Saturday, January 05, 2013

What Is This That Stands Before Me?

It has been a long time now, and not many remember how it was in the old days, not really.  Not even those who were there to see and hear as it happened, who were pressed in the crowds beneath the dim rosy lights of the bar in the smoke-veiled room, and who shared, night after night, the mysterious spell created by the talk the laughter, grease paint, powder, perfume, sweat, alcohol and food - all blended and simmering, like a stew on the restaurant range, and brought to a sustained moment of elusive meaning by the timbres and accents of musical instruments locked in passionate recitative.  It has been too long now, some seventeen years. - Ralph Ellison, The Golden Age, Time Past, in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, p.237. 
Even this cursory survey would suggest that the single label 'heavy metal' is inadequate with respect to style.  If Chambers's placing of this music in the mainstream of rock culture is correct, there are both room and cause for a great deal of research.  Two particular questions would seem worthy of further exploration.  First, to what extent do the subtle differences between difference brands of 'metal' (about which fanatics make great play) equate to difference of musical style; and second, to what extent are such differences accompanied by similar differences in the use to which the music is put, and hence its significance for the style's respective audiences? - Allan F. Moore, Rock, The Primary Text: Toward A Musicology of Rock, p. 151. 
The group performs with all the restraint and sophistication of four Cro-Magnon hunters who've stumbled upon a rock band's equipment after a bad day chasing meat. - Paul Battiste, Creem Magazine, 1971, quoted in Bad Music: The Music We Love To Hate, p.228 
Writing about the past creates a host of difficulties, not least because we know what comes next.  Whether it's the French Revolution, the American space program, or the history of a musical style, how is it possible, so many years after the fact, even to attempt to capture the contingency and confusion of a moment and time, seeing what was in fact all confusion and questioning, and extract what "really" happened, rather than what we wish had happened, or what we are told, over and over again, really did happen?  For that very reason, even the best histories are false, partial tales told to create beginnings that never existed so all, both writer and reader, can reach the conclusion we all know is: the present.

It is an impossible task.  Each day, each moment of time is a seething mass of possibility, of passing away and coming to be, and no one, despite wisdom and understanding and insight, really knows which is which.  Who could really know that a bunch of kids sitting in a garage in California in the 1970's would, quite literally, change the way we human beings do everything from talk on the phone to defend ourselves from military threats to ring up purchases at the grocery store?  Had you been standing there, a silent witness to their efforts, wouldn't your real thought be, "Wow.  What a bunch of nerds"?

Despite this inherent impossibility, we are pushed to try.  So, take what follows with a grain of salt.

As 1969 faded to 1970, at least in the British music scene, there was confusion, mixed with possibility, mixed with utter chaos.  The Beatles, who for better and worse had dominated popular music for the last half of the decade, were gone.  The Rolling Stones, retreating from the horror at Altamont in December, 1969, were licking their self-inflicted wounds, all the while both sinking further in to various dissipations and on the verge of creating their greatest music ever.  The Who, arguably at a level just below these juggernauts, were trying to wrap up endless performances of Tommy, while Pete Townshend started to picture another, even more elaborate and visionary project he was calling "Lighthouse".

What had been, for a time a few years before, "Swinging London", had fractured.  There were still models and actresses mingling with musicians and artists; the biggest of each, however, had peeled off and paired up, while those left, some of them most definitely second-tier on any number of levels, struggled in the midst of the confusion, to take what had been before and turn it all around.  In the summer of 1969, before heading to America and the tour that would end so violently at a race track in California, the Rolling Stones held a free concert in London's Hyde Park.  Trying to fill out a day's worth of music, one of the bands they picked to open the show had been making a name for itself in and around Britain, including doing time at the famed Marquee Club.  King Crimson took the stage before half a million stoned and happy Londoners and offered a very different version of power that had no flowers in it at all.

At the same time, a blues band from Birmingham was having trouble gigging.  Calling themselves Earth, they didn't discover for a while they were getting bookings because there was a pop band by the same name; folks showed up to hear horn-inflected pop, and were receiving heavy doses of low-end amplified blues.  Struggling both for a name and an identity that suited the music they were trying to make, bass player Terry Butler, whose nickname "Geezer" was a cockney slang term similar to the American "dude" or "guy", thought it might be fun to use Hammer Studios as an influence.  Like many young men at the time, they loved the horror films the British movie studio was turning out.  Butler also had an interest in the occult, a British habit that struggled on despite the waning of the Empire.  He told the band a story about something that happened to him after buying a grimoire, and showed them some partial lyrics to a poem he'd written about the event.

Messing around with alternate tunings and chord changes, not least because he was still re-learning to play the guitar after losing the tips of two fingers from his right hand, Tony Iommi played three chords at odd intervals.  Three simple notes.  Singer John "Ozzy" Osbourne, a boy who had been a target of a younger, bullying Iommi's at school, toned down the blues shouting, doing more of a singing-recitative approach, staying within the alternate chord changes Iommi had come up with.

In about an hour, all but the bridge - a section in which the basic structure of the song remained, only speeded up much faster - had been worked out, and the band decided not only to use the title on the movie marquee across the street as the title to the song; they thought it would most definitely get them attention as a band, as well.
Heaviness was in the air.  The biggest band to emerge from the wreckage of so much of what had been a successful London-based British music scene in the late 1960's was led by former session guitarist Jimmy Page.  He had tried to revive the Yardbirds name, but after a couple shows it was clear the band he put together had nothing to do with the hugely popular late-60's blues-based rock band.  Pete Townshend, after hearing them live, told Page and lead singer Robert Plant the band was a failure, and would go over like a lead zeppelin.  Thus, when he needed a new name to book his band, Page tossed a middle finger at Townshend, naming the band after the insult.

On their debut LP, released in 1969, Led Zeppelin included a song, "Dazed and Confused", an unacknowledged cover of a song released two years previously by British folk-rock performer Jake Holmes.  Robert Plant changed all but the title, and the band not only slowed the song down considerably; they turned the volume on their amplifiers way up.  The result, in particular the breaks when the band switches from a mezzo-piano statement of the basic melodic/harmonic components to a fortissimo crash of distorted guitar and bass while the drummer, John Bonham, demonstrates that for the next decade he will not be known for subtlety, was both odd and electrifying.  Musically, the song seems an exercise not only in playing with guitar sounds, with Page and Plant playing call and response, but also dynamics; as the song switches between almost too soft to be heard to almost too loud to bear.  While the band was panned by critics, there is little doubt musicians and fans were listening.
In many ways, these two songs are far more similar than many (including the performers themselves).  Both bands claimed roots in American blues, although in many ways Black Sabbath would demonstrate far more fealty to basic blues harmonies than the alleged traditionalists in Led Zeppelin.  Both songs begin slowly, almost glacially.  The lyrics, at least initially, float above non-existent melodic lines, the instruments far more concerned with the chord changes, anchoring the vocal melody rather than doubling it or harmonizing with it. Finally, the bridges and breaks of both songs are both far louder and far faster than what went before.  Listening to them side by side, one can hear the similarities.

To say, however, that Black Sabbath would emerge with their first LP in March 1970 as the creators of a new style of music ignores the milieu in which they played, and from which they emerged.  The opening sound effects on "Schizoid Man" are far too similar to those on "Black Sabbath"; the song structures of "Black Sabbath" and "Dazed and Confused" are far too similar to be set to one side ex post facto.  None of this is to say the bands were ripping one another off in any way; neither is it to say there was some weird "heavy" vibe in the air the bands were tapping in to, as if by magic.  Rather, it is to suggest that the bands, posed with the singular question any group of young musicians face - how do we sound different? How do we sound like us? - were using similar tools and techniques, solving various problems of composition, arrangement, and performance, in ways that were both unique to each band, yet similar in approach.

At the time, the band most fans and critics figured would go on to fame and fortune was King Crimson; before 1969 was over, however, the band had collapsed, with guitarist Robert Fripp managing to hold on long enough to get a second LP out of the original line-up before they went their separate ways.  Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath moved down very different musical paths, each to success of a kind, yet never enjoying (at least until many years later) the kind of critical acknowledgement that, while never overriding, is still important to any performer.  For all that would follow in the years to come, 1970 offered these - along with many other heavy bands, whether the American Grand Funk Railroad and Blue Cheer or the British bands Vanilla Fudge and Jethro Tull - in a swirling mass of sound from which it was literally impossible to discern any trend other than LOUD.

Which is only to say that what happened subsequently would only be understood retrospectively.  In the beginning there may well have been "Black Sabbath" - band, song, LP - yet at the time there was so much else, distinguishing one sound in the cacophony took repeated listenings, a discerning ear, and the desire to hear more in what is offered at the present than even the performers themselves understand. 

Friday, January 04, 2013

For 2013

Since the election, watching American politics has been a mixture of the hilarious as the right comes to terms with this thing called "reality", and the absurd (also known as "The Fiscal Cliff").  Suffice it to say, rather than add more gas to the fire burning down our country, I thought it best to just sit back and watch it burn.

Now it's the new year, and I can't think of a damn thing I care about enough to write about.  I mean, honestly - there are way too many voices, most of them saying the same things, over and over and over again.  Why bother?

Thanks to my wife getting me Ken Burns' Jazz on DVD for Christmas, I've returned to some of Ralph Ellison's essays on music.  Thanks to an Amazon gift card, I purchased a six-year old documentary on Heavy Metal that is both wonderful and . . . well, the same-old, same old.

My hope for 2013, besides the occasional aside about our silly situation as a country; some thoughts on being a Christian in an age where the name has become contested; and the occasional scolding of those whose posts seem the product of some weird algorithm rather than actual human thought; beyond all that, I would like to find some folks who write intelligently and thoughtfully about hard rock and the various metal genres without reveling in cliches, or falling in to traditional traps.  For example, while the documentary does a pretty good job covering all the various genres and touches on such issues as gender, power, sex and sexuality, and even the business end of the issue, there is little to no discussion of the music qua music.  The person who produced the documentary, an anthropologist who is a life-long fan of the music, spent just a bit too much time attempting to establish both his own bona fides as well as that of the music.

It would be nice to read some reviews of music and musicians and books on music and musicians that are as intelligent, thoughtful, wise, and (most of all) knowing as Ellison is in his essays.

That's the plan, anyway.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Thirteen Hours Forty-Five Minutes

Nothing special.  Just wishing one and all a happy, blessed, safe, and contented 2013.

With more cowbell.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sucking The Smart Out Of The Room

Back in 1995, with some help from local herders, German Archaeologist Klaus Schmidt made what may well be the most important discovery of the 20th century.  Buried beneath the sands of eastern Turkey for almost 12 millennia, Gobekli Tepe (which means "belly hill" in Turkish) is the oldest human-made structure yet discovered; at a stroke, this single site has doubled the age of the known ability of human beings to build structures.  There is a debate now as to whether the site, which Schmidt continues to insist served as a temple, a conclusion teased out from the abundance of animal carvings, their stylized attitudes, and placement, might have served as human habitation as well, for which there is also abundant evidence (which leads me, as always in cases such as these, to wonder why we should choose; people are smart, canny, and resourceful now, so there's no reason to assume people 12,000 years ago weren't also, using the space both for living and worshiping).

I first heard about this about a year and a half ago, and the most amazing part of the "discovery" for me was the fact that locals, especially sheep and goat herders, knew about the stones poking up through the sandy soil.  They didn't think it was any big deal; it was only when Schmidt, who heard the stories and decided to check them out, started digging a bit that something was "discovered".  Except, of course, how can something that the folks living in the area knew about be "discovered"?  A perennial question, especially when it comes to Westerners finding something that non-westerners knew was there all along.

In any case, it is important to think about some things before we continue.  These ruins are dated between eleven and twelve thousand years ago.  Prior to Gobekli Tepe, the earliest dated remnants of settled human communities was half as old, 6,000 years.  The discoveries at Gobekli Tepe raise all sorts of questions, not the least of them being: where are the remains for the space in between?  The record for the past six thousand years is pretty steady and clear.  The theories about the development of agriculture, about the changes in social and cultural life that made settled human habitation possible, the technological development that gave human beings tools to craft spaces for living, buying and selling, planting and harvesting crops all seemed to have coalesced at a point in time that permitted the growth and development of towns and cities.  All those theories are pretty much gone now.  The problem, however, is figuring out what happened in the intervening time.  It is certainly possible that some catastrophe occurred that destroyed not only all human habitation that existed between the building of Gobekli Tepe and the rise of other human civilizations; not only destroyed them, but any trace of their existence, as well as the accumulated knowledge and skill to create them?  That, it seems to me, is more than a little far-fetched (to say the least).

I read today that ABC is running a two-part program on "The Search for Noah's Flood".


Why not look for the Tower of Babel while you're at it?  Or Atlantis?  Maybe feature one of those Bigfoot hunter shows that have nerds running around the woods at night howling at one another?

At what point do we, as a people decide we're going to talk about things that are real, and stop pursuing nonsense like world-wide floods that never happened?  Having a major network devote time and resources to "Noah's Flood" is no different than a program dedicated to "proving" creationism; in fact, the impetus for the ongoing "search for Noah's Ark" lies within the same set of assumptions that saddle us with creationism: Biblical inerrancy.  We are missing the opportunity to learn something important, even revolutionary, about the history of the development of human social life because hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of man-hours are being wasted pretending a folk tale originally told by the Sumerians has anything to do with reality.  In the process, we as a people get hoodwinked in to thinking this is serious stuff rather than fringe pseudo-science, akin to Ancient Astronauts and the Bermuda Triangle.

Sorry, Christiane Amanpour, but you are actually working hard to make America dumber.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More