.

What I have nearby is titled Living With The Dead. It's not about necrophilia (although that might have given us something more interesting to quote). The book is former Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully's memoir of his years of attempting to bring some order to the business affairs of that unruly lot. Here's what we find in the designated place on page 123:

Also, Phil has been taking more lead vocals, which doesn't exactly hold the bottom. Mickey and his energy galvanize the rhythm section and get the bass and the drums together.

Mickey Hart is the first musician that the Grateful Dead ever even considered for the band who doesn't come from their own backyard.

Since it's the second time around, I'm not tagging anybody with this. Anybody who's looking for something to fill some blog space is welcome to scrape some of the rust off this meme and take it home with them.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Album project: The Animals

The Animals, Retrospective (2004): The Animals emerged out of working-class Newcastle, England, riding the first wave of the British Invasion to give the world some of the best, toughest no-frills rock 'n' roll of that era.

The band's origins were in the Alan Price Combo, one of countless outfits throughout England doing their best to approximate the sounds of American rhythm and blues for dance club audiences. The group's fortunes took a turn for the better when the deep-voiced, soulful Eric Burdon hired on as lead singer. Along with keyboardist Price, guitarist Hilton Valentine, bassist Chas Chandler, and drummer John Steel comprised the original line-up. Their wild stage act caused the folks around Newcastle to refer to the quintet as "animals", and the name stuck when they headed down to London to seek their fortune.

They had a connection with Yardbirds manager Giorgio Gomelsky, who in turn introduced them to Mickie Most, one of Britain's most successful producers of the 60's. The Animals' repertoire consisted mostly of reworked blues, R&B, and folk tunes, pretty much the standard practice around London at the time. Their first single, "Baby Let Me Take You Home", gave them a British chart foothold. Their second, "House Of The Rising Sun", made them international superstars.

"House Of The Rising Sun" was an old New Orleans folk blues, the story of a life gone wrong in the city's gambling houses and brothels. The origins of the song have become lost in the mists of time. It's likely it just evolved over the years out of the city's storytelling traditions. Many people have speculated that The Animals picked "Rising Sun" up from Bob Dylan's debut album, but Eric Burdon said that he first heard it in Newcastle from a local folk singer named Johnny Handle. The band began using it as their closing number to differentiate them from the majority of acts who ended their sets with up-tempo R&B selections. Producer Most was doubtful of the song's commercial potential at first, but after seeing audiences' reactions agreed to let The Animals record it, which they did in one take on May 18, 1964.

Music steeped in the blues like this was almost never heard on AM radio in 1964, and the effect of "House Of The Rising Sun" was almost revolutionary. Hilton Valentine's guitar arpeggio catches your attention immediately, setting up Burdon's powerful lamentation of wasting his life with drinking, gambling, and prostitutes, all driven along by Price's pulsating organ. "Rising Sun" was a worldwide chart-topper, spending three weeks at #1 in the US.

As many of their British Invasion contemporaries began to branch out and write their own material, The Animals stuck to the tried and true approach of covering American R&B tracks, garnering further hits with "I'm Crying", "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", and "Bring It On Home To Me". At the same time the group, especially Burdon, gained a reputation for hard drinking and brawling, while internal disputes threatened to blow the band apart. Alan Price was first to leave, in part due to his fear of flying. (Price would continue to be successful in Britain through the rest of the 60's as a solo performer.) He was replaced by Dave Rowberry, and The Animals scored more hits through 1965-66 with the working-class anthems "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place", "It's My Life" (featured below), and "Don't Bring Me Down".

By mid-1966 the internal pressures brought about the breakup of the original group. John Steel and Hilton Valentine faded from the music business. Chas Chandler spotted a flamboyant young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix in a New York club and offered to become his manager. Chandler brought Hendrix to England to record, and guided him through his years of phenomenal success.

Eric Burdon moved from England to California, and forsook the bottle for LSD. The mellowed-out Burdon put together a new edition of the Animals, featuring multi-instrumentalist John Weider, and replaced the hard-driving R&B with songs of peace, love, and hippie gentleness. The new Animals could pack a punch on occasion, as with the dive-bomb guitar intro to "When I Was Young", but were best noted for their ornate psychedelia and ballads like "San Franciscan Nights". The anti-war "Sky Pilot", the story of a morally conflicted military chaplain, was probably the best track from the later years.

By 1969, the new Animals had disbanded (future Police guitarist Andy Summers was a member toward the end), and Burdon began working with a jazz/funk/rock fusion combo called War. War made two albums with Burdon, also creating a major hit single, "Spill The Wine", which would be War's first big hit, and Burdon's last.

The original Animals attempted a couple of reunions, in 1977 and 1983, but the old animosities resurfaced and both reunions were short-lived. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1994; Burdon refused to attend, and Alan Price sat at a table apart from the rest of his former bandmates. The original lineup was retired permanently in 1996, when Chas Chandler died of a heart attack.

The original Animals' tough folk-blues influenced sound has earned them a permanent place among rock's greatest groups. Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, among others, have covered Animals songs on stage for years, acknowledging their debt to the brawling young lads out of Newcastle.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Danny Federici

Danny Federici on stage with Bruce Springsteen in Pittsburgh during the band's recent tour.

Your humble host has been a major fan of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band from way back, so it is with much sadness that I note the passing of Danny Federici, whose association with Springsteen dates back to the late 60's, Thursday at age 58.

Federici and drummer Vini Lopez recruited Springsteen for their band Child in 1969. As various Jersey Shore musicians came and went, Child became Steel Mill, then Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom, and ultimately Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Federici was the one member of Springsteen's outfits who lasted through all the changes. On his website, Springsteen wrote: "Danny and I worked together for 40 years - he was the most wonderfully fluid keyboard player and a pure natural musician. I loved him very much...we grew up together."

Federici seldom sought the limelight; he mostly provided keyboard fills and other sonic coloring for many of Springsteen's best-known songs. A couple of his notable performances were the accordion parts on "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" and the organ lead featured on "Hungry Heart". Federici's glockenspiel playing added a unique touch to a number of Bruce's early tracks. Springsteen often introduced him on stage as "Phantom Dan"; the nickname stemming from a Steel Mill show that the police shut down because the neighbors were complaining about the noise. A minor riot ensued, and Federici slipped into the crowd to evade the cops and avoid possible arrest.

Federici had suffered from melanoma for the past several years. His family has set up the Danny Federici Melanoma Fund in order to spread awareness and provide funds for treatment of the disease. Federici leaves for us this message on the website:

What people take for granted on a daily basis, among so many other things, is their skin. I spent my life, like many others, catching some rays, surfing, hanging out in the sun and it never bothered me until now. Who knew that something as simple as a proper sunscreen or keeping yourself covered up on a sunny day could one day save your life? Our culture looks at a nice tan as a sign of luxury. We spend time in tanning booths when we can't go to the beach or lay by the pool. It's time to think again. Especially if you're fair skined, have freckles, or light eyes. Be aware of the dangers, take precaution, and have yourself checked out regularly by a dermatologist from head to toe. It could absolutely make the difference in your life.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The gospel according to lolcat

In the beginning...

My schedule's all messed up again. Last week, with several of our guys being out sick for an extended period, I volunteered for was forcibly removed to the night shift until further notice. Combined with the beginning of the annual spring cleaning and planting rituals around Pole Hill, there's been little time for prowling the internets.

It doesn't help that I've spent most of what little time I have online in fascinated study of the Lolcat Bible. This groundbreaking revelation of the Almighty Ceiling Cat is certainly "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16, yet to be translated. The Lolcat Bible is in wiki form; they'd be happy to have more translators if you're interested.)

For example, the lolcat Ten Commandments:

1 Then Ceiling Cat spoked all them werds:

2 I iz Ceiling Cat An I iz Top Cat, An I broughted u out of hawt lend wit no cheezbrgrs for hard werk at all

3 No can has other ceiling cat!! U gotz other Ceiling Cat, I shoot yous wit mah lazer eyes.

4 If u try be Ceiling Cat of any of mai creayshunz up in floaty skai, down in erth or in watr or I shoot yous wit mah lazer eyes.5 If u think faek Ceiling Cat iz Ceiling Cat, I mek u ded An ur kittens ded An if yur kittenz have kittenz, dey be ded too, for being stupid.6 If not I wuv u An all ur lotz uf kittenz!

7 U sez Ceiling Cat bad, I shoot yous wit mah lazer eyes, cuz I dun liek it. Srsly.

8 Remembur caturday An keep holy.9 U werk 6 dais An finish werk, K?10 Caturday, u no werk. U An all ur peepz go wrship me. And, if yu beez gudd, I maks it so yu can stays home and do alla stuffs yu wanted tu doos.11 I maded heavenz An erth An see An the stuff that does teh funney hoppey stuffz in An on it - so I make it holy cuz I no werk.

12 Bez u good to papa An mama so u has long lief.

13 U no maek peepz ded! Srsly!

14 U no maek sexxes wit other gurlz or menz than ur wief (so no awsum treesum alowed!).

15 U no taek stuffs for free if not getz for free.

16 U no tell bad stuff about ur neibor.

17 U no wantz neibor stuff! No wief, no gurlz, no menz, no animulz, NO BUKKITZ! DEY NOT UR BUKKITZ, K? dey da LOLrus' bukkits.

The Ceiling Cat's Prayer:

Praise Ceiling Cat, who be watchin yu, may him has a cheezburger. Wut yu want, yu gets, srsly. Giv us dis day our dalee cheezburger. And furgiv us for makin yu a cookie, but eateding it. An leed us not into teh showa, but deliver us from teh wawter. Ceiling Cat pwns all. Him pwns teh ceiling an flor an walls too. Amen.

I think y'all will find this important translation to be highly educational and enlightening. I'll be back on track in the next few days, the good Ceiling Cat willing.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Why we have so many of 'em

By way of Digby and Feministing comes this dandy little news item:

Florida teens who believe drinking a cap of bleach will prevent HIV and a shot of Mountain Dew will stop pregnancy have prompted lawmakers to push for an overhaul of sex education in the state.

Another myth is that Florida teens also believe that smoking marijuana will prevent a person from getting pregnant...

Don't forget the Lysol when you're done, kids.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Charlton Heston


Charlton Heston, manly-man actor who starred in many of the screen epics of the 50's and 60's, passed away Saturday night at age 84. He had been battling Alzheimer's disease for the past several years.

Heston, a graduate of Northwestern University, made his way to New York after a stint in the Army Air Force in World War II. He struggled on Broadway, but had better luck in the movies where he was first noticed playing a circus manager in Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 flick The Greatest Show On Earth. In 1956, when casting The Ten Commandments, DeMille remembered the jut-jawed, muscular Heston and decided he was the perfect actor to portray his Moses. The Ten Commandments became a huge success and propelled Heston into a career of portraying virile, larger-than-life characters in some of the most spectacular productions of the day, including Ben-Hur, El Cid, The Agony And The Ecstasy and Khartoum. His portrayal of the rebel Jewish leader Judah Ben-Hur won Heston an Academy Award. In later years Heston specialized in sci-fi epics such as Planet Of The Apes and Soylent Green.

As his acting career waned, Heston became involved in politics. Like Ronald Reagan, Heston served as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and also like Reagan, he switched his political affiliation from Democratic to Republican as he aged. In the 60's, Heston participated in civil rights demonstrations, but was best known in later years for his hard-boiled conservatism and his uncompromising stance in favor of gun rights. He was such an effective spokesman for gun owners that in 1998 he was elected president of the National Rifle Association. He stirred controversy in 2000 when at the NRA convention, he raised a rifle above his head and announced that Presidential candidate Al Gore would have to pry it "from his cold, dead hands".

Ben-Hur is one of my dad's all-time favorite movies. Mom used to dread when it came on, because she never cared much for Charlton Heston, and because she knew that the TV would be tied up all night. I've never been able to sit through all of Ben-Hur myself, even as an adult. I've gotta say, though, that they don't make chariot races like they used to.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Cuss factor

For the most part, I go along with my grandmother on this, who told me that using cusswords was a sign of being too lazy or stupid to express one's thoughts effectively.

At the same time, I've always appreciated the impact of a well-placed f-bomb.

The Blog-O-Cuss Meter - Do you cuss a lot in your blog or website?
Created by OnePlusYou

Hey, I run a clean blog here, and if you don't like it, you can go fuck yourself!

(If you've got a couple of minutes, or are simply looking for a good excuse to cuss something, check out this blogosphere classic from Lambert.)

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Album project: Big Science

Laurie Anderson, Big Science (1982): I didn't pay much attention to Big Science when it arrived at the campus radio station, not being a fan of electronic music in general. It wasn't until I was at a friend's place several months later when he put this record on that I noticed Laurie Anderson's warmth and humor that sneaks up on you when you listen to these songs. Not long after, I went out and bought the LP, and found myself playing it often over the next couple of years.

Laurie Anderson at the time was really more of a visual performance artist who used her music as a means to accent her broader artistic ideas. She could also play the violin, and invented something called a tape-bow violin, which used recorded magnetic tape in place of hair on the bow, and a magnetic tape head on the bridge. In the early 80's she began work on a project, United States I-IV, a study of America's love for and dependence on technology. One of the songs for the project, "O Superman", was released as a limited-edition independent single. That single stirred up enough interest that Anderson put together some of the other songs she was working on for United States I-IV, and recorded Big Science. (The entire 4 1/2 hour United States was released in 1984.)

Big Science continues to develop Anderson's theme of technology - notably, how our dependence on our high-tech gadgetry leads us to develop an affection for the machines that they can never return, and how that dependence affects our human relationships. It's hard to convey today the futuristic vision of this record from the standpoint of 25 years ago, especially since so much of the future Anderson describes has arrived. Indeed, much of Big Science seems prophetic, especially in the wake of 9/11, from the deadpan observations of the pilot of a crashing plane in "From The Air" ("You know, I've got a funny feeling I've seen this all before. Why? 'Cause I'm a caveman"), to the airplanes that recur through "O Superman". ("Here come the planes. They're American planes. Made in America.") Yet, if anyone would label Anderson a prophet, she would find it amusing. "I've seen the future", Anderson says in "Let X=X", "and it's a place - about 70 miles east of here."

Anderson's voice is what keeps Big Science interesting. She makes generous use of vocoders and electronic treatments, which were only starting to come into use in the early 80's. Throughout the album, Anderson loops and layers her processed voice to create the unique rhythms she builds her musical ideas upon. Anderson's lead vocals are more spoken than sung, much of it in a pleasant yet unemotional telephone-operator voice that breaks at unexpected moments to offer genuine glimpses of emotion, such as in "O Superman":

'Cause when love is gone, there's always justice
And when justice is gone, there's always force
And when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi Mom!

Anderson backs her observations with an eclectic array of musical instrumentation and electronic noises. Some of the songs are almost musically conventional, while others feature things like a glass harmonica and Anderson's tape-bow violin. She makes imaginative use of all manner of electronic percussion; one surprising influence of Big Science has been as a source for many hip-hop and rap samples.

Big Science earned Anderson a sizable cult following in the US, and even more improbable success in the UK. Legendary BBC DJ John Peel began playing "O Superman" on his show, and sales of the single took off. "O Superman" rose all the way to #2 in the British charts, making it one of the most unlikely pop hits ever.

Anderson has continued her avant-garde career to this day, releasing a number of projects and working with a wide variety of artists from William S. Burroughs and Phillip Glass to Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed, with whom she has been romantically involved since the late 90's. She's never enjoyed anything like the commercial success she earned with Big Science since, although her song "Sharkey's Day" got a bit of airplay, and was later used by Lifetime Television.

It's likely a lot of you have never heard "O Superman", and if you have, you've probably forgotten.