Tracing the Rock and Roll Race Problem

The premise of Jack Hamilton’s deep new study Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imaginary seems like something that’s been on rock history’s tongue for a long time without ever quite leaving it.

Chuck Berry, a black man with a guitar, had been a rock and roll archetype in 1960, but by the end of the decade Jimi Hendrix would be seen as rock’s odd man out for being… a black man with a guitar. How did that occur?

The book, out September 26, began life as Hamilton’s graduate thesis (he’s a professor at the University of Virginia). But while it’s intellectually rigorous, Just Around Midnight is also clearly and entertainingly written—not a surprise to anyone who reads Hamilton on Slate, where he’s one of their music critics.

Hamilton locates the ways “rock and roll” (which tended to denote everything from soul to surf music) became just plain “rock” (which tended to mean only guitar music by white people)—namely, in San Francisco’s psychedelic scene, full of ex-folkies.

There, a pattern repeated from the folk revival that preceded Beatlemania, in which largely white musicians tended to idolize black forebears while ignoring contemporary R&B.

As Hamilton point out, this mindset often put black rock and rollers into the “predecessors” category even when the musicians in question were peers and contemporaries, like when a Beatles biographer claims Smokey Robinson as a precursor when, in fact, Robinson was born the same year as John Lennon.

Even that précis doesn’t do justice to the richness of Hamilton’s ideas, or his wide-ranging research, both archival and musicological—the latter particularly during a chapter on the musical interrelationship of Motown and the Beatles. Are there two more oversaturated musical topics on the planet?

Along with the rest of the ’60s rock and soul canon, Hamilton thinks, convincingly, that we’ve only begun to understand them, especially side-by-side. [Read More]

A mammoth debt encourages fear, which is never revolutionary; a high level of unemployment ensures a ready pool of strike breakers, translates the curse of a bad job into a blessing.

from greil marcus's lipstick traces: a secret history of the twentieth century. here’s its full context: 

“It was if Thatcher and Reagan had adopted a keynote of situationist theory: abundance is dangerous to power, and privation, if carefully managed, is safe. A mammoth debt encourages fear, which is never revolutionary; a high level of unemployment ensures a ready pool of strike breakers, translates the curse of a bad job into a blessing. ‘The transformation of the family man from a responsible member of society, interested in all public affairs, Hannah Arendt wrote in 1945 in 'Organized Guilt and the Universal Responsibility,’ 'to a "bourgeois” concerned only with his private existence and knowing no civic virtue, is an international modern phenomenon…Each time society, through unemployment, frustrates the small man in his normal functioning and normal self-respect, it trains him for that last stage in which he will willingly undertake any function, even that of hangman.' 

Arendt told a story: an SS member is recognized as a high-school classmate by a Jew upon the latter’s release from Buchenwald. The Jew stares at his former friend, and the SS man says: 'You must understand, I have five years of unemployment behind me. They can do anything they want with me.’“ [emphasis added by moi, cause that’s my favorite part]

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Essential Logic
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When a review of Essential Logic’s Beat Rhythm News compared to it to Frank Zappa, Lora Logic got hold of a Zappa lp, but failed to see the connection.  When another notice insisted on an unmistakable Captain Beefheart influence, she picked up a copy of Trout Mask Replica, and found a kindred spirit.  When a third writer, desperate for a handle on a singer who phrases scattershot lyrics off the madly jerked riffs of her saxophone, declared Essential Logic the harbinger of a beatnik revival (“beat rhythm news,” you see), Lora Logic dutifully bought herself a Jack Kerouac novel, which she was unable to finish.

-Greil Marcus, “It’s Fab, It’s Passionate, It’s Wild, It’s Intelligent!”, Rolling Stone, July 24, 1980

Christgau is hyper-aware. When he creates the Consumer Guide, he’s trying to figure out how to manage the workload of being a rock critic, which at that moment paled in comparison to the amount of music being produced today, but it’s still an incredible amount of music. You have to remember, he’s getting this music on record. He’s not skipping through tracks and listening to the first five seconds and then going to the next thing, as we’ve all done. He can, and does, listen to music for eight hours a day and still not listen to the entire stack of music. So, writing these short reviews and giving them letter grades was a way of saying, “How can I condense this workload and comment on what it means to be a critic?”

From this interview with Devon Powers. Christgau is an interesting critic to me, one whose opinions I’m as likely to be infuriated by as I am to feel a brotherly kinship with. But that’s not really the point. What I admire about him is his ability to sum up an album in such a short amount of space. His review of Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans is a perfect example: the entire review runs eight words–“Pretty battles evil in the service of kind,” which describes the album perfectly. Christgau, with his little haiku reviews, is the polar opposite of one of my favorite critics, Greil Marcus, who can write an entire book about one song.

Now, the flipside of this kind of reviewing is that Christgau’s brand of concision can come off as being flippant or disrespectful–when you see a review of an album you love that has only a cartoon bomb next to it, it’s frustrating, because there’s no context, beyond “this sucks,” and I’d like a little insight on why he thinks it’s bad–I may not agree, but I appreciate the guy’s acumen.

Who knows. Maybe he’ll convince me I was wrong.

Having satisfied the needs of the body, capitalism as spectacle turned to the desires of the soul. It turned upon individual men and women, siezed their subjective emotions and experiences, changed those one evanescent phenomena into objective, replicable commodities, placed them on the market, set their prices and sold them back to those who had, once, brought emotions and experiences out of themselves for people who, as prisoners of the spectacle, could now find such things only on the market.
- Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces, an ode to punk history.

When I became record reviews editor [of Rolling Stone], I made it clear to [Jann Wenner] after a few months — nobody had done the job before me — that the record review section was an independent republic within the country of Rolling Stone. That meant that nobody else could tell me what to review or what a writer could say. They could argue with me, but ultimately it was my decision. And that worked well.

[But] there was one incident where Paul McCartney makes his first solo record and people thought it was wonderful: this rough, homemade one-man-band album. It was accompanied by a press release, a self-interview, about why he no longer needed the Beatles and how little he thought of them… this real obnoxious statement, you know? I assigned it to a friend of mine, Langdon Winner, and Jann saw the piece and said: “We can’t run it this way — he’s just reviewing it as if it’s this nice little record. It’s not just a nice little record, it’s a statement and it’s taking place in a context that we know: it’s one person breaking up the band. This is what needs to be talked about.”

I said I didn’t agree and “in any case it’s up to Langdon to say what he wants to say.” Jann said, “We have to talk about this.” So we went to dinner that night and spent three fucking hours arguing about this record review. Finally he convinced me. So I went over to Langdon’s and sat down with him and spent three more hours arguing with him until I convinced him! Now to me this was the essence of great editing, of how you put out a publication that is utterly honest. All that time spent over one 750 word review! And it was worth it.

—  Greil Marcus (writer), interview w/ Simon Reynolds for The L.A. Review of Books: Myths and depths. (April 27th, 2012)
One soft infested summer/Me and Terry became friends/Trying in vain to breathe/The fire we was born in…/Remember all the movies, Terry/We’d go see/Trying to learn to walk like the heroes/We thought we had to be/Well after all this time/To find we’re just like all the rest/Stranded in the park/And forced to confess/To/Hiding on the backstreets/Hiding on the backstreets/Where we swore forever friends….

Those are a few lines from “Backstreets,” a song that begins with music so stately, so heartbreaking, that it might be the prelude to a rock & roll version of The Iliad. Once the piano and organ have established the theme the entire band comes and plays the theme again. There is an overwhelming sense of recognition: No, you’ve never heard anything like this before, but you understand it instantly, because this music — or Springsteen crying, singing wordlessly, moaning over the last guitar lines of “Born to Run,” or the astonishing chords that follow each verse of “Jungleland,” or the opening of “Thunder Road” — is what rock & roll is supposed to sound like.

Greil Marcus, from the original Rolling Stone review of Born to Run (Issue 197: October 9th, 1975)

Greil Marcus wrote the RS review of Born to Run when it was released and reading it makes my heart so happy, it finally puts into words some of the things that I feel about this incredible album and about Bruce in general. If you want to read the whole review, it is here. If you love that album it is definitely worth a read. 

If The Godfather had succeeded merely as a genre classic, it would have been a very different movie—the response it provides changes how we see and understand it. Like “Back Stabbers,” it matters, has its particular meanings, partly because it was a hit. Without massive public response, we would not even get close to two crucial democratic questions, questions worth asking about any interesting work of popular culture: How far can this work take its audience? How far can its audience go with it? Only works that can’t be ignored—liking them is hardly the point—raise such questions and bring them to life. In one way or another, we are all affected by hits, and are forced to define ourselves in terms of our response to them, just as we are all, for good or ill, affected by the romantic heroism of the Westerns, and not neccesarily by, say, the chaotic heroism of Orson Welles’ movies. Certainly we are caught up in those things that impelled Welles, but his version of them, the shape of his vision, has not inevitably become part of us; we don’t have to live in the world as he tried to define it, as we helplessly live out and respond to the nostalgia of John Ford or Howard Hawks. The life of a whole generation is authentically quickened and brightened by the Beatles, but it is not disturbed and sharpened by Randy Newman. The point is not that it would be “good for people” if the radio were playing “Sail Away” all day long, but that such exposure might be the only way to find out how strong the song really is.
—  Greil Marcus in Mystery Train offering the best defense of poptimism ever written.
Gut begonnen #9

Ronald Reagan und Margaret Thatcher sind namentlich genannte Hauptfiguren dieses Buches; nicht so Helmut Kohl. Aber ich finde, daß ihm im Untertitel ein Platz neben seinen ehemaligen Arbeitskollegen zusteht, weil er Reagan, Thatcher, Papst Paul II. und vielen anderen mit großem Eifer zur Hand gegangen ist, als es galt, den Westen in jenes Leichentuch zu hüllen, das wegzuschreien die meisten der in diesem Buch behandelten Künstler angetreten sind.

Greil Marcus: Im faschistischen Badezimmer. Punk unter Reagan, Thatcher und Kohl - 1977 bis 1994. Rogner & Bernhard, Hamburg (1994).

“…if any individual of our time can be said to have changed the world, Elvis Presley is the one. In his wake more than music is different. Nothing and no one looks or sounds the same. His music was the most liberating event of our era because it taught us new possibilities of feeling and perception, new modes of action and appearance, and because it reminded us not only of his greatness, but of our own potential.”
-Greil Marcus
From his book, Mystery Train, 1975

Moving Through Space: Marcus & Debord

Oct. 28, 2011

Greil Marcus: Legends of Freedom

Guy Debord: Society of the Spectacle

            I try to facebook minimally, and I believe I can give myself credit for saying that I rarely do use facebook, and only really do because school somewhat requires me to, but I kept connecting everything in the presentation on Marcus and Debord to facebook. Maybe because facebook is used in every possible example in theory class so it’s just automatic now.

            Let’s begin with Debord’s theory of Dérive. The idea is that every urban space has a psychogeography, and by engaging in derive, or drift, one can escape the mundanity of everyday routine by following the route of least resistance, which is drawn out by the city’s psychogeography. Through derive, people are able to live in their own utopia and escape the effects of spectacle.

            Here is the first example where facebook offers itself as a contradictory space. I use facebook as an example, but this applies to internet surfing in general. People who “surf” the internet engage in a form of derive. It does not occur in physical space, but derive is a mental state, so theoretically it can occur online, as long as it is occurring in the mind. Although the internet is surely part of the “spectacle,” while “surfing,” people glaze over pages; scan past images and text without really seeing them. They escape the spectacle in this way. They also escape the spectacle of “real life.” We can agree that the internet is a method of escape for many. Furthermore, while scanning through pages, something catches our eye: a link. We click on it, without purpose, and sometimes not fully conscious of where we are going. We browse from page to page in a dream-like state, until we awake and wonder whose picture we are looking at, or how we ended up reading about “Günther von Etzel” (I don’t know who that is either). Is this spectacle or derive?

            Furthermore, we engage more intimately with people online than we do in “real life.” We message people that we would otherwise never see or talk to. It is true that real relationships are much more overwhelming and a burden to maintain than the derive-like facebook relationship. If you disagree, consider this: someone might have 1000 “facebook friends.” Even if they talk to 1/10th or 1/20th of them, that is still 50-100 somewhat-active relationships. Imagine maintaining 100 active relationships in real life. There is a huge gap in effort. Do real relationships become part of the “spectacle” that we are trying to escape from?

            If we follow the way of derive in relationships, and use detournement as a defense, it is likely that “the way of least resistance” would be to have as many meaningless relationships as one would like, and as few meaningful relationships as possible. This might be the closest to a struggle-free “utopia” as we can get.