Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Misc. Book Reviews from 2010

Book Review: Hold On, I'm Coming: The Independent Record Labels of Memphis, TENN.

Sun Studio Logo from Memphis Tennessee

Stax Records Logo

     It's a sad fact that those who like to wag their gums about what independent musical acts are 'good' or 'bad' are hugely ignorant of the actual history of independent music. Indie music didn't start with punk rock in the 70s- it extends back in time to the beginning of the music industry itself.
     I've been reading up on Sun Records and Stax: both from Memphis. Both were true indie record labels. Both had a decade plus long 'hey day' followed by descent to obscurity. And you know what? They had hits- for a time- then they didn't, and they disappeared. But man could they sell records back then.
     Take Stax- Stax sold almost entirely through mom and pop record shops located in "urban" neighborhoods- but the records sold. Here are some take aways from both stories: Hit records sell for a long time, a successful artist is someone who can sing a song written by someone else and make it into a hit, easy access to a recording studio is important.
       It's funny, because neither Stax or Sun had what you would call a "scene." In fact, if you actually look at the history of the independent music industry, you see that the idea of geographically specific "scene" doesn't reflect the reality of what independent records used to succeed.
   You can tell it's not the location that gives rise to the label, because indie labels typically disappear after the cluster of artists that rose to prominence either dies (Otis Redding, Buddy Holly) or is absorbed by the "major" labels of whatever era.
   Time and time again, independent record labels release a hit record, have trouble with expanding or being absorbed, fail to maintain their relationship with the artist who had the original hit, fail to duplicate the success with different artists over time and generally lose the personnel who were around during the glory days.
   I think the aspect of that is most applicable to the blog rock/indie scene of today is the relationship with the artist who has the original hit. I would hypothesize for the average independent record label starting in 2010 viability is an either/or. You either have an artist who sells or don't. I can't think of a single indie band where I would say it's the record label that "broke" the artist.
    Almost every independent label of today wants an artist to "walk in the door" with a finished product. In that sense it is analogous to the 50s-60s Sun/Stax mode of production where artists would come from the surrounding hinterland to record, and the labels would cherry pick the best, and the records would then sell. That is almost exactly what happened with bands like Wavves, Crocodiles and Dum Dum Girls.
   Neither Sun nor Stax had anything resembling "A&R": They literally relied on people coming in off the street. Another similarity between then and now is the phenomenon of sales independent of the largest institutional players in the music industry. Perhaps this sounds circular- but all you need to sell records is a place to sell records and a reliable postal service. The places that sell records are always looking for records to sell- it never ends.
   I would refer to this phenomenon (then and now) as a "fragmented marketplace." By fragmented marketplace I mean a marketplace geographically dispersed, unclear preference for format, no common sources of information, etc. While the disadvantages of a fragmented marketplace are obvious (Um- no one buys physical media, large sellers of physical media disappear) some of the advantage are less obvious.
    For example, one of the advantages of a fragmented marketplace is something I call an "infinite roll out." I'm using "roll out" in it's public relations/advertising period as in

ROLL OUT: The time period in which a new company, service or product is introduced to consumers.

     My thesis is that fragmented marketplaces give you basically an infinite amount of time to introduce your product/album/etc to the market place. Independent labels exist in a place that is beyond quantifiable time in that regard. They are not on the schedule, not on the list of "new releases."
   Here's the conclusion: In this context the label is just a conduit for the artist- it doesn't extend beyond whatever artist has a hit. But it's the environment provided by the label to the artist that allows the artist to have the hit, in that sense the label is both wholly unnecessary and completely indispensable at the same time.

Book Review:
Land of Desire- Merchants, Power and the Rise of a New American Culture

        I well and truly believe that consumer capitalism is the most powerful ideology created in the history of the world.  I think the major world religions might give it a run: Islam and Christianity in particular, but in my mind I think consumer capitalism is pretty much it.  Inveighing against consumer capitalism is useless.  Ignoring it is stupid.  American invented consumer capitalism, and we do it better then anyone.  It's "our thing"- it's what we do.

   Land of Desire by William Leach, published in 1994, is an in depth (and often boring) examination of the creation of the culture of consumer capitalism.  Leach's thesis is that consumer capitalism was consciously created by urban department store owners in the period between 1880 and 1920.  They promoted buying as they promoted their businesses, and they were so successful that the culture they created took root across the entire world.

   Of course, we take the department store for granted today, but shops used to be cramped, dingy places, where goods were piled on top of each other and you had to ask someone to retrieve articles from tall shelves.  Savvy department store owners, whom Leach profiles in great detail, realized as early as 1880 in places like New York City, and later Philadelphia and Chicago, that they could sell more stuff by making the stuff more appealing.

  This meant changing how stores looked- brighter, more color, more spacious.  It also meant reaching out to customers through advertising and "public relations" events.   And you know what?   They killed it.  They won.  They won so big that it's hard for a contemporary American to even imagine a world where consumer capitalism doesn't rule us with an iron fist.

Book Review: 
Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records

 Stax Records was started by a white banker in the early 60s.  Originally, Stax was a recording studio and a record shop (Satellite Records) operating in the black part of Memphis.  Stax had early success, and drew early attention.  Atlantic records signed them a distribution deal within a year of their operating as a label.  Early hits were entirely 45s- in those days "Black" music was sold almost exclusively through the 45 format (the early 60s).  Stax sold entirely to mom and pop stores in black neighborhoods.  Though they had hits prior to his arrival, Otis Redding was the first star of Stax records.  A Stax Revue toured the UK and northern europe in 1967, and that was followed by a headlining performance of Redding at the Monterey Festival.  That was the turning point for Stax in terms of viability.

  Unfortunately, shortly after that Redding died while piloting his small plane (Musicians- stay away from the small planes!) and after that Stax learned that the "distribution" agreement that they had reached with Atlantic actually had a "sneaky" provision that gave right to all the master recordings to ATLANTIC.  Boo-yaaa!!!!

   Starting over in the late 60s, Stax scored big with Issac Hayes LP Hot Buttered Soul.  Hot Buttered Soul was a sales phenomenon, though it's successs was pre-saged by the fact that Hayes, with writing partner David Porter, actually wrote many of the early Stax hits- including Sam and Dave's "Soul Man" and "Hold on I'm Coming."

     The lessons start flowing fast and furious after the release of Hot Buttered Soul.  Stax agreed to sell itself to Gulf & Western (Paramount Pictures), Gulf and Western was clueless, so they bought the label back for millions more then what they sold it for, and then reached another distribution with Clive Davis and CBS.  Shortly after that, Clive Davis was fired, and the new management didn't understand what they were supposed to do with Stax Records.

    By the mid 70s it all ended and tears- and the main players at Stax- Jim Stewart and Al Bell lost everything.  EVERYTHING.  The only one who got out was Stewarts sister, Estelle Axton- (ST-AX), who had mortgaged her house to pay for the original building.  She got out in the late 60s.

    This book made me wonder why Stax needed to be so ambitious.  They had some hit records, they were making alot of money, but it wasn't enough.  They needed to expand, they needed to diversify, they needed to partner with major labels.  Why?  Because they weren't making enough money- they were.  The problem is that they were spending money on huge concerts (Wattstax), movies and gold plated Cadillac's for Issac Hayes.

   When people hit the good times, they think the good times will never end- but often times, people who succeed don't really understand how they succeeded, and that causes them to misinterpret the nature of their success.  While the music of Stax remains, the label does not, and it's both an enlightening and cautionary tail  I saw almost zero logic for every decision they made after mid 1967.  All of their business decisions were bad.  They were like pro athletes who get their first big contract and spend it all on cars.

   They could have stayed smaller and stuck around forever, but it wasn't good enough for Al Bell.  They had to go for broke.  And now they are all broke.

John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle and the So-Called Aesthetics of DIY

Aesthetics (wiki entry) ("Modern Aesthetics interior section")
John Ruskin (wiki entry)  Section 2.1 Art and Design Criticism
Thomas Carlyle (wiki entry) (Sign of the Times essay)

    I was reading the Los Angeles Times free weekly the other day and I saw an alternative headline for the "Queens of Lo Fi" article.  The alternative headline, used for the cover of the free weekly, but not the newspaper articles was "Lo Fi is DIY"- and then it was the same article inside.  That is an equivalence I subscribe too, personally.  The essence of whatever you want to call lo fi is homemade, bedroom pop by individuals in non-professional surroundings.  As I said before, it is the mode of production, rather then any particular sound that results, which describes "lo fi" and therefore lo fi is simply an update of the familiar diy music phenomenon.

    In an attempt to describe a particular SOUND or LOOK or FEEL people will sometimes discuss the "Aesthetics" of a certain category of art.  "The aesthetics of diy" for example, though it could be "the aesthetics of heavy metal" or something not involving music at all.  Aesthetics has a visual and thematic aspect that recalls it's role in history as the "science of beauty."  Beauty takes many forms.  Aesthetics is the study and description of beauty.

       The first important point to make is that the discussion of aesthetics was not confined to debate over what popular musician is better then another popular musician or the merits of the latest Rodarthe rtw  line.  In England, in particular, writers like Thomas Carlyle and most importantly, John Ruskin created a comprehensive critique of 19th century industrial age English society by focusing on the ugliness of the environment.  These guys were super hoity toity intellectuals, criticizing  directly from where they considered themselves "above" i.e., they were into medieval architecture, understood the importance of craftsmanship in production, thought the middle class was stupid, etc.

      But when you talk about an aesthetic of diy, you are essentially talking about John Ruskin.  His ideas in turn inspired William Morris, who inspired the "Craftsman" movement of the United States in the early 20th century.  Perhaps the major difference between the aesthetics of John Ruskin and William Morris vs. the DIY ethic of today is that DIY today is slap dash and amateurish.  People aren't even trying for beauty, it is more important to experiment, express raw emotion or simply to exist.

     However, the larger audience has been taught by culture to seek beauty from art (see above) so these attempts, however satisfying they may be to the artist, are doomed unless they comport with contemporary ideas of beauty.  You might ask yourself, if you are going to make something that people will not consider beautiful, "Why bother?"  The value of art absent an audience is dubious.  The idea of art or beauty without an audience to perceive it is something that would have been foreign to the ancient Greeks (who invented the science.)  On the other hand, it is well in line with the aesthetic theory of the romantics (i.e. wildness, individualism, disregard of the group, etc.)

     Ruskin and Carlyle are more in line with the Ancient Greeks- that's something that separates their thought from the larger romantic movement in the UK and Europe.  Their whole goal is to persuade society of the rightness of their position, they actually involve out of the passion of romanticism.  Romanticism came first, then came the aesthetics of John Ruskin.

    Modern DIY is different from all this because the beauty is in the background.  It needs to be in the foreground.  An Aesthetic that isn't consciously concerned with the description of a particular kind of beauty, is not, in fact, an aesthetic at all, and so to the extent that DIY is not concerned with beauty, it is not an aesthetic at all, but simply a description of a particular form of mass production within consumer capitalist society.

Book Review: 
William Morris- From Romantic to Revolutionary
 by EP Thompson

William Morris is the British artisan generally credited with inspiring the larger "Craftsman" movement, familiar to many Californians as a style of house architecture popular in the early part of the 20th century ("Craftsman style house").  EP Thompson is a British writer whose "History of the English Working Class" is as seminal a piece of writing as you are ever likely to read.  William Morris: From Romantic to Revolutionary is Thompson's biography of Morris-the-socialist.

      Like many famous socialist's of the 19th century, Morris came from a privileged background.  He never had to work for a living.  As a young university student, he fell in with a group of English artists who espoused Romantic believes.  During that period, he wrote several pieces of epic poetry that found a huge audience in the UK (though no one reads it today.)

      During this same period, he started "The Firm" a full service interior design firm where he actually made all the stuff he sold to rich people.  He was also active in the first rumblings of what today we would call the "Historic Preservation" movement.  From here, he moved decisively into socialism.  This happened during the 1880s, and at the time he was likely the first semi-respectable intellectual in all of England to go all in on socialism.  At the time, socialism was a pretty fluid concept, and the border lines between socialism/communism/anarchism were hard to determine.

    I found the description of the early period of English socialism to be hilarious, particularly when Thompson describes the realization by the intellectual socialists that at some point, they would actually have to interact with the working classes who they claimed to be speaking for.  We all no how that turned out:  The Working Classes had no problem working within parliamentary democracy and they were less interested in revolution then an 8 hour day.

    Morris was an opponent of "Parliamentary Socialism" preferring instead to wait for some magical transformation from capitalist to socialist paradise.  There is some irony in the fact that although he spend most of his passion espousing socialism, he is today remembered more for his aesthetic theory.

   In the end, Morris missed the trend which would simultaneously prove to be the death of any broad socialist revolution AND would be key to the rise to prominence of his craftsman aesthetic.  And that trend?  Why consumer capitalism of course.  He missed the boat on that, but you can hardly blame him since he lived in a time where consumer capitalism was in a nascent state.  But when capitalist figured out to generate desire in their audience, and then to satisfy that audience with consumer goods.  Well, that was all she wrote for socialist revolution in the west.  The working class didn't want a revolution, they wanted a television.

Book Review:
Civilization Before Greece and Rome
 by H.W.E. Saggs

Yet another amazing book you can buy on Amazon for 20 cents. Incredible.  The title of Civilization Before Green and Rome sounds generic and obvious, but books written about this time period tend to be about one specific culture- comparative studies are few and far between.  Also, contemporary advances in the different cultures are spread out through multiple languages and fields of inquiry(turkish archeology anyone?)  All of which goes to say that the bang for your buck here is outstanding.  Saggs leaves behind the specialist jargon while taking account of the finding made by specialists.  Thus, he can tell you about recent (1980s) translations of Hittite legal documents, without writing 200 pages on the subject.

   I enjoy reading about civilization before Greece and Rome.  These civilizations- they were totally forgotten.  Not just by the West, but by the people from THOSE AREAS.  We're talking about a civilization that lasted THREE THOUSAND YEARS.  Forgotten until the 20th century.  It's breathtaking.  I like to imagine our civilization the same way- being viewed three thousand years on as a curiosity by people who don't understand anything about us.  Crumbling into the sands of history: An epic fate.

    Considering the differences between people "then" vs. "now" gives you a better idea of what "now" actually means.  Acquiring familiarity with people and how they thought and behaved in different time period generates insight on commonalities and differences between human beings.  One of the dangers of the internet is that the user becomes fully immersed in the now.  Not just in the sense that people always live in the here and now, but people are just super obsessed with right now.

Book Review: 
The Gypsies by Angus Fraser

      Gypsies: we're all familiar with the aesthetic, the music, maybe a little bit of the history- but what does anyone really know about the gypsies?  After all, they do not have a written language, suffered greviously during the holocaust and, as this book discusses, have been subject to pretty agressive legal action and persecution on a continuous basis in western europe from the 1500's.

     Turns out, what we know as "gypsies" are mostly the Rom, a group of gypsies from the greater Romania area who didn't emigrate out of Eastern Europe until the 19th century.  These are the gypsies who emigrated to America.  There are, in fact, multiple strata of gypsies.  There are those who travelled into Europe as early the 1500's- those groups were persecuted, especially in the 17th century, and most of them "went underground."  The relationship between the early gypsies and the later gypsies reminded me of the relationship between Jews from Germany who came to the US before the Jews who came from Eastern Europe later on: Tense.

    After the Rom, there were several other larger clans that emigrated out after them, spreading gypsy groups through western europe into the 20th century.  Fraser also distinguishes between Gypsies who are ethnically descended from some kind of Indian caste (they speak a variation of Hindi derived from Sanskrit, have an elaborate purity ritual that resembles Hinduism), and indigenous "travellers" from various countries in Europe who either existed prior to gypsy arrival (the tinkers of Ireland) or were inspired by the gypsy example (groups in the Netherlands and France).  Everywhere, gypsy life was characterized by a nomadic existence on the fringes of society.

       In Fraser's view, the main characteristics of "what is a gypsy" are 1) observance of the Romani purity ritual- not washing clothes and food dishes in the same sink, female segreation during fertile periods.  2) language descended from sanskrit with lots of loan words from languages like Hungarian and Romanian.

     The English language continues to absorb words from the Romani language.  One current example in the United Kingdom- the word "Chav" used to describe the track suit culture of the housing project is derived from the Anglo-Romi word for boy (Chaverie).

    It was interesting to read how the Gypsies were subject to measures that presaged the holocaust- in countries other the Germany- even AFTER the holocaust.  For example, the Swiss practiced forced adoption for gypsy children into the 1970s!

    The Gypsies are interesting because of the incredible strength and durability of their culture despite literally thousands of years of persecution as well as the lack of a written language.  The continued existence of gypsies seems to demonstrate that a common culture can survive all obstacles.

Book Review:
 Historians' Fallacies: Towards a Logic of Historical Thought 
by David Hackett Fischer

     I was watching the health care bill pass last night on CNN, and that had me thinking about the "tea party" movement.  I think the only thing funnier then the tea party participants themselves (Did you start reading books last week?) are the people who are upset by the Tea Party movement.  The Tea Party does not have a monopoly on a lack of self awareness, let's put it that way.

       Or take another issue, like the Texas State Textbook Committee issuing revised "conservative" standards for history books.  Again: Only think funnier then the people in favor of this, are the people outraged by the same behavior.  What are all these people lacking?  Perspective.  They all lack historical perspective.  By historical perspective I mean "understanding formed by reading academic history written either by reputable, non-popular professors, be they "conservative" or "liberal."

     Again, this is not to single out only one "conservatives dumb, liberals smart" relationship.  In David Hackett Fischer's "Historians Fallacies: Towards a Logic of Historical Thought" one of the best examples he gives is an essay that is currently en vogue right now: Richard Hofstrader's, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." That piece was published in Harper's magazine in November 1964, right after Barry Goldwater, a conservative, defeated Nelson Rockefeller, a moderate for the Republican nomination to the Presidency.  Fischer rightly points out, in a sections discussing "ad hominem"(attacks against the person) fallacies of argument, that calling conservative essentially mentally ill doth not a valid argument make.

      Historians Fallacies, written in 1970, remains fresh and vital today.  Fischer marches through several hundred years of fallacy, arguments made by historians that just don't work logically, and breezily dispatches error like a Scholastic Monk proof reading a thesis.  Most of his examples are drawn from American interpretations of the Civil War.  The level of critique varies from the aforementioned "ad hominem" attacks, and an entire chapter on rhetorical/argumentative error introduced by their latin names; to high level discussions of laws in meta-historical arguments(Tonybee, Marx.)

     Fischer points out something that I found profound: Just as many mistakes vis a vis history are made by people who remember TOO MUCH about history, or draw the wrong lessons from history then are made embodying Santayana's famous aphorism, "Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it."  Actually, Fischer would reply, "Those who remember the past are just as likely to repeat it as those who don't."  In fact, my takeaway from this book is that if you are thinking strategically about something, you can't get too locked into past experience or you lose important insight.

Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics
2004 Penguin Classics Edition
Bernard Bosanquet, translation
Edited by Michael Inwood
 by Georg Wilhelm Frederich Hegel

I'm writing a review of this book because you can't talk about music criticism without being at least aware of it's existence.  It might be the most important book in the history of art criticism.

    That said, there is a lot of context that has to be laid down before an ignorant person can understand what I'm talking about.  That's fine.  To understand the significance of Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics you need to accept the following facts as true, and understand their meaning.

   1.  Art in the West was dominated by the Church until the 18th century.
   2.  The first important scene in "modern" Western Philosophy was the generation of Germans that began with Immanuel Kant and ends with Hegel.  In between them come Fichte, Schiller and Goethe.
   3.  The Germans "rediscovered" the classic art of Greece during this same time period.
   4.  Hegel was the thinker who synthesized a generation of thought over the relationship between art and reason.

       Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics is not one of the books Hegel wrote to achieve his lasting place in world history.  Rather, his lectures were published after his death based on the classes he taught at Berlin University.  Hegel is a proto-type of the hugely succesful university philosopher that dominates three centuries of Western thought, and the relationship between Hegel and the German University system is important to understand.  To whit, Hegel was a rock star.  He was hugely popular, in his time, and that is significant because it means that people read his books, and tried to understand what they meant, and wrote books based on his thought.

      You might imagine Hegel to be the philosophical equivalent of the Beatles in his day and age:  He was a great writer, and he synthesized a bunch of disparate influences to great, popular, effect.

      Hegel, like many philosophers of his era, was pessimistic about the role of art in society.  This pessimism was grounded on the observation that Greek art (Homer) played a much greater role back then then artists like Schiller and Goethe played in contemporary German society.  Therefore, Hegel needed to explain "why" and "how" this could be the case.  His explanation is that his modernity was a "reflective" period and that reflective periods created shitty art because artists were too self aware of their process to create good art, and patrons were too cynical to allow art to influence their lives in a significant way.

    As it turns out, he was simply wrong about his own time period: The late 18th-early 19th century was the high point of classical music in German culture.  Unfortunately, Hegel viewed music as an inferior art form because it wasn't representative of anything other then itself.  Thus his pessimism was grounded on faulty analysis, but that didn't stop his theories about art from being hugely  influential.

   Like his German idealist contemporaries, Hegel believed that the path out of the dilemmas presented by modernity involved an elevated roll for artistic endeavor, but at the same time he believed the level of reflectiveness doomed this project to failure.  This debate continues to dominate art criticism into the present day, even while the debaters have failed to understand the history of the debate.

The First Jesuits
by John O'Malley
Harvard University Press
published 1993

  How can you even have an opinion about the world around you without possessing a solid understanding of the history of the Christian faith?  The expansion of Christianity is maybe the single most important event in the history of human existence.  I'm not speaking as a believer- I'm not.  I do believe that the world look the way it does today largely because of Christianity.  It's a big subject.  You've got: pre origins, origins, expansion, foundation of the Roman church, conversion of Europe, Christianity in the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Counter Reformation, the world wide expansion and Christianity in the modern era.  Phew!

    The First Jesuits is a fair handed account of the creation of the Jesuit order in the 16th century.  The Jesuits was a religious order started by St. Ignatius.  He was raised a Spanish nobleman in the Basque region of the Iberian peninsula.  He fought for the King of Spain, was wounded and experienced a religious conversion (which means he wasn't that religious, and then he became religious.)  Spent some time begging n preaching in Spain, then went to France, where he studied at the University of Paris.  While he was there he was exposed to the humanism of Erasmus.   Erasmus, a Catholic himself, was someone who influenced reformers like Martin Luther with his argument that people should, you know, actually be able to understand scripture and read books and stuff like that.  You know: Humanism.

   Influenced by this perspective, Ignatius and some of his buddies moved down to Italy- splitting time between Venice and Rome.  Here, Ignatius and his bros decided to start a new order that would be different then monastic orders like the Benedictines and the Dominicans.  Specifically, he imagined a traveling group of brothers that would move from place to place, teaching and preaching.  It was a bold move in it's time, and it aroused a fair amount of controversy.  Jesuits were hauled before the Inquisition on several occasions and accused of practicing Protestantism.  Hilarious!

   Eventually of course, the Jesuits would fan out and start schools all over the world.  In fact, it's fair to say that modern education sort of started with the Jesuits.  They really were revolutionary, and there is a lot to recommend about their thought and their methods.  After all: The Jesuits delivered results.  No misery and hand wringing here.  It's something that practitioners of modern day DIY should stop and think about.  If you have the true faith, doubt doesn't enter into the analysis.

The Supremes
by Mark Ribowsky
published 2009
by De Capo Press

  My friend Mario Orduno of Art Fag Recordings lent me this book.  He and I often talk about the history of popular music.  Not so much the recent stuff.  I think probably his greatest direct influence on me is a focus on music created before 1967.  Something definitely changed after 1967... for the worse... I think.

     The Supremes are an act that took advantage of many of the changes that were sweeping popular music in mid 60s even as they retained a look and sound that set them apart from the love generation.  It's hard to tell the story of the Supremes without telling the story of Motown.  The real weakness of the music industry as it existed in the early 60s was in their handling of black artists.   Tastes changed ahead of society, and the world that created Motown and the Supremes was a segregated world where Whites held all the cards and Blacks were left to pick up the scraps.

    In the early 60s, Berry Gordy was a hustling young man from a wealthy black family in Detroit.  When he started Motown, famously borrowing money from his family, he wasn't the only one with a record label.  His sisters had record labels, too.  Motown started in 1960 and so had the Supremes...under a different name (the Primettes).  It took Motown a year or so to sign up the Supremes, pick them a new name, etc.  Then it was a couple more years before the Supremes really broke... 1963 really.  During that period, Gordy didn't lose the faith.  The Supremes, of course, wrote none of their songs.

     The rise of the Supremes is from an era before artists had artistic control.  Diana Ross may have been an outsized diva, but she didn't even have access to her own bank account. In that regard, it's hard to ignore the character of Berry Gordy and the role he plays in Supremes, both for better and most assuredly for worse. The Gordy/Ross relationship dominates the Supremes story, literally to the detriment of everyone else in the entire book.  Almost half the book involved Gordy scheming to get Ross out of the Supremes so that she can fly solo.

    Why are people so stupid?  Why was Berry Gordy so obsessed with one artist?  Here's a fact about Motown:  In 1966 Motown had 200 artists under contract.  Only 4 made money.  What is it about turning art into commerce that can make even successful men look stupid?  Like so many other men who succeed in the area of turning art into commerce, Gordy was a man working an area of the market where the big boys were pretty clueless, working in a geographic area with strong local networks and with artists and collaborators who were pliable and financially ignorant.  Right time, right place, right product.  The Supremes were that product.

    The Supremes rose, and fell- there was conflict, tragedy and some reconciliation, but through it all everyone involved seemed to lack even a modicum of self reflection about their situation.  Maybe that's why the art was so great:  Because they were just doing it, not sitting around, talking about it all day.  Great art is unself-reflective art.

Book Review
Rock Music in American Popular Culture
Rock 'n' Roll Resources
by B. Lee Cooper & Wayne S. Haney
published 1995
Harrington Park Press

    If you are going to be a successful bargain book buyer, you need to understand that invidiual books are as prone to fashion and trend as children's toys, and that book prices are sometimes low compared to their value, but often high- often very high- in other words,  you 'pay a lot for a little useful information.'  Alot of the ways major book publishers make their money can be summarized by the series of (popular, expensive) books called "X for Dummies."

      One of the categories to search are super cheap used books (.01 + 3.99 for shipping = 4.00) that have great bibliographies.  Bibliographies are one area of printed culture that the web has "FAILED" to get right.  Books with good bibliographies on specific subjects tend to be expensive, especially when they are "new."  On the other hand, a book that may have had a perfectly good bibliography on the date it was published, but be basically "worthless" a decade or two later.  Is the bibliographic detail from the timer period now inaccurate?  No: It's still accurate, it's just no longer complete.  However, when you consider that scholarly perspective takes decades to assemble, it's fair to argue that more recent events simply require maintaining familiarity with current events and that "reading about" subjects currently being bandied about is worthless.

     Using that analysis, there is really no need to "keep up" with the flow of current information, since the filtering process takes a decade or longer to even get straight.

     This book was only a penny, but it's a great value, since it captures the height of the "rock" era in popular music in pristine, amber quality form.  Although the organization is casual (alphabetical by subject) the bibliography is anything but.  I'm pretty sure the bibliography contains a reference to 95% of every decent book that was written about rock music between 1950 and 1994 or so.

   It's hard to imagine a source book about popular music written before the dawn of electronic music formats, but none the less... here it is. This book has citations to every rock critic book, every 'serious' article about rock music, etc.  The writers are intelligent enough to provide commentary on the 'rock star narrative' but too early to witness it's decline as viable market force.  This is a book written about Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, about Michael Jackson and Hall and Oates.  It's a book that although written in 1995, literally omits the 'punk era', choosing instead to focus on.... Hall and Oates.  In its own blinkered way it is a breathtaking vista, and the verbiage is top rate.  The overall tone is "90s American Studies Casual."

    It's funny because now people might be interested in this material because it chronicles the  music industries success, rather then it's utter demise.  At the same time, the perspective of the authors seems to be that of the distracted blackberry owner reading a thought provoking article about the middle east a half second before he gets broad sided by a city bus traveling 35 MPH:  You don't get credit for reading the thought provoking article about the middle east if reading it results in you getting hit by a bus and dying.

   Same thing with these guys: Great book- but publishing a book about Rock Music in American Popular Culture in 1995 is like writing an encyclopedia of dinosaurs five minutes before the comet drops out of the sky.  I encourage readers to create their own analogies: USE YOUR IMAGINATION.

   Reading Rock Music in American Popular Culture cover to cover is an exasperating subject "F- songs about food"  "C- songs about christmas" but it accurately conveys a sense of the consciousness of intelligent people who cared about rock music in the pre-internet era.  It also crystallizes the complete and utter failure of academics to speak intelligently about this subject, let alone divine what the future held vis a vis technology and the listener.  There is one interesting chapter in that regard, "B - bootlegging" but the chapter is devoted entirely to discussing the cataloging process for Elvis bootlegs.  Interesting of it's own accord? Yes.  Relevant 15 years later? Not so much.

Book Review
by Mark Richardson
33 1/3 vol. 68
Continuum Press

 Love the 33 1/3 series!  Every book is a little guide to a classic lp.  They are great to sell at the counter at record stores, though I never see them being sold with the actual lp, which seems kind of obvious.  The 33 1/3 series is obviously making a claim for each and every record in the series but the point of view is limited to that of the author for each specific book.  There is no editorial control in the series except, I suppose, for the choice of album for each subsequent volume.

  The only other one in the series I've read to this point is no. 44, Trout Mask Replica by Kevin Courrier.  I picked that one to start because I literally spent 6 months struggling to give Trout Mask Replica a "fair shot" at convincing me of it's merit, basically by listening to it five time through in a variety of different settings.  After that, I thought reading the 33 1/3 might help me articular what exactly I didn't like about Trout Mask Replica, and it did that.

  So I thought that by reading Mark Richardson's 33 1/3 volume on the Flaming Lips 4 cd Zaireeka record, I might gain insight on Richardson himself, the band the Flaming Lips, who I have despised for over a decade and maybe a little insight on Pitchfork and their perspective.

  After finishing Zaireeka, I can say it is def. worth the effort: Even if you haven't heard the record, reading this book will make you want to do it once at least once.  Zaireeka certainly accomplishes what I imagine to be the goal of the Continuum series, bringing context to works of art.  In that sense, perhaps it is this exact series of books which provides the rebuttal to the argument "Writing about music, why bother?"  I also believe that the techniques that writers have developed writing these volumes really ought to be deeply influencing music writing itself.

  Richardson, in the course of writing about an artist I literally can't stand, helps me understand why he is so into them, and why Zaireeka is worth experiencing.  He makes his case in convincing fashion, although I still hate the Flaming Lips, I'm willing to purchase this record and set up the ridiculous listening process.  I was easily able to disregard my disdain for the sprawling psychedelica of the Flaming Lips and adopt Richardson's thoughtful superlatives about Wayne Coyne and the 13 years he worked at Long John Silver's in between tours.  It's hard not admire the persistence and patience of the Flaming Lips in the same way I suppose you could rhapsodize about Green Day.  But Green Day doesn't have an entry in the 33 1/3 series, and Flaming Lips does.

Rock Music: Culture Aesthetics and Sociology
by Peter Wicke
translation by Rachel Fogg
originally published in 1987
english translation 1990
Cambridge University Press

  The two things to know about this book before reading this review are 1) Originally published in 1987- almost 25 years old.  2) Written by a professor of music at a Berlin University who has a background in Frankfurt School Philosophy.  The Frankfurt School has been trying it's hand at cultural studies since the 50s, but they are handicapped by being German.  German professors have little feeling for the world of d.i.y. music and this limit decreases their ability to comment intelligently on popular culture.

     Rock Music: Culture, Aesthetics and Sociology is half of an amazing book, and half a flaming pile of dog poop.  The first half is amazing, the second half, focusing on "case studies" of the British Punk movement in the 70s and synth-pop of the early 80s are so bad that they almost wreck the entire book.

     Wicke presents the familiar narrative of rock dressed up with careful language from the cultural studies wing of the Frankfurt school.  This approach really nails it on the head for everything before the hippie revolution, and badly misses on everything afterwards, perhaps because Wicke completely ignores the impact that the Love Generation had on the entire music industry.  He also badly misses by failing to discuss any aspect of the American DIY scene from 1967 onwards.  Hello?  British punk did not invent d.i.y.  British punk did not invent independent music.  Independent record labels and d.i.y. aesthetics existed any american recorded music as early as recorded music itself existed and continued well into the "rock era."

    In "Rock Music" Wicke attempts to create a working superstructure to describe the components of rock music.  Like other books I've read in this area recently, this book made me want to take parts of it and write a different book, one that focuses more on the emergence of rock music from rhythm and blues and country music in America in late 1940s and early 1950s.  One of the points Wicke makes, that successful rock music is based on sounds not song, is something that got me thinking for sure, but it requires more exploration of what came before rock music to really understand that transition.

The Phoenicians
The Purple Empire of the Ancient World
by Gerhard Herm
p. 1973 (GERMAN)

  I think... if there were enough music content... I would simply blog about music.  But if you are writing about a certain topic, and there isn't enough to write about, then you should switch topics.  Back in the day that's what smart people did.  I remember the image of William Morris, interior designer, writer, socialist, switching from working area to working area within his shop.  You can go back to the Middle Ages and find people who were thought to know "everything there was in the world" (Erasmus)  That sounds ridiculous now but back then there simply wasn't as much knowledge.  A consequence of having more knowledge in the world is an increase in the specialization of knowledge itself.  This naturally results in EVERYONE seeing less of the "big picture," and in my opinion it's this conflict that is at the heart of modernity.

     To understand the present, I've been thinking a lot about the ancient world.  The dividing line between ancient and modern is basically the birth of Jesus Christ, though you can quibble that the modern era didn't really begin till the later part of the middle ages.  Whatever.  On the one hand, ancient:  Sumerians, Assyrians, Hittites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Egyptians.  On the other modern: Greece, Rome etc.  It helps to understand that people have been thinking about that first group seriously for less then 200 years.

   Even within the group of Ancient peoples, the Phoenicians get a bad rap because they didn't leave much behind.  Oh, they invented the alphabet, but there just aren't any written documents to be had.  The most amazing thing about Gerhard Herm's "The Phoenicians" is that it apparently sold 250,000 copies in Germany in the mid 1970s. 250 thousand people bought this book in West Germany in 1973?  Wow.  If you re-issued this book in the United States today it would sell 50 copies.

   The Phoenicians is a work of popular history along the lines of a Steven Amrbose.  The prose is scholarly-light, with a cursory bibliography at the back. In part this is because there aren't alot of speciality sources when it comes to the Phoenicians.  Herm is left to describe the Phoenicians from the view points of the more verbose people who surrounded them.  First, the Egyptians, then the Hebrews, then the Greeks, then the Romans.  In fact, the Phoenicians is more a sequential history of different people's interacting with the Phoenicians then of the Phoenicians themselves.

  Despite the breezy style some salient facts emerged:

FACT:  The famous Phoenician purple dye was created by killing sea snails- thousands of them for each dyed piece of fabric.
FACT:  Greek anti-Phoenician sentiment and attitudes is the forerunner of modern European anti-Semitisn.
FACT:  Europe was named after the daughter of a Phoenician prince. (Europa)
FACT:  Carthage's Phoenician-ism is demonstrated by the names of it's most famous citizens:  Hannibal is "HANNA BAAL" or "GIFT OF BAAL" - Baal being an old Phoenician god.
FACT:  Phoenicians practiced human sacrifice.  A lot.

Book Review
The History of South Africa
2nd Edition (now in 3d edition)
Yale University Press
p. 1995

   We got the World Cup 2010 coming up: in South Africa!  Say what you will about the decision to have the world cup in South Africa, I'd like to know a little bit more about the place itself.

      For me the European experience in Africa will always be encapsulated by Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."  To talk about Africa is to talk about colonialism and imperialism.  When discussing topics like colonialism and imperialism, it is important to distinguish two types of  European colonies.  The first, European majority colonies, where native inhabitants were either sparse to begin with or killed off entirely and whites constituted the majority.  The second, Native majority colonies where the Europeans were a small portion of the total number of inhabitants.  South Africa is interesting because it is a combination of both, and that led to conflict.

      South Africa is an extraordinarily complex place, historically speaking.  The complexity is a result of multiple conflicts which have taken place over the last five hundred years.  Initially you have the Dutch settlers enslaving the hunter/gather types on the coast: CONFLICT!  Then you have the British arriving and getting into it with the Dutch.  Then you have the Dutch fighting with the Bantu speaking Africans.  Then you have the British intervening in the fight between the Dutch and the Bantu speaking Africans.  Then you have the Dutch fighting the British.  Then you have a democracy which excluded 80 percent of the population.  Finally, you have majority rule by the Africans and the 2010 World Cup.

     It is fair to say that there is only so much of this history the reader has to know to understand that South Africa is a) super complex b) not as hugely fucked up as it used to be, but still kind of fucked up.

    Teasing out the whys and where-fors of South African history strikes me as an extraordinarily complex task, and one that also implicates of interesting historiographical issues.  The Author, a South African expatriate who taught at Yale University, is obviously aware of the difficulties and does an excellent job of describing the facts, noting the controversies and generally staying clear of the great imponderables of South African history.

  I think that's a good place to be for all of us.  If you only know one "fact" about South Africa before the World Cup starts it should be that South Africa defies any easy assessment.

     The single most interesting chapter for this reader was the description of the hand-over of power from Whites to Blacks.  In support of their apartheid regime, Whites created an elaborate species of governmentus bureautracticalias, to the point where the costs to administer apartheid threatened to overwhelm the entire economy.  For example, during apartheid the state maintained parallel government departments in all social services area for Whites, Blacks and Coloured.  At the same time, demographic trends ensured an ever diminishing white portion of the over-all population.  Having seen the writing on the wall, the White government decided to negotiate from a position of strength, and that began an internal process that resulted in a more-or-less peaceful handover of power to the ANC.

   This involved things like letting Nelson Mandela out of prison after 20 years and then commencing negotiations with him a week later that made him largely responsible for the government of South Africa.  Can you imagine?  It's as amazing a story as I think exists in 20th century history.

Shaka Zulu
by E.A. Ritter
p. 1955
Putnam Press

     Man, South African history is really interesting.  Interesting, and complicated.  Shaka Zulu was born, an illegitimate child, in the late 1700s.  His rise to power resulted in the emergence of the Zulu Nation in the early 1800s.  The Zulu Nation dominated the affairs of the Eastern half of South Africa into the 20th century.  The Zulu were defeated by the British, but they were never conquered.  The Inkatha Freedom Party, the primary vehicle of political expression for the Zulus today, played an important role through the liberation movement and it remains active today.

   That being said, this book is hardly the last word on Shaka or the Zulus.  It's written by a guy descended from white settlers who was actually in the army that defeated the Zulu army in the late 19th century.  He obviously admires Shaka, repeatedly referring to him as an African Napoleon, and he goes out of his way to discuss the ways in which Shaka rationalized Zulu society, specifically by standing up against the witch doctors.  On the other hand, Shaka comes out as a ridiculously bloody thirsty guy- ordering people clubbed to death at the drop of a hat.

   But if you treat Ritter's Shaka Zulu with a cautious eye there is narrative detail aplenty.  Ritter is a fine writer, and even if he has a somewhat dated and unprofessional view of African's, his bias is balanced by a genuine affection for the discipline and courage of the Zulu warrior.  I have to say, I've read a lot about Native Peoples are their struggles with encroaching European cultures in a variety of contexts.  The Zulu are almost unique in that they weren't really disturbed until AFTER they had created their own nation.  True, they didn't have guns, and they didn't beat the british, but they didn't go away, and they continue to exist today, being led by the same families that led them two hundred years ago.

   It's quite an achievement, almost equivalent to the feats of resistance by the Ethiopian Kingdom into the 20th century.  It's a story worth knowing, and something worth considering during this year's World Cup in South Africa.

Book Review
The Rhetorics of Popular Culture:
Advertising, Advocacy, and Entertainment
Contributions to the Study of Popular Culture, Volume 16
by Robert L. Root, Jr.
p. 1987
Greenwood Press

     The great thing about writing a blog is that you are promoting ideas, and ideas are easy to promote.  The success of an idea put forth on a blog, like any other idea, is judged by it's ability to attract adopters and then by the ability of the adopters to make the idea a reality.  Ideas can't succeed on their own.  If you write the most brilliant book about science in the world, and publish it in your own language that you invented (which is also the best language in the world) it won't matter, because no one will read it, an no one will care.    However, an idea doesn't need to be popular to succeed.  It only takes one really successful adherent to turn an idea from a failure to a success.

    Rhetoric is useful because it is an method that is equally useful for any kind of discourse.  A discourse is a conversation using a specific technical vocabulary. Using rhetoric involves two steps

   1)  Identifying a specific discourse Example: television advertisements,  album reviews, political speeches, legal argument.
   2)  Applying rules of rhetoric to examine the message of the Speaker, the the message received by the audience and the truth of the reality being discussed.

    That's all that rhetoric can do, but it's a lot, and further more, rhetorical analysis works and is accurate.  Rhetoric works because it assumes that discourse can't exist without a conversation between a speaker and an audience.

   The Rhetorics of Popular Culture give two examples that are relevant to the subject matter of this blog:

    The Rhetoric of Reviewing: Advocacy, Art, and Judgment:  Only six pages long, this chapter does more to clarify the discourse of Reviewing specific works then any other source I've ever read:

        'Reviewing is a rhetorical act.  Whether its subject is a book, a film, a television program, a recordings, a concert, a play, an art exhibit or a dance performance, the critical review always involves a recommendation, whether implicit or explicit, and an attempt to convince readers of the reliability of that recommendation.'
      'Description, substantiation, evaluation and recommendation are essential content elements in any good review.'
      'As a rhetorical act, criticism attempts to persuade the reader of the validity of the reviewer's opinion; it advocates a specific position on art or ideas.  The measure of a good critic may be both flexibility and consistency, that is, the ability to avoid a narrow, dogmatic position at the same time that he establishes a clear continually applied set of values.'

    The other example is for writers of popular songs, but I'm going to save that for another post.  Suffice it to conclude with the observation that the proliferation of information requires more effective techniques for processing that information.  Those techniques are equally applicable to individuals as machines.  Use of rhetorical principles is a technique that is useful for individuals seeking to be more effective communicators and filters of information.

Book Review
Africa's Discovery of Europe
second edition
by David Northrup
p. 2009
Oxford University Press

       The topic of African history cries out for clarity and insight.  As I've mentioned before in this space, the number one attitude of American's towards Africa is "Ignorance" followed closely at number two with "Ignorance."  You can't really blame people, finding out the truth about what happened in Africa is a task complicated by contemporary racial politics on three different continents.  I know that Africa has lots of social problems and such, but it's hard to look at a continent with more then a billion people (and climbing) and say "Oh- what a disaster."  You want to see a disaster?  Check out Russia- negative birthrate?  That is failure for you.  My take is that people just need to chill out about Africa and try to appreciate some of the astonishing diversity and cultural power that comes out of there.

    Africa's Discovery of Europe is a good continent wide introduction to the relationship between Africa and Europe.  It is, as much as possible, written from the perspective of Africans and comes with ample footnotes for further reading.  Northrup's main thesis is to dispel the "ignorant african" stereotype  in terms of their trading relationships with Europeans.  In the words of Northrup "Africans got what they wanted out of Europeans."  During the time period covered in this book, the Europeans are hardly dominant.  From the Portugese traders of the 15th century onwards, the Europeans existed on the fringes of a sprawling continent with it's own empires, nations and peoples.  Africa was a place where slavery was already existent, and most of the slaves who made it to the New World tended to spend time as the property of other Africans before they were actually sold across the sea.  Northrup even notes that many freed slaves remarked that their main issue was not with slavery, but with the fact that their African owners sold them out of Africa.

   Whatever your interest level in the subject, Africa's Discovery of Europe is a good starting point for reading about African-European relationships from the beginning.

Book Review
That Moaning Saxophone
The Six Brown Brothers and the Dawning of a Musical Craze
by Bruce Vermazen
p. 2001
Oxford University Press

    It's hard for me to imagine the music industry before recorded music was popular.  Popular music and physical media are often treated as one and the same thing, but truth is,  many of the characteristics of the modern music industry took shape BEFORE recorded music was a big component of society.  The modern music industry was built around the touring circuits established in the post civil war era and the musical theaters of New York City, Chicago and London.  Recorded music emerged largely out of the sheet music centered Tin Pan Alley complex of song writers and music publishers.  The development of recorded music happened largely in New York City, but the audience/market had been established by close to half a century of Minstrel shows and Vaudeville.

   Such a foreign world, it led me to wonder: Who were these people?  Well... a good example of what I'm talking about are the Six Brown Brothers and their moaning saxophones.  They were huge in the 1910s... washed up by the 1920s.  They recorded a few "sides" for music cylinders, a physical format that preceded vinyl records, but recorded music was never their thing.  Before the Brown Brothers, saxophones were around, but they weren't a big deal. After, the saxophone became a main stay in jazz etc.  Fun fact- the saxophone was invented in France in the 1840s by a cat named Adolphe Saxe (!) and the first fans were the buyers in the French army.

   Tom Brown was the head Brown brothers.  He came up in rural Canada in the late 19th century. He joined he circus and picked up the saxophone after he had already decided to join circus life.  During that time period, the main form of traveling entertainment were circuses and minstrel shows.  Minstrel shows consisted of white performers dressing up in black face and pretending to be black.  Some of the material was "humorous" and some was musical.  Tom Brown's basic act was to get dressed up in black face and then use the saxophone to "talk."  People were enthralled with the noises he was able to coax out of the saxophone, and he developed a following.

   From there he developed an act that involved bringing in his brothers, who were also circus performers or close to it, and they became the Six Brown Brothers.  Their act was paired with other vaudevillian acts, though during their hey-day they headlined or even soloed shows.  Their career was based on constant touring on different circuits- one on the east coast, one on the west coast.  They recorded a little, but they got paid on a one time basis.

   World War I was kind of a bring down for everyone in the entertainment business, and after World War I it was all about movies.  Vaudeville couldn't compete with movies.  The entire industry was literally crushed beneath the jack boot of Hollywood.  It was a brutal raping.  The only people who survived were the ones who got out of vaudeville and into film, music or radio.  The Brown Brothers, with their black face and novelty sound, did not make the transition.   Because the Brown Brothers existed before recorded music was popular, they were not remembered.   Today, I would wager that there is not a single person who reads this sentence who had ever heard of the Brown Brothers and their moaning saxophones before two days ago.

    We're talking about a popular music act, from America, that introduced the SAXOPHONE to the american public, less then a hundred years ago, totally forgotten.  Think about that shit.

Book Review
The Selling Sound:
The Rise of the Country Music Industry
by Diane Pecknold
Refiguring American Music
A Series Edited by Charles McGovern and Ronald Radano
p. 2007
Duke University Press

     Diane Pecknold sees the world the same way I do.  The Selling Sound leads with a quote from Theordor Adorno about the culture industry... a Frankfurt School reference you almost never see in the Cultural  Studies field... and the starting point for a sure fire cultural studies hit about the business of the culture industry.

   For Pecknold, the culture industry is represented by music publishers, radio stations, record labels and artists.  She is writing specifically about the United States in the 1920s through the 1960s, and about the emergence of Country Music as a huge component of American Popular Music during that time period.  However, unlike the millions of writers who pen self delusional valentines filled with romantic archetypes, Pecknold cooly appraises the constituent elements of the Country music and their interaction with each other as well as the audience.

   Many of Pecknold's most trenchant observations have to do with the way that the culture industry transformed their audience into consumers using the techniques of mass persuasion and mass media.  Pecknold makes a double point about this process:  First, that the audience was aware of the attempt of the music industry to transform them from an audience into consumers, and second that they could not stop the process from happening.

   Pecknold's history of the Country music business is one that should be on the book shelf of any self respecting critic of culture.  Don't let the country music subject dissuade you from reading The Selling Sound.  Country music is merely the reference frame for a discussion of the relationship between culture industry and audience that has wide reverberations continuing into today and tomorrow.

   Pecknold repeatedly makes the point that fan culture was instrumental to the rise of country music, but that fans were elbowed out of the way to make room for a broader sounding "Nashville" sound.  The incorporation of more sophisticated recording techniques in a greater variety of physical locations is something that cut across genres of popular music in the early 1960s, and Country music was no exception.  For country music, Nashville was this place, and Pecknold goes so far as to literally end this book with a 10 page exegesis on Robert Altman's "Nashville."

    The Selling Sound also does an excellent job of unraveling the etymology of terms like "hillbilly music."  Here is a party fact for you hipsters:  Country music was originally called "rockabilly music" and Country music wasn't used as a term until the 1960s.  Thus, when rock music emerged in the 1950s, the use of the term "rockabilly" was merely the equivalent of saying country-rock or "rock music influenced by country music."  Hillbilly music was just the common term for country music in that time period.

   In conclusion, this book is amazing and if you've read some of my culture industry posts and kind of taken a pass, this book might be a good way to explore those ideas in a concrete context.  And Diane Pecknold- if you're reading this- keep writing books.

Book Review
Sound Effects:
Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock and Roll
by Simon Frith
p 1981
originally published in 1978 as "The Sociology of Rock"
Pantheon Books

    Simon Frith is an academic who has melded a love for rock and roll/popular music with an thorough grounding in the vocabulary and concerns of US/UK sociology.  The main relevance of this book is grounded in the fact that it was first published in 1978, and that it fully accounts for the emergence of the punk movement.  For whatever reason, the American publisher decided to remain it with that terrible, terrible name, but "Sociology of Rock" certainly does describe what Frith expostulates.

   Sociology of Rock is dated in the sense that the book is written in leaden, academic prose.  On the other hand, it is relevant because the vocabulary that Frith employs continues to be descriptive of the same subjects today.  In other words, in the areas where "nothing has changed" Frith is great, in the areas where change is what needs to be explained, Frith is useless.  That is one of the bugg a boos about all the social sciences.  Good theories either tend to describe a static structure very well or they describe a theory of change, but never both using the same idea.

   Frith is at his most accurate when he describes institutions in the language of 70s marxist inspired sociology. For example, it's hard to dispute his description of the role of local musicians:

  "As local live performers, musicians remain a part of the community subject to its value and needs, but as recording artists they experience the pressure of the market, they automatically become rock and roll imperialists, pursuing national and international sales.  The recording artists' community is defined by purchasing patterns."  

   Perhaps you don't think of local musicians in the same way, but I can assure you that Frith is accurate.  Similarly, his description of the production of recorded music is hard to quarrel with simply because Marxist vocabulary knows how to describe the production of a good.

   However, when it comes to audience, Firth shows himself for the leaden 70s era college professor that he is. For example, he cavalierly summarizes fan magazines of the 60s and 70s saying "the essence of fan magazines is that they respond to audience taste."  However, in Selling Sound, Diane Peckhold rather conclusively establishes that in Country Music, prior to Rock and Roll, the fan magazines were in fact started by the fans themselves.  The music press followed the fan run magazines in the United States.

   As you would expect from a 70s Marxist sociologist, his chapters on "Consumption" are weak, weak, weak.  This era of sociology did not handle consumption with aplomb.  The focus on values as expressed by subcultures is a dead end.  Ultimately those values are those of the consumer.  At the same time, the late 70s working class cultures of the United Kingdom, where Frith did his highly amusing "field work" to not work as universal stand-in's for "youth culture."  Further more, the in depth discussion of "youth culture" hardly reflects the diversity of consumer society as it relates to rock music or any other cultural product.

Book Review

A History of Archaeological Thought
Second Edition
by Bruce G. Trigger
P. 2006
Cambridge University Press

Let me give you a tip about used book shopping: If you see a book that has been published by Cambridge University Press, and it's less then ten bucks, by it. I found this book at Moe's Used Books in Berkeley- and it was sixteen dollars- it would set you back 80 on Amazon. This was actually my second start down this path. Earlier, I bought a book about the great discoveries of archeological history and discovered that it was a boring book filled with the journal's of early 20th century archeologists. What a bunch of imperialist dicks. In fact, the main problem I have with archeology is the discipline itself. Archeology has been used to justify Nazism, Manifest Destiny and the superiority of classical civilization over that of the present. Hardly a resume which inspires confidence.

     Most, if not all of the bad stuff from archaeology dates from before World War II. As the author points out, 90 percent of all archaeologists through out world history are active right now, so writing a history of archaeology is surprisingly easy. It's like that for most academic subjects. Trigger first wrote this book back in the mid 80s, twenty years later, he wrote this update, then he died. This book is just about as thorough and comprehensive as you might expect, and it could guide self study in the field of archaeology for a decade or more before you'd need to be brought up to speed with new developments.

           Trigger's clear headed and comprehensive treatment of subjects like "antiquarianism" and "cultural historical archaeology" are conversation enders. I simply don't think that anything he says about older archaeological movements is even worth challenging. As he moves into more recent times, the filtering and discussion becomes a little more confused, a little more specialist then general audience. By the time he gets to his two hundred page discussion of "post processal" archaeology, I was just about ready to through my hands up in the air.

           Like all other social science disciplines, archeology has suffered by being subjected the the vagaries of the university cultural production world- an emphasis on increasing specialization and specialized discourse leading to fewer cross connections both intra and inter discipline. The impression I got was of a wave of knowledge slowly building, only to hit a pier of French inspired critical theory and American academic polemic. In covering the grand sweep of archeology as a discipline, Trigger makes many of the points that Kevin Collins made about philosophers in his excellent the Sociology of Philosophies. Trigger's grasp of cybernetics and systems theory seems limited but he seems to intuitively grasp these interdisciplinary concepts and their relevance of archeology. He also neglects a discussion of the intellectual networks that produced the writers whose ideas he discusses. For example, his discussion of Walter Taylor and his impact on the "new archeology" in the United States seems to directly parallel the network analysis of philosophers in the Collins books.

     You really don't need to talk about networks until the volume of material surpasses the limits of rational comprehension, which happens surprisingly late if ever for most intellectual subjects. Few, if any, intellectual subjects outside of the hard sciences reached this level of complexity before the 1960s.

         Despite it's flaws, archaeology remains the main way that we can learn about cultures who either didn't write, or whose writing is incomprehensible to us, so we need to think about it. That doesn't mean the archaeologists know what they are doing- quite the opposite, it would seem, archaeological discourse should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt and all conclusions should be treated with skepticism.

Book Review
The Tarim Mummies:
Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West
by J.P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair
Thames & Hudson
p. 2000

   I picked this book up at the Secrets of the Silk Road exhibition at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.  Despite whole heartedly recommending this exhibition to my readers, I maintain some reservations about the influence of the Chinese government on the content of the exhibition.  This influence, led, in my mind, to an exhibition catalogue that borders on the worthless (again, a full page color photo of a chinese won-ton?) and led me to look elsewhere for the context I needed to understand the "Europoid" mummies of North Central Asia.

  This book, written by two reputable professors, is probably the only book any non-specialist needs to read about the Tarim Mummies.  J.P. Mallory is a professor of pre historic archaeology at Queen's University in Belfast, and Victor Hair is a Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at University of Pennsylvania.   Furthermore, Mallory is the world's foremost non insane authority on the Indo Europeans.  The Indo Europeans are the semi-mythical linguistic/ethnic group that spawned the languages and people that comprise essentially all of Europe as well as Sanskrit and it's derivatives and Iranian.  The debate over these people's was badly tarnished by a century and a half of racist ideology (No one calls them the Aryans anymore, even though they called themselves Aryans.)  Regardless of the historical baggage, it's an interesting area to read about.  Mallory has written multiple books about the subject either by himself (In Search of Indo Europeans) or in conjunction with others (Oxford's Guide to Proto Indo European Linguistics.)

  The Tarim Mummies reads like a synthesis of his theories about indo european linguistics, but here he has added the insight of Victor Hair, who is able to bring Chinese records into the equation.

  According to Mallory, the Tarim Mummies emigrated into the Tarim Basin from the North West.  His thesis is that they represent the Eastern fringe of a "centrifugal" migration of Indo Europeans south from their ancestral homeland in the Russian Steppes.  In doing so, Mallory is advancing his long running thesis that places the indo european "home land" in the Asian-Russian steppelands of the North, as supposed to those who would place it the Caucauses, the western steppes or in south-eastern Europe.

  This homeland debate is anachronistic in my mind- we have been so accustomed to fixed national borders that it seems foreign to think that entire nations migrated thousands of miles in the early period of civilization. In fact, settling down was a pretty good way to get wiped off the face of the map by nomads who kept their fighting spirit.  Such was the case with the Tarim Mummy culture, who founded cities at the center of the silk road, only to be levelled by Ughyurs and ulitmately dominated by the Chinese.

  Mallory's use of comparative linguistics to buttress his arguments is fairly ingenious. I would like to see that technique applied to some other area of history besides the Indo European language question.  It also helps take the matter out of the world of archaeology.  I have issues with the discipline of archeology, but that is not a subject for today.

Book Review
Sound Effects:
Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock and Roll
by Simon Frith
p 1981
originally published in 1978 as "The Sociology of Rock"
Pantheon Books

    Simon Frith is an academic who has melded a love for rock and roll/popular music with an thorough grounding in the vocabulary and concerns of US/UK sociology.  The main relevance of this book is grounded in the fact that it was first published in 1978, and that it fully accounts for the emergence of the punk movement.  For whatever reason, the American publisher decided to remain it with that terrible, terrible name, but "Sociology of Rock" certainly does describe what Frith expostulates.

   Sociology of Rock is dated in the sense that the book is written in leaden, academic prose.  On the other hand, it is relevant because the vocabulary that Frith employs continues to be descriptive of the same subjects today.  In other words, in the areas where "nothing has changed" Frith is great, in the areas where change is what needs to be explained, Frith is useless.  That is one of the bugg a boos about all the social sciences.  Good theories either tend to describe a static structure very well or they describe a theory of change, but never both using the same idea.

   Frith is at his most accurate when he describes institutions in the language of 70s marxist inspired sociology. For example, it's hard to dispute his description of the role of local musicians:

  "As local live performers, musicians remain a part of the community subject to its value and needs, but as recording artists they experience the pressure of the market, they automatically become rock and roll imperialists, pursuing national and international sales.  The recording artists' community is defined by purchasing patterns."  

   Perhaps you don't think of local musicians in the same way, but I can assure you that Frith is accurate.  Similarly, his description of the production of recorded music is hard to quarrel with simply because Marxist vocabulary knows how to describe the production of a good.

   However, when it comes to audience, Firth shows himself for the leaden 70s era college professor that he is. For example, he cavalierly summarizes fan magazines of the 60s and 70s saying "the essence of fan magazines is that they respond to audience taste."  However, in Selling Sound, Diane Peckhold rather conclusively establishes that in Country Music, prior to Rock and Roll, the fan magazines were in fact started by the fans themselves.  The music press followed the fan run magazines in the United States.

   As you would expect from a 70s Marxist sociologist, his chapters on "Consumption" are weak, weak, weak.  This era of sociology did not handle consumption with aplomb.  The focus on values as expressed by subcultures is a dead end.  Ultimately those values are those of the consumer.  At the same time, the late 70s working class cultures of the United Kingdom, where Frith did his highly amusing "field work" to not work as universal stand-in's for "youth culture."  Further more, the in depth discussion of "youth culture" hardly reflects the diversity of consumer society as it relates to rock music or any other cultural product.

Book Review
Map of the Austro Hungarian Empire.

A History of the Hapsburg Empire: 1526-1918
by Robert A. Kann
p. 1980
University of California Press

   One consequence of WWII is that American universities picked up a ton of first-rate scholars.  Robert Kann (two "n"s) was one of them.  He was a German speaking historian and he came over to the United States and wrote a ton of books about the Austro-Hungarian empire that rely on almost 100% non-English language sources.  Unfortunately, English was his second language and his prose reads like it.

  This book is an example of something I like to call "Dad history," like it's counterpart, Dad music, Dad history shows high level of technical ability but is either out of date or lacks artistic inspiration.  You know, culture... for dad's.

  The story of the Hapsburg Empire is, to my mind, the strangest chapter of European history.  If you are looking for in depth description of how an Absolutist European Monarch copes with the vicissitude of a multi-national polygot Empire during the birth of modernism.... unfortunately this isn't the right book for you.  But: It is the right subject to be investigating.

  I suppose the answer to "Who cares?" on this subject

 consists of three names:  Adolf Hitler, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka.  Ok asshole you don't give a shit about Austria, but they produced some pretty heavy hitters there at the end.  This is not the kind of book where the author gets into hows and whys but it does lay out the scenery of what this crazy place was all about.

  Perhaps the most (only?) interesting chapter in Kann's book is the description of the implementation of an empire wide Congress, with political parties and everything, that was introduced by the Emperor in the mid 19th century.  It's hard to ignore the role of this shift to participatory democracy and the rise of organized anti-antisemitism.   SPECIFICALLY, Alois Hitler, Hitler's father worked in for the Austrian government as a CUSTOMS AGENT.  One of the Austrian political parties drew heavily in it's support among German speaking public employees.  This was the same party that early on adopted Antisemitism, before it was cool.  Thus, Hitler grew up in the home of this government bureaucrat who was officially, politically anti-semitic.

   It just goes to show ya that democracy ain't always the greatest.

Book Review
The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex
Second Edition
by Philip D. Curtin
first published 1990, second edition 1998
Cambridge University Press

     I think I've mentioned this before, but always be on the look out for history books, published by Cambridge University Press, that cost less then five bucks.  Paying attention to the publisher can save you a lot of wasted reading time.

    A major trend in history over the last thirty years has been the shift away from books that dealt with The History of Country X or The History of the Such and Such War to books that try to relate multiple events to one another as well as the elaboration of areas of inquiry that span separate historical subjects.  A major example of this trend is the rise of "Atlantic History" which seeks to relate what happened in the new world with events in the old world in a specific and non-specious manner.  In American History, the most notable authors in this area are David Hackett Fischer and his seminal Albion's Seed as well as Bernard Bailyn.

   The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex is a simple example of what I would call the "new atlantic history," written in an easy to read prose style that makes it accessible to anyone with an undergraduate level education.  Curtin charts the rise of the Plantation complex in south America and the Caribbean with reference to the internal history of Africa, the settlement history of the New World, economic history and a heavy emphasis on demographics.  It's a sophisticated, of the moment approach which undoubtedly explains why the edition I read was the 13th edition of the 2nd printing (i.e. it's a hit.)  Perhaps the success has something to do with the moderate length (200 pages) and almost total lack of foot notes- I'm guessing this book is an undergraduate staple in history departments on three different continents.

Book Review
World Prehistory:
A New Outline
by Grahame Clark
Cambridge University Press
p. 1969

      You wouldn't think that pre-historic archeology is a subject area where it's important to "stay current" but the fact is that almost everything that was written about archeology before the mid 1960s was wrong, more or less.  In other words, pre-historic archeology has a time line that matches up well with less serious topics like "rock music" and "computer technology."  I don't think people realize that when it comes to social sciences, the explosion of practitioners and texts dates entirely from the 1970s forward.  There has been a 30 year long glut in the production of knowledge, and we owe that explosion, and the resultant confusion, almost entirely to the proliferation of shitty United States universities.

     Archeology is no exception.  During the 1960s, American archeologist trumpeted the arrival of the "new archeology" which basically meant archeology that moved away from the racist, bullshit historical-cultural archeology that saw western europe as the end all be all of human civilization and ignored and diminished all other forms of human civilization.   Well, I hate to say it, the Brits got there first, and it was only the sad ignorance of the so-called 'new archeologists' in the United States about their own discipline  that allowed them to proclaim the invention of an archeological method that was already in existence.

   Specifically, the Cambridge archeological duo of Gordon Childe and Grahame Clark laid the groundwork for a less inaccurate archeology as early as the 1930s.  World Prehistory: A New Outline represents a late synthesis of much of the "new thought" of archeology, and while it is obviously 40 years out of date, it is still super available, affordable (you can buy it for one cent on Amazon) and easy to read (200 pages, with no footnotes.)  As such it represents an appropriate departure point for a layman's exploration of archeology, and you need not worry that Clark is filling your head with racists nonsense.

Book Review
Baobab Alley with people, Madagascar
The Harmless People
by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
p. 1958
Vintage Books

   This is a book about the "Bushmen" of the Kalahari desert- you can tell how old it is because the author refers to what are now known as the "San" people as "Bushmen" throughout.  It's an old book, but no worse for wear after staying in print for half a century plus.  It's also another one cent amazon wonder- a book you can buy, on amazon, for a penny.  There are so many good books available for one cent it's a wonder that people spend their time reading crap, but c'est la vie.

   When I think about what will be left off humanity after our current civilization craps out and destroys itself, my thoughts turn to what we now call "primitive" civilizations.  Primitive?  Maybe by our standards, but who do you think is going to survive when the average temperature of our planet rises by fifteen degrees and we run out of clean drinking water.  Well, my money is on the people who are living in the desert right now.  I think they will survive, and we will be destroyed.  Unfortunately, our present civilization is so powerful that those peoples are almost entirely wiped out, and there may be none left when there time comes.

   Is it too late to learn some lessons from the peoples at the margins?  Maybe/Maybe not.  Me- I'm trying to learn all I can about people who have survived at the margins for centuries.  They may, in a certain sense, be "primitive" but man- are they tough.  People who can survive for generations in the scorching hot deserts of south west Africa deserve mad props, and there is plenty that we can learn.

   Harmless People is not an academic book.  Written by a 23 year old co-ed in the mid 50s, Harmless People is an early example of the popular anthropology genre that took off in the 60s.  Thus, given it's early publication date it's easy to see why this books has been such a success.  Thomas has nothing but sympathy and respect for a people who were, even as she wrote this book, being hunted and enslaved by both blacks and whites in Southern Africa.

   She shows the San to be a people with culture, religion and their own unique group of survival skills.  For example, Thomas describes how the San gather poison for their arrows from one specific species of caterpillar.  It's an incredibly complex process that the San managed to figure out without any science whatsoever. So to is their ability to survive out in the desert.  They sound incredibly tough- the very essence of what humanity should be.  Meanwhile, here we are: fat, lazy, complacent, incredibly arrogant.  It is sobering to think about- how we have proliferated while the San have been hunted to extinction- literally: hunted to extinction.  How embarrassing for all of us.

Book Review
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
by Thomas Kuhn
University of Chicago Press
originally published 1962
this edition 1996

       The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is the book that invented the phrase "paradigm shift."  Every time you hear someone say the phrase "paradigm shift" they are referring to this book, even if they have no idea of this book's existence.  As described in this book, a paradigm shift is the moment when a scientific community abandons one idea and simultaneously adopts another, conflicting idea.  Kuhn's book was inspired by epistemological debates he had observed within the social science world.  In other words, he was inspired by arguments between sociologists and psychologists about what constituted knowledge within those disciplines.  Kuhn theorized that the same debates occurred within the "hard sciences' but that those debates were obscured by the biases of scientists themselves.

     This idea was almost immediately adopted by writers all over the world, both academic and non-academic.  The idea of "paradigm shift" itself inspired it's own paradigm shift by foreshadowing many of the more extreme arguments of french cultural theorists and post-modernists.  The people latching onto the idea of paradigm shift have done much harm to the original work, which is a short (200 pages), concise, and to my mind, non-controversial description of the way that scientific knowledge is generated.

    Chief among the non-controversial, common sense ideas that Kuhn invented is the idea that sea changes among communities are spurred by crises.  That the individuals who create change are young people who are deeply immersed in the specific crisis they are seeking to solve, and that by virtue of their youth they have not yet 'made their reputation' by defending old ideas.

   In every day language:  You can't have intellectual change without failure and it is failure which inspires wide spread intellectual change.  The failure of current ideas to explain anomalous events inspires faith in new ideas.  At that point, the old ideas, and the activities which are spurred by the investigation of that idea, are abandoned- the intellectual equivalent of an abandoned ancient city.  The members of the community who are inspired by the new idea create their own, new patterns of activity, the members who refuse to adapt stop generating new iterations of the old ideas and instead fight a rear guard action against activities of the folks motivated by the new idea.

Book Review
Selling Sounds:
The Commercial Revolution in American Music
by David Suisman
p. 2009
Boston: Harvard University Press

   The strangest fact about this book is that there is another book called The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry (2007) that covers much the same thematic territory.  I was also immediately reminded of That Moaning Saxophone: The Six Brown Brothers and the Dawning of a Musical Craze (2004).  All three books are an example of a renaissance in academic Interdisciplinary Studies.  The back covers of those three books provides an additional ten titles which all proceed from the same cross-disciplinary viewpoint.  I don't think ANY of the books or the books listed on the back cover would be considered a "hit" within the publishing world except for Lizabeth Cohen's A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. (2003)  All of these titles represent a break down between departments in American Universities as well as a move away from trends in cultural theory during the 1990s.  The happy result is the production of relevant knowledge in readable language.

      Like the other books listed, Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, selects different strands of music culture in the period between the end of the Civil War and the start of the First World War.  Really, the relevant time periods here (time periods are important) are 1880-1917 and 1918-1929 (Great Depression)  Like all of the books listed, Selling Sounds focuses wholly on the United States market.  Suisman's analysis is strong as far as it goes.  He uses the term 'culture industry' with comfort and his opening chapter on Tin Pan Alley is a tour-de-force.

    I think... the limits of this book are best expressed in the failure to introduce similar analysis of different groups of ideas that were "out there" at the same time during the course of the time periods here.  There was certainly a heavy exchange between Germany, France, The United Kingdom and the United States.  Specifically, one of the intellectual ideas that pre-dates the time period covered here is the "Folk Music" movement in EUROPE in the mid 19th century.

       I think the influence is especially salient when one considers the role of white European immigrants in the founding of record labels that specialized in African American folk music and jazz influenced popular music. This leads me to the other main omission in Selling Sounds, which is, by the way, an amazing book.  The second omission is any treatment of hillbilly music, the analogue to Suisman's focus on "Race Records" in this book.  There is hardly any overlap in the time periods covered in this book (1880s-1929ish) and the time period covered in Selling Sounds: The Rise of the Country Music Industry (1920-1970s.)  By the way- the overlap is "the invention of broadcast radio."

      As Selling Sounds eases into chapters on the recording career of Enrico Caruso and the lost history of the player piano, we move into familiar culture studies territories.  However, Suisman writes with a light hand and doesn't engage in debates of interest only to specialists.   A strong late chapter is his set piece on The Black Swan, the earliest substantial African American owned record label.  It's actually seemed to me that the book emerged out of that chapter, which has a somewhat clunkier theoretical apparatus then the rest of the book.  Also is the chunky conclusion, with a 'pointing out paradoxes' hook that left me yawning.

     I don't think you can talk about modern music culture without adding in the underlying folk culture.  Certainly, it might surprise a trans-Atlantic Professor of History that one would seek to write an account of a specific aspect of American Culture without discussing the impact of ideas generated wholly within Europe or the United Kingdom. Additionally, this is an example of what David Hackett Fischer calls the fallacy of presentism in his book Historians Fallacies: Towards a Logic of Historical Thought. Fischer defines the fallacy of presentism as

"a complex anachronism, in which the antecedent in a narrative series is falsified by being defined or interpreted in terms of the consequent.  Sometimes called the fallacy of nunc pro tunc, it is the mistaken idea that the proper way to do history is to prune away the dead branches of the past, and to preserve the green buds and twigs which have grown into the dark forest of our contemporary world." (FISCHER: 135.)

   This fallacy is demonstrated in the omissions I just pointed out.  African American influenced music dominates the contemporary landscape.  Meanwhile, the intellectual discussion over folk music as practiced in Germany and the United Kingdom in the mid 1850s is a footnote to a footnote to a footnote, studied perhaps only in the John Hopkins Department of Comparative Literature.

  I don't think you can explain the commercialization of American music in the 20th century without reference to, first, the folk music culture of regular people living outside major cities as it existed before the Civil War, and second, the impact of ideas about Folk Music on the development of ideas about Popular Music in the 20th century.  That's a pretty big subject though, so I'm going to give Suisman a pass and instead congratulate him on what is an excellent book, inside or outside the University knowledge production system.

Book Review
Highbrow Lowbrow:
The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America
by Lawrence W. Levine
p. 1990
Harvard University Press
The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization

   The terms Highbrow Lowbrow as they are meant to refer to culture were derived directly from the 19th century intellectual fad of phrenology.  Phrenology is pretty ridiculous just by itself, so it should sunrise no one that the cultural categories of highbrow and lowbrow turn out to be just as lame in Levine's cultural studies classic about the rise of intellectual ideas about music in 19th century America.  These are ideas that "manifest" (as Levine likes to say) to this day.  I'd bet that 99% of the people who read this book review know exactly what the difference between highbrow and lowbrow culture is, and that the categories have been trampled on since the 1960s by the elevation of lowbrow culture: comic books, rock music to "highbrow" status.

   Levine's book is interesting both for the subject matter and his method.  I would say this Highbrow Lowbrow is a fine example of 80s-90s cultural studies with all the strengths and flaws of that group of books. On the one hand, Levine is writing about culture having fully absorbed the lessons of Cultural Marxism and French Culture Studies, on the other hand, his application of those lessons is truly, truly dated.  Most glaringly, and again, this is just par for the 80s-90s culture studies field, he discusses subjects like "the sacralization of culture" without reference to any anthropological thought.  I'm sorry, but how can you talk about something like "sacralization" of ANYTHING, without discussing what that concept means in the field where it was developed.   The other glaring issue in Highbrow Lowbrow is his absolute refusal to settle upon a single term for a group her variously describes as "new arbiters of culture" or "promoters of the new high culture" or "range of cultural leaders."

    Perhaps because he was writing more then 20 years ago, the idea that all these folks are groups of intellectuals whose writing about music influences audiences seems simultaneously both too simple and too complex for him to integrate into his book.  Dated too is his triumphant revelation of a paradox at the heart of intellectual writing about music in the late 19th century.  OH MY GOD??? A CONTRADICTION AT THE HEART OF A STRAIN OF 19th CENTURY INTELLECTUAL THOUGHT???? WHATEVER SHALL WE DO????

    I mean please, the triumphant revelation of a paradox within the writing of a certain group of Western intellectuals is a new criticism set piece that is as much of a crutch to the thoughtless academic of the 21st century as progress narrative was to the thoughtless academic in the 20th century.

     All of these (mostly aged) related theoretical concerns do little to mar what is otherwise a must-read for the contemporary music intellectual set.  Mostly because it triggers thoughts about the specific ways in which non-artist intellectuals induce artists to attempt to control audiences in ways that have nothing to do with the process of "sacralization of culture." (the process by which cultural events adopt a sacred tone, sacred in the sense of the 19th century church environment.)  The degree to which the artists that Levine discusses- mostly band leaders like John Phillip Sousa, vigorously adopt the audience patronizing ideas of the contemporary intellectuals is truly, truly astonishing.  I could not help but reflect of the situation of contemporary musicians and their troubled relationship with music intellectuals, as well as the similar paradox that lies at the heart of contemporary intellectual writing about music.

  This paradox is succinctly stated on page 227 in his section onf "Order, Hierarchy and Culture":

   Once again we can find an elite group with a vested interest- unconscious though it may have been- in welcoming and maintaining the widening cultural gaps that increasingly characterized the United States.

   Clap. Clap. Clap.  Personally, I take issue with almost every word in that sentence but I'm not going to get into it here.  I also wanted to note that Levine uses the term "passive listeners" in describing the process of imposing order on the 19th century audience, and that is the earliest I've seen that term in print.  Like so many other academics of the 20th century, Levine simply does not give a fuck about audiences, and this book is devoid of any insight into their situation during the time period covered.  On the other hand, the coverage of intellectuals writing about music during this time renders further reading almost entirely unnecessary, and in that area it is a classic.

Book Review
The Wave Watcher's Companion
From Ocean Waves to Light Waves via Shock Waves, Stadium Waves, and All the Rest of Life's Undulations
by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
p. 2010
Perigee Press (Penguin)

    This book is interesting not just because of the subject matter, but for the genre of popular nonfiction it exemplifies.   Call it non-fiction's answer to the novel: It's antecedents are journalists like Tom Wolfe, and Hunter Thompson.  It's a style that is best represented by William Vollmann's epic *Imperial* but you would also have to include novelist/writers like David Foster Wallace,  McSweeney's titan Dave Eggers.  It's also featured in the book length magazine articles of Malcolm Gladwell.  None of the writers I am talking about are unknowns- in fact- they all seem to do pretty well.

  Other similar figures include Monocle magazine editor/Financial Times columnist Tyler Brule and the author of this book, Gavin Pretor-Pinney co-founder of The Idler magazine.

   But I think if someone is sitting there thinking "what kind of book do i write" you are better going with the creative non-fiction category then the novel.  First of all, no one gives a fuck about good novels, people like crap.  Are you going to write a novel about a child wizard?  A vampire? No? Then no one is going to care.  On the other hand, a book like the Wave Watcher's Companion can generate a sensation using an easily recognizable format.  Wave Watcher's Companion is a hit- the book itself its compact- fits in one hand, handsome cover, large text, footnotes in the back with a separate set of footnotes in the text.  Photographs, illustrations, 19th century style section summaries placed onto the page.  The over all impact of the book itself is one of distinct delight.

  Pretor-Pinney has been down this road before, in addition to co-founding the Idler, an "alternative life style" magazine that has been hugely influential among the intellectual sets on both sides of the Atlantic since it started in the early 90s- he's also written "The Cloudspotter's Guide" which I have not read.  The thing about Wave Watcher's Companion is that it is TIMELY.   It is a Southern California zeitgeist atm and waves are very relevant.

  Highly recommended. Worth the money!

Book Review
The Philosophy of Rhetoric
by I.A. Richards
p. 1936
New York: Oxford University Press

   When I read Pitchfork it reminds me of what academics call New Criticism.  Specifically, I think the "style" of Pitchfork is of popular version of techniques, like  close reading which were developed by New Critics to talk about poetry.  Close reading means:

A truly attentive close reading of a two-hundred-word poem might be thousands of words long without exhausting the possibilities for observation and insight. To take an even more extreme example, Jacques Derrida's essay Ulysses Gramophone, which J. Hillis Miller describes as a "hyperbolic, extravagant… explosion" of the technique of close reading, devotes more than eighty pages to an interpretation of the word "yes" in James Joyce's great modernist novel Ulysses. (WIKIPEDIA)
       Despite thinking this in my head, I really don't know anything about New Criticism or Literary Theory- also- I have no desire to know about any of that beyond bare framework.  Close reading a poem is super annoying.  BUT- I.A. Richards, who is one of New Criticism's FOUNDERS also wrote a book called "The Philosophy of Rhetoric," and I love rhetoric study so I was like "Hey- give him a shot."  And you know what: The non-close reading parts are pretty interesting.  The 20 page excerpts where he close reads a poem, not so much.  From my perspective, Richards seems to be overlapping with Wittgenstein and the other language philosophers(another group of ideas I'm only barely familiar with)  before he dives into the poetry nonsense.

        New Criticism may have some use since it overlaps with other discourses, but man, 200 pages of poetry analysis puts me to sleep.  Critics should learn about the techniques of New Criticism, and then do the opposite.  What a waste of time.


Keats: A Biography
by Andrew Motion
p. 1997

    I make a full confession of ignorance when it comes to the actual output of the German/English romantic poets of the late 18th and 19th centuries. I didn't major in literature in college, and honestly, I don't give a f*** about poetry itself except as it relates to song lyrics, and even then, it's not a big concern of mine.  However, as I've been working on book about the relationship between intellectuals and music, I'm taking another look at the romantic poets.

    First of all, Goethe and Schiller are seminal figures when it comes to the attitudes taken by subsequent intellectuals towards music.  Second of all, the successors/contemporaries of those guys- specifically English romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelly and Byron have a huge influence on how contemporary intellectuals- artists and writers both, see the role of the artist of in society.

   I think it's fair to say that even those contemporary artists who are utterly ignorant of English poetry in the 19th century share most, if not all, of the attitudes of those artists when it comes to how they see themselves.  They hate the business world, they don't like capitalism, they despise or ignore their critics, they are less concerned with making a living then making a statement.  The romantic poets of 19th century England are kind of the ur-romantic intellectual/artistic figures, so I felt like I should check out this 500 page plus biography of John Keats- one of the more flamboyant figures in a posse characterized by flamboyance.

    John Keats was called a "cockney" poet during his brief, unsuccessful life.  In Motion's lengthy, lengthy book- one of literally dozens of biographies of this subject- Keats emerges like an 18th century analogue of the 20th century pop musicians who comes up "from the streets."  For example, many 50s rock and rollers couldn't read music.  Keats, who drew almost exclusively on Greek myths for his reference points, couldn't read Greek.  Unlike many of the other romantic poets- Keats did not come from a privileged, wealthy background.  The untimely death of both of his parents left him enough money so that he didn't have to actually work for a living, but he was hardly gallivanting around the globe Byron style.  His one trip abroad- to Italy- resulted in his death (at the age of 25.)

   One of the benefits of writing about Keats is that he wrote during a time when people wrote tons of letters and his work was discussed by contemporary critics.  The superabundance of materials makes it easier to talk Keats in a contemporary context.  One interesting aspect of Keats that emerges in Motion's biography is the relationship between Keats, his critics and his friends.  When Keats was writing poetry, poetry was reviewed in much the same way albums and films are reviewed today.  Critics had sharp opinions about the merit of specific poets and their output.  Keats, as a member of the middle classes espousing an anti-government line, came in for harsh, harsh criticism.  He read that criticism, and it totally bummed him out.  At the same time, Keats also had a circle of friends who loved his work and when he met his untimely death they came out and crushed the haters.

  Today, the contemporary critics of Keats sound like morons and his poetry is read by many an American undergraduate.  You wonder if it would have been the same story if he had lived to 85.  Again, Keats is an archetype of the "live fast die young famous forever" artist that has so much influence on the mind of artists working today.

   In conclusion, I'd like to say that Keats life is wholly irrelevant to the work of artists and critics today, because he seems sorta ridiculous to me.  However, it's impossible to ignore the fact that many of the tropes from this biography continue to repeat themselves down to the present day, and this makes Keats a pretty important dude, whether the artists and critics who unwittingly re-enact the episodes of his life in their own contemporary sparring know about him or not.

Book Review
The Celts
by Gerhard Herm
p. 1976
St. Martin's Press

  I'm a big fan of cultural trends like "vampires" and "harry potter" because it helps me identify idiots whose opinions  I wish to avoid.  Don't get me wrong, I like True Blood as much as the next guy, but people who get obsessed with projects like 'Twilight" and "harry potter" are demonstrating a real lack of intelligence and cultural imagination.  The internet has made the world of knowledge so available and accessible, and yet... Twilight.   I don't begrudge pigs their slop, but that slop is not for me.

  This is not to say that I'm not interested by the world of myth and fantasy.  Quite the opposite.  For a little over a year I've been mildly obsessed by the pre-historic world of the indo europeans- that group of people who spawned the Greeks, the Romans, the Germans, the Celts, the Spanish, the English, the Slavs and the Hindus.  I've read books, had discussions, attended museums, etc. etc, etc.  I imagine I'm motivated by the same emotions that drive the Twilight fans: a desire for a lil magic in the day to day world.

   It's hard to find good source materials when it comes to these indo europeans cultures- the field is filled with crack pots, kooks and psuedo-academic bs....  That's why I was kind of into The Celte, by Gerhard Herm.  Herm also wrote a cool book about the Phoenicians.  He is a German author, who wrote in the 70s.  These books were hugely popular and sold millions of copies.  Today the "celts" are largely equated with Ireland, but they were actually a prolific indo european culture that dominated Spain, France, the low countries and of course... the British Isles.

   The Celts were conquered by the Romans and absorbed into the Empire- unlike the Germans, the continental Celts did not maintain a separate identity outside of the Roman Empire.  The Celts in the British Isles maintained their separate identity well into the Christian period.  In Ireland, they lasted long enough to create their own alphabet.

  Who were the Celts?  Well, they were fearsome warriors- not quite as fearsome as the Germans, but they liked to cut off their enemies heads and put them up on the walls of their huts.  They liked to fight in the nude.  They had their own religion and their own religious leaders (the Druids) whose practices are shrouded in mystery.  Herm makes analogies to the Brahmin class in India to explain the function of Druids in Celtic culture.  It's an analogy founded in base supposition, but you know what: it works for me.

  The most interesting parts of the Celts are the chapters were Herm delves into Celtic mythology.  These stories were written down by Christian monks in the 11th century, but the similarities between their stories and other indo eurpoean mythos (like the Rig Veda) are pretty amazing.  The Celts sound like indo europeans through and through, and what's more, they are "our" Indo Europeans, to the point where we have sports teams named after them.  Pretty cool stuff, and the book costs like thirty cents on Amazon.  More interesting then vampires, I hope you'd agree.

Book Review
Popular Culture:
The Metropolitan Experience
by Iain Chambers
p. 1986
London: Routledge Press

  Intellectuals writing about music...what a fucking disaster.  The utter and total failure of intellectuals inside and outside the university system to write accurately about the role of music in the lives of audiences didn't really manifest itself until after the full rise of popular music in the post World War II period: before then, music just wasn't ubiquitous or important enough in the lives of normal folks to expose specious intellectual attempts to discuss music and the it's role within the lives of audiences.

   Regardless of the epic landscape of failure, the discriminating audience member needs to tackle this literature to understand the music of the present, and I would suggest that Iain Chamber's Popular Culture: The Metropolitan Experience (1986) is a Culture/Music Theory 101.  Popular Culture is paperbook size, but it functions as a punk rock text book describing intellectual theories about popular culture from the 1800s through the punk era.

    The bibliography is super solid, and Chambers does a good job mimicking the 'cut-up' techniques of the modernist inspired layout.  The book design aspects of Popular Culture double or triple the value of this book.  It's something a pop star could carry on in her handbag during a european tour and read in 5 or 10 page bites.  It's affordable enough for the part-time musician working in a coffee shop.

        This book costs .63 cents usd + four usd shipping on AMAZON.  It's a light, fun, easy read that packs a huge informational punch on the description of intellectuals and their theories about popular culture.  If you flip through it and go straight to the bibliography, like I did, then more power to you.

       Personally, I think the combination of used books on Amazon, streaming Netflix and Google Books represents a revolution in the production of knowledge that will surpass the rise of the university system in 18th century Germany.  This is the time to get on board that three headed hydra: used books on Amazon, streaming Netlix, Google Books.  What do you need a university for in terms of the production of knowledge?

        The goal of this blog is to help other people find their own path to understanding using the new materials that are available, not to push people down one particular path: but you should go somewhere, do something.  It's a revolution in the production of knowledge, so produce some fucking knowledge.

    People who make a living from music should be familiar with what intellectuals have written about music, because that is how they are going to be judged.  There's no magic or creativity to writing about music, rather, the interesting part is how little the music writers themselves understand what it is they are doing, or even trying to do.

   Thus, musicians who have a conscious understanding of how and why people write about music will have an advantage of those who do not, and audience members who understand their 'place' in the discussion .... well I guess the benefit depends on how much you care about the role of music in your life.  If you don't give a shit, then you don't need to care about any of this information.

       On the other hand if music 'means' something to you, ignoring these ideas means you are ignorant.  Not stupid, just ignorant.  Most of intellectuals theorizing about popular culture is them writing 'about' the audience- not as a participant, as a detached 'scientific' observer.  What a bunch of bullshit.  Popular culture is about experience not observation.

Book Review
Empires and Barbarians
by Peter Heather
Oxford University Press
Published March 4th, 2010

   This is a history of the period between the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the "Middle Ages," focusing mostly on the movement of peoples across the Roman frontier from Germania, the movement of Slavs into Eastern Europe and the movement of Vikings into the Greater British Isles area. In short, it's a migratory history of the period when the people who presently inhabit the nations of Europe got to where they were going.

  Heather takes full advantage of recent developments in historiographical thought, explicitly drawing on the archeological shift in history as well as the development of 'migration studies' in the United States.  He combines these newer methods and theory with the erudition and "pop" that you would expect from an author publishing a book called "Empire and Barbarians" through Oxford University Press.  The quality I admire most about the history titles coming out of the OUP is that they combine tremendous learning with tremendous style. No dad's history books these.  Heather isn't a stuffy writer, and he's not afraid to throw in anachronistic references to drive home a point.

   Heather's main thesis, that population movements were a combination of different migratory trends that encompassed a variety of different social groups over time and place has tinges of both revisionism and counter-revisionism, but Heather is careful not to over step his claims.  It's hard to ignore the conflict between his claims that "archeology is leading history" in this particular area of study with the lack of archeological materials that he actually cites.  In many places, Heather rests his case on what he hopes will be revealed by future study.  Didn't bother me, but it is a weakness.

   Empires and Barbarians is at it's best when Heather introduces concepts from 'migration studies."  One of the main points he makes in this area is how economic disparities draw people across international borders.  Sounds obvious- but it does represent a revelation when it comes to this area of history and what has been written in the past.  Heather argues that the posting of Roman legions on the border of Germania were economic trade zones that induced German tribes to step up agricultural production and spurred greater political development within the matrix of conquest/resistance.

   Heather has similarly insightful observations about the emergence of Slavs and the migrations of the Vikings- this is probably the one book for a general reader to take on about the confusing period in Europe between 300 and 100 ad.

Book Review

Shamans, Mystics and Doctors
by Sudhir Kakar
p. 1982, University of Chicago Press Edition 1991

   Mental illness is a subject near and dear to my heart.  I deal with mental illness at least once a month in the course of my job as a criminal defense lawyer.  Some of my clients are what they call "dual diagnosis" which typically means substance abuse + mental illness.  Of course I'm interested in different approaches to curing mental illness, from western psychiatry to eastern Shamanism.  Here is a truth about this entire area: Anything works as long as the patient and the doctor share the same believe system.   This means that the curative power, for all these practices, lies with the patient rather than the Doctor/Shaman/Wizard.

   This is the central thesis of Sudhir Kakar's illuminating Shamans, Mystics and Doctors.  Kakar is an Indian Psychotherapist who wrote a book about the curative practices of a variety of Indian traditions: Muslim and Hindu Shaman.  Shamans is divided into several chapters, each of which profile a different Guru or discipline with an approach to treating mental illness.

  Considering the depths that traditional Freud inspired Psychotherapy has reached since Kakar wrote this in the early 1980s, his medical Doctor psychiatric oriented appears almost as dated as the Muslim and Hindu shaman's who exorcise demons by name.  However, Kakar is right on when it points out that ANY approach to healing and mental health can work so long as there are a healer and a patient who believe in the SAME THING.

   Kakar also notes that the central experience held in common by all the various methods of Indian mental curing is the disassociation of the self- getting "outside" your self,  how you do it doesn't matter, but it needs to be guided by someone else, you can't do it yourself.


Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era
p. 2005 Viking/Penguin
by Ken Emerson

     This book tells the story of seven pairs of songwriters, all of whom worked writing pop songs starting in the late 1950s.  The subjects of Always Magic are Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Burt Bacharach and Hal David,  Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield,  Barry Mann and Cythia Weil, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.  Between them, they quite literally dominated the pop music charts in a period between 1959 and 1962ish.

    I think Emerson aptly sums up the role they played in the popular music world in the late 1950s and early 1960s when he says that they were "adults writing songs for teens."  A half century into the rock era, such a statement sounds obvious, but all of these writers had an opportunity to excel because their predecessors didn't "get" rock music or teen music.  The Brill Building writers (actually a misnomer since most of the worked at a nearby building, 1650 Broadway, rather then the Brill Building itself) sit on the divide between late 1950s rock and roll and the popular music of the time.  As music professionals, they were well aware of ALL the trends that were bubbling up from youth and urban culture, but they were not romantic artist poet figures, rather they more resemble the characters from Mad Men: savvy professionals looking for a way up.

   The beginning of the end for the Brill Building Era was the British Invasion.  Although the triumphant British artists like the Beatles were well aware of the great song lyrical legacy of the writers working around the Brill Building, they didn't need other people to write their songs.  Similarly, the techniques and styles popularized by the Brill Building writers were copied and imitated (and exceeded) by bit players (Phil Spector) and those further afield (Barry Gordy and Motown.)  There was also a movement towards cynicism and trickery- the Brill Building writers were wholly responsible for the rock and roll atrocity of the Monkees.

  Like so many other moment in Popular Music history, one can see the sun setting over the horizon even at high noon- that's how brief artistic/commercial triumph is.  It's a simple fact that in a capitalist economy there is always going to be twenty people gunning for number one, and the Brill Building writers were no exception. It's also worth noting that many of them worked as salaried employees at a time when their songs were selling millions.

  Personally, I find this business model attractive, but then again, I also think the patronage scheme in Renaissance Florence was pretty tight.  The most successful Brill Building writers were those who could transition between different roles in the culture industry.  The best example is Carole King, who was to become a successful solo artist in the 1970s.

     Finally, they made an enduring contribution to the sound of popular music, introducing classical and latin touches to early rock and roll.  The Brill Building writers also created the best girl group music of the period, especially if one includes the work of Phil Spector.  It's an enduring body of work, and a subject well worth hours of quiet contemplation.


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