Smiles

Lou-Reed-001

Smiles, I was taught never to smile
I was told the stylish smiles of buffoonery
chicanery and larceny abound

My mom said unless someone sticks you right in front of a camera
a smile is the last thing that you wanna do
Those smiles, those mirthless toothy smiles

Smiles, they all smile on TV
The quizmaster with his withered crones
the talkshow hosting movie stars, the politician licking feet

The mugger, the rapist, the arsonic lover
all smile out from the news, at one time or another
Those smiles, those garish sickly smiles

When I was young my mother said to me
never, ever, let anyone see that you’re happy

Smiles, never, ever let them see you smile
they’ll always put you down
With those smiles, never, ever let them see you smile
they’ll always put you down
With your smiles, never, ever let them see you smile
don’t you know they’ll make you go

Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo
doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo

Smiles by Lou Reed.  I was telling a friend about this song today, from his overlooked Growing Up in Public album.  Lou’s band was much better on The Bells, the album that came before, and infinitely better on The Blue Mask, the album that came after, but the writing on this album is still great.  When I worked in customer service for AT&T they used to always tell me that my voice didn’t sound happy enough, even though I was basically just listening to customers that were angry at having been ripped off all day.  We often put a lot of emphasis on appearance and not on what is going on beneath the surface in our society.  Those people would have been happy had I reduced their outrageous bill, whether I sounded happy or not.  The thing was I was actually trying to sound nice and pleasant to the customers, but I guess being from the North East, working in the South, it just didn’t translate.  It’s a generalization, but I think Southerners do the whole coming across as friendly thing better, at least in a superficial kind of way.  

The other night when I got offstage someone told me I needed to smile more. It made me think of this song, and I had a big shit eating grin, inside where no one could see it.  

Kanye West’s Yeezus

I have become transfixed with the music of Kanye West lately.  Whatever you think of him, and like me you probably have an opinion of him even before you have heard a note of his music, he is definitely an artist.  He allows all of the contradictions in his personality, both the good and bad, to come through in his music even when it makes him look less than flattering.  More importantly he has become a first rate sonic architect.  His latest album Yeezus, and my favorite, is batshit insane in the best way possible.  I like his work from best to least in reverse order, though I will admit I am least familiar with his first two records.  The stranger his music gets the better as far as I’m concerned. 

His lyrics, while it would be wrong to say they are not intelligent, are not intellectual in a true sense.  Although they have many moments of playfulness and bizarre humor, in some way they seem less constructed than delivered.  It’s almost as if we have a ticker tape of the subconscious.  This is both their strength and weakness.  That’s why I believe his lyrics work the best when they are either a direct representation of how he feels, or are completely crazy on something like I Am a God.  The very best are when you have a tough time telling the two apart.  When he is singing something like I Am a God I believe he is just having fun, trying to be provocative.  He has found a small bit of virgin territory, which is harder and harder to do these days, and is staking it out, probably laughing at all of the people that are going to freak out. 

Other than being a huge Public Enemy fan I am not a big rap fan.  I am trying to branch out and learn more as it is one of the areas where I feel my musical education is lacking.  I’ve always felt that the singing voice is the quickest way to some kind of emotional truth in music.  When someone sings it is almost a window into their soul.  In rap that nonverbal emotional element is missing and the words really do matter.  That’s not to say that a rappers delivery can’t communicate emotions, it is just not the same as singing though.  Also, and this goes for any genre, one of my pet peeves lyrically is of the moment pop culture references.  They seem to date something instantly.  That’s not to say that you can’t reach some universal truth while doing so, but you have an uphill battle.  Too often rap not only exists in the world of the ego, which rock n roll has been doing since it began, but in the world of the temporary.  I feel like the best lyrics either make you think on some deeper level, or stay out of the way of the melody completely and let the emotional quality of a piece of music do the talking.  If you are thinking, but at a very rudimentary level, you are being taken out of the emotion of the piece as far as I’m concerned.  No one would say that Bernard Sumner was a great poet, but his lyrics have an almost blank slate quality that allows you to project your own imagination into the song.  They don’t get in the way of enjoying his effervescent melodies.  I’m trying to rethink my personal prejudices when it comes to lyrics, at least when I listen to rap, as I realize it is a different form with different rules. 

I became interested in Kanye when both Lou Reed and David Lynch talked about their love of his new album.  They are two artists that I respect greatly and I had to see what they were going on about.  I was instantly impressed with Yeezus and wanted to learn more. 

I see the lyrics on Yeezus as both a mixture of raw pain and again as someone just trying to have fun.  It’s a strange blend, but compelling because of it.  Part of the detective work of the listener is trying to determine where he is being serious and where he is not.  Sometimes he is playing with his media perception and other times he is letting those inner thoughts, the ones that most of us keep secret, come to the forefront.

Sonically the juxtaposition of opposing ideas again makes this album incredibly captivating.  Primal drums, screeching synths, and screams will suddenly give way to beautiful moments of soul singing.  Often you’ll get one or the other on a record, but rarely both.  He is playing with both melody and noise often in the same song.  This record is one of the few times when I have heard something and I feel like something is being done new sonically.  Sure, everything has been done in some ways, but he is painting new colors in the margins.  He is combining things in a way that they have never quite been combined before.  It’s exciting.    

The Absurdity and Importance of Music

Bruce Springsteen once said something along the lines of music being the most ridiculous thing in the world and the most important.  To me this rings very true.  Nothing is more absurd than grown men arguing about a tambourine part in the studio.  At the same time music has kept me sane.  It is the closest thing I have to an organized religion. 

There are so many things in the music business that are completely absurd and utterly ridiculous.  First of all there are many musicians whose egos have them acting like they are the pharaoh of Egypt.  You are just a guitar player dude!  I recently heard about a musician who fired anyone in his band that was better looking than him. 

One of my favorite drinking albums of all time is Highwayman 2.  This is the band that featured Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson.  There is a song on it called American Remains where they sing about being heroes of the homeland.  While drinking one night a friend of mine declared that, “They are acting like American heroes, but they are really just a bunch of old stoners!” 

There is the absurdity of the experiences associated with the music business too.  Many musicians can tell you stories about playing sold out clubs only to be eating a gas station burrito by yourself an hour later.  I remember one time Shinyribs played Threadgill’s.  There were roughly about 300 people in the audience at this particular show.  I wanted to have a late night party at my house to celebrate.  However, by the time I was done loading out the crowd had dispersed.  My late night party consisted of me drunk eating a block of cheese like a candy bar while watching Doctor Who! 

There is also the absurdity of perception.  I can’t tell you how many times a lawyer or a doctor, or someone else that has a beautiful home, a loving wife, and a successful career, has told me they would give anything to do what I do.  I always think, “Do you know what I make a year? Because if you did, I would highly fucking doubt it!”  That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate such sentiments, I actually genuinely do, but I also am able to keep in mind the absurdity between the reality and the perception.  When you come to a show in a place like New York City you see the party, the fun.  You didn’t see me hanging out in the van for six hours because we didn’t want to lose our parking space. 

Then there are just the little moments of ridiculousness that crop up here and there, but remain constants.  I mentioned grown men arguing about the minutia of a tambourine part.  I’ve done it and seen it done.  There are so many times when little things that are of no importance to the real world, that are fought over like the border between East and West during the Cold War.  If you brought a camera into every recording studio, there would definitely times of tedium, but there would also be a comic documentary to be made.  I recently watched a documentary on the making of a Stevie Nicks album and it played like a Christopher Guest movie, but for real. 

But music is also important.  To me it is my job, and my hobby, and my passion.  I listen to music every waking hour that I can.  It has allowed me to connect with people that I otherwise wouldn’t have met.  All those people that said that they would give anything to do what I do, I wouldn’t have even met if not for music.  It has allowed me to bond and have fun with love ones and friends.  Certain concerts are among some of the best memories of my life.  It is the fuel that keeps me going when I need it. 

It has also lifted my spirit when I was down.  Often if I am depressed I will go on a walk with my headphones.  Often the comic opera of someone like Morrissey, or the dark humor of Lou Reed can have me smiling in no time.  I remember one particular walk listening to Damien Dempsey’s You’re Not on Your Own Tonight and coming to the realization that in suffering we are not alone.  Everyone suffers at times and it allows us to empathize with one another.  “If you feel real bad then you’re not on your own tonight.” 

Music has also allowed me to see mystery and wonder in the world.  I remember traveling to Vienna with my family when I was at a young impressionable age.  The entire trip I walked around with U2’s Achtung Baby on my headphones.  That soundtrack combined with the images in front of me made the world seem mystical.  Music, at the right time and place, can enhance the human experience and take us out of the daily suffering of our lives.  It can reach the level of the spiritual. 

I think to keep your ego in check it is absolutely key to keep part of your mind aware of the ridiculousness and absurdity that is going on around you.  That really goes for any profession.  But, at least speaking for myself and I imagine others, one must realize the transcendent power that music and art has in life.  Sometimes I wonder if I could bare this world without it. 

They Said it was Like Ancient Rome

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/18/wall-street-secret-society_n_4806131.html?utm_hp_ref=tw

This article from Huffington Post has to be seen to be believed.  A reporter got into an event that was a party for an exclusive fraternity composed of wealthy people in the financial industry.

“They wrote a book about it / They said it was like ancient Rome” – From Romeo Had Juliet by Lou Reed

No Show Ponies Tonight at One 2 One

If you live in the Austin area tonight my band No Show Ponies is playing at One 2 One at 11:30pm.  We’ll be playing songs off of our new album A Manual for Defeat and some songs we love by Lou Reed, David Bowie, Joe Strummer, and others as well.

I also would like to announce that No Show Ponies has begun working with Little Gotham Media.  This is a company run by Shawn Christian Cochran, who is an old friend of ours.  We are looking forward to a fruitful partnership.

In the future when all’s well…

Link to A Manual for Defeatwww.noshowponies.bandcamp.com

Link to Little Gotham Media’s FB page:  www.facebook.com/pages/Little-Gotham-Media/436445623113554

Robert Quine and Vini Reilly

Because of all the Neil Young listening I’ve been doing lately I’ve been thinking a lot about guitar players.  I was thinking about two guitar players that should get more recognition than they do.  One is Robert Quine and the other is Vini Reilly.  They are somewhat at different ends of the spectrum.  Although Quine could do anything that a song required, even playing really great pop parts, he could take the paint off of a barn with sublime noise when he wanted to.  Reilly on the other hand sculpts beautiful sonic dreams and was never really that interested in the pop format, although he has written some gorgeous songs. 

Robert Quine was in Lou Reed’s band for three albums.  Those albums were The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, and Live in Italy.  Those of you that have been reading along know that I’m a huge Lou Reed fan and that period is one of his best, partially due to Quine.  But maybe my favorite example of how he could play explosively when he wanted to is Richard Hell and the Voidoids Blank Generation album.  I mean the solos on that record are unhinged.  They are short and fast and attack with the precision of a scalpel.  It’s one of those times when a guitar player is able to transcend technique and just communicate something primal and emotional. 

Vini Reilly is the man behind the band the Durutti Column.  He paints with his guitar and the music is often delicate and beautiful.  He creates cathedrals of sound.  Although he played on Morrissey’s Viva Hate, an album which I love, this is not really the best example of his unique talents.  Like Neil Young his catalogue is vast and hard to get a handle on if you are a beginner.  I have three different Durutti Column albums from different periods, and different songs, so I am still finding my way.  If you want to check out an example listen to Sketch for Summer and Otis from the Factory Records compilation Communications 1978-92.  A lot of critics seem to favor his early stuff, but I have a later album called Keep Breathing and that has fantastic stuff on it as well.  As God says, while the main character is smoking a spliff, in the hilarious movie 24 Hour Party People, “It’s great music to chill out to.”  

All Music is Political

This is post 310 since the beginning of August when I started this blog, so if there are occasions that I repeat myself, I apologize.  Consider it like an artist touching upon one of their favorite themes again, and not the accident of a squirrel memory.  You can guess which one is probably true.

I was thinking today about how all music is political, even music that doesn’t haven’t anything even closely resembling politics at its core.  Of course there are topical folk songs, rock n roll diatribes, the entire career of Public Enemy, and any number of pieces of music that are explicitly political in their intent and design .  That is obvious and I’m not going to talk about them here today.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to declare Neil Young’s Living With War a political album.

However, there is also the kind of music that doesn’t saying anything overtly topical or political that is still highly political in nature.  This is because it challenges existing social norms of the day.  I would put many works by Morrissey, Lou Reed, and Leonard Cohen in this format.  That’s not to say that those artists didn’t write overtly political songs as well.  (Margaret on the Guillotine, Sex With Your Parents, Democracy)   It’s just that in singing from the position of the outsider, or in commenting that there is not something quite right with the world, even if it’s a sort of spiritual malaise, they are helping you to think against the grain, which is in itself a political act.

There is also work that’s pure passion makes it political.  Think of Levi Stubbs singing Bernadette.  He sings that song with a burning urgency and fire.  Put that on against a modern top 40 song and your mind can’t help but be a little freer than it was.  It’s not necessarily telling you what to do, only to feel strongly and do something.  It breaks the chains of the spirit.

Also think of any female singing with sexual passion.  I’m thinking of someone like Tina Turner.  She may be singing nothing but a pop song.  However, she is expressing female sexual power through sound.  I imagine it would be hard as a female to listen to her music and go back to the kitchen brain dead, barefoot, and pregnant.

So what about bland Top 40 music that has no soul or passion?  That music is political as well.  It is telling you that everything that is going on in the world is ok.  Don’t think, do not pass go, do not collect $200.  In having nothing to say, in having no meaning in thought or sound, it is confirming the legitimacy of the existing social order.

So while I love Neil Young’s Living With War, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and many other overtly political albums, I often feel just as inspired to go against the grain by things that are not.  Once you have heard something like Joni Mitchell’s In France They Kiss On Main Street, how could you go back to normal life with your head in the sand?