Windup Wire

A Reflection on Art, Justice, and Meaning in Our Time

Tag: Lou Reed

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?

Illusion and Artistic Control

Spoiler Alert:  I discuss the ending of the show Deadwood in this post.

One of the hardest things in art, as in life, is knowing when to let go of something.  If you worked on something a little harder could it have been better?  Can you work something over until that original spark and passion has been extinguished?  I’ve made mistakes on both sides of that equation at times.  One has to have enough of an ego to see a project through, but one also has to not let the ego get in the way of letting things happen naturally.  Things are going to turn out like they do.  At some point control is only an illusion.

If you are making a record for instance, unless you record every single instrument yourself and do all the engineering yourself, assuming you even know what you are even doing at every step of the way, things are not going to turn out exactly as you planned.  As soon as other’s hands get on something it is going to change no matter how carefully planned your original intentions were.  Although it is true that this can occasionally be your downfall, if you are open to new ideas you might just end up in some magical place that you hadn’t planned.  Even if you are controlling as many factors as possible, you still run up against the limitations of personal talent and technology.

One of the reasons I find most session players so dreadful is that they are not confined by as many limitations as most people.  They can almost play or do anything musically that one can ask of them.  The problem is this usually leads to something that is imitative.  It’s usually technical ability over passion. Passion most often comes out of struggle.  Soul and originality is most often created in art and music in that struggle between real world limitations and the endless potential of the imagination.  In that space is where something new is most often forged.

There are outliers and freaks whom can seemingly do anything with ease, and can still do it with soul, but those people come at the rate of only a few in a lifetime.  If we relied on people like that our record collections and art museums would be very small indeed.

Sometimes things end seemingly prematurely, but in hindsight seem to almost end as if touched by perfection.  It’s at times like these that the universe almost seems to be speaking to us.  As much as I wish Lou Reed had made ten more records, if you listen to Junior Dad, his final song on his final album, it’s almost impossible to imagine a more perfect end to his career.

The Smiths’ ended their last album with the song I Won’t Share You.  “I won’t share you / With the drive and the dream inside / This is my time.”  It’s like their unconsciousness knew they were going their separate ways even before their conscious minds did, even though everyone claims that the recording sessions for that album were amicable. Plus, as always, Morrissey has razor sharp wit.

I was thinking about the show Deadwood today.  Deadwood is a show that not only tells the story of that town, a real historic town fictionally imagined, but also tells the story of how society comes to order itself.  This show that was canceled before the shows creator, David Milch, could finish the story that he wanted to tell.  Unlike most westerns the “bad guy”, if you could call him that in a show filled often with moral ambiguity, rides out of town unharmed.  His character represents the large corporate interests in American life that come in and destroy the natural balance of things in a community.  To many fans, myself included, this ending was originally completely unsatisfactory.  Not only did it not fulfill what we had come to expect in a traditional story arc, as nothing had really been tied up, but those of us that followed the show knew that this was not the way the creator had intended it to end.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a perfect ending for that show.  The show’s ending is truthful to the very real outcome that we tragically see too often in America.  Too often we see corporations come in and destroy the balance of our communities, only to get off with little if any harm done to them.  Also in a strange example of life imitating art, or vice versa, the corporate suits killed off the show in the same way that George Hearst had destroyed the balance of the town.  Every time I watch the ending of that show I have knots in my stomach, but as with the rest of the show, it rings true.

One should work as hard as possible to make something the best that they can and stay as true to their vision as possible.  However, one should also remember that control over the outcome is often an illusion.  Don’t let that scare you.  It could very often be the thing that infuses it with magic in the end.

Johnny Cash and Bitter Tears

I grew up loving Johnny Cash.  I bought many of his albums and read his autobiography.  As snotty as this may sound to declare, I liked him before the Rick Rubin produced “comeback” albums, although I really like those albums, especially the first one.  I remember my mom telling me that my grandfather liked him and because of that I checked him out.  The first album of his that I got was Classic Cash.   It was a 1988 album that was actually rerecordings of many of his famous songs.  When I listen now I realize that the production and arrangements on that album are dated and can’t touch the originals, although no production foul could ever destroy THOSE songs and THAT voice.

I remember being tremendously sad when he died.  I remember exactly where I was.  I was driving through Philadelphia after a night of intense partying and saw it in the morning paper at a gas station.  Only the deaths of Joey Ramone and Lou Reed hit me as hard as far as musicians are concerned.

However, shortly after he died I found that I had to get away from him for awhile.  It wasn’t his fault.  If anything it was my weakness.  But he became a shorthand for rebellion without anyone actually having to rebel against anything.  People started name dropping Johnny Cash in a way that often just associated him with nothing but drinking and hell raising.  I was drunk a good deal of the time back then and even I could see through this bullshit.  He was someone that often sang for the downtrodden and marginalized.  Drinking and hell raising were just a side show for him.  Lot’s of country stars can sing about whiskey, but not many could write songs as powerful as Drive On or sing a song like The Ballad of Ira Hayes with such authority and compassion.  So while his albums never left my collection and he was always pulled out from time to time, it wasn’t as often as it once was.  The man that had been so complex in life had become so simple in death.  In reality nothing about him had changed, but I allowed the influence of others’ perceptions to infect my mind.

It was only in recent years when I could return to his music without it unfortunately bringing up images of trust fund country bands in hopelessly imitative honkey tonks.  I was gun shy for too long.  Shame on me.  In the last few years I have been rediscovering what he meant to me growing up.

I’ve been writing on here about Buffy Sainte-Marie lately as I have just become infatuated with her.  On youtube I found a clip of her singing a song called Custer with Johnny Cash on The Johnny Cash Show.  The song is one that he recorded for his album Bitter Tears, which is a whole theme album dealing with the plight of Native Americans.  Imagine many of today’s country stars.  Now imagine any of them singing the line, “he killed children, dogs, and women” about an American general, even one long since shamed and dead.   Sorry I went away for so long Johnny.  You were right there where you always were, and where you always will be, a mountain undiminished.

Custer

Now I will tell you buster that I ain’t a fan of Custer
And the General he don’t ride well anymore
To some he was a hero but to me his score was zero
And the General he don’t ride well anymore
Now Custer done his fightin’ without too much excitin’
And the General he don’t ride well anymore
General Custer come in pumpin’ when the men were out a huntin’
But the General he don’t ride well anymore
With victories he was swimmin’ he killed children dogs and women
But the General he don’t ride well anymore
Crazy Horse sent out the call to Sitting Bull and Gall
And the General he don’t ride well anymore
Now Custer split his men well he won’t do that again
Cause the General he don’t ride well anymore
Twelve thousand warriors waited they were unanticipated
And the General he don’t ride well anymore
It’s not called an Indian victory but a bloody massacre
And the General he don’t ride well anymore
There might have been more enthusin’ if us Indians had been losin’
But the General he don’t ride well anymore
General George A.Custer oh his yellow hair had lustre
But the General he don’t ride well anymore
For now the General’s silent he got barbered violent
And the General he don’t ride well anymore
Oh the General he don’t ride well anymore

Last Words For Lou Reed

I’ll probably never be done writing about Lou Reed, not completely, but this is the last time I write of his death in any kind of memorial sense.  I posted and dissected his lyrics for a week and I felt that fitting enough tribute.  Even by the end of the week, if I’m being honest, I was beginning to tire.  Not because my love for him and his work had diminished in the slightest, but because his work is powerful enough to stand on its own, without my chirpings.

However, through Morrissey’s Autobiography I have discovered the poet A.E. Housman.  I just posted something by him earlier today that was quoted in Autobiography.  I was able to download a book of his poetry today for the ridiculous price of $1.99.  Amazing that a man’s whole life work can be bought for so little.  Well he’s dead now, so at least he doesn’t have to be troubled by it.

Anyway, I had mentioned in my posts about how Lou Reed was often funny and, at least more often than his reputation would allow for, was also quite capable of commenting on the brighter side of life.  However, his reputation for treading in the dark was also well earned.

For those of you that don’t have time for writers who dabble in the darker side of the human experience, or don’t understand why someone would, I thought the poem below will say what I, if I had a million words, could not.  Although any words fail when trying to represent the true complexities of a human life, I thought that this poem would help explain why Lou Reed was important.  He went places other writers in the field of pop music dared not go before him.  I believe that this was as much purpose as chance.  Those like Lou Reed carve out trails in the night, so that the rest of us won’t feel so alone when we take that similar and inevitable path.

They say my verse is sad: no wonder.
Its narrow measure spans
Rue for eternity, and sorrow
Not mine, but man’s.

This is for all ill-treated fellows
Unborn and unbegot,
For them to read when they’re in trouble
And I am not

- A. E. Housman

Laurie Anderson’s Farewell to Lou Reed

Laurie Anderson’s Farewell to Lou Reed

A beautiful piece of writing by the always great Laurie Anderson about her husband Lou Reed.  Thanks to my brother for the tip.  

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