Waiting for my man: “What’s Left?” January 2014, MRR #368

The first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!

Brian Eno

Lou Reed died on Sunday, October 27. I have been reading the laudatory obituaries, and listening to his more memorable tunes. Instead of praising him as dark, edgy, way ahead of his time, and the like, I’ll attempt something a bit more contextual.

It’s not that I haven’t eulogized individuals who have personally influenced me before, as when I did a column on Spain Rodriquez. Nor that I don’t find Lou Reed’s oeuvre inspirational and that he can be considered, among a handful of other people, the father of punk rock. Yes, Lou Reed’s solo career was powerful in its own right. But he was also one of the original five members of the Velvet Underground, two of whom were arguably as significant as was Lou Reed, even while he came to dominate the band. The Velvets were precursor to art rock, punk rock, Goth, New Wave, alt rock and indie rock through their infamous New York fuck you attitude, their use of noise, thrashy distorted guitars, grinding rhythms, atonal vocals in music, and their willingness to experiment instead of strive for mainstream commercial success. And, they were never a commercial success in their own day. Without the Velvet Underground, it’s safe to say that this magazine wouldn’t be here today. Or, perhaps it would have been called Maximum Doo-Wop, or Maximum Rockabilly, or Maximum Psychedelia.

This is the wrong way to contextualize Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, however. The Velvets were part of a 60s rock and roll explosion that, in the United States, included the psychedelic bands of the west coast, the garage/noise sounds emanating from the Detroit area (as exemplified by the MC5, the Stooges, and The Up), and the Western pre-country rock of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, to name just a few of the musical styles and regions in play at the time. There were plenty of precursors to go around, as well as plenty of progeny in terms of post-60s rock trends and tendencies.

The best way to characterize this phenomenon as a whole is by analogy. Excuse me if I’m a bit too over the top with this equivalency. Consider the political powder keg that developed after the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In Western Europe, where bourgeois society and liberal democracy reigned supreme, Marxist social democracy was in full bloom, itself the champion for materialist, rationalist, objectivist and positivist thinking. Anarchism was often second cousin to social democracy with regard to intellectual influences and political power, prior to the 20th century. Now, toss in the rivalry posed by the development of a profoundly pessimistic political culture labeled fin de siècle, which revolted against the politics of its day and which trumpeted irrationalism, subjectivism, emotionalism and vitalism. Then violently stir everything together through the first World War, which wasn’t worldwide at all but which was incredibly destructive of human life, society and culture across Europe. The consequence was a period, lasting roughly from 1917 through 1945, that witnessed a prodigious political proliferation and reorientation. There was a vast number of conservative revolutionary, proto-fascist, and nationalistic socialist variants vying for attention, if not power, out of which Fascism proper, and its vicious kin Nazism, triumphed. What’s more, Leninism emerged out of social democracy, as did a genuine ultraleft in the form of Left Communism, even as anarchism gained a true historical moment, however brief, with the Spanish civil war. National-Bolshevism came into its own during this period, as did socialist struggles for national liberation.

Kevin Coogan has characterized such times as “periods of ideological decay [which] often breed strange new variants […] which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’.”* Perhaps, but it was also a time of delirious political expansion and creativity as well. So, maybe “periods of ideological decay” is not quite the way to represent the period book-ended by the first and second World Wars. “Interregnum” might be more appropriate. What’s more, is anything applicable by analogy to music from 1945 until 1975? The popular American song (as developed on Broadway and in musicals), classical music in minimalism, atonalism, even the beginnings of electronic music, modern jazz in its orchestral as well as bebop styles, country/western music (starting with the Bakersfield sound), and rock and roll from its 50s birth to its 60s evanescence, all flourished and proliferated during the period from the second World War to the mid-70s. Does this creative expansion of so many types of music simultaneously mark some sort of musical decay? Or is this all a kind of musical interregnum in which everything splinters and mixes before coming together into some grand synthesis? Or, perhaps I’m just over thinking this.

Lou Reed is dead. The message to take away from his death, and his life, is nothing so simplistic as the “don’t do drugs” warning of Nancy Reagan types who would point out Reed’s liver failure due to excessive abuse of hard drugs and alcohol. But maybe the message shouldn’t be that Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were the lone font, the sole inspiration for everything original, influential and rocking musically speaking since 1975. “Of course Reed sang about drugs, transgressive sex, and the druggy, pansexual transgressions of the Warholian party set.” Jody Rosen writes in “Rock-and-Roll Heart: Remembering Lou Reed, a Pop Star for Adults” (New York, 11-11-13). Aside from his preoccupation with death, “he sang about lots of other stuff, too: egg creams, high school football, Edgar Allen Poe. He sang, surprisingly touchingly, about marriage.” Lou Reed didn’t just produce rock’n’roll for youngsters in the 60s and 70s. He created music for people of all ages living their lives here and now. Patti Smith writes, in the New Yorker (11-11-13) that: “Lou brought the sensibilities of art and literature into his music. He was our generation’s New York poet, championing its misfits as Whitman had championed its workingman and Lorca its persecuted.” Reed’s wife, Laurie Anderson, presents a far more complete portrait of him:

Lou and I played music together, became best friends and then soul mates, traveled, listened to and criticized each other’s work, studied things together (butterfly hunting, meditation, kayaking). We made up ridiculous jokes; stopped smoking 20 times; fought; learned to hold our breath underwater; went to Africa; sang opera in elevators; made friends with unlikely people; followed each other on tour when we could; got a sweet piano-playing dog; shared a house that was separate from our own places; protected and loved each other. We were always seeing a lot of art and music and plays and shows, and I watched as he loved and appreciated other artists and musicians. He was always so generous. He knew how hard it was to do. We loved our life in the West Village and our friends; and in all, we did the best we could do. (Rolling Stone, 11-6-13)

Rest in peace, Lou.

*[“Today both communism and fascism, ideologies that the French fascist Robert Brasillach once called ‘the two poetries’ of the 20th century, seem exhausted given the triumph of multinational capitalism. Yet periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the ‘Red-Brown alliance’ in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right.’ […] What is especially worrisome is that much of the left has today so deteriorated that it may well lack the capacity for understanding, much less fighting, new forms of fascism that incorporate ‘leftist’ rhetoric and ideas.” Kevin Coogan, Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and the Postwar Fascist International]

PERSONAL NEWS… December/January is usually the time for news and resolutions of a personal nature. After a years-long hiatus, I’ve started up my blogs once again. At leftyhooligan.wordpress.com, you’ll find my latest MRR column, appropriately delayed so as not to run ahead of the one in print. I intend to gradually fill in the columns between the present and when I stopped posting my columns online. Also, my personal blog can be found at gamatiasz.wordpress.com, and I expect to keep posting away there for the forceable future. Finally, a second novel that has been fifteen years in the writing, but mostly in rewriting, is approaching completion. Thanks to former Salon columnist Cary Tennis and his Finishing School (carytennis.com/finishing-school-complete-writing-projects), and with a bit of luck, this second novel should be completed and ready to publish in early 2015.

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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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