A high price to pay: “What’s Left?” November 2013, MRR #366

My parents were Polish immigrants, European refugees from the second World War, survivors of Hitler’s forced labor camps. My dad joined the US Army while in UN Displaced Persons camps. He and my mom traveled to America, became US citizens, and settled in San Bernardino at the time of this anecdote. Both my parents spoke English with heavy Polish accents and had only the most basic comprehension of American culture. My mom bought Mahalia Jackson’s vinyl album on Columbia, “Silent Night – Songs for Christmas,” around 1962. I was ten years old at the time, and I remember my mom playing that album over and over in a respectful reverie. A year later, somehow, somewhere, in San Bernardino, my mom managed to find out that Mahalia Jackson was performing in a Southern Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Watts, I think. She corralled my dad into taking our whole family, which included my sister, to drive to the performance.

I have only the vaguest of memories of the drive, of Watts, and of the church. I do, however, remember that we were the only white people in the entire event. I also remember that everybody, all the black people, were incredibly welcoming and polite to my parents, to us. And, I remember Mahalia Jackson singing live, her stupendous voice raising the hair on the back of my neck time and again. My parents had virtually no prejudice against black people at the time. They acquired some in the years afterwards, especially my mom. But, to this day, when I hear beautifully performed gospel singing, I’m roused, I get goose bumps, and my hair on the back of neck stands on end.

This happens even though I remember that Malcolm X once dismissed gospel music as slave music.

Music has always produced visceral responses in me but, unfortunately, I’ve acquired a few prejudices against certain types of music over the years. When I initially heard Beethoven’s brilliant symphonies, I was moved to tears. Yet I considered the music of Brahms to be treacle, despite understanding his virtuosity. Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix induced rapture when I first heard them. I dismissed the Grateful Dead as utterly moronic. Anything with a disco beat I think of as vacuous, and I like to quote Quentin Crisp that: “A lifetime of listening to disco music is a high price to pay for one’s sexual preference.” Before I came to love Patsy Cline and Hank Williams Sr., I thought all country western music was inbred redneck hillbilly music. The Ramones and the Sex Pistols gave me such an adrenaline rush when I was introduced to punk. But music from the likes of the Cure or Spandau Ballet or Flock of Seagulls? Pour molten lead into my ears and put me out of my misery!

I’ve got wide ranging, eclectic musical tastes. But I also have rather strong, somewhat intolerant opinions about music. I’m trying not to be so judgmental, at least not so openly snide and derisive. Once, when I was reminiscing about the hippie music I used to listen to, I proudly proclaimed: “I drew the line at the Grateful Dead. They were fucking horrible musicians.” One woman in the conversation chided me back: “No one said the Dead were good musicians. That’s not why people followed them around. That’s not what they gave their fans.” That’s when I realized people listen to music for a variety of reasons, only one being the technical expertise and stellar musicianship of those playing said music. I’ve needed to ease up and back off when I praise certain kinds of music and critique others. What I listen to on Pandora isn’t necessarily what you listen to, so let’s give each other a break.

I’m off to Paris for a vacation. November, I sum up international insurrection over the past five years. December, I feature plans for the upcoming year. January, I do some longterm New Year’s resolutions. The last two columns are intended to be suggestive, jumping off points for more comprehensive work. At least, that’s the plan. There might be a surprise or two in the process.

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The universal language of music: “What’s Left?” April 2009, MRR #311

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill,
He sounds too blue to fly.

—Hank Williams

I hated country music.

I considered it the epitome of a reactionary, racist, redneck America I was doing everything in my power to rebel against in the ‘60s. The only parts of country music I had any respect for were those elements, like rockabilly, that owed a good deal of their success to black music. Even though I understood that rocknroll had emerged when rural blues and country music moved to the city, I argued that the only authentic basis for rock music was black music—the blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, early jazz, and swing. I tolerated folk music because, after all, it was the voice of my generation rooted in the working class struggles of the ‘30s and ‘40s. And I’ll admit to having had a love for Buffalo Springfield that became an unhealthy indulgence in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. At the same time, I despised country as that white, whiny, “I got drunk, beat up my girl, got thrown in jail” cracker type of sentiment that was to Negro blues what white gospel was to black gospel. A pale imitation. I hated when the Byrds released “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” under the influence of Gram Parsons. The twang of a pedal steel guitar made me cringe.

Then, I heard Hank Williams do “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Admittedly, I was at an impressionable moment in my life. I’d been dumped by a girlfriend of seven years, who’d moved out just days before. I was a little drunk, and very stoned. Hank’s plaintive vocals, the song’s deceptive musical simplicity, the forlorn lyrics all combined to take me in. I felt that song down to my bones. I got country music, for the first time.

Now, Hank himself had been no stranger to black music, having learned how to sing and play the guitar from Rufus “Teetot” Payne. Maybe his blues sensibilities were what allowed me to experience the plain, unvarnished sincerity that, at its best, is what country music is known for. This was before I got into punk rock of course, and well before I moved up to the Bay Area to start volunteering for that bastion of punk rock purity, Maximum Rocknroll.

By the time I moved to Oakland, I had a modest appreciation for certain country musicians—Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson— as well as for the subgenres of western swing, honky tonk, and the above mentioned rockabilly. The fact is, I enjoyed a wide variety of music, though not without discrimination. In classical music, it had to be Beethoven and after, with a particular interest in composers like Bartok, Copland and the like who incorporated folk themes into their music. It was Parker, Coltraine, Gillespie and Monk, be-bop and straight ahead jazz. I liked the Juju hi-life music of King Sunny Ade, the rai music of Cheb Khaled, the desert blues of Hamza El Din. Blue Oyster Cult circa 1972-74, and Metallica circa 1982-84. As for punk rock, I had a predisposition towards hardcore, though I really dug some of punk’s edges like Operation Ivy’s ska punk and The Cramps psychobilly.

Which is why I couldn’t take Tim Yohannan’s punk purism too seriously. To be fair, Tim judged what was punk on at least three separate levels. The music is the most obvious, and the most fundamental. Tim considered only the most basic, raw, and primitive rocknroll to be truly punk. His opinion led to his decision to purge MRR of several types of punk music because they were no longer punk enough. I’ll return to the subject of music in just a moment.

Tim also had political and social/cultural criteria for punk. He was no anarchist, but he considered some form of leftwing class politics to be essential to punk, in addition to the youthful rebelliousness that said to the world “fuck off and die.” Combine the latter with a “DIY or die” sentiment and you have what Tim considered to be the social/cultural basis for punk.

Having had some experience with the previous period of youthful rebellion and independent activity known as the 1960s, I heartily agree that these are, indeed, the social and cultural foundations to punk, or to any dynamic counterculture. But even though I came out of the ‘60s a hardcore politico, I know full well that most of my fellow “rebellious youth” of that day were monumentally apolitical, or at most they considered getting high on pot to be a supreme political act. I spent a decade in the punk scene in San Diego, going on two in the Bay Area’s scene, and I’ve come to the same conclusion. Most punks get their politics out of a 40-ounce bottle of cheap malt liquor. So, while youthful rebellion, nihilism, DIY independence, and general obnoxiousness are essential to punk, politics, let alone leftist politics, isn’t.

Which brings us back to the music. It’s impossible to conceive of the ‘60s without rocknroll, and the same is true for punk. In my opinion, this fact should be descriptive, not prescriptive. There are a number of reasons why a whole lot of effort should not be spent in trying to define or enforce what is punk, musically speaking. The most obvious reason, of course, is that it’s impossible to do. Tim once did an all-black cover of the magazine, with “The Bible” printed in large white letters above smaller lettering that read “of punk rock.” But when he tried to lay down the correct line on punk rock music, he spawned a half dozen contrary magazines, among them HeartattaCk, Punk Planet, Shredding Paper, and Hit List, all with their own, quite different, understandings of what punk was all about.

That’s because punk rock itself has several different origins, a variety of influences, and progeny too numerous to mention. As such, punk reflects the reality of most music in this country, which is subject to a high degree of cross-pollination and amalgamation. Take country music, which has its roots in English, Scottish and Irish folk songs, with influences from the blues, rhythm and blues, Hawaiian slack key, and jazz. There’s just no way to have a pure type of music, even if it’s reduced to three-chord simplicity. The people who play, and compose, punk rock are themselves molded by influences outside of punk, which comes out in their music. Aside from the impossibility of boiling down punk rock to its essence, whatever that might be, the question becomes, why would anyone want to?

Music is a near universal source of enjoyment that frequently transcends culture and language. It’s absurd to limit one’s pleasure by insisting on listening to only one kind of music, and by insisting that that kind of music be further narrowed to a particular style. I look on all the years I disdained country music as outright foolishness. I could have kicked back, with a beer or a joint depending on what I was into at the time, and enjoyed some good tunes.

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