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.

I Was Waiting on a Moment

Does pop music need to go along with memories in your life? There is a lot of good pop music  – Radiohead, Modest Mouse, Flaming Lips, the list goes on, which I got into late and does not accompany any memories from my own life. I enjoy it just as music, for its own sake. It does not remind me of any lost lovers, or first time experiences, or nights out with my friends. It does not even remind me of some ground breaking new music genre discovery, because music genres have splintered so much or I don’t pay attention to them now.

Then there is the pop music that triggers those memories, like “She Sells Sanctuary” by the Cult. That reminds me of being in high school in Southern California, and going to the Scream and looking for the underground L.A. of Bret Easton Ellis, though we lived in working class Long Beach. Or Japan, “Obscure Alternatives”, which reminds me of 9th grade and played it on my headphones constantly, because I had discovered glam rock. Or “Los Angeles” by X, that reminds me of going to Melrose and the whole feeling of Melrose, L.A. sun beating down, bright pavement, kids in 50s dresses with red lipstick and driving old cars.  And not every song reminds me a new music discovery. There is “If There is Something” by Roxy Music, and I had just met this guy. We had been out all day and had gone back to his place. I was about to leave, because I didn’t feel anything for him. But then he put on this song and started kissing me and everything changed. We ended up being together for the next year.

And then there is Nick Cave. Nick has been with me for years. When I was 14 and my best friend gave me the “Mutiny” album by the Birthday Party, watching Wim Wenders films like the breathtaking “Wings of Desire” and being taken in by those scenes of Berlin and Nick Cave in the cavernous club while Solveig Dommartin danced in a dreamlike state and the dark carnival music. Or the other songs that went along with films, not really real experiences, but very powerful images that made a big impression when I was young, like  “Cat People” by David Bowie or “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” and The Hunger and those great scenes with Bowie and Deneuve roaming after dark with sunglasses on, in search of blood.

I would love for Radiohead to be part of my identity and have that power over me, but the truth is that I feel like an outsider looking in with them. I know it had something to do with the 90s, and early 2000s, and penetrating dark traumatic feelings, and sex and sadness. It’s the kind of thing that I might have had experiences to, had I been born later. But to me it’s just good music.

Why do songs sound better when you have a memory to go with them? It’s not that they sound better, they just sound deeper. You did something to them, or they changed you at a time when you were young. They might have made you what you are. I think that a lot of people can’t imagine music without these associations, and that is why they stop listening to new music after their 20s, when they stop trying new things as much. But for us lifelong music fans, we just have to accept that as we get older the music will not be as personal. That doesn’t mean it won’t change us at all. Maybe music changes us even as we get older, and our life experiences are not so dramatic, but we don’t see those changes until later. I’d like to think that in 20 years I will realize that Radiohead really did become part of me, even in my 40s.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QeUJQvR7T0E

Time out of Mind

Recently, on a music discussion group, we started discussing the similarities of Roxy Music’s Avalon and Steely Dan’s Gaucho. Both were made in the early 80’s and both albums have an extremely smooth sound characterized by lots of saxophone.  And both albums are great for driving along the coast and pretending you are a yuppie, talking on a huge cellphone and driving a BMW. Love it or hate it, saxophones are the sound of the 80’s. Why is that? Is the sax some bygone urban yuppie dream of cool? Or was there something more to it?

Maybe it is because the slow laziness of the sax is the ultimate antithesis of the pastiched high-speed computer-generated beat culture of today. To me the slowness of the sax represents the ultimate luxury. I once read a quote about “true luxury” being “an abundance of both time and space.”
I don’t think that even very many rich people have an abundance of time these days, or space. But those are things you can create for yourself. The sound of the saxophone seems to create extra time where there is none. I guess that is what they call relaxing.

Anyway I love the sax for it’s nostalgic feel. It’s the ultimate nostalgia. In the 80s the sax was evoking the 40s. Now it is just evocative of a time no longer present.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJPUut_jWk4

A Discussion of Belinda Carlisle and Exene Cervenka as Fashion Icons, Wherein I Also Talk Trash about Madonna

blog post

A lot has been said about the coolness of 1950’s thrift-store clothes, and how essential they were to the punk scene. For me, a middle class punk in the 1980’s, whose family refused to buy expensive clothes like Izod shirts and such, thrift store shopping allowed me to have an identity, beyond that of “nerdy girl who couldn’t afford the expensive stuff”. I’m not the first one to have said this, either.

But shopping in thrift stores gave me so much more than coolness at school. It started me off on a road of nostalgia and my love for old, forgotten pop culture. It also helped me to appreciate the real history behind material objects, the story that each one of them has to tell. While many girls just wore the rockabilly knockoff looks (socks with pumps, colorful plastic jewelry, novelty prints like black/pink triangles), I knew a bit about the decades that actually inspired them. Anyway it also inspired me to go to graduate school, learn programming, have children, buy a house, and select a good 401K program (Well, OK that last part is bullshit but still thrifting was pretty cool)

My love of thrift stores also gave me a bond, however imaginary, to some of my favorite fashion icons of the 80’s….

Put down the Go-Go’s as much as you like, but we all loved them, and you probably did too! When they hit it big, clawing their road to success over the backs of some, they were fun. They were beautiful and inspiring. They gave me a love of my own town through their videos, shot in L.A., which always seemed to involve local street scenes, colorful music and their great combinations of thrift store clothes and kitschy scarves and jewelry.

I mean, everyone seems to think that Madonna was the queen of 80’s fashion,  but, umm…Madonna only wore black. Like, BORING!! The Go-Gos were much more colorful, much more inspired in their 50’s retro looks.

Belinda was my fashion inspiration back in the early 80’s. As pictured here, she captured exactly how I was trying to look, artsy, colorful and very new wave. This picture reminds me so much of an outfit I had in 1983 or so: bright blue tights, a long sweatshirt that said “Privilege” (which I think I actually purchased at the Glendale Galleria or at least the Lakewood Mall), and red ballet flats, or maybe pink moccasins. I can’t quite remember. But I love Belinda’s combination of 50’s pumps, baggy mini-dress and red sunglasses. OK, I don’t know why she chose the Vera Bradley knockoff bag, but it was 1981 so I will still give her credit. The overall look was shocking. Bright. Very L.A. pin-up fun, like the sun reflecting off of the pavement on a street full of 1920’s bungalows and palm trees with bright flowers and billboards.

My other fashion icon was Exene Cervenka. Exene was darker and more punk than Belinda. Exene had great instincts – 1940’s dresses, lots of bangles and chains mixed with the bangles. Red lipstick, and old lady shoes with white socks. Scraggly hair. Exene didn’t just look “shocking” or “punk”. Her intelligence always shined though. By wearing clothes from another era, she evoked history and therefore something timeless. Like an old weathered film poster from the 1940’s, glamour gleaming through the dust, the way she wore raggedly vintage clothes was poetic and  played to our sense of nostalgia.

I love this blog post about Exene. The writer, Caviglia, actually goes into the folk aesthetic that was so important to understanding L.A.’s particular twist on punk culture in the 80’s. It wasn’t about being streamlined, European, slick, technological, like so many imagine the 80’s to be. It wasn’t Depeche Mode or Duran Duran in L.A. Well it was, a little. In L.A. we were into high-tech MTV video stuff. But we were also into the old: “I Love Lucy” reruns, Gumby, old western films, Mexican folk culture and old sit-coms or teenage b-movies. X captured that aesthetic so well, as did the Go-Gos with their 60’s beach movie kitsch. And it was always about thrifting and looking funky as hell.

I loved this video and still do. Jane Wiedlin’s little solo just the best. I think she is wearing a 50’s swimsuit! I’m going to tie a scarf around my ponytail next week and go for a splash in a fountain…

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3kQlzOi27M&feature=artistyoutube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3kQlzOi27M&feature=artist]

use lame to convert directory of .wav files to .mp3

If you use Ubuntu (or any other distribution of Linux) it can be surprisingly hard to convert a whole directory of .wav files to .mp3.

There is a utility called “lame” which works pretty well converting a single .wav file, i.e.:

lame filename

but who wants to sit there typing “lame” over and over again?

Oh sure, you could convert all the files using “find -exec” like this:

find . -name "*wav" -exec lame {} \;

But then you will find out how “lame” lame truly is! It leaves the “.wav” file endings, attaches a “.mp3” to them and this:

White Line 11-10-76.wav

becomes this:

White Line 11-10-76.wav.mp3

So you’d have to go through each file individually and remove the “.wav” ending as well as the spaces in the filenames!

Here is a better way. Though not perfect, it works. Each of these commands will execute on all files in the directory, so you only have to run each command once.

1. remove the spaces from the filenames:
find -type f -exec rename 'y/\ /\_/' {} \;

2. and get rid of the .wav from filenames*:
for file in *.wav ; do mv $file `echo $file | sed 's/\(.*\).wav/\1/'` ; done

3. Now run lame on the batch
find . -type f -exec lame -b 224 {} \;

Enjoy your .mp3 files!

* Step 2 is a little weird. After this step you are going to end up with files that have no file endings, but lame seems to recognize these as “.wav” files.

Bebe Buell

There are rock stars, and then there are the women who hang around rock stars. The rock stars are our gods. They are people like Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Iggy Pop, Johnny Thunders and Mick Jagger. We overlook anything, infidelity, drug addiction, crawling on the floor in glass and peanut butter, anything. Their women are the beautiful ones who claw and flirt their way through the minions and get noticed – Anita Pallenberg, Patti Boyd, and Jeri Hall, Sable Starr, Bebe Buell and Pamela des Barres. We condemn these women and write them off as promiscuous “groupies”, yet we never consider the respect they deserve and the contributions they make to rock.Buell with Led Zeppelin

Does anyone ever call Mick Jagger a slut? Only endearingly. Mick used to go around at parties bragging about his many illegitimate children. But Sable Starr, who also slept around, was a “slut”. Was this because she didn’t play guitar? Does that even make sense? But even putting aside the pure injustice of this well-accepted double standard, we never ever recognize the contribution these women made. What does it take to get a song like “Angie?” It takes Anita Pallenberg (or maybe Angela bowie). And what about “Layla”? That took Patti Boyd. And I’m sure that Johnny Thunders wrote one or more songs about Sable Starr. He was madly in love with her! And what about that beautiful Bryan Ferry song, “Let’s Stick Together”. Sure enough, it’s inspired by a childhood motto that he beautiful wife Jerry Hall (the cover girl of Roxy Music’s great 4th album Siren) had with her sister. We would never have so much heartfelt, passionate music if it’s weren’t for these women, the muses of the music. Not every woman is going to be a songwriter, like Patti Smith or Lydia Lunch. The role of muse is more feminine and passive, but every bit as important. Our beloved rock stars depended on these women to cast a feminine spell that left them longing to write songs.

Recently, I wanted to read about the life of a “groupie”, so I chose “Rebel Heart” by Bebe Buell. Buell is one of rock’s better known “groupies”, (though she prefers to be known as a “muse”). In fact she was someplace in between rock groupie, muse, groupie, musician, top model and settled rock wife (to Todd Rundgren). It is Bebe’s continual striving, and continual in-betweenness that makes her such a dynamic person. Though she changed roles, cities and lover at a breakneck pace there was one constant in her life, and that was rock. She was a permanent fixture on the New York rock scene of the 1970’s and a sort of “hostess” of New York..for musicians.

Extremely beautiful, Bebe went to New York in the early 1970s to model for fashion magazines. She did a lot of fashion modeling, but also ended up as a Playboy centerfold in 1974, which weakened her modeling career in the states. Throughout it all, she managed to consort with the rock elite for two decades, hanging out at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s during the tail end of the Warhol-crowd era and the beginning of punk. She was involved in a deep relationship with Todd Rundgren. She also had relations with Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Steven Tyler, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Elvis Costello. OK, she slept with Rod Stewart too, but we’ll try to ignore that. Bebe was happiest sleeping with famous people from the rock world, and eventually, like Mata Hari, they too pursued her as someone that they had to fuck, in order to achieve coolness.

Throughout “Rebel Heart”, in her own words, Bebe reveals herself to the reader. I am struck by a woman who is both powerful, flawed, and sometimes full of shit, [Buell gets a bit carried away thinking that pop stars wrote about her. She felt that the song “Little Red Corvette” by Prince, was a metaphor for her life and possibly written about her, though she had never even met Prince]. Overall, however, Buell has her feet firmly planted on the ground. Her expectations were never unrealistic. She left Jimmy Page in the early 1970’s, knowing that if she hung around she would end up just another cast-off. She left Steven Tyler and had his child alone, because he wouldn’t give up cocaine for her, and she was not on drugs. She knew that most of her lovers were high. She knew they were egotistical. Bebe Buell has a very strong constitution. She continually reminds us that her lack of breakdowns, destructive habits or drama is because she is German. However, the one crack in her bulletproof consciousness seemed to develop when Buell met Elvis Costello and really fell in love.

Buell’s relationship with Costello, like with so many others, started as a fling. They met in L.A. She went to London and lived with him for a while in 1978. Then in the early 1980’s, Buell joined him on his U.S. tour. They lived in hotel rooms and made passionate love to each other. “He could give me an orgasm just by looking at me”, wrote Buell. Her descriptions of the affair sound pretty great, however impossible. Elvis was married at the time and would not leave his wife and child. When Buell got pregnant with Elvis’s baby, Elvis refused to support the child, and Bebe had the pregnancy terminated, understandably not wishing another paternity controversy like the one that had surrounded her pregnancy with Liv Tyler. This was it for Elvis. A Roman Catholic, he called her a “murderer” and alienated himself from Buell. There is one harrowing scene where she is driving around L.A. and sees Elvis in front of a hotel talking to Nick Lowe. She runs up to Elvis and he ducks back into the hotel. To the end of the book Buell writes about their broken relationship with regret that he had still not forgiven her and put closure to the relationship. I get the feeling that her sadness over losing Elvis followed her throughout her life.

Shortly before cracking this book, I had finished “Please Kill Me”, an expose about the 1970’s New York punk scene written in the form of a group interview with passages by Ron Ashton, Danny Fields, Leee Childers, Richard Hell, Bebe Buell, and many others. Both books are obviously the kind of trashy reads that you finish in a week and feel like you’re read a long issue of “People” magazine. One contrast I find between the two books is that in “Please Kill Me” everyone speaks highly of drug experiences, with bravado, from Jim Morrison passing out from pills in a bar, to Danny Fields sitting and taking acid all day long in his office at [record label], to Dee Dee Ramone turning tricks, and Jim Carroll and Iggy pop and just about everyone else with their relentless excesses of heroin. After reading “PKM” you are left feeling that the hard edged soul of punk just cannot be achieved without addiction to hard drugs. But then Bebe, in “Rebel Heart”, takes you right back and reminds you that it could. Without bragging or reminders of her street credentials, Bebe describes plenty of intense sexual, cathartic “rock experiences. She had a good head on her shoulders, yet her discipline did not make her stiff or unsympathetic, in contrast, the lack of drugs enabled Bebe to feel the music that much more fully because she was around it for longer – she didn’t burn out so soon.

Buell was very high-class and beautiful, spending most her time in places like Manhattan and London. She was there at the glittering parties once the stars made it to the top, but she never really got down in the bottom. This is my one criticism of her. She never really knew the conditions that produced so much great rock, the trailer trash, low budget poverty, or even just the grinding mainstream normality of suburban white America, the lifestyles that send kids careening to their record players to lose it all in the escape of rock, or better yet, to buy a bus ticket OUT and just try to be rock stars themselves.

On the other hand, Bebe’s life contained more of the drama and instability of a 1960’s childhood than the boredom of 1980’s mainstream life. She was raised by a single mom who had great taste in art and life. When her mom later remarried, Bebe never felt accepted by her stepfather, which is what led Bebe to experiment with acid, get turned on to rock, and leave for NYC in her teen years. Bebe says that she always felt the lack of a man in her life, which is why she sought the attention of men constantly in her adulthood. Of course, she wasn’t a rich child and a lot of her success seems to have come from her wealth of beauty.

After 20 years in the backstage rock-and-roll life, it is certainly fitting that Buell put out some songs. The “Covers Girl” EP, the B-Sides, the Gargoyles, and the Bebe Buell band. It is touching toward the end of the book, to read about the shows Buell gave in her mid-40’s and all the people who came to see them – Jimmy Page, Michael Stipe, Keith Richards, the Black Crowes, Joey Ramone, all of the people who she inspired throughout her life returned to stand in her audience. And that is exactly the way it should be.

The Knife

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxqeRMoYA5g]I have a new problem. I just discovered this band that I love more than anyone. Their music is sad yet hopeful and happy, strange and electronic yet warm. However, they only have 3 CD’s out. And I’m pretty sure that I only really like one of the three, based on what I’ve heard on youtube. What’s more, they don’t give concerts. So my entire history as a music fan (and I’ve been into some pretty good bands) has been reduced to one band with one album and no obvious influences or genre that I can tap into for similarities.

Still, I’m very happy I found The Knife. They were exactly what I needed at the time, something dark, electronic, cold, warm, menacing, funny, and new and futuristic sounding, sung by people wearing medieval plague beaks; a band full of paradox who sings in metaphors so that you can kind of decipher their meaning, but not completely. You are left believing that they hold the key to the mysteries of the present age – like the musical equivalent of a David Lynch film. For example in “We Share our Mother’s Health” (the video turned me on to them) there are strange images of cartoon children stabbing each other with bloody medical instruments. It’s Japanese made and looks like something my 8 year old could get into, kind of like Manga. The video is horrid in an Edward Gorey sort of way, yet the song is very endearing and reminds me of my children, especially when they are being little monsters.

Listening to “Silent Shout” suddenly relegates all of the other music I’ve been listening to lately – Joy Division, Stranglers, Nick Cave, Wire, to the oldies bin. Those are great artists, and many will argue that they are better than the Knife. But the Knife has transported me over the horizon into a new musical era. They are more like film directors than rock stars. They change their voices to be different characters – a scared housewife, TV addict, children.

They also use “we” a lot in their songs:

We share our mothers’ health
It is what we’ve been dealt
What’s in it for me?
Fine
Then I’ll agree

or “Forest Families”

Too far away from the city
We came to breathe clean air
Nature lovers’ safe oasis
And the mothers walked towards the forest

It’s that “we” that fascinates me so much. Is it the “we” of humans on a dying planet? Is is the collective “we” of
socialist Sweden? The “we” of faceless Chinese workers silently sickening their lakes and air so we can have lots of
stuff over here in America? The Knife’s sadness makes me think of all these things.

There is something very emotional sounding to the Knife. I haven’t heard anything that makes me sadder in a long time, or at least not since my article on the sadness of techno. “We Share our Mother’s Health” could be about the health of our sick planet. Or maybe it’s just about biology and the fragility of life in general. “The Captain” is about the new era of constant war, which we dumbly accept because there’s nothing else to do and we have 800 channels at home to watch it on.

And speaking of channels, “From Off to On” is a song that needs to be heard. It’s sad and distant sounding, an anthem for a new species of rodent-like humans who want a warm cozy little hole to enjoy their glowing screens when they come home from work. We are busy uploading videos to youtube and writing these blog articles so that one day we’ll still exist post-human, in electronic form after the planet is destroyed.

And there is something Chinese-sounding to the Knife, whether they intended it or not. The thin, high vocals in “Na Na Na” sounds like the Chinese opera, and the keyboard sounds in “The Captain” remind me of the slow courtly sound
of a Chinese plucked instrument. But maybe it’s just because the Knife seems so futuristic to me and China is also a place of the future.

The Knife website (really beautiful images)

We Share our Mother’s Health video

No New Teenage Jesus

Now I have finally seen Lydia Lunch.

After a prolonged train trip up to the city waiting for the bridge to
lower at Secaucus and then observing hopelessly as the cabbie
fearlessly attempted to squeeze through friday night tribeca traffic, we finally showed up at the Knitting Factory at 11:30
..the show was scheduled to begin at 11:00. Luckily the band had not
gone on yet.

My first time at the Knitting Factory. (in the past three months I’ve
been to the Gramercy and Fillmore East as well….) It has a lot of
atmosphere. I’m now getting used to the “New York club look” which to
me, seems to include ornate details such as an old copper or plaster
ceilings and plasterwork on walls, persian rugs, furniture(!) , and a
cavernous basement-like feeling. The new york clubs are different from
the L.A./Sunset strip venues, auditoriums, and bars I used to
frequent. They are older, smaller and seem more comfortable, less
institutional. Anyway I could barely make out the historic old details
of the Knitting Factory as it was PACKED…I mean serious fire hazard
packed…But it was small so we could see everything.. ..

The band:
Lydia Lunch on guitar
Thurston Moore on bass
Jim Sclavunos on drums.

The set was short and loud and very….uh…disciplined. My impression of
post-punk is that everything is very timed and orderly yet aggressive,
like a negative marching band. There is a lot of well-timed silence as
well as noise. Between the perfectly timed drumbeats you could hear
conversation at the bar. It’s not the unrestrained noisy rollercoaster
chaos of bands like X or psychedelic punk bands like the Butthole
Surfers.

But within the no-wave order there is chaos, like when Lydia would
suddenly make some ear-splitting loud roar on her guitar or when
Thurston broke a bass string and Lydia screamed “he did that because
he HATES YOU!!!!!!” She screamed a lot of vitriolic poison out to the
audience the entire night in a deep angry New York accent. “FUCK YOU
ASSHOLE!!!!! IF i FUCK YOU IT’S GONNA HURT” or “YEAH, FUCK YOU. I HATE
YOU!!!!!” etc etc. Always followed by silence or some loud noise on
her guitar. The audience would reply with some words and she had a
well-timed response for every one. It was beautiful and I assumed it
is part of Lydia’s routine. She had command of the entire audience and
all eyes were on her throughout.

They played for about 24 minutes. After that they picked up and left.
No question of an encore. They hated us, after all.

Creatured – I had a great time!

The Origins of Record Collecting

Records line several walls in Steve\'s homeThe Internet is a musical sea, and we are all sailing upon it, collecting music as if it were fish or treasure. There are those who indulge in the perverse delight of fitting thousands of songs on a small solid pearlescent square which can be fit into the pocket. There are the “pirates” of the musical Internet, who spend hours downloading bootlegs, and enjoy sailing off into the uncharted territory of unreleased demos, unauthorized interviews, and obscure forgotten artists who were dropped from the catalogs years ago. There are ebay bidders, who might hop up from the dinner table, and bolt down to the basement to catch the last auction minutes of that rare single. Then there are the ordinary sailors, like me, who just buy an occasional disc from amazon…not really caring if it’s rare or import – just more music for the journey.

Steve Propes in his vinyl element

But long ago, in the 1950’s and 60’s, before this high-tech music world was mapped, when the recordings were all on vinyl, and when vinyl was relatively new, there emerged a whole generation of young kids who wanted to rock-and-roll, to cruise, make out, but most importantly to buy, every record they could find, that is. These were the first collectors, hard at work amassing and trading vast empires of vinyl. I recently spoke to Steve Propes, a collector in Long Beach, Califronia who started in the 50’s and told me how music collecting began…

Steve Propes lives happily today in a sunny ranch-style house with his wife, daughter, dog, many old books, furniture, cholo and weird thrift-store art, old roadside signs, and most importantly – a collection of at least 39,000 records.Saving for records for a long time

Propes’s records, shelved neatly on high bookcases throughout the house and in his rock-memorabilia filled office, chronicle the entire history of American teenage music. They include blues, RNB, jazz, rockabilly, rock-and-roll, punk, heavy metal, new wave, and countless other genres not least of which is Steve’s own personal favorite – doo-wop. It was the harmonious sounds of doo-wop and 1950’s Rythm and Blues combined with the smell of oil and rubber that first infected Steve with the collecting bug:

Bobby Darin and Bill Haley 45\'s“It was 1960. My high-school friend Bill Soon had a 1956 Chevy Bel-Air and we’d go to various drive-in diners in Long Beach – Hody’s, Oscar’s, Grissinger’s and The Clock. Everyone had their own sounds going in their cars, just like in American Graffiti. You tried to sound different and make your own sound, which could be slow or fast. Certain artists became popular through the cruising culture – Dick Dale, and Link Wray for example. We listened to Johnny Otis’s show a lot.”

But the turning-point moment – which transformed Steve from a car-radio-listening music fan, to an obsessive, or at least enthusiastic, collector of vinyl records, was not far away…..

“I started collecting between high school and college. We found out about Bill Braden, a Long Beach cop who would sell records out of his house every Saturday to college and high school kids. The records he sold were cut-outs (recordings which have been drilled or cut by dealers to indicate that they have been sold at a discount price and prevent full refunds). I think Bill would go into thrift stores in his uniforms and ask for records for charity.”

And like many collector discontented with contemporary sounds, Steve started turning back to R-n-B and not until several years after the recordings were made:

“I was collecting U.S. 45’s, mainly black music, so I overlooked a lot of rockabilly, country, garage, and surf. Black music was just the coolest thing on the radio. There was also a new interest in “teen collecting” – stuff like Frankie Avalon and Fabian. I hated that.”

Today thrift stores and record stores are decreasing in number. But back then they were plentiful and contributed heavily to Steve’s collection.A 1950\'s 45 rpm record player in Steve\'s office

“I’d go to Wallich’s Music City in the Lakewood Center. Hody’s was right across the street. I’d also go to Wenzel’s in Downey. There were stores specializing in black music, such as “Flash”. I knew John Raino, the counterman at Flash and we stayed in touch until he died two years ago. Flash had 5 turntables set up to play new releases throughout the store. But more often this would cause the song to end up playing out of sync. Other records stores in downtown Long Beach included Humphries on Pine, Morey’s, and Badarat. There were record stores in Compton where you could buy stuff real cheap out of the back room.”

Those who remember record stores remember their distinct culture of coolness, where music experts gravitated as they now gravitate to Yahoo music discussion lists. Steve describes the early record store scene:

“Record stores were a cool place to hang out and show knowledge about music. Jim Lamarand worked in the jazz department at record/instrument store Wallich’s. One night he was on his way out to dinner when a black cadillac pulled up. A black chauffeur opens the door and out steps Ray Charles. Charles comes in, starts looking at organs, sits down, and plays for 45 minutes while all of the customers are watching. A few months later Charles came out with an album of all instrumental organ songs: “Soul+Genius=Jazz” on the Impulse ABC jazz line. In the 1960’s a lot of labels had their own jazz lines.”

A 1950\'s cheesecake LP coverRecords could also be found in thrift stores and less likely places, as Steve recalls:

“My parents went to the Salvation Army on Alamitos near Anaheim St. in Long Beach. I hated it when they went, until one day I started looking at 45’s. There was a record on Red Robin which was always there. I shunned it but one day I brought it home and it was great. Every New Year’s Day and every 4th of July Thrifty drug store (now Rite-Aid) would put out big tables of 45’s at 10 cents each. We’d go to every Thrifty and buy lots of records. One guy named Claude found a phone number on one of the Thrifty’s tables, contacted the distributor and went to their warehouse the next day. This was rock-and-roll and R-n-B, stuff that Thrifty’s didn’t usually sell.

When did Steve decide that he was a collector and not just another kid buying records?old music magazines and a Doo Wop sticker\

“When Wallich’s was about to sell out on a record, they would put up a cardboard sign saying “no longer in stock.” That’s when i realized that every record would not be around forever.”

He then goes onto describe an unexpected fringe benefit of collecting:

“When I met my future wife Sylvia in college, I had a few thousand records all in one side of my room. She liked my collection. A lot of guys wives didn’t like it, but she did so I considered myself lucky.”

Of course it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I asked Steve what was the worst moment in his record collecting experience. There were a couple of bad ones –

“I once came home a bunch of good thrift store records. I left them on the dash and they melted in the California sun.”

Another story Steve tells is quite amazing:

“We’d go to parties and bring records with our names written on them. I brought a copy of Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” that had been misprinted as “Louie Lovey”. Misprints were very rare and valuable but I left it at the party and never got it back. Then, one day my friend Jim called from the mountains where he was at the house of a woman who was getting rid of a lot of records. There Jim had found the copy of “Louie Lovey” with my name on it so of course he brought it to me.”

I asked Steve what he thought of record collecting today:

“Record collecting remains today. It’s stronger than ever but there are fewer record collectors. Good 78’s like jazz or rock-and-roll can be worth as much as 45’s or 33’s. I don’t really know how you can collect a computer file like an mp3.”

That\'s me in my dad's record room. My favorite band is Roxy Music!Steve Propes’s record collection will live long beyond him and I expect that it will be well-preserved and cared for. This is because Steve has a couple of daughters who love him and his music – even if they had to share a room until they were 10 so that he could have a record room. How do I know this? I, Princess Cornflakes, am one of these daughters.Steve's granddaughter Camilla may someday understand this