Weekend Beats: Claudine’s Back in Jail Again

We’ve written before about the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls (1978), an album that is both a dirtbag disco joint and a Bakersfield country classic. Beauty is grime, and grime beauty, that’s all we know. The whole performance raises questions. Among them: Can a total English-to-American conversion happen to someone, or even to an entire band? Well, can it?

The American impulse entails (but doesn’t often admit the coexistence of) exultation and failure, success and loss, clarity and muck, all of it in richly conflicted individual versions (we still call them citizens), which makes sense, given our roots in Calvinism and the slave trade, in both of which you’re either a blessed success or close to a deserved, preordained death. If we’re talking poetry, this is why Emily Dickinson, not Walt Whitman, is the Big Bang of modern American poetry (OK, OK, they split 60/40), because Whitman, for all his genius, only half-compromised in later, post-Civil War poems with the darkness.

Anyway, the Stones released their posh two-disc Deluxe Edition of Some Girls a while back, and it’s just great. The second disc emphasizes country-fried songs that didn’t make the final cut, including the scuffling, speedy track we’ve got here, “Claudine.”

The original public version has the masterpieces that became hits: “Some Girls,” “Beast of Burden,” “Miss You” (some Puerto Rican girls that’s just dyyyyin to meet-cha), “Shattered” (after which the 1980s’ best pop songs could happen). But the restored cuts on Disc 2 are almost as fantastic, because their pose is more artfully ragged. If you like that kind of setup. It gets grimy down there, son. The American impulse needs plenty of explaining, and sometimes English visitors and settlers can clarify things: Dusty Springfield, Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, the Men in Blazers, Aldous Huxley (who for better or worse nurtured Southern California’s mystical inclinations), Thom Gunn (more on him on this blog soon), Steve McQueen the director, Thomas Paine, Led Zeppelin.

Et cetera. Enjoy the weekend, y’all.


Weekend Beats: Kool Keith on “Drugs”

I wish I had a cooler origin story for my appreciation of Kool Keith, but to be honest I discovered him on the Office Space soundtrack. Don’t judge—it was 1999 and I was 17. Because I couldn’t find a free Web clip of wherever in the film “Get Off My Elevator,” with its mangy, peristaltic beat and pop-culture garbageman-poet lyrics, gets played, here is another scene from Mike Judge’s Clinton-era masterwork:

Later, when I got to college and, still a corny young white man (just like Michael Bolton above), began working at the school’s radio station (WCWM represent), people who actually knew about hip hop introduced me to gold like the Ultramagnetic MCs, the group Keith rapped with from the late 1980s till the mid 1990s, and Spankmaster, an album he dropped in 2001. That the latter cracked the Billboard Top 50 for rap albums (#48) in the early 2000s, or any era in which human beings have had the ability to record music, is shocking. You may remember Ja Rule and Crazy Town from the early aughts.

My favorite track on Spankmaster is “Drugs,” a profane, batshit tall tale of Keith’s supposed assignations with various narc-addled celebrities. In an odd way, though, the text controls itself. Sort of. Its ragout of cultural allusions and strange hypothetical scenarios is held within demanding rhyme and accent schemes. The beat is an eerie, growling, fenced-in space for the lyrics to roughhouse. It is pricked with empty-theater piano taps. It’s like a scene from Under the Volcano—simultaneously goofy and horrible. A sample:

Packed up my bag and met Darryl Strawberry in the mall
I told James Brown, “Stop smoking angel-dust in the piss stall”
He wanted to go up to the Olive Garden and start a restaurant brawl
Mary J. Blige, my son don’t accept them type of phone calls!

If you want to do a Harold Bloom-style tree of influence, then Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Tyler, the Creator (all very different MCs) aren’t possible without Kool Keith.

You could also have some dark fun imagining an updated roll call of celebrity drug disasters: Amy Winehouse, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Pimp C, Heath Ledger, Mitch Hedberg, Whitney Houston (still living when KK recorded this track, which mentions her and Bobby Brown). All men must die and all that.

Oh, also: the cover. Aesthetically, Spankmaster‘s packaging alludes to Eighties porno and Seventies blaxsploitation films (but mainly porno), and its ideological, uh, thrust amounts to a reeling parody of rap’s, uh, problematic sexual politics. That said, Keith does fervently endorse female backsides, which some people find quite fetching but which might not be universally palatable as presented here, KK’s prophylactic, partial irony notwithstanding. You can’t spell “Trigger Warning” without a T, a G, and an R.

To put it another way, there is a lady’s covered (but only just!) butt on the YouTube link, and no, there aren’t other freely accessible links without that tailfeather. But it is a remarkably un-erotic image anyway.

Good luck not cracking up six or seven times while you bump this. There’s a new kind of hero in the streets. Have a safe and fulfilling weekend, y’all.

Monday Beats: Straight Outta Gainesville

Tom Petty is a man. A man who draws deep water on this website. A man from Florida who made an album. An album that came out 25 years ago, when Tom Petty himself was a robust 39.* An album called Full Moon Fever. An album that you would almost certainly enjoy, general readers.

Having been a teenager during the mid- to late-1990s stage of Petty’s fame, when MTV and M2 (long since renamed MTV2) were still actually curating videos by famous and sub-famous musicians alike, I got a heavy dose of the strange, intermittently brilliant visual complements to the Petty singles that were all over the radio, and kind of still are, if you limit your definition of “radio” to classic-rock stations in large American cities.

This video, for example, is fantastic. It gives you plenty of smirking, lowbrow meta-textuality, and besides Petty doing his stoned-Mad-Hatter thing at the front and back ends, you get the elaborate hair of Jeff Lynne and George Harrison, complex shirts all around, and Ringo Starr looking like a blind Muppet (I’ve been told this final association only makes sense to me). The camera goes all sorts of places, y’all. Fun. As a visual text it befits “I Won’t Back Down,” my favorite of the album’s ten songs (when my favorite isn’t “The Apartment Song” or “Yer So Bad”), all of which are near-perfect articulations of transatlantic (but still distinctly American) garage-pop.

Tom Petty with his flimsy hair and that dry suggestion of a twang, what a mensch. A man without a home country, having adopted LA after escaping north Florida, his audience is getting older. That’s a shame. Many people in their teens and 20s would dig Full Moon Fever. I bumped it in my Camry when I was seventeen; my dad and I both liked it. In aesthetic terms, its cover is pure bedroom-poster material. Young people, you need not relinquish your skateboards and body sprays to embrace Tom Petty!

The opening riff of “I Won’t Back Down” slices and lingers, establishing a basic sadness that persists beneath the song’s general catchiness and collaborative ethos. The lyrics, rigged as urgent couplets and more spacious choruses, mirror this tension. Like Petty’s incomparable voice they seem resigned to being optimistic.

* The 3/31 “Hollywood Prospectus” podcast on Grantland drew the date to my attention. I am indifferent to large swaths of the pop-culture landscape that Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan have taken as their bailiwick, but they are thoughtful dudes, and they spend the last twenty minutes of this episode talking about why Tom Petty’s music is amazing.




Weekend Beats: Five Years from Now

As various histories of hip-hop are written over the next few decades, Mike Jones (whose Wikipedia page is worth preserving mainly because it is so badly written) may not go down as a gimmick, but he will be a minor figure. The Houston MC’s goofy, monotonous flow is forgettable, and his fondness for rapping about pre-wealth difficulties with women and blurting his actual phone number into tracks doesn’t make him seem very cool either. The best work he ever did was carried along by Slim Thug’s grumbling presence and got even better when Diplo (whose work was surfacing nationally in 2004/2005) took hold of it for a remix to which, unfortunately, I can’t legally construct a link.

But like Mike Jones would say, MIKE JONES! MIKE JONES! Dude left me with several songs I keep on the iPod for exercise, including this 2005 single, “5 Years From Now,” which features a vanished background singer named Lil’ Bran. Affable and earnest, Jones’s flow on the track tip-toes a simple beat with tidy couplets; my favorite part starts around 2:50, when the keyboards disappear, the beat seems to hitch, and MJ contemplates fatherhood, prison, mortality, and fame.

I don’t mean “favorite” ironically. Even if Jones is a mid-2000s half-paragraph, this track is fun, kind-hearted, and urgent, which aren’t the worst qualities in the world.

Midweek Music Upgrade with The General Reader

It is nearly the end of Wednesday here in California, and I have not posted since last week. (Anytime this happens and you hunger for my thoughts and cannot stand waiting for new bloggings, you really should read all those poetry-crit/-appreciation posts from the past few months.) It is also March. Still chained up in winter, American readers from the East Coast or the Midwest are like Hans Solo at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, except whereas HS is the captive of an intergalactic space-criminal’s carbonite-refrigeration technologies (a pure denial of nature), your awful winter has been so viciously natural that nature seems like an evil technology that wants to kill you with frost. I know. I did my years in the mountains back east.

Besides, the California winter hasn’t been a turkey shoot either. Like, the snails are bad right now after the rain a couple weekends ago. Totally chowing down on my plants. Plus I had to wear sleeves while running when it rained.

Music be the food of love, says the man from the play. The purest art, claims Pater in “The School of Giorgione.” Poetry’s nearest analogue, thought Wallace Stevens. “Fuckin’ love it,” affirms everyone who has ever enjoyed any kind of music. So with the weekend in view, here is one of Chopin’s “Etudes,” from way on back in the 1830s. Has a training exercise ever been so catchy?

Here is bonus music featuring a piano, this time from a 1990s composer and his writer friends.

Twenty years after Enter the Wu-Tang dropped, one can make a solid case that the album is part of the best that’s been thought and said, to borrow language from Matthew Arnold. While MA probably would not personally enjoy hip-hop (most Victorian writers probably wouldn’t), I don’t think he would object, in philosophical and aesthetic terms, to giving the Wu-Tang Clan a tentative best-of spot. Not if you sat his ghost down and talked a little. Dude might have inspected schools for a living, but he also wrote some good poetry, like “The Buried Life.”

Local Geographies: Three Kinds of Document

This afternoon, after the rain broke, I went running (jogging) through my neighborhood, a citrus suburb that leans against a sliver of marshy, protected coast. The beauty of the rich green strip between the dense, humanized local environment (organized around U.S. 101) and the Pacific will make you happy to live on Earth, and so of course some ghouls want to “develop” (a verb we should put on probation) it into a pleasure dome for millionaires. Right now an anonymous Saudi investor owns it, but thanks to this area’s crazy liberals and the civic codes they have gotten enacted, s/he can’t destroy it yet.

My ‘hood is beautiful too, though. It is a shakily middle-class area that has evolved into a low-key, vernacular garden suburb. The hummingbirds are loud here, and we actually have honeybees, because over the past four decades the properties have mostly relaxed back into the land: almost every owner or renter maintains some mixture of vegetation—my tiny studio’s kitchen garden hosts California poppies, nasturtiums, sunflowers, aloe, two kinds of lavender, potatoes (I haphazardly buried a few moldy ones), mint, sage, shallots, and an elephant bush that is held up by two stakes and a web of steel wire. In the local argot the area is called “Noleta,” because although it is technically an unincorporated part of Santa Barbara County, it is culturally and economically scruffy, more similar to oceanside (southern) Goleta than central SB. I am grateful for the place in a way that exceeds my usual vain doings. After almost nine years in California my favorite parts of the state—a real American state but also the mental condition attendant thereon—are its humble parts.

With that preamble in mind, here are some texts that encounter and carefully document various local environments. May your habitat be sustainable, y’all.

  • If Adam Weinstein hadn’t written this, Ken Layne would be my favorite Gawker contributor, although he is apparently now leaving the site to run his own. Recently the man went on a walking tour of the region we have been told to call “Silicon Valley, ” and in Layne’s account, “Heart of Blandness,” the creepiest thing about the motherboard of the corporate tech sector is its physical banality: in material terms, it is just a constellation of heavily armored office parks set amid a congeries of infrastructure that has been crumbling since the Clinton administration. When the workday ends, the employees are bused (in private buses with tinted windows) back to their homes in San Francisco, where people who don’t work in Silicon Valley find it increasingly hard to afford to live.
  • Nineteenth- and twentieth-century America might have had a thing for the idea of Wilderness, but the nation’s greatest lyric poet wrote about nature in a town in Massachusetts. In this one here, Emily Dickinson looks at a snake; in this one here, Emily Dickinson reminds you that besides Shakespeare, nobody can bend language like she does, twisting it till it sounds eerily familiar again, like a tape of what happened inside your head when you stepped outside. If you don’t have a copy of the definitive edition of Dickinson’s notoriously complex archive, why do you even speak English? Do not trust the Google results, because many published versions of Dickinson’s poems mistakenly attempt to “normalize” her language and ignore her strange seventeenth-century capitalization habits, intentionally dropped or distorted punctuation, and seeming gaps in logic. Instead, buy the R.W. Franklin reading edition linked to above. It costs like three gin-and-tonics. If you went to college and don’t own it, do not talk to me about books. Ride or die Dickinson.
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice sudden is –
The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –
He likes a Boggy Acre –
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon
Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled And was gone –
Several of Nature’s People
I know and they know me
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality
But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.
  • In November, after about thirty people who know more about music than I do told me to, I downloaded Action Bronson’s mixtape Blue Chips 2, and since then I have bumped at least part of it at least part of every day that I’ve been near a speaker or a headphone. Do you like it when populist MCs with deranged lyrical gifts team up with DJs who prefer fun instrumental tracks? No? Then stop reading this blog. Yes? Then use a search engine and get the mixtape for free. In the meantime, here is “In The City” (feat. Jeff Woods), a short punchy track Bronson hides in eighteenth place on a collection that is, in this critic’s humble view, fucking bananas awesome.

Sliding into the Weekend

It is almost official spring up here in the Northern Hemisphere, and in southern California we are getting some hearty, sustained, weekend rain, the long kind that makes green things go crazy and washes hard down in the north-LA foothills, but buys California some time time, even if in the long run it doesn’t ease our terrifying drought.

Los Angeles is a city built to nestle under some vicious mountains. When it rains, the rain pours down a serious incline into a metropolis, often in the form of otherwordly mudslides. The Control of Nature, master-journalist John McPhee’s book (1989), has a fantastic chapter (“Los Angeles Against the Mountains”) about this. In ecological, geological, and architectural terms, the LA region is fascinatingly complex; pace a dumb but persistent narrative, “SoCal” is not pH-balanced sunshine. Lucky for us a gifted writer got hold of the truth. Maybe you can buy this book. Maybe you can find it some other way that I don’t know about. Who knows, in this modern digital world? I think it’s McPhee’s best. Plus the cover is great.

But we know you guys back East and in the Midwest and in the South are mostly fucking freezing, so the Reader is going to find something hot. Hang on. Have as much tea as you want.

[leaves room]

[some times passes; let’s say 10 minutes]

OH SHIT HEY. We found it.

Let your tape rock till your tape pop, y’all.

Ante-Weekend Beats: Rare Gold

Beck’s Mellow Gold dropped twenty years ago next week. Your parents probably should have hated it, but even if they noticed that you were listening to it on your Discman (the one with the duct tape) or your friend’s bedroom speakers, they probably didn’t. The whole album exemplifies a seriously unwholesome, unprofitable, ingenuous obsession with American music, one so brilliant it doesn’t matter that Beck himself is a Scientologist.

Lemme tell you about this stoner incunabulum. It embodies titular excellence (“Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997”; “Truck-Drivin’ Neighbors Downstairs”). It can do a shambling impression of radio pop (“Loser”). Sometimes it’s like a classic-R&B listening party hosted by an affable sex maniac. Its version of avant-garde garage rap (“Soul-Suckin’ Jerk”) sounds sort of like the Beastie Boys, but it’s not imitative; and it foreshadows some of the big singles from Odelay a couple years later. As such, it’s also the scene of some great light verse, as in “Nitemare Hippie Girl,” a cogent warning about “mystical, tragical beaut[ies]” that all young heterosexual men in America should heed, especially if they are still in college or less than, say, three years past graduation and living in some expensive coastal city: “She’s a magical, sparkling tease, / She’s a rainbow choking the breeze; / She’s bustin out onto the scene /  With nightmare bogus poe-try. / She’s a melted avocado on the shelf, / She’s a science of herself.” (It goes on from there. Cf. the Manic Pixie Dream Girl narrative. Girls, the guy version of this might be this guy.) There is some lush, narco-ambient stuff (e.g. “Black Hole”) that points toward Beck’s downer classic Sea Change (2002) and groups like Animal Collective. (I keep thinking of Skip Spence, too. We are not worthy.) It includes the best Neil Young and Bob Dylan parodies you will ever find.

The weirdest thing about this album? It got to #13 on the US Billboard chart. For the whole America! Kinda doubt it would move that many units in 2014. You saw the Super Bowl halftime show, right? It would still be a goofy late-capitalist gem, though. Here’s “Fuckin’ With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock),” my favorite track on Mellow Gold. You might have to watch a stupid ad first. I’m sorry.

As a literature person who runs a blog and borrows large parts of his musical tastes from more knowledgeable friends, I feel confident making broad predictions about the media market while assessing various albums. I’m savin’ up my food stamps and burnin’ down the trailer park. Have a good weekend, y’all.