The Big Elitist Article on Culture

Madame Bergeret
François Boucher,
possibly 1766

If I had studied CS or math in school, I’d program for Google or Amazon, or work for a bank in NYC or San Francisco. And even though the train stations would be glutted with homeless people, I’d probably be able to forget about that, between shopping trips to Anthropologie and the excitement of restaurants and travel. But if my boss asked me to stay until 11 or 12 and work weekends, I’d look at my co workers and if they were all doing the same, then I’d remember all the homeless out there who could not afford rent in the exorbitantly overpriced city I lived in, and I’d probably say, “sure, that’s cool.”

But I did not study Computer Science or finance or business. I studied art history for no other reason than that I liked it. And in doing so, I learned something unexpected. I learned there is a great tradition of people who did not buy into ideas about what they “should” do, but did what they were convinced was beautiful and true. Yes, these were poets, artists and philosophers, the characters we laugh at today and call “useless”. But those people have existed all throughout history, trading material pleasures for the luxury of spending their time in freedom to use their vision and talents as they wished.

I learned about these useless people for 6 years, and what did it get me? Not any money, or even a job in the arts. Like the artists I learned and wrote about, I had to work a day job to pay the bills, (just an office drone, not the kind of high-salaried job that came with unending demands). Instead I got inspiration, a feeling of greater empathy for my fellow humans, (because how can you hate someone when you like their music or art?) and the pleasure of unapologetically letting art lead me on its journey into myth and life’s mysteries. I also learned that man and woman is in charge of his own destiny, and most importantly that you can choose what you want to be.

Is someone telling you to study business or finance because they think you will make more money? Only study those things if you want to. It’s not admirable to do an advanced degree if you are only doing it to compete or because everyone you know is. Try art! Read literature! You may still have to work a boring desk job, not a “cool” job, but you will become interesting and enjoy your free time more. And your desk job will get you by, especially if you are smart and don’t go shopping too much. You will feel more free because you made the decision for yourself. And knowing that you made that one important decision, you will never allow yourself to be treated like a slave. Who cares about “cool” cities. Let me give you a little insight. The coolest cities are the most expensive, overrun by people who have bought into the hype. Try a boring city. Make it cool!

There was a recent article about millennials as a “burnout” generation that is always internalizing expectations and working harder. Nothing wrong with working hard! But any animal can learn useful skills to get treats. Only a human can work purely for the fulfillment of their soul. If you are getting your kids to take math and physics classes on weekends, consider getting them art lessons instead, or as well. They have the right to do these things with their time, which is after all their life. It’s important for them to learn about history and philosophy so they can learn about this long human tradition I mentioned earlier, with its lofty people and ideas, who seem so silly at first, but who one comes to realize are the most important of all, because these people had confidence in their god-given ability as humans. The word inspiration is important. It’s learning because you want to not for fear of failure or the promise of external rewards.

We must not create a generation who can’t say no. They will be a stressed-out meek domestic labor force for future bosses to take advantage of. Saying “no” to work that you don’t want to do, is perhaps the most important skill a kid can develop. It’s a muscle he needs to learn to flex as soon as possible. And before you say it’s impossible, for example because you are from a poor county and your children must work hard to establish themselves in America, or because the job market is so competitive that art and theater is not an option, remember that a good lifestyle doesn’t require Coach bags, Anthropologie clothes, thousands of dollars spent at Disney resorts, or BMW’s. You can do quite well paying rent or even a small mortgage, enjoying books and movies and food, going to concerts, and spending time hiking or staying with friends on travel. There are many wonderful ways to enjoy life on a budget that justifies time spent communing with the humanities. And as you do, the appeal of the Disney resorts will fade away.

As media hype about global competition gives us all the impression that things are getting tougher and we must sacrifice all humanity to survive, just please remember that’s mostly not true. I don’t expect many parents to listen to my message. I expect kids to be forced to do math tutoring in summer and on weekends and be encouraged to find work in big banks, instead of getting guitar lessons or art classes. But all the forced skills in the world won’t make up for a kid who wants to learn because he’s doing something he loves.

Country, soul and rap

Old Town Road is a funny song. I definitely wouldn’t call it country. It’s not even country rap. I’m a big fan of cross genre music having been raised on the original cross genre, rock ‘n roll, and having grown up with cowpunk, post-punk, grunge (a cross of metal and punk) and many other examples. Little Nas’ song is more like experimental rap. It’s got the word tractor, and the word cowboy and a midwestern sounding twang. And these are all country elements. But it’s missing a very essential ingredient that is found in any soul music, whether country, blues, or soul, and that is emotion. Rappers like Little Nas or Cardi B simply cannot produce it. Either they haven’t lived through enough, or else they have and have sublimated emotion and its associated pain with material wealth and consumption.

That is not meant to be a critique on rap. Rappers such as Little Nas or Cardi B possess many fine qualities – good technical ability, clever rhymes, and most importantly, the ability to portray an absolute disaffectedness which protects them from feeling hurt and appeals to young audiences. It is the latter that most clearly distinguishes rap and gives it it’s “toughness”. Indifference to feeling is also what drives consumer society forward because we replace desire for human relationships with things and that is important to branding and the creation of markets. While Little Nas writes:

Hat down, cross town, livin’ like a rockstar
Spent a lot of money on my brand new guitar
Baby’s got a habit: diamond rings and Fendi sports bras

Expressions of pain and vulnerability are more difficult. They are embarrassing, not “cool” snappy workplace conversations or marketing campaigns, but they draw people closer to one another and increase empathy/love between people. And this is important to musicians in the soul genres. In a country song, one doesn’t need to look very hard to find lyrics about how love is primary, For example Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line”:

I find it very, very easy to be true
I find myself alone when each day is through
Yes, I’ll admit I’m a fool for you
Because you are mine, I walk the line

Or the pain caused by the loss of love. Sunny Sweeney is a master of this in many of her songs, “Unsaid” being but one example:

There’s so much left unsaid
Cuts to the bone to see your name written in stone
Wish I could get it off my chest
Shoulda let go of my pride when I still had the time
Dammit it hurts these words I left unsaid

Classic soul will always be the original, and always capable of making us feel the pain of lost love, for example Bill Withers “Ain’t No Sunshine”:

Ain’t no sunshine when she gone
Only darkness everyday
Ain’t no sunshine when she gone
This house just ain’t no home
Anytime she goes away (ain’t no sunshine)

Or Macy Grey’s “Still” which has moved me to tears on many occasions:

I still
Light up like a candle burnin’ when he calls me up
I still
Melt down like a candle burnin’ every time we touch
Oh say what you will
He does me wrong and I should be gone
But I still
Be lovin’ you baby and it’s much too much

To borrow from Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse in his 1960’s classic “One Dimensional Man”, the rapper is alienated from love. He has desublimated his desire for human connection and substituted it with material objects, diamonds, designer sneakers, fendi sports bras. Perhaps that’s inverse indicator of how badly the rapper has been hurt and how capable he actually is of feeling, but this requires a lot of reading between the lines, and a simpler message could just as easily be made when we want to relate to a song. The country/soul singer delivers that, like Johnny Paycheck who will self-destructively “drink 15 beers” to get a woman off his mind. Soulful songs are primarily about acknowledging one’s feelings, and not substituting them with shopping (although admittedly, perhaps with whiskey).

Lastly, there is the word “nigga” which is not simply acceptable in country music. And that word is in plenty of Little Nas’s songs. Not “Old Town Road” but for example in “Rodeo” where Cardi Bi sings:

Now my heart, it feels like Brillo, I’m hard like armadillo
Can’t be no nigga ex, I could only be his widow

Although the word “nigga”, which by current standards is nothing more than a rap music convention, is considered to be harmless in pop music, and especially in rap, the majority of country music fans don’t want to hear these cynical divisive terms. Corny as it may sound, sensitivity is again at hand here, not to mention the fact that any skilled music writer can deliver meaningful content without resorting to hackneyed catch-words. So any song with the word “nigga” will automatically be excluded from the genre of country, which protects its standards.

Still, “Old Town Road” is an interesting rap song and it has a redeeming quality. My 19 year old son, who is into rap, played it for me recently, asking if it was a country song. So it gave me a chance to discuss what country songs are, and play Johnny Paycheck and Sunny Sweeney as examples, and present my critique of rap music’s insensitivity to my son. So I must thank Little Nas for giving me the opportunity to speak about music and culture with my kid. Keep trying Little Nas, keep it real, and remember, you can’t sing the blues unless you’ve had the blues!

The Ironic Article on grunge

Mudhoney, Superfuzz Big Muff EP, 1988

Revivals keep happening one after another. The neo-80s new wave, pop disco movements that started in the 2000s with bands like LCD Soundsystem, The Killers, and Franz Ferdinand are still going strong . The rootsy thing that started with White Stripes and Black Keys has lead to a new appreciation for blues, classic soul, and country with acts like Sharon Jones (RIP), Sarah Shook, or Robbie Fulks. Hip-hop is more popular than ever, but is not a nostalgic genre as yet.

Seattle dominated music through the 90s, even when Nirvana came and went. Sub-Pop was the coolest low-budget label that everyone wanted to be on. Acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains were huge with their slow, melancholy hard-rock. There were smaller college radio bands like the amazing Mudhoney, who combined distorted punk guitars with a 60s garage sound, or the Melvins, who took it to the extreme, foraying into thick, sludgy heavy metal. Neil Young got in on it with his album “Sleeps with Angels”, but Neil has always been sort of grunge. Grunge had a presence on the east coast too, thanks to the amazing Dinosaur Jr, with the emotionally charged yet strangely reassuring vocals of J Mascis’s contrasting to the raw intensity of their guitar sound. New York’s art band Sonic Youth, whose raw vocals, distorted guitars, and hypnotic drumming paved the way for grunge. Sonic Youth’s music is worthy of its own article. They may seem like noise at first, but if you stick with them you will see that their chaos has structure and a lot of emotional beauty.

Seeing a grunge band live was a spiritual experience. Mudhoney was a force, Mark Arm’s wailing vocals and Iggy Pop-like demeanor, backed by a relentless guitar and distortion sound. You thought you were never going to come up for air and you did not care. Nirvana had the perfect combination of melody, touching vocals, and heaviness and if you can get past all the hype, were truly great live or in the studio. Soundgarden had the deep, satisfying world-weary vocals of Chris Cornell, (RIP).

I know I keep coming back to that word spiritual, but that’s the feeling I got from seeing a grunge show. When everything was in line, the heavy guitar sound, melancholy vocals, not growling like death metal, but torn open and vulnerable with themes like hating oneself, or feeling dirty or low or black., and the driving, primitive drum sound – it connected you to the primitive emotional heaviness, the nirvana of it all. It was absolutely pure.

After Kurt Cobain died, grunge was still going strong thanks to the big acts – Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, and collaborations like Temple of the Dog or Audioslave. Then, eventually (unlike goth!), grunge actually died away to britpop, synthesizer music, rootsy music, and a million other things as ipads and mobile phones made everyone feel happier and shinier.

But what perplexes me is – why hasn’t grunge come back? Everything comes back. Maybe grunge still seems so “new” that it’s impossible to think of it as “coming back”. We thought it never left.

Or, perhaps grunge just doesn’t fit the mood we are in right now. It’s a lot like the 80s right now. We want momentary pleasures, a new iphone, a quick thing from Amazon, a quick post on Instagram to distract us. Grunge was deep and introspective. It was about being out in nature and smoking pot, not caring if your clothes stayed clean or if they got old and “grungy”, it was not about Met Gala or Camp or Lady Gaga or anything that would influence anyone on Instagram.

(WARNING: Brief history of everything to follow). Grunge came about at the end of the 80s. The 80s had been really bright and colorful, with lots of money. It started out with punk and new wavers rebelling against “dinosaur” stadium bands like the Eagles or Led Zeppelin. But then by the late 80s new wave was bloated and nobody wanted to hear “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” or “True” again. Even punk was wearing thin. It was immature with no subtlety. Then the glam rock Guns ‘N Roses thing came about, but didn’t stay long, although Axl Rose is an amazing musician who is thankfully touring again. I was working in a record store in Hollywood and I remember the end of the 80s when bands like Mudhoney or Soundgarden, wearing old jeans, boots and no makeup, but still with a more soulful, sexy sound than punk, started to appear on the shelves.

Then the recession hit and we Gen x’ers were all overeducated and underemployed like Winona Ryder in Reality Bites. I remember that moment where it felt like the party had ended, the mall was closing and now it was just dull people not getting dolled up anymore. Like the hobgoblin’s mirror in HC Anderson’s The Snow Queen or Frozen, grunge settled in everyone’s eyes and replaced the 80s mask, showing us how ugly we were, but and how real we were too. The new fairy tale would not be a Cinderella story starring Molly Ringwald becoming perfect through fashion, but one of introverted depression and transformation, and playing pool in old flannels and beat up doc martins. Truly one of the greatest accomplishments of the grunge era was that our common lack of money forced us to stop consuming and be creative. There was a flowering of indie fanzines, small bands, independent labels, and later on in the 90s, websites.

Although grunge removed the glam from both men and women, grunge had a touch of glamour too. You didn’t have to be Janis Joplin with no makeup. You could be more like Drew Barrymore, who put on some red lipstick and a flowery dress. It was a natural, hippie look. We stopped dying our hair funny colors and grew it out long. The term “hair farmer” was not uncommon. Between the grunge kids and the deadheads, the early 90s must have looked like a big 60s party to our parents. Now girls want funny colored hair again, and boys want weird beards.

Creativity wasn’t grunge’s only good side. Grunge could be really deep and poetic. Influenced the spiritual side of the pacific northwest, hippies, and even the California singer-songwriter tradition of CSN or Neil Young, it brought us back to the garden. That made it profound, solemn, but it was not just peaceful hippies. Grunge was also born from punk, fast distorted guitars, mosh pits, feedback, desolation. Grunge was spiritual but chaotic. Just listen to “I am One” by Smashing Pumpkins, it represents the intense spirituality of leaving it all behind and becoming “one”. Then there was the dark side – death. Many of the musicians were on heroin. We lost many of our grunge heroes – Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain, Layne Stanley, and now Chris Cornell, RIP.

I am one as you are three
Try to find messiah in your trinity
Your city to burn
Your city to burn

Then there was the middle, the mediocre side. That side could be cynical, snarky, overly precious. “flower petting, baby kissing” reads the classic Sub Pop t-shirt, insinuating that the stoned guy with long hair and ripped jeans had a soft side, which he probably did, but it wasn’t apparent in the mosh pit. I wrote about 90s irony before, so I won’t labor it here. But I think the irony was caused by the fact that grunge stars were not innocent like CSN or even Sex Pistols had been. They knew they would sell out to lots of money, so all they could do was laugh and point out the absurdity of it.

But still, for all the heroin and cynicism, grunge had as many gleaming moments as the sun breaking through a rainy forest in Seattle. It got people to see past their trivial concerns and money for a rare moment. And maybe new bands don’t need to come along and create new bands that “sound like” older bands. That always falls short anyway. After you’ve heard John Foxx, how can you listen to TV Eyes? If you love the Fairport convention, the Owl Service is a pale substitute. And Interpol should just be banned, such a terrible substitute they are for Joy Division. Influences, on the other had, are often good. Nick Cave was influenced by Jim Morrison. Conor Oberst was influenced by Robert Smith crossed with country. And Franz Ferdinand was pretty good at reconstructing that 80s Gang of Four or Wire sound, without all the heavy Marxism.

I’ll leave you with some good grunge songs. In true grunge fashion I won’t capitalize the words. Find them in your own way.

  • mudhoney – this gift, good enough, running loaded
  • melvins – lizzy
  • alice in chains – don’t follow, damn that river, rooster, them bones
  • nirvana – about a girl, heart-shaped box
  • soundgarden – somewhere,
  • mother love bone – stardog champion, words of gold
  • smashing pumpkins – I am One, Perfect
  • hole – Mrs Jones, Good Sister/Bad Sister
  • babes in toyland – Handsome and Gretel, Right Now
  • pearl jam – black
  • dinosaur Jr – blowing It, I Don’t Wanna Go There, over it
  • sonic youth – titanium expose, i love her all the time, poison arrow, eric’s trip, walking blue, wish fulfillment, calming the snake
  • meat puppets – plateau, oh me, backwater, whistling song

All the country music I learned about

I did not grow up listening to country, like many people have. I grew up with punk, new wave, reggae, metal, glam, blues, classical, jazz, indian raga, yacht rock, post rock. Literally I was raised listening to everything but country.

Why not country? I don’t know. I grew up in LA. We are always taught that it was bad somehow. People were always talking about rednecks, especially in the 80s, during the Reagan years. We hated cowboys. The punk music of the time reinforced this, with songs like “urban struggle” by the Vandals being cool. Anyone who was around L.A. in the 80s might also remember the Hickoids, whose mocking lyrics were sung to a country sound, but were also the first band I heard to sing about Austin Tx, and kind of fun to dance to at live shows.

Or X, who sang in a more serious country style, especially X’s side project the Knitters, whose married leads John Doe and Exene Cervenka could belt out as soulfully and heartfelt as the Cash’s:

John Doe made it OK for us to start listening to some “cool” country, such as Johnny Cash,  or Patsy Cline (but not Dwight Yoakum, not yet).  But, after the cowpunk era was over we fickle Southern Californians went back to mostly ignoring country, especially the emerging “new” country of “Achy Breaky Heart”, (which was pretty bad). I went back to listening to British music, indie rock, and electronic club music like NIN instead, forgetting that Johnny Cash covered one of their songs in the 90s.

Now, in my sunset years, I find that I really do genuinely like country music. At first, I felt like I should cringe or make fun of it, with all its conventional simple roles and the un-mistakeable sounds of steel guitars and fiddles. There was some reflex that kept making me feel guilty – this is NOT ok to like. But I eventually suppressed it and now find myself enjoying not only Johnny Cash, but Johnny Paycheck, and Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakum and newer artists like Sunny Sweeney.

Now, a short disclaimer. Before you all label me as just another privileged white person who is into country and ignoring the rest of the world, think again! I still love all the genres I was originally into. I love reggae, blues, post-punk, synth pop, grunge, and Radiohead. Country music is just another style for me to express my emotions and add to t he beautiful palette of music that I already know. In fact, country music has made me like all the other music better. Finding something you like that is so different only heightens your appreciation of what you already know.

But what do I like about country music?

Country music fans are supposed to be really christian, right? Small town morality and rigid social rules. They are really uptight, right? Maybe not. With Willie Nelson smoking joints and Sunny Sweeney sounding perfectly sexually independent, singing about having a “better bad idea” (for a hookup), while among educated liberals, women get offended and publicly accuse men of being rapists. So who is moralistic? It’s all turned upside down. What’s right is left and what’s left is right

Country music is not backwards. In many cases it is sexy. The country itself is sexy. It’s nature, earth, birth, death, love. Johnny Cash knew this and so did DH Lawrence, (though he was an English poet, he probably would have liked country too!). And the songs are true to human emotions, showing vulnerability. Country singers admit to actually falling in love and being affected by feelings, drinking to hide the pain or worse. OK, there are some newer country singers, who show a more calloused approach, but for the most part it’s nice to hear men and women not just trying to hide feelings and play the game.

Finally, I don’t like all country music. I’m not a big fan of Kenny Chesey. On the other hand, since I’m from the city, I’m just a passing tourist to the genret. However,  I prefer the return to roots music styles that you read about on savingcountrymusic.com. And I do like Emmylou Harris, Alison Moorer, and Roseanne Cash, and anyone else good that you care to introduce me to, so bring it on!

You Float like a Web Monkey

The 80s had been one big exuberant party. So wealthy, stylish, and brand-conscious were we that we felt it would go on endlessly like one big mall shopping trip and all we had to do was follow the smell of cinnamon buns. But then it didn’t. At the end of the 80s the financial luck ran out and we ended up in recession. Real grown ups knew how to handle it, and probably cut back a little. But for us 20 year-olds who had just graduated and didn’t understand about financial cycles, it was devastating.

We were convinced we would never get jobs, would never get health insurance, and would always be “losers” and possibly homeless. So we traded in shiny spandex pants and pink pumps and big bright earrings for ripped baggy jeans and doc martens and long flowered depression-era dresses, and some of us got into worse stuff like heroin. But most just drank a lot of beer and smoked cigarettes. We read Douglas Copeland who put a name on us, Generation X, over-educated and underemployed. We were martyrs to the corporate phonies and sell-outs who caused this mess. We were angry and disenfranchised and irony dripped from our mouths.

We were angry, but not angry enough to go and protest. We had our MTV, CD’s and cable. Just angry enough to start writing. So we perfected this great new form called irony. Everything was ironic from Reality Bites (1997)  when Winona Ryder is asked to “define irony” and can’t:

to Juno (2007) where irony is teen mother Ellen Page’s primary form of communication. And the most popular music was totally ironic too:

I’m a loser baby/so why don’t you kill me

to

Hate me
Do it and do it again
Waste me
Rape me, my friend

or

You float like a feather
In a beautiful world
And I wish I was special
You’re so fuckin’ special

Hard to believe in this post-millennial era of hyper-productive foodies who never stop working, but the 90s  was an era, not too long ago, when the “loser” was glorified. It was ok to be depressed, jobless, damaged. But the cycles of productivity come and go. Take the 60s hippie vs 80s yuppie; both have their pros and cons. And the despair of the 90s did have a payoff. After we finally broke through the high expectations of 80s consumerism, we got off our asses and developed a culture of our own. We started record labels (Sub-Pop), local bands in rock and hip-hop flavors, clothing labels, coffee companies (Starbucks), fanzines such as URB or Ben is Dead, and finally, when the technology got even better, websites and startups. I remember having my first great job as an HTML programmer in San Rafael and us all calling ourselves “web monkeys” as if we were blue collar auto-mechanics – just imagine the smugness of our irony!

Thanks to the 90s, now there are as many “indie” and “micro” brands as there are people. Why even have brands anymore? We should just put things into categories of stuff like “eyeliner” or “coffee” or “pads” and sell them without branding, like 80s style generic items. Nobody has time to read package labels anymore.. We are all looking down at our phones. I wonder if anyone would even notice or mind?

I will leave you to ponder the meaning of life with this song by punk band Flipper, who were from the 80s but sounded like they could have been 90s

 

The Meaning of Irony

As a Generation-X’er, I have a special claim to irony. After all, it was our generation that started it in the early 90s with films such as Reality Bites or Henry Fool, and books such as, well, Generation X by Douglas Copeland. With cultural institutions such as religion and the grand march of Western Civilization on the decline, we just had a wonderful bonfire making fun of it all, until it finally burned out.

I never really thought about what irony was, just that it was really fun to do. It had something to do with staying on the surface, not putting yourself at risk, giving things a punchline. I think Umberto Eco  defines it well, as the instinct to say “I love you madly! As Barbara Cartland would say”. Everything sincere was actually not. We put on western clothes, or worker’s clothes salvaged in thrift stores, with our weird hairstyles to show the world we didn’t mean it. My first concert in 1985 was the Cure in Hollywood. To this I wore a 1950s prom dress and 50s stiletto pumps with my spiked and bleached hairstyle. I was listening to harsh nihilistic music wearing an outfit that a 50s debutante would have considered a “dream come true”, but a 1960s hippie would have laughed at. To me it was meaningless, as well as all the emotion it had undoubtedly left in its trail, being accepted, getting the date, rebelling against the establishment. To me it was just thrift store clothes, weird because no one else had them.

90s sub-pop t-shirt “flower sniffin kitty pettin baby kissin corporate rock whores”

We gen-x’ers had a good couple decades of irony, mostly with clothing, but also with emotion. We were like little children watching a love scene, but making fun of it to not feel icky. I remember a sub-pop t-shirt that said “flower sniffen kitty pettin”…well you get the idea. It basically juxtaposed the long haired Seattle stoner against all of all these sensitive images so the meaning was obvious.

But today I heard 2 songs that really represented irony to me. Well actually one song, and that song is “Jolene”. We all know Dolly Parton’s famous version:

She instills it with beauty and poignancy. It’s tragic and so true.  She hates this woman but is in awe of her. She knows when she’s been beat. Women compete with each other over beauty and many are not afraid to steal another woman’s man and wreck her life, “just because she can”. No matter what the #metoo movement says, the ability to touch a man and through her emotions and summon his is a woman’s true power and always will be.

Parton’s performance is anything but ironic. In fact, I doubt that Dolly is or was capable of producing anything ironic.

Then I heard another version, by Strawberry Switchblade, an early English elecro pop band that I like a lot, mainly, and ironically due to their synthesizer sound and over-the-top 80s hairspray and makeup look.

Yet Strawberry Switchblade doing Jolene? 80s postmodern punks HATED country. It was the essence of middle America that we wanted to do away with. Yeah, but maybe in England it was a different attitude, or maybe Strawberry Switchblade just had guts. Maybe they heard the simple, folky, and sad chords of Jolene and heard it as a folk song. They are from Scotland and the folk traditions of bluegrass originate in the UK. Good for them for being brave and not so jaded.

When I first listened to Strawberry Switchblade’s version, audio only, I was laughing. And laughing at this song was pure irony. But also empowering, like laughing at Jolene herself or any woman who could be a threat. Switchblade took such a chilling image of human jealousy, betrayal and triangulation and made it into a very synthesized piece of plastic, with flat vocals devoid of emotion. But then I watched the video a few hours later and realized they did intend for it to have emotion.  They took Jolene absolutely seriously when they made it. And it is emotional when you see the video. And anyone who reads my blog knows that I believe 80s music and video is inseparable.

So Parton’s Jolene with the ability to move your emotions, or Switchblade’s Jolene withe ability to make you feel distantly and mechanically powerful? In this world of endlessly multiplying references, I find myself seeking out irony less and less and trying to get back to the emotion that irony tries to ridicule. Now being able to express that emotion will be my challenge.

Sylvia Patterson’s book, reviewed by me

I’m Not With the Band – A Writer’s Life Lost in Music (2016)

Sylvia Patterson, british music writer from 1980s-2000s

I happened upon Sylvia by way of Bernard Sumner, actually Peter Hook’s book “Substance: Inside New Order”. The terrible incident between Sylvia and NO left me not liking either, New Order a little less. I wanted to read her side of the story. Ironically Sylvia’s side left me cheering for New Order. Maybe that proves how honest she is.

Other readers have described the concept of this book, a history of Sylvia’s journey through the British music press during the 80s, 90s and 2000s, interviewing everyone from Shaun Ryder to Mariah Carey and Johnny Cash. At times (New Order) I felt like Sylvia was too paparazzi. But her dedication to music and funny writing style ultimately won me over. Like one other reviewer pointed out, the contrasts between high and low her personal life, occupying unfit moldy apartments, while being whisked off in 1st class to interview David Beckham, is totally surreal. Her honesty is brutal and she’s great at crafting a story or a letter. I loved her brilliant tell-off to NME, which she never hit “send” on. I’m so glad she published it here.

I have to disagree with Sylvia on a couple of major points. Although we are the same age, I prefer the 80s while she prefers the 90s. This is probably a matter of taste. But the 80s, however plastic, were romantic and hopeful and smooth. New Order, and ABC and Roxy Music’s Avalon. Even John Lydon grooved to a disco beat with “Live in Japan”. The 90s were poor and draggy and druggy and reality-bitten – Portishead and Hole and then Radiohead. Gotta love the brutal intensity but I’ll take optimism any day.

Also I disagree with Sylvia that rock musicians should continue to be open and opinionated today. They can’t in this era of hyper social media. She, if anyone, knows this. She witnessed first hand the exchange between Warpaint, Beyonce, Rihanna and a thousand trolls. The opinions expressed. The shaming. the threats. The backpedaling. Who needs it? I can’t blame the Taylor Swift’s or Ed Sheeran’s from talking only about “safe” subjects or even not giving interviews. No one wants to be dragged over the media coals and misrepresented like they are doing with president Trump for example. Anyway, the music is the expressive part.

Also it was touching to read about Sylvia’s personal experiences. After the fun years of the 90s (crazy roommates, raves, champagne lunches in London with rock stars) it sounds like she kind of got dragged down by opportunistic boyfriends who used her as a meal ticket. I’m glad she finally ditched them and took her life back and met a nice guy. She is too smart a girl to just be used like that. I’m glad it (mostly) all worked out for her.

Sylvia’s book is a memory of a lost era of high jinx and expressive freedom in music. It’s an intriguing read. So buy it and  support this woman who has tirelessly challenged and documented so many great artists, as long as she could.

The Dog that Jumped out of the Map

Today I was traveling virtually on google maps, looking for coordinates to simulate a truck route between Aberdeen, SD and Newark, NJ, when I realized there are some VERY small towns in South Dakota. There is Chelsea (population 27), and Columbia (population 136). Columbia has a total of 6 avenues. They started with 1st ave and ran out of steam at 6th. Wanting to see what a town of 136 looked like, I turned to satellite view.

Google satellite view is crazy to someone like me, who has a lot of pre-internet life experience in their background. I think of it as a map or graph, an abstraction of the world that is meant to instruct, but not contain anything from the real world. You definitely don’t expect the real world to seep in there.

And yet, it sometimes does. And sometimes it’s a dog that seeps in.

 

Here he is, the dog of Columbia, South Dakota. Just staring at me from approx @45.3829806,-99.7626551. If I go past him and turn around, he’s gone. Where did he come from? Does he realize he’s tampering with Google’s state-of-the-art geolocation technology? I’m not sure. But now I know that this dog exists. And who knows? Maybe he always wanted to be famous.

Philadelphia is better than I thought

It’s mid-April in New Jersey and spring is still having um, performance problems. The temperatures have been rising, but only one weekends and then they go back down again during the week. Better than the opposite! Last Saturday we went to Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia art museum – Spanish courtyard

I’d always disliked Philadelphia. I love the museums, mind you! The art museum is so much more than the “rocky steps”. It is arranged in the wonderful progression from West to East, meandering through Italian Renaissance, Turkish, Indian,  Chinese and finally ending with a Japanese tea garden. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the museums are, is well-planned (I hear he envisioned as a new Champs Elysees) but large and spread out. In winter this means a lot of walking and no restaurants nearby.

But this was a warm day, and I finally got it. This city was made for strolling on a warm day! The Parkway is meant for  aimless wandering, like a flaneur out of Proust strolling down the Champs. There isn’t much commerce on the Parkway, but there are lovely parks and fountains and outdoor sculpture. We strolled and strolled and found at least 3 fountains. We got to the City Hall and I was truly impressed. Philadelphia city hall is an old grand building, with this wonderful fountain outside, with jets of water and sidewalks so you could walk in between the jets. It was fun just to walk around the fountain and my daughter and I took our time.

Same scene, as I painted it

 

 

Then you can walk under an arch into a courtyard in the center of city hall. There are arches facing the four directions and you are in a beautiful leafy courtyard. This was a place that made me immediately think of Europe. Fountains and plazas may seem old and useless, but they are so important. It’s the difference between being happy to be in a city and just feeling like you are there to take care of things. Between the parks along the Parkway, the flowers, the fountains, and finally ending up in this courtyard, I was in a truly relaxed and happy mood. I love New York. BUT. But unless I am in Central Park, I feel kind of rushed. Philadelphia is a city that allows me to just “be”. I decided this last Saturday.

A 1960s Wardrobe Pattern

Now that I am getting back into sewing, I can make anything I want! All I need is a few good patterns, some fabric, a night, some coffee, and some upbeat 80s music like “Pretty In Pink” by the Psychedelic Furs. My life turns into an 80s movie montage. Actually I only have 1 pattern, but it’s a wardrobe pattern and wardrobe patterns have everything on them!

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my glamorous wardrobe pattern

After I woke up on new years day, 2016, feeling like I want to be more mod, I bought Butterick 2179 on Etsy.

I can spend literally  hours looking at vintage patterns on Etsy, ordering them, and never making anything. So I decided to turn off my computer and start sewing. I love this pattern so much that I want to make everything on it, but I started with the shell top. I finally determined that my 1962 size is 14, which translates to a modern 10. I don’t understand the numbers, I just go for anything that says “bust 34” (which is nonsense because of course mine is much bigger!).

 

Anyway the top was really easy to make. A shell top can be worn with anything, a straight skirt, a full skirt, or capri pants, and looks great. I love the back buttons (confession – I’m terrible with zippers!). I chose light blue, because that was the only color I had 6 buttons of, but they worked! My fabric is a thick “fake shantung” in dark red. Perfect for the 60s style. I definitely think you should keep the fabric as true to the style as possible. So use gingham, fun prints, or stripes in 60s colors like avocado or orange. Nothing purple. Did you ever see Gidget wearing purple? Or Sissy from Family Affair? No way Mr. French! They didn’t wear purple in the early 60s.

 

I love to sew but have had a hard time talking myself back into it as a hobby. Why bother? In the 80s clothing was more expensive. But clothing is so cheap now, and most every style is available at the mall. But here are some good reasons: you can set your creations apart with buttons or thread. You can probably get a sleeveless shell at TJ Maxx, but it won’t have all the darts that they used in the 60s. It won’t have the high neck that is so unsexy that it’s cool, and it will probably  be made out of something stretchy or in a tropical print with little metallic sparkles that you may not like.

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Best of all, you can spend 6 hours driving around and hunting for your blouse. Or you can spend 6 hours sewing, feeling creative and listening to the Psychedelic Furs, Arctic Monkeys, Shangri-las, and New Order, and then have time left over to try new hairstyles. I can guarantee which choice will make you feel happier in the end! Happy sewing!