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.

Lifesavers for a new life: “What’s Left?” March 2009, MRR #310

I moved to Oakland from San Diego in 1991. In my initial exploration of the Bay Area, I discovered two invaluable resources I relied on for many years to come. The first was an 8.5×11 piece of paper, printed both sides, in very small type, called the Bay Area Progressive Calendar. Produced by Ken Cheetham, it detailed every progressive event brought to its attention and offered, by mail, a directory of local progressive groups and organizations. Incredibly cool. I first encountered the Progressive Calendar in the free literature zone at the old Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph, and I made a point of seeking out this valuable little ecumenical leftie calendar.

The second was The List. In the day, it was an 8.5×11 piece of paper, folded widthwise, printed in colorful, incredibly small type, as a smart little four pager produced by Steve Koepke listing all the punk, hardcore, ska, rocakabilly, yada, yada, yada shows in the immediate Bay Area. Incredibly cool. I came upon The List at MRR HQ on Clipper Street, as a shitworker typing, scanning, and laying out the magazine’s now extinct Classifieds Section. I regularly attended shows back then, so I kept a copy of The List handy.

My memory is a bit fuzzy, so I can’t recall if these were weekly or monthly publications, or something in between. Both the Progressive Calendar and The List augmented their street presence with mailed subscriptions and, when it became common, emailed information. And both eventually dropped their physical distribution altogether to bookstores, record shops, political events, shows, and other venues. The Bay Area Progressive Directory and adjunct Calendar are now entirely web based, and can be found at bapd.org. The List still can be had via snail mail by writing The List, P.O. Box 2451, Richmond, CA 94802. You can also get it through email by writing to skoepke@stevelist.com. This information is obtainable online at calweb.com/~skoepke/, and several www versions of The List are available, most notably at foopee.com/punk/the-list/ and kzsu.stanford.edu/~calendar/orig_list.html.

The Progressive Calendar and The List were my lifelines when I moved to Oakland. They helped me get established and oriented, meet people, find things to do, and make the Bay Area my home. They required that I make an effort to go out and about to initially find them, and to subsequently keep track of them. Hunting down a copy of the Progressive Calendar or The List got me out of my tiny apartment to experience the weather, other people, the Bay Area in all its disappointing glory, and the real world. Eventually, I subscribed to both by mail, and I still occasionally refer to them online. What I miss though is that street presence, their physicality, the ability to walk into my local bookshop or record store and find them in with all the other free literature.

It’s the disappearance of a physical geography implied by the evolution of the Progressive Calendar and The List that most upsets me. Now, it’s all about an amorphous digital geography, which I found troublesome. Those who champion cyberspace and tout the virtues of the virtual would call me old fashioned, and point out how much more accessible and available both the Progressive Calendar and The List are, now that they’re online. No doubt, these are some of the same folks who defend CDs over vinyl, and MP3s over CDs.

Personally, I never could tell much of a difference between music on vinyl versus CDs. But I can hear the difference between MP3s and these previous media. The digital revolution is turning the music I like to listen to into low quality crap, much as it’s converting physical community into that sorry-assed excuse for human interaction called the online community. Anyone who has attended a real, live record swap, book fair, concert, or farmers market and then dares to compare them to the shadowy, flame-ridden, cowardly and anonymous, so-called community of your average online chatroom or forum deserves the lobotomy that prolonged internet exposure all but guarantees.

On an unrelated note, I did a column awhile back on political syncretism in general, and the rise of national anarchism on the fascist right in particular. Spencer Sunshine has written a comprehensive article on the latter, called “Rebranding Fascism,” for The Public Eye Magazine, available at publiceye.org/magazine/v23n4/rebranding_fascism.html. A rather anemic debate on the article took place on infoshop.org (news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20081220225130728), which has only reinforced my disdain for modern anarchism. Anarchists no longer have the cajones to defend their politics from such vile interlopers, and thus anarchism fully deserves to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

National anarchists have established a nominal presence in the Bay Area, and they’ve already publicly attended an all-too-conventional, ANSWER-sponsored anti-AIPAC protest in San Francisco on December 11, 2008. Presumably, they also participated clandestinely in the anti-authoritarian bloc called by UA of the Bay for the equally stodgy January 10, 2009 ANSWER demo protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza. At least the national anarchists advertised the call on their website. No one can tell what kind of anarchist you are, whether anarchist at all, if you’re dressed all in black and wearing a black bandana over your face. Australian national anarchists who’ve jumped into Leftist demos explain that “we cover our faces to protect us from the persecution of the other political groups.” Meaning, they dress anarchist in order to avoid getting their asses kicked by Leftists, and other anarchists. And rumor has it that black bloc participants in the anti-globalization protests in Genoa, Italy on August 23, 2001 weren’t all anarchists or autonomists. Aside from the usual quota of police agent provocateurs, a number of young Italian fascists swelled the ranks of the black bloc, in the guise of national autonomists.

I’m looking forward to the day when a group of national anarchists openly try to join a regular local anarcho event, such as the ho-hum December 20, 2008 SF march in solidarity with Greek anarchists and the New School occupation. I bet that such an attempt will produce general consternation and confusion, not to mention much hand wringing. But in the end the regular anarchists will wimp out and let the national anarchists join in. Unchallenged. Any takers?

For someone who has just decried the pernicious effects of the digital over the real, I sure use a lot of internet sources.

UPDATE FOR 2014:

Most of the links mentioned in this column have held up quite well over the years. Can’t say the same for the postal addresses. Even more digital versions of The List can be found by simply googling.

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