Monday, September 29, 2008

first day at vcca

First day of work here at VCCA is complete.  I came in last night at about 10:30 and then did not sleep well.  At least this is how I'm trying to explain away my less than fully productive first day here.  I worked on my book for about four hours, but I never really got into much of a rhythm.  Also, it's a bit of a mind fuck when you get here and you suddenly have nothing but time to do the thing you care most about.  It's almost like, 'do I deserve this?'  I'll take it up with my shrink when I get back to L.A.  ...Angels and Red Socks on Wednesday! 

Saturday, September 27, 2008

go halos!!!!

I'm headed to Virginia on Sunday morning to work intensively on my book for two weeks.  This means I will be out of town for the first round of the playoffs, as well as probably some of the second round (speaking confidently).  But I ordered MLB Gameday Audio, so I'll be able to listen to every word from Rory, Terry, Phys and the Hudster.  Baseball is so great on the radio, so it'll be quite long as the Angels win.  I'll be checking in here occasionally with Angel talk and other observations and experiences from VCCA.  ...First game battery is likely to be Lackey and Napoli.  Don't know who the opponent is yet.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

mccain and palin

Since when does a crisis preclude debate? Isn't a crisis precisely the time when public discourse over ideas is most essential?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

the day of the locust

Forever Changes. After I moved to L.A. in the spring of '92, I bought a used CD copy of Love's Forever Changes at Rockaway Records on Glendale Blvd. This was in the days when Silver Lake was already hipster central, but the neighborhood had not yet become yuppie-hipster central... It's an important distinction. Gelato cups have since replaced the spent syringes that adorned the gutter at Lafayette Park Place. Back then, I used to ride my bike in Griffith Park everyday. I taped Forever Changes and would listen to it on my Walkman as I pedaled up the steep hills, accompanied by raccoons, coyotes, snakes, lizards... I have very sweet memories of that time in my life because I was still in the early stages of learning my way around town, and everything seemed so wide open and ready for discovery. Whenever I play Forever Changes now, my mind drifts back to that time and a wistful smile comes to my face. The haunting acoustic guitar that opens "Alone Again Or" transports me to those hills in the park. Griffith Park is the most breathtaking public park in the world, more gorgeous than even Hyde Park in London or Central Park in New York. To experience this crown jewel for the first time is like hearing your favorite record for the first time or finally leaning in for the first kiss after days or weeks of anticipation. The dry smell one is treated to at the park's higher elevations is so distinct. It's phantom redolence still mingles in my mind today with Arthur Lee's plaintive voice. 'And I will be alone again tonight my dear.' I recall coasting down Mount Hollywood, my long golden locks (RIP) flapping out the bottom of my crash helmet, the late-day sun reflecting off the Hollywood sign back behind my shoulder as I zoomed through the dried-out palms lining the park's roads. Then I'd arrive at the Observatory, where the vistas looking out over the vast expanse of Los Angeles make even the most skeptical among us feel as if we're part of some infinitely divine plan... The sonic psychedelia of Forever Changes - replete with Spanish horns, Bolero guitar flourishes, and drammatic strings - is the perfect soundtrack for this humbling experience. 'And if you see andmoreagain, then you will know andmoreagain...'

To listen to Forever Changes is to relive the moment when the spiritual tectonics of Los Angeles shifted under the weight of the Great Collapse. The record conjurs up an image of this city quite similar in parts to Nathaniel West's conception of L.A. as a place perpetually teetering on the brink of infernal apocalypse. I believe it was Paul Kanter who once quipped that Love should have called themselves 'Hate'. He was referring more to Arthur Lee's prickly personality than to the band's music, but Love's L.A. is still light years from the utopian vision that Jan and Dean and The Beach Boys presented in their early days. On Forever Changes, Los Angeles is a place of creepy violence and macabre hallucinations, a lurid paradise caving in on itself. More confusions, blood transfusions/the news today will be the movies of tomorrow...

I love Love as much as I do because they are the embodiment of noir juxtaposition in music. The songs are beautiful and highly evocative, yet they often refer to ugliness in the world (Sitting on a hillside/watching all the people...die/I'll feel much better on the other side'). The music is white, so to speak, but it takes a black man to pull it off in all its tragic vulnerability (And if you think I'm happy, paint me white). Forever Changes is, in one sense, the apotheosis of the Sunset Strip beatnik hippy vibe, but the same music gives expressesion to the deterioration of L.A.'s 60s countercultural dream...

Down on Go-Stop Boulevard
It never fails to bring me down
The sirens and the accidents
And for a laugh there's
Plastic Nancy
She's real fancy
With her children
They'll go far
She buys them toys
To Keep in practice
Waiting on the war

I put Forever Changes in the same thematic category as the jazz of Chet Baker and Art Pepper, the movies of Fritz Lang and Samuel Fuller, and the novels of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. Love was that good. God bless 'em.

Friday, September 19, 2008

topanga windows

Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. Picture this: The year is 1968. A hippie rock 'n roll band, who call themselves Spirit, rehearse in a garage at the end of a dry, dusty road in Topanga Canyon. Lou Adler has recently signed the band to his Ode label and recorded their first album... A lot of hippies have begun to migrate to Topanga in what can be thought of as L.A.'s version of the rural turn. The move to a more rustic setting is compelled in large part by the LAPD's imposition of authoritarian rule over the Sunset Strip in the wake of the recent teenage riots. Additionally, Laurel Canyon and some of the other Hollywood canyon communities (Beachwood Canyon, Nichols Canyon, Bronson Canyon, etc.) are becoming crowded with scenesters. Topanga feels more removed and low key, at least in the beginning...

So as Spirit practices its repertoire there in Topanga, a little man, not much more than five feet tall, shows up, takes a seat on a rock outside the garage, and watches them play. He has recently been released from prison and appears to be in very bad need of a bath and shave. After spending the Summer of Love in Frisco, he traveled down to the Plastic Fantastic Wonderland for reasons unknown. He goes by the name of Charlie.

Charlie fancies himself something of a songwriter and musician. Eventually he will befriend Dennis Wilson, who will arrange for the Beach Boys to record Charlie's song, "Cease to Exist," on their album, 20/20, though the title of the song will be changed to "Never Learn not to Love."

Cease to resist, come on say you love me
Give up your world, come on and be with me
I'm your kind, I'm your kind, and I see

This (true) story about Manson and Spirit, such as it is, is admittedly gratuitous. I guess you could say that I'm one of those very distinct geeks who fixate ghoulishly on Manson Family esoterica, especially those aspects of the Family that intersect with Southern California's 60s rock scene. I know this is probably not an especially appealing quality, and perhaps it's best to keep it under wraps, but it's difficult to resist sharing the pleasing mental image I have of Charlie watching, wild-eyed, as Randy California shreds out Hendrix-esque licks in a Topanga garage. In my defense, I should point out that Charlie and Spirit are actually connected in a way that goes beyond my blissed out rock reveries (a friend of mine, by the way, calls these daydreams 'chick repellents'. Oh, well.). ...While Charlie is arguably the personification of The Great Collapse, Spirits's 1970 classic, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, is an important musical expression of said Collapse. This, in combination with the image of Charlie sitting on the Topanga rock as the band kicks out the jams, means that the two - Manson ad Spirit - will forever be etched together in my scrambled little brain...

Spirit's sound is hard to classify. 'Jazzy folk-pop psychedelia' maybe does it justice, almost. The jazzier it gets, the less I like it. The folkier and more psychedelic it gets,
sans the jazz noodling, the more I fall in love with it. This is just a matter of taste, of course. The band's first album, Spirit, is heavier on the jazz than I would like it t be, but the record has a few great songs, including the blistering guitar fest that is "Mechanical World." Spirit's second album, The Family That Plays Together, is an outstanding psychedelic pop album, on par with Love's Forever Changes and The Byrds' Notorious Byrds Brothers. The Family That Plays Together features Spirit's first well-known single, "I Got a Line on You," a song that I find absolutely infectious, especially if you're on an empty Hollywood Freeway, early Sunday morning, heading towards Topanga State Beach... The group's third album, Clear Spirit, is their least jazzy and most conventional attempt at hard rock, and yet I find the songs fairly weak overall (except for "Dark Eyed Woman"), and the album as a whole strikes me as being unsatsifying.

All the right elements come together gloriously on
Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, Spirit's fourth and best album. By this time, Lou Adler turned production duties over to David Briggs (who was working closely with another Topanga resident, Neil Young), and the result is magical... Dr. Sardonicus is by no means a perfect album. It has several annoying jazzbo interludes that, for me anyway, detract from the overall pacing of the record. Nor is Dr. Sardonicus an unambiguous expression of the Great Collapse. The album has definite moments of what you might call hippy naivete, especially given that it was released in 1970, and late 1970 at that. 'You have the world at your fingertips,' Jay Ferguson sings in the opening line of the album, 'No one can make it better than you.' Please. ...Elsewhere, Randy California (whose real name is probably something like Irv Birnbaum) seems to pat himself on the back as he proclaims, 'you know I was never born to wear no collar, you know I was never born to make no deals...' So it's not as if Spirit have completely thrown in the towel on hippie utopia. But the record also has a darkness about it and a number of the songs seem to acknowledge that things have changed. 'Oh no, something went wrong/Well you're much to fat and a litle too long/Hey, hey you got too much to lose/Gotta find your way back to the animal zoo.' And in the most moving moment on the album, Ferguson sings,

I don't know what it is to be free
And I cry when you say that you can't free me
(please free me)
I just can't go on
Why can't I be free?

Dr. Sardonicus is also one of the first records to deal with ecological issues. "Nature's Way" is the obvious example of this, but there's also the sadness is Randy California's voice as he sings,

See what you done to the rain and the sun?
So many changes have all just begun
to reap
I know you're asleep
Wake up!

This refers directly to the problem of enviornmental deterioration, but it should also be interpreted as a metaphor for the social deterioration that has taken place as a result of the arrogance and hubris of the counterculture. What once seemed progressive and librating has now created oppressive dysfunction and unleashed the ruthless forces of unthinking reaction. It's nature's way of telling you something's wrong.

PS - Apologies for the changing fonts. I'm having a little trouble using this blogging program...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

dow theory

I’m not much of an investor anymore. During the Go-Go 90s, the “new economy” tech bubble fooled a bunch of us into thinking we could pick stocks as well as the pros. Back then, it seemed as if you could pin the tail on the ticker symbol, buy the stock, and then just watch it go up, up and away. Little did we know the stock market had become the instrument of a flim flam American economy that produces plenty of high quality paper wealth, internet porn and milkshakes, but not so much in the way of cars, semiconductors, TVs, and shoes. When the tech wreck finally came in March of 2000, the subsequent housing bubble replaced stocks as the new ‘engine of growth.’ Alan Greenspan was a ‘maestro’ when it came to financial manipulation for the purposes of short sighted fixes, but he was anything but a responsible steward of the U.S. economy. One wonders how he could possibly warn against “irrational exuberance” in 1996, and then turn around and fan the flames of not one but two asset bubbles, one right after the other, and each of disastrously large proportions. I feel sorry for Ben Bernake, now charged with cleaning up the blood spatter…charged, in other words, with doing the impossible, the reason being that there are seemingly no bubbles left to inflate (Bonds, gold and oil are all counter cyclical, meaning that increases in their value tend to be bad for the economy or are signs of a weak economy). In the end, there really is no substitute for producing useful things. American manufacturing has been in steady decline since the 1960s.

The capital markets have gotten bludgeoned this week. The Dow Jones Industrial Average declined 8 percent in three days. I’m not looking forward to receiving my next 401K statement. A lot of my hard earned dollars will have evaporated. Can you imagine what an even bigger calamity this would all be if the conservatives were successful in their scheme to privatize social security? If there’s anything positive coming out of the current financial meltdown it’s that the idea of private social security accounts will die, with no chance of resurrection. The public now hopefully understands that social security cannot be an extension of the market precisely because it’s supposed to be an insurance policy against market vicissitudes.

What’s especially interesting about all this to me is that the Dow is now more than 1,000 points lower than it was on the day before it began to take its tech wreck nosedive in early 2000. That’s more than eight years ago for those of you keeping score at home. It’s important to remember here that the market collapse back then ended an eighteen year secular bull market that began in the summer of 1982, and that during the period from 1966 to 1982 the Dow had its significant ups and downs but never made a new all-time high. It took Reagan’s destruction of the legacies of FDR and LBJ to unleash the full, ruthless force of American finance capital in the late 20th century. Now that this strategy has been tapped out and it’s clear that laissez-faire economics ultimately invite disaster, the question becomes whether America will move back to the mixed economic policies of the New Deal and the War on Poverty. One hopes this is the case, yet the cultural and political polarization in this country - as well as the increasingly weakened position of America in the global economy - suggest that our options are pretty limited.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

light up the halo!

Congratulations to the Los Angeles Angels on winning the 2008
American League West Crown.

It's been an unbelievable season. This is their year!

We love you, Big Daddy!

art decade

Here are some more observations on Bowie's work through the remainder of the 70s. Why? Because you can never get enough Bowie! ...You'll notice that the remarks tend to be cursory, and the reason for this is that it would simply take me too long to say everything there is to say...

Diamond Dogs. Diamond Dogs is somewhat Glam-ish, somewhat of prog-ish, and a lame attempt at a Ziggy-ish concept album. The Glam phase of Bowie's career had no life left by this point, and Diamond Dogs sounds bloated and confused as a result. That said, I love "Candidate" and "Big Brother", and the "Rebel Rebel" riff is so fuckin' killer. 'Hot tramp, I love you so...'

Young Americans. At last, a radical change in direction! Young Americans is Bowie’s admirable attempt at Blue Eyed Soul (one of his eyes is blue, anyway). The album marks a transition between his Glam and New Wave incarnations, which is interesting since his late 70s material often detachedly references the excesses of the earlier era… Young Americans is a really fun album, but I’m not sure Bowie had much fun making it as he was repotedly in the full throes of heroin addiction at the time. Check out the photos of him on the album’s inner sleeve. He looks gaunt and trashed. Still, the music sounds fresh and features a young Luther Vandross on backing vocals. The title track is a great song, even if it hasn’t been able to withstand FM radio overkill. “Fame” is an even better song and goes a long way towards explaining why Bowie looked so haggard at this point. Other standouts are “Win”, a great lovemaking song, and my favorite track on the record, “Somebody up There Likes Me.”

Station to Station. Station to Station inaugurates the most adventurous five-year stretch of Bowie’s career. The music is not always as accessible as some of his other stuff, but it gets under your skin over time, until one day you wake up and find that it’s the only stuff you wanna hear…OK, I guess I’m generalizing on the basis of my own experiences and taste, but I really do think the years between 1976 and 1980 were fantastic ones for Bowie creatively… Station to Station retains some of the funk and soul from Young Americans with songs like the title track, as well as “TVC15” and “Stay”, but the album also represents the point at which Bowie’s obsession turns from America to Europe. The upshot is that the funkiness is filtered though a synth-heavy, Euro-Romantic vibe that remained part of Bowie’s repertoire for years to come. Everything I’ve read about Bowie indicates that the development of his new persona, the Thin White Duke, was largely informed by his having become quite taken with Krautrock, especially Kraftwerk, Neu and Cluster/Harmonia. You can certainly hear those influences all over the place from Station to Station onwards. Meanwhile, Europe also becomes a symbol for a staid and reflective way of life, the very antithesis of Glam’s debauchery. But this only goes so far as several biographies have reported that Bowie needed mountains of cocaine to get through the sessions for Station to Station...Station to Station is Bowie's most self-conscious record to date. On songs like "Stay", "Station to Station" and "Golden Years", we find him ruminating on the nature of performance, his alienation from his audience, and the emptiness of a life built around spectacle. 'Run for the shadows in these golden years.' It's heady stuff, but oh so satisfying...

The Man Who Fell to Earth. When I was nine, I had a friend, Adam, whose parents were much more laissez-faire with him than mine were with me. Adam’s dad kept stacks of Oui and Penthouse on the coffee table in their living room, and when I came over we were allowed to look at them, which we would do for hours, and hours. Adam’s parents had something inside their TV I’d never heard of before called Home Box Office, and Adam was permitted to watch anything he wanted, even if it was rated R. On one sleepover at his house, we ate Original Ray’s Pizza and watched The Man Who Fell to Earth on HBO. It freaked us out, especially the blow job scene and the one where Bowie takes his eyes out of his head. I remember the movie being so strange and mysterious, as well as the thrill of watching something my parents would never, ever let me watch. I had no familiarity at all with Bowie at the time, except that I remember seeing copies of Low in the stacks at Dicomat on 59th street, when I went there to buy Kiss’ Alive and Destroyer. But when I saw Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, he seemed so cool and different. Nowadays, I watch the movie and get a thrill out of seeing actual color footage of what Bowie looked like in the ’75 – ’76 period, right before the release of Station to Station. And it ain’t pretty. ...Yet somehow it is pretty. He looks so drugged out and out of sorts. The scenes where he's naked are disturbing and nauseating, but even in that state he has astonishing charisma and presence. The movie is still very weird, even by today’s standards. It’s also kind of pretentious, but its conceptual overreach, like that of Nicholas Roeg’s other famous film, Performance, is part of its charm. The film tells a convoluted tale of a being from another planet (Bowie, of course) who comes to earth in search of a way to save his kind from extinction. It’s definitely a worthwhile timepiece, if for no other reason than it shows how badly ravaged rock stardom had left Bowie by the mid 70s.

Low. The albums comprising Bowie's 'Berlin Trilogy' - Low, 'Heroes', and Lodger, each of which include collaborations with Brian Eno - are patchy, but the highpoints on each include some of the greatest music Bowie ever recorded. ...In an effort to sober up, Bowie moved to Berlin in late 1976. Low is an album in which Bowie further assimilates Euro-Romantic atmospherics and the synth-heavy dronage he's absorbed from his growing obsession with Kraftwerk. Almost all of Side 2, in fact, consists of synth instrumentals (I've always assumed these were largely Eno's doing). At the same time, the album's best songs feature intense New Wavey guitar playing from Ricky Gardiner. ...True to the title of the album, the growing reliance on synthesizers enables Bowie, with the help of Eno and Tony Visconti, to create an emotional flatness of sorts that expresses a sense of alienation from the illusory temptations of the modern world. But things get complex as Bowie has a peverse way of articulating mixed messsges. While Low presumably seeks to give voice to a numbness resulting from sensory overload, Bowie manages somehow to communicate his deadened emotions with a passion that's all the more striking for being so subtle. 'You're such a wonderful person,' he sings in "Breaking Glass", 'But you've got problems - oh, let me touch you...' Even on "Sound and Vision", which might strike a first-time listener as one of Low's rare moments of uncomlicated warmth, things are not exactly what they seem as Bowie's delivery swings, often in the space of one line, from resignation and reserve ('Don't you wonder sometimes...'), to manic euphorica ('...bout sound and vision?). ...The best song on Low, for me anyway, is "Always Crashing in the Same Car." When Bowie says, 'I was going 'round and 'round/ the hotel garage/ must've been touching close to 94,' I feel like I'm listening to a man who's had almost every last bit of feeling sucked out of him, but he's held just enough emotion in reserve to deliver the song in a way that sends chills down my spine. You have to hear it to dig what I'm talking about - but trust me, you will dig it...

'Heroes'. 'Heroes' is a hard album for me to talk about because, as an album, it's really not very good. Like Low, 'Heroes' is about half instrumental and half songs with singing. One thing that's noteworthy about the album is that some of the songs feature Robert Fripp on guitar. The collaboration would continue over the next two albums. But a great guitarist doesn't mean much if the songs he's playing on are forgettable. Having said this, though, there is one exception: I think I can safely say that the title track on 'Heroes' is my favorite song, period. I never tire of it, no matter how many times I hear it. “Heroes” builds in intensity with each verse. By the end, Bowie sings with such raw emotion that you’re forced to drop whatever it is you’re doing and marvel at the way he commits every last fiber of his being to the song. ‘I, I will be king/And you, you will be queen…’ Listen to the song closely, perhaps on an old timey set of cans, and you’ll be amazed at how Eno’s ethereal sound effects make it seem as if the music is floating on air. I also love the song’s existential image of a ‘Hero’, in quotes, as one who beats impossible odds in an alienating and senselessly cruel world. The victory, as Bowie sees it, is short lived and ultimately meaningless, except in that fleeting moment when it takes place, at which point it means everything, all the more so because it will last 'just for one day'...As an aside, I also really love Bowie's look from this period. The sleeve photo for 'Heroes ' is one of the great iconic images.

Lodger. Bowie completes the Berlin trilogy with Lodger, one of his darkest and least accessible albums. It also happens to be quite brilliant in parts if you’re willing to devote time to letting it sink in… The image of Bowie’s grotesquely contorted body on the album sleeve gives a rather unsubtle hint of the record's depiction of the modern world as an arena of desensitization and cruelty. But, as always seems to be the case, Bowie injects passion and humanity into even the most difficult topics. Even on songs like “Repetition” and “Boys Keep Swinging”, where he deploys either an emotionally flat or blithe tone to show the predatory and violent tendencies lurking within men in their relationships with women, the heartlessness in his voice becomes a vehicle through which he communicates the monstrosity of it all... The same type of paradox is present in “Fantastic Voyage”, a strange meditation on nuclear war…Other standouts include “Red Sails”, “Red Money” and “Look Back in Anger”…Adrian Belew provides some stellar guitar pyrotechnics throughout…Like Low, Lodger seems to obliquely reflect Bowie’s eschewal of the more sensationalistic elements of his Glam years.

The Idiot. I’ve always found the Bowie-Iggy relationship compelling and even moving. After Raw Power more or less wrecked Iggy’s career (until it’s later reassessment), he went into a long tailspin of drugs, drink and depression. In 1976, Bowie brought Iggy to Berlin and helped him get back on his feet creatively. Bowie produced Iggy’s resultant comeback album, The Idiot, using essentially the same musicians used for Low. With songs like “Dum Dum Boys”, “Nightclubbing”, and the original version of “China Girl”, The Idiot is a great new wave sounding album that seems to both look back fondly on Iggy’s past while also attempting to exorcize his demons… If you ever have a few minutes and wanna see something really bizarre, go onto YouTube and watch Iggy’s performance of The Idiot’s “Fun Time” on the Dinah Shore show in 1977, featuring David Bowie on keyboards. Iggy's interview with Dinah is a bit cringe making, but you won’t be able to turn it off.

Lust for Life. Again using many of the same musicians from parts of the Berlin trilogy, Bowie also produced Lust for Life, Iggy’s follow up to The Idiot. Thematically and musically, the two albums are quite similar, though it must be said that nothing on The Idiot can compare to “Turn Blue” or“Tonight”. On both songs, Bowie’s backing vocals dominate. My friend Toby has pointed out that when Bowie does backing vocals, he has way of making sure everybody knows that The Great David Bowie has entered the room, which is fine with me. ...The thing to remember about Lust for Life and The Idiot is that they are both major departures from Iggy’s typical sound and approach. Some critics have said that Iggy was the guinea pig Bowie used at the time to help realize his own Euro-romantic vision. It’s hard to disagree with this assessment, and it’s hard not to see The Idiot and Lust for Life as Bowie albums with Iggy singing, even if Iggy wrote most of the songs. Although both records are fairly upbeat, their mechanical electronic sounds convey the same sense of modern alienation we hear in the albums comprising Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy.

Scary Monsters. Scary Monsters is the last great David Bowie album. For some, “great” may be overstating things, but it’s always been one of my favorites, and I think it features some of the best music of Bowie’s career. Like Station to Station and, to a slightly lesser extent, Lodger, Scary Monsters is a highly self reflective album showing how haunted Bowie still was by the destructive trappings of fame and superstardom. On the title track, ‘scary monsters and super freaks’ are a metaphor for the drugged denizens of a phantasmagoric rock world. ‘When I looked in her eyes they were blue but there’s nobody home.’ ...With “Ashes to Ashes”, Bowie revisits Major Tom (presumably an earlier version of himself) and finds a pervy, balding junkie adrift in the abyss. Bowie had clearly come a long way from the Ziggy character who courted spectacle and excess as a way out of the impasse of the Great Collapse. And on “Teenage Wildlife” he seems to pass the torch onto the ‘broken nosed moguls’ of the new New Wave, but he does so in a way that makes clear he no longer wants to be a part of their world, seeing it as the ‘same old thing, in brand new drag…’ Musically, I don’t think it’s too much to say that Scary Monsters is absolutely stunning, featuring both Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew trading their insane guitar chops, and our old Friend, Tony Visconti, adding some very nice acoustic rhythm guitar playing. …When Scary Monsters hit the record shops, it probably felt as if Bowie would be continuing his greatness into the 80s. Too bad it was not to be.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

transformers, six

Aladdin Sane and Berlin. Aladdin Sane is an impressionistic rock diary chronicling Bowie’s perceptions of America during his 1972 U.S. tour in support of Ziggy Stardust. The record is the beginning of the end of Glam, at least as far as Bowie is concerned, which is certainly not to say it’s a bad album. I know there are plenty of Bowie aficionados who rate Aladdin Sane as his best. I think the record is a bit patchy as a whole, though there’s no denying the dirty backbeat of “Panic in Detroit,” the relentlessly heavy guitars of “Cracked Actor,” the sing-songy desperation of “Drive-in Saturday," or the fist pumping rebelliousness of “The Jean Genie.” Still, the journey that began four years earlier with Space Oddity seems to be running out of steam by the time Bowie gets to Aladdin Sane. ...While Ziggy Stardust sounded crisp and vibrant, Aladdin Sane’s sloppy and muffled sound quality conveys exhaustion and even a certain sickness. Part of this is the inevitable result of trying to piece together an album in a number of different studios during a tour. But there’s obviously more to it. The rushed feel of the record gives the impression that Bowie knows the hedonistic worldview he embraced in the wake of the Great Collapse is about to reach its limits as a creative force…’Millions weep a fountain, just in case of sunrise…’

The line separating Bowie’s various stage personae from who he really is has always been blurry at best. The enigmatic nature of his personality is a big part of what makes him so damn cool. Towards the end of the Ziggy tour, he announced that he’d never perform live again. This turned out to be bullshit, of course, but only if you assume that he was speaking as himself and not as Ziggy Stardust. Several years later – I believe it was during the Station to Station period – he told journalists that totalitarianism was the only way forward, and a photographer caught him giving a Hitlerian salute to a crowd of fans outside Victoria Station. Was this David Bowie, or was it a new character? When he started wearing those horrible red suits with suspenders in the 80s, was he David Bowie selling out, or was he David Bowie playing the part of a yuppie scum bag? When he took his song catalogue public and sold shares of himself on the stock exchange, was it greed at work or is it all just performance art...? His marriage to Iman is equally mysterious: Two insanely attractive yet completely desexualized people getting hitched. Who knows if it’s real or theater? Or maybe the age of high-tech celebrity worship renders the distinction between real life and theater moot.

Bowie himself deals with a lot of these heady issues in various ways on songs like “Fame”, “’Heroes’”, “Teenage Wildlife” and "Ashes to Ashes”, so I might come back to them next time. The point I wanted to make is that Bowie was in the midst of becoming a bona fide superstar during the recording of Aladdin Sane. Along with the album’s shoddier sound, the songs together suggest that the decadent ethos of his music and public persona had now completely spilled over into the reality of his life. Performance and reality became increasingly fused together, and the resulting concoction was the harrowing portrait of spiritual illness that comes across on Aladdin Sane. The major symptom of the illness is a fever hot enough to fuel one last gasp of unholy passion. You can hear it especially in the way Bowie cries 'Let yourself go!' in "The Jean Genie," and in the lurid imagery of "Cracked Actor", which sounds like something lifted from the pages of Hollywood Babylon or City of Night... But once again, Bowie saves the most haunting moment for last, closing Aladdin Sane with “Lady Grinning Soul.” As Mike Garson’s piano tinkers in the background, like the gentle feel of a lover's fingertips, or the weightless sensation one has after the first fateful taste of an addictive drug, Bowie sings, ‘touch the fullness of her breast, feel the love in her caress…She will be your living end.'

A little more than ten years ago, when I was still a graduate student at UCLA, I had a ten-day ‘crisis of confidence,’ which is a euphemistic way of saying that I broke down. Several things precipitated this ‘development’, or ‘event’, or whatever you want to call it. I had doubts about my ability to finish my degree, but I didn’t know what else I might want to do with my life. I had also just split with a woman I’d been with for a year. My family was on the other side of the country and all my friends were out of town for the summer. So I was all alone with nothing to keep me company but my self-loathing thoughts... The night before the crisis started, I made the mistake of playing Lou Reed’s Berlin for the first time. I had bought the album several months earlier but then never listened to it. I’m convinced that the record was the final bit of heaviness that sent me into my tailspin. Berlin is one of the most depressing records ever made – almost to the point of being a parody. I can’t say I care for the album all that much, but it expresses some of the same mood and spirit as Aladdin Sane, so it’s worth discussing here. But only quickly. Otherwise I might break down again, and I don’t have time for that anymore.

Berlin tells the story of a bohemian husband and wife in Berlin who start out happy and have children, but then quickly spiral downwards into a vortex of drugs, anonymous sex, abuse and depression. After they split up, the woman (Caroline) has her kids taken away from her because the authorities discover that she’s a neglectful addict who sleeps with all manner of men and women for drugs…

They're taking her children away
Because of the things she did in the streets
In the alleys and bars no she couldn't be beat
That miserable rotten slut couldn't turn anyone away

Pretty uplifting, huh? I might be missing some of the nuance here, but trust me when I tell you from experience that Berlin is guaranteed to bring you right down, and not in a good way. The films of Ingmar Berman, to give an example off the top of my head, bring you down, too, but they still leave you feeling nourished because they’re visually beautiful, intellectually penetrating, and they have something to say about the human condition. Lou Reed’s Berlin just leaves you lying face down in the gutter, and you don't gain anything for having gone through all that anguish. Maybe some people respond to this kind of thing. In recent years, Berlin has been reassessed and is now seen by some as a forgotten classic. It’s not my cup of tea… What’s strange to me, in a way, is that Lou Reed would make a joyful bit of amoral mischief like Transformer and then follow it up with something as relentlessly sad and upsetting as Berlin, as if all the things he embraced in an attempt to move beyond the Great Collapse suddenly turned nightmarish. Then again, this mirrors the way Glam breached sacred boundaries in an attempt to get out of the shadow of the 60s, but then fell victim to the consequences of its overindulgence.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

transformers, five

Transformer and Raw Power. I heard Iggy Pop for the first time during the first week of my freshman year at Syracuse University. I made friends with a punk rock guy at a Circle Jerks gig - they were playing in town at a club called the Lost Horizon. Noah, the punk rock guy, invited me to his dorm room a few days later. We drank a few Old Milwaukees and he popped a tape of Raw Power into his box (remember when a ghetto blaster used to be called a 'box'?)... Iggy knocked me out. He sounded so wound up, and angry, and aggressive, like a guy who just wants to break shit, even if it's his own head... I immediately got me an LP copy of Raw Power, noticing right away that Bowie was involved in making the record (apparently for the worse, but I didn't know that at the time so Bowie's participation made the record even more alluring). ...Over time, though, the newness of Raw Power wore off for me and I eventually got to a point where I would only listen to the first two tracks, "Search and Destroy" and "Gimme Danger." I still think these are the only two songs on the record that are any good, but they're both so great that I pull Raw Power out of the stacks regularly just to hear them...

Backtrack a bit...I was a high school fuck up, ill advisedly sent to a pressure cooker prep school in NYC. But I don't regret it because some of my dearest friends to this day date back to that time and place... When I was 16, my worried parents wanted to fix what was wrong with me. They sent me to a head shrinker who put me on Ritalin. You may wonder what any of this has to do with Raw Power. Well, take a few tablets of Ritalin, play the record, and you'll find out in about 20 minutes time. ...Ritalin is fantastic, but also habit forming. They'll tell you it's not addictive, but don't believe it for one second. Imagine speed with a soft landing. That's Ritalin. Actually, check that: The landing is only soft if you don't mix the shit with Iggy Pop... Ritalin was prescribed to me to improve my academic efficiency, but I took a dosage of the stuff one night in college just for kicks. I thought it would help me get laid. I always felt more virile, charming and confident with the stuff coursing through my veins. I went out to a few of the bars in town that night but didn't get laid - didn't even talk to anyone, let alone any comely college co-eds who might be interested in casually bedding down with me. I walked back to my dorm room when I saw the writing on the wall. Now I had nothing to do, but I was still flying high. So I played Raw Power. Bad idea.

'I'm a streetwalkin' cheetah with a heart full of napalm.'

...Within a few moments, Iggy's frenzied singing and James Williamson's jackhammer guitars practically had me climbing the walls, like Spidey trying to evade the Vulture or Kingpin in Amazing Spiderman #79. I started screaming along with the music and slam dancing with myself. I must've looked like a mental patient. My roomate, who was 'rushing' one of the douche bag frat houses on campus, came back from a party and tried to calm me down. Next thing you know, the two of us were throwing spastic haymakers at each other out in the hallway. He connected with one of his punches and bloodied my nose, but it knocked some sense back into me so it was for the best... I never took Ritalin for kicks again, but to this day Raw Power is an album I associate with reckless aggression.

Even though I don't think much of Raw Power beyond the one-two punch of its first two tracks, it strikes me as an album about drugs and sexual catharsis. 'There's nothing left to life but a pair of glassy eyes', Iggy sings, capturing the tied off aimlessness hanging in the air after the Collapse, 'raze my feelings one more time...' More in concept than execution, Raw Power epitomizes the Aftermath, in all it's delicious moral turpitude.

About a year before the appearance of Raw Power, Bowie produced Lou Reed's seminal Glam album, Transformer, with lots of help from Ronno. Transformer, in my opinion, is far superior to Raw Power. The comparison is admittedly a little unfair since the two records are so different sounding, but the atmosphere created by each is somewhat similar. ...Like Bowie and T. Rex during the same period, Lou Reed refused to wallow in the disappointment of his generation's lost chances and failures. I doubt he ever put much stock in those chances anyway. ...Transformer takes us for a walk on the wild side, through the dark alleys of downtown Gotham, where the casualties of a warped and distorted counterculture lay prone in pools of their own filth. And you can tell Lou loves every fuckin' minute of it - loves the underground misfits and losers, the trannies, the hookers, the junkies... The most poignant moment on the album for me comes at the end of "Perfect Day", a gorgeously crafted ode to heroin. With piano and lush strings slowly fading, Lou repeatedly sings, 'you're gonna reap what you sow.' It's chilling and ominous, but it's beautiful, too, turning the destruction of 60s idealism into both a logical outcome and a cause for celebration.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

the kids are alright

Like any self-respecting guy approaching middle age, I tend to look down a bit at the youth of today - i.e. kids today don't read, they have no attention span, they need instant gratification, they're in love with their annoying little gadgets, their minds are wastelands of corporate colonization...and on and on. It's the same shit people said about my generation in the 80s. Some of you may remember Alan Bloom's book, The Closing of the American Mind? The criticism had some validity then and may have even more now...

I feel especially old when I go to the Mac Store. Those Geniuses are so damn young. But I've gotta give 'em their due. They are as competent and knowledgeable as can be. The Emo guy who helped me, Chad, looked at first to be everything I've become so crotchety about. He had a metal pole stuck horizontally through his nose, another one stuck vertically in his tounge, and narly ink all over his body - I'm talking like Mike Ness ink, or Ultimate Fighting ink. And don't even get me started on the guy's hair because talking about it will make me feel like I should be wearing a damn diaper. ...But this guy - this Chad - was fuckin' great. Friendly, professional, and capable beyond anything I would expect these days from a large cost-cutting corporation, even one with a supposed heart like Apple.

...One thing I will say is that Chad has this horrible verbal tic where he affirms almost every statement made to him by saying, "very excellent."

"Hi, I'm Max S. You just called my name for Mac support."
"Very excellent. I'm Chad."
"Hi Chad. So, there's something really wrong with my Macbook."
"Very excellent. Let's see if we can fix it. Are you under Apple Care?"
"Yes. I've still got two years."
"Two years. Very excellent."
"My Mac won't turn on. I don't even get the greeting tone."
"Very excellent. Typically problems like that have to do either with memory or the logic board. Let me take it in back and see if we can do a diagnostic."
"OK. Should I just wait here?"
"Very excellent."
"Oh, one more thing. I just killed four people and ate their innards for dinner.
"Very excellent. I'll be right back."

Normally, I'd be stewing in my grouchy juices, muttering things like, "one more very excellent out of you and I'll be sticking my very excellent boot up your very excellent ass." But not this time. So impressed was I with Chad's excellence that I now believe, like Whitney, that the children are our future.

My computer is sick and in the shop, so the next few posts might be a little shorter. A few of my recent entries have been somewhat turgid anyway, so forced brevity probably isn't a bad thing...