Category Archives: Slow Jams

Longer pieces – essays and stories.

Sigur Ros’ – Route One

Sigur Rós, an Icelandic alt-rock/electronic band, ended 2017 with the release of their newest and possibly most ambient album, Route One. The record is named for Iceland’s actual Route One, also known as the Ring Road, which is a highway that almost fully encircles the island-country, and takes about 10 hours to complete (but I recommend a full week). The connection to this iconic highway does not end at the album title. Each track, of which there are eight, is named after a latitude/longitude coordinate corresponding to a specific location on Route One.

Iceland, which was shaped by equal parts fire and ice (through volcanic and glacial activity), is known for incredible vistas around every corner. Typically, a song explains its meaning through its lyrics, but in the case of this album, the meaning is expressed through the vision and mood of that tiny corner of the world. It is as much a visual experience as an auditory one.

At least, that is the goal. Most listeners will not be listening to the songs at their corresponding coordinates. However, I was lucky enough to go with my family to Iceland and hear half of the tracks on the album at their designated locations. My personal favorite was 64°02’44.1”N 16°10’48.5”W, which is located at edge of Lake Jokusarlon, also known as Glacier Lagoon, on the Icelandic south coast. An enormous glacier on the other side of the lake advances slowly toward you. As the glacier meets the lake, chunks of it “calve” and float free in Jokusarlon.

In this track, a slow, soft, and eerie melody is punctuated by a repeating series of small zoom-like effects until all the notes begin to dissolve into meaningless but ear-pleasing noise towards the end of the track. I found it It was difficult to connect the vibe of the track with that of the view; I never would have connected the sounds with icebergs on my own, so how did Sigur Rós reach that point? Did they all agree on the connection, or was only one person on board?

Amy, Miles, and icebergs at Jokusarlon

How a place makes one feel is inevitably personal, meaning the artists’ intention for every track in the album will rarely be understood by the listener. For that reason, despite the album’s quality and originality, it is best left as a one-time deal; a blip in the history of music that will be remembered for a long time.

I would highly recommend the album for fans of intense calm. The album can easily be used as a soundtrack for meditation, or for tasks that require a moderate amount of concentration.


Or: Route One on Spotify

Below, I whipped up a map of Iceland showing the location of every coordinate/track title. Surprisingly, there does not seem to be a video in which someone has gone to every coordinate and recorded footage of the view so that others do not have to go to Iceland for this experience. However, Sigur Rós was kind enough to create a 3-part, 24-hour video taking the viewer the whole way around the Ring Road, with their album as a soundtrack for the trip. This is the closest we will get for now.

All the track titles of Route One, mapped:

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – Numbers Stations / The Conet Project

“I listened to the Voice of America and Moscow Radio and eventually came across shipping and aircraft stations.” “I was able to find an explanation for those. Then I heard the strange voice — someone saying, ‘Papa November’ for five minutes while a snake charmer’s flute played in the background. And there was no explanation anywhere.” — Anonymous forum post


One might imagine that spies since the end of the cold war would be communicating over the interwebs, using AES-256 crypto. Probably not via SnapChat. You might be right. But not entirely. Since the Berlin Wall came down, the number of secret communiques being sprayed out over old-school shortwave radio to real-life spies has actually increased, leaving legions of hackers and radio nerds speculating about their origins and purpose.

So what kinds of messages do spies receive from their masters? No one knows – they’re perfectly encrypted, via the ancient but theoretically unbreakable one-time pad technique. In the age of Heartbleed SSL vulnerabilities and NSA backdoors into computer systems of all kinds, spy orgs have been broadcasting encrypted messages on the public airwaves for more than 50 years. But rather than cold streams of binary data, they’re transmitting the voices of little girls and old men, speaking strings of letters, numbers and random words over shortwave. Despite transmitting without discrimination to anyone with a shortwave receiver, no one has ever been able to crack a single message. Listeners who stumble into one of these stations are likely to hear something like this:
Continue reading Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – Numbers Stations / The Conet Project

Einstein on the Beach

Listening to a Phillip Glass piece is more  like studying a stained glass window than listening to music in the conventional sense  – a passing glance would only tell part of the story, while the full picture is revealed by standing in deep meditation of its nuances.  Originally purchased tickets for last night’s Zellerbach performance of Einstein on the Beach back in June, but didn’t realize until a few days ago that I had signed us up for a 4.5-hour performance (“not including opening tones”). Even though I’ve got a warm spot in my heart for Glass, and had always been curious to see Robert Wilson’s legendary 1975 “Opera in four parts,” started to worry I had signed us up for  4+ hours of “difficult listening hour.” It’s not that Glass’ music is “difficult” per se’, but that he works in such large arcs, often pushing the limits of what audiences are willing to sit through. That doesn’t mean his work isn’t gorgeous – it is – but that we have to reorient our expectations of how long a composition should last, how willing we are to slow the hell down and become absorbed in a slow progression of subtly shifting notes and chords.

The “opera” (Glass says he only considers it an opera when it’s performed in an opera house … otherwise, “it is what it is”) is a meditation on science and society, gender roles, habits, patterns of living, all slowly unfolding as semi-opaque vignettes. The scene pictured above, for example, took twenty minutes to unpack. It is not just frozen because it’s a photograph – it’s frozen by composition. Starting as an impeccably painted factory building with a sole figure in the top window, characters (stereotypes) slowly enter and freeze into position. So little happens, it was almost painful to watch (though gorgeous to hear). But the funny thing about these “knee plays” is that every time you feel like your patience has been stretched to its limit, you realize that you’re  totally fascinated. Small details become important.

In another scene, a 30-foot-long bar of pure white light lays horizontally on the stage in the dark. As the music builds, one end of it slowly lifts up, moving so slowly it’s barely perceptible. A line is becoming an angle – that’s all – and over the course of 10 minutes, the bar finally reaches its vertical zenith. “Good,” you think, “Let’s move on.” Then the now-vertical bar starts to rise, and you realize it’s going to take another 10 minutes for it to ascend up behind the curtains. Part of you is asking “Are you kidding me? You’ve got to be kidding me.” while another part of you is totally absorbed in the movement of the simple light, thinking “So this is what the passage of time feels like.” You just have to let go of your rock and roll expectations and allow yourself to be swept into the pace of Glass – there is no other way.

Wilson’s stage production is austere, lightly symbolic, and sometimes funny, while the patience and endurance of the performers is stunning. It was the job of one dancer to “read” through much of the evening. Wearing  gray slacks, suspenders, and a white Oxford, she held a stiff book full of blank pages. Her head shook rapidly from side to side, vibrating  like a bobble-head doll, as if stuck in a permanent speed-reading trance. But reading what? That’s not important. It’s like she was the abstract, Platonic form of a reader, reading the abstract, Platonic form of a book. Nothing more, nothing less. How she maintained that head-wobbling for so long is beyond me – our necks ached in sympathy.

The performance peaks  in a crescendo of light and movement dedicated to the atomic age (the Einstein connection). A scaffolding rig recreates the Hollywood Squares of performance art, with dancers gesticulating mathematically at dancing light displays, some squares  shared with musicians. Lucite boxes containing floating, writhing humans traverse slowly from side to side. The victim of a nuclear blast dances with flashlights in the foreground. Two people crawl out of plastic domes, then slowly “duck and cover” to shield themselves from an atomic blast. An immense, gauzy scrim is lowered in front of it all – a massive enlargement of a 1950s explainer diagram on the mechanics of atomic detonation.

All the while, a violinist in an Einstein costume sites in a lonely chair in front of the stage, above the orchestra pit, playing his heart out just for you.

4.5 hours later we wandered outside into a warm October Berkeley evening, wondering where the time had gone.

Listening experience flow chart by Amy Kubes:  Life Cycle of a Phillip Glass Piece 


Robert Christgau: Dean of Rock Critics, King of Beers

Over at WFMU’s excellent Beware of the Blog music site, Canadian writer Brian Joseph Davis has penned a hilarious music review parody, the Ultimate Negative Christgau Review. Davis is no stranger to outrageous satire. His own music-obsessed rant, Portable Altamont, reimagines Don Knotts as a Buddhist philosopher and Margaret Atwood as a gangsta as it delivers delicate epigrams (Sample: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Kid Rock was to remember the distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”)

None of Davis’ earlier work, though, prepared me for his epic spoof of Christgau, whose peerless (and sometimes inscrutable) Consumer Guide recently transformed into a blog, Expert Witness. Davis’ spoof culls negative phrases from more than 13,000 Christgau reviews into a single composite pan. Here are some teasers:

A born liar, showing all the imagination of an ATM in the process, a certain petty honesty and jerk-off humor, a man without a context, a pompous, overfed con artist, a preening panderer, mythologizing his rockin’ ‘50s with all the ignorant cynicism of a punk poser, a propulsive flagwaver attached to UNESCO lyrics about people all over the world joining hands, a simpleton, but also a genuine weirdo, a spoiled stud past his prime, so that while he was always sexy he wasn’t always seductive, a stinker, from Jesus-rock to studio jollity, a tedious ideologue with a hustle, a tough talker diddles teenpop’s love button. Act authentic for too long and it begins to sound like an act even if it isn’t.

Air-kiss soul, alienated patriotic, all clotted surrealism and Geddy Lee theatrics, all form and no conviction, except for the conviction that form is everything. All he proves is that when you dwell on suffering you get pompous. An archetypal indie whiner.

Christgau’s prose, dense with cross-cultural allusions and insider jokes, is ripe for this sort of roasting. He has self-confessed biases (against salsa, metal and prog, and for almost anything African-sounding) and puzzling sources of inspiration (this means you, Black Eyed Peas). Far too cerebral to be considered a gonzo journalist, he’s impassioned and impulsive enough enough to have thrown pie at one of his generation’s finest essayists, former girlfriend Ellen Willis. Christgau only started liking Sonic Youth after they threatened him in a song. When Lou Reed slandered Christgau on a live album, Christgau thanked him for pronouncing his name correctly.

Yet Christgau is one of only three music writers whose work has moved me as much as my favorite fiction authors (the other two are Amiri Baraka, who wrote far less about music, and Lester Bangs, who wrote with more heart but far less consistency). And I admire that after four decades of nonstop listening and writing, he has an insatiable appetite for new sounds and a disdain for sacred cows. I like Radiohead, but won’t forget his take on Kid A: “Alienated masterpiece nothing–it’s dinner music. More claret?” When classic rock still ruled the airwaves, Christgau had this pithy take on Prince’s Dirty Mind: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”

Excerpt from “Robert Christgau: “Rock and Roll Animal” (1999)
(Music: Modern Lovers, “Government Center”)

Just as I was absorbing Davis’ Christagu parody, I discovered that Christgau and his wife, writer Carola Dibble, penned a Consumer Guide to Beer that is almost as funny. Written in the mid-seventies, before the advent of alt-beer and the heyday of Michael Jackson (the Dean of American beer critics, not the singer), the piece is surprisingly sympathetic to flavored-water American macrobrews such as Coors and Budweiser, with nary a reference to obscure Belgian monks.

Still, I love how the Christgaus start with a pedantic lesson on the history of grain fermentation since 6000 B.C. They review San Francisco’s Anchor Steam as if it were a bottled version of the Grateful Dead (“Our bohemian friends found it winy, but we found it one more instance of San Francisco’s chronic confusion of eccentricity with quality”), and describe the Krautrock-worthy Beck’s as if it were a bottle of Can (“This beer is so overbearing that bad-mouthing it seems risky”). As George Clinton would say, can you get to that?

Funkadelic, “Can You Get to That?”

Too Much Joy, “King of Beers”

Can You Get to That? The Cosmology of P-Funk

Note: This piece was originally written for Pagan Kennedy’s book Platforms: A Microwaved Cultural Chronicle of the 70s but was most read at Scot Hacker’s Birdhouse Archives from 1994-2011 before moving to Stuck Between Stations. Dead links have been updated or removed and images/video have been refreshed, but I’ve otherwise refrained from editing the original.

For the religiously inclined, P-Funk [1] offered up an array of minor gods, an intangible and omnipotent metaphysical reality (the funk itself), and a whole flotilla of ministers (actually a loose-fitting assemblage of crack musicians and crackpots dedicated to the administration of an entire cosmology). The roots of this church lay deep in the African polyrhythmic pantheon; its disciples (“Maggotbrains” or “Funkateers”) consisted of anyone who sought a quasi- cohesive view of a universe which included a god who danced, and who knew that having a loose booty to shake was as crucial to the keeping of the faith as the rosary was for the Catholic.

While their ministers were many — a constantly evolving line- up guaranteed the elasticity of the band — it is undeniable that high pope George Clinton wore the mitre. From the cryptic, ridiculously bent versifying of the liner notes to the album sleeve art production (which narrated the genesis and mission of the band in a series of ongoing, albeit disjointed cartoons) to the inception and direction of the outrageous stage production — a black sci-fi extravaganza / space party that could cost upwards of $350,000 [2] — Clinton wielded the scepter of Funkentelechy, and wore the righteous robes of the Afronaut (actually Holiday Inn bedsheets covered with Crayola scribbles).

Continue reading Can You Get to That? The Cosmology of P-Funk

My Imaginary Back Pages

Rock Fans Outraged as Bob Dylan Goes Electronica: Audience members at the Newport Rock Festival were “outraged” Monday when rock icon Bob Dylan followed up such classic hits as “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Maggie’s Farm” with an electronica set composed of atonal drones, hyperactive drumbeats, and the repeated mechanized lyric “Dance to the club life!”

The Onion, July 12, 2010

This week marks the 45th anniversary of one of the defining moments in American musical history, except there’s one little catch. Most of it probably never happened. This much we know is true: at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan “went electric” for the first time in a live performance, leaving some folk traditionalists like Pete Seeger less than impressed. But the legend goes way beyond that, implying that the shock of Dylan’s new sound provoked near-riotous anger along the lines of what Igor Stravinsky encountered at the 1913 Armory Show debut of The Rite of Spring. Todd Haynes’ 2007 movie of Dylan’s multiple personalities, I’m Not There, builds up the tallest parts of the tale, showing Jude Quinn, the Cate Blanchett character based on the too-cool-for-school electric Dylan circa 1965, enduring loud boos as the band machine-guns its way through a short electric set. The mild-mannered Seeger suddenly goes ballistic and tries to cut the amp wires with an ax.
Continue reading My Imaginary Back Pages

World Cup Rant, Part 3: Five Reasons Not to Cry for Argentina’s Diego Maradona (and suggested soundtrack)

Unless you count celebrity cephalopods, the only larger-than-life presence at this year’s World Cup was a man standing five feet, five inches. Having barely survived his Fat Elvis phase, Argentine legend Diego Maradona re-emerged from his usual work as a religious icon to coach (or at least cheerlead) his national team to the quarter-finals. This happened when the self-styled Pancho Villa in soccer shorts wasn’t otherwise occupied running over reporters’ feet, directing his players to haze each other, threatening to run naked, denouncing Anglo-American imperialism, or getting bitten by his own dog.

In his recent documentary Maradona, the equally eccentric Serbian director Emir Kusturica describes Maradona as the footballer’s equivalent of the Sex Pistols. But he’s more like a combination of Mozart and Iggy Pop: a contortionist savant driven by instinct, walking the line between genius and madness, aware that he is both a brilliant creator and a really big stooge. While these aren’t necessarily the qualities you’d want in a coach, they are sensational songwriter’s materials. Although Maradona is reportedly despondent over his team’s manhandling by Germany, here are reasons you shouldn’t cry for him, with accompanying soundtrack.

1. He’s still the King of Bongo.

Our Diego
Who art on earth
Hallowed be thy left foot
Thy magic come,
Thy goals be remembered.

    The Church of Maradona

Soccer and music don’t always mix. For every goal-worthy performance—K’naan’s Marleyesque reworking of “Wavin’ Flag” from this year, or New Order’s suave “World in Motion” from 1990—two or three come out deserving red cards (for instance, the Village People’s 1994 musical partnership with the German national soccer team). But Maradona, despite his obvious faults, inspires fanatical devotion. He could fill an entire playlist with musical tributes, some of which verge on greatness.

Maradona is the subject of two songs written by Manu Chao, the wiry French/Spanish troubador responsible for politically charged albums such as Clandestino, as well as surreal classics like “Bongo Bong” and “King of Bongo.” The raucous “Santa Maradona,” recorded with Chao’s old Franco-punk band, Mano Negra, pays tribute to his hero even as it flips the bird to hero worship. “La Vida Tombola” (life is a lottery), from Chao’s latest La Radiolina album, mixes joy and melancholy as it traces the man’s journey from rags to riches to disgrace to partial redemption.

Manu Chao, “La Vida Tombola” (sung to Maradona)

2. Andrew Lloyd Webber will never write a bad musical about him.

Argentina has had a few well-known rock bands, including Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Soda Stereo, who performed at Maradona’s wedding. But on an international scale, Maradona’s only serious celebrity rock-star competition is Eva Peron. Unlike poor Evita, however, Maradona has no likelihood of having his life turned into a horrid Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. How bad can his musicals get? Well, in a new production of Evita, Ricky Martin will play the role of Che Guevarra.

Maradona, who named one of his dogs Che, would never stand for this abuse. Moreover, Webber, a supporter of England’s conservative party, would never risk his middlebrow credentials on Maradona, whose popularity in the UK ranks somewhere between that of Napoleon and Osama bin Laden. It’s not just that Maradona scored the most famous illegal and legal goals in history to defeat England 24 years ago (respectively, the devious Hand of God goal and the brilliant Goal of the Century). It’s that Maradona viewed each of these as poetic justice that avenged the Falklands War and placed Argentina on the right side of history. You can argue the history, but it’s really hard to be on England’s side when listening to the amazing Atahualpa Yupanqui.

Atahualpa Yupanqui, “El Carrero”

3. He’s responsible for the modernization of Argentine tango.

I don’t mean that Maradona personally did this, of course. But in his memoir, Astor Piazzolla observed that he was indifferent about football until Maradona’s exciting play made him a “furious fan.” In 1986, the same year Maradona led Argentina to World Cup victory, Piazzolla released one of his most daring works, Tango Zero Hour. More than a coincidence?

Astor Piazzolla, “Tanguedia”

4. He’s Springsteen to those who weren’t born in the USA (or England).

Beneath Maradona’s shiny designer suits and fondness for luxury toilet seats is the soul of a populist rebel from humble origins who sometimes lets his big heart show. Just when you’re ready to dismiss him as just another hopelessly obnoxious rich guy, he can pull something that’s a bit more Joe Strummer or Bruce Springsteen than Johnny Rotten. Even as his own life was unraveling, Maradona helped jump-start the career of then-teenager Diego Forlan, this year’s Golden Ball winner from Uruguay, and helped pay medical bills for Forlan’s paralyzed sister.

Below is a clip of Maradona, still bloated and recovering from his drug-addicted wipeout, covering “La Mano de Dios” (that’s right, “The Hand of God”) by the late Argentine cuartero singer Rodrigo. At first he comes on like a train wreck, something like the over-the-hill boxer Robert DeNiro played near the end of Raging Bull. But by the time family members join him at the end, the clip transforms into something weirdly touching and hopeful.

Maradona singing Rodrigo’s “La Mano de Dios”

5. He’s a better metaphor for globalization than anything in Thomas Friedman’s laptop.

Maradona is missing from almost all of Franklin Foer’s fascinating 2004 book, How Soccer Explains the World. Foer, editor for the New Republic, uses soccer as the lens for fairly gentle criticism of Thomas Friedman-style flat-earth thinking about globalization. He portrays soccer as a surreal parallel world illuminating our own, in which rival teams in placid Glasgow re-enact a centuries-old holy war between Protestants and Catholics, Nigerian players lose their cool in the icy Ukraine, and Iranian women dress up as men to sneak into the world’s largest stadium. The global game, despite its liberalizing potential, still hasn’t come close to overcoming regional, ethnic and religious strife or the power of corrupt oligarchs.

Foer views the tolerant ethos of his favorite team, FC Barcelona, or Barça (which currently includes Maradona’s protégé, Lionel Messi), as a hopeful sign that patriotism and cosmopolitanism can be compatible. The World Cup victory of a graceful Spanish team, largely on the strength of its Catalans and Barça players, with assists from the Basques, might be viewed as supporting this hope. But even that is a bit of a stretch. The victory came just a day after protests in Barcelona over a Spanish court ruling on Catalan autonomy. Outside official circles, Catalonia has its own national team, as do the Basques. And the ethnic and economic divisions in Spain pale next to others in Europe, which pale in comparison to those in other continents.

If you had to pick a soundtrack for cosmopolitan nationalism, what would you choose? Barça’s unofficial theme song last year was…drumroll please…“Viva La Vida” by Coldplay–because nothing motivates athletes quite like moderately paced middle-of-the-road rock. That may be a bit harsh. Barcelona is one of my favorite cities. I admire its tolerant reputation and its team’s storied history (the soccer field was one of the few outlets available for Catalan expression during the bleak Franco years). I also have nothing against Coldplay’s signature song, or the half-dozen others that share its lilting melody. But I think the hopeful parts of Foer’s thesis may play a little too much like a Coldplay song—meticulously constructed and catchy, but lacking a willingness to push beyond the comfort zone at the risk of looking ridiculous.

Maradona, who is all about pushing beyond the comfort zone, inspires either revulsion or religious devotion (and yes, there’s a Church of Maradona with more than a hundred thousand members). While his fanatical devotees vary widely, many never got Tom Friedman’s memo about how the latest internationally-distributed gadgets will help level the playing field. They understandably would like to believe that every once in a while, they might have a turn to rule the world, if only for the length of a game. They want to believe David can still slay Goliath, even if it requires the Hand of God.

Scenes from the Church of Maradona

South Korean singers summon the hand of God in 2002

The Aviator, Part II: Sky Saxon

Baby, baby, I can’t let go
I got the Seeds on the stereo….

The Zeros, “Wild Weekend”

seedsLast Thursday, the world lost a musical pioneer known for his childlike wonder. He sealed his reputation making joyful noise, yet also seemed doomed to tiptoe through fields of anguish and despair. The singer precisely captured his moment in time. But in his increasingly strange last decades, he seemed to come from another planet, so absorbed in his restless search for solace that his oddness overshadowed his moments of unalloyed pop brilliance.

I speak, of course, of Sky Saxon, singer and bassist for the psychedelic garage band innovators the Seeds. Los Angeles-based writer and radio host Ken Levine aptly described Saxon’s music as “a mix of hard rock, blues, peyote, and not sleeping for several weeks.” Overshadowed in his time by hitmakers like the Kingsmen and the Troggs, and later by the likes of Love and the Doors, he continued the trend even in death, passing away within hours of a better-known guy who fancied himself as the King of Pop. Saxon and the Seeds were inconsistent and erratic, and their most fertile period was short-lived. But at their best, they produced relentless mini-anthems filled with love and danger. “Pushin’ Too Hard,” my favorite of these, is as compelling as anything in the Jacksons’ catalogues, and meant more to me personally.

Sky Saxon was also known as Richard Marsh, a Mormon kid from Utah and former doo-wop bandleader who discovered he could make his voice sound like Mick Jagger swallowing gasoline. When he moved to California and formed the Seeds in the mid-Sixties, his new moniker fit nicely with a new band taking flight, first with the roar of proto-punk garage rock and later with the birdlike flight patterns of flower power. The Seeds discovered trippy keyboards before the Doors, and were unleashing raw power before the Stooges. They were their best at their simplest, exemplifying Woody Guthrie’s dictum that if you use more than two chords, you’re showing off. It’s fitting that Saxon’s final days were spent in Austin, stomping grounds for fellow psych-garage head cases both old (Roky Erickson) and new (the Black Angels).

If the Seeds were a movie, they would have been a grainy, no-budget independent film that lingers in the memory longer than last year’s big-budget Oscar winner. They were a little scary, but they played with heart. Saxon wound up ingesting too many of the Sixties’ finest pharmaceuticals and joining a spiritual cult, but he remained a charismatic and inspirational figure to musicians. The Seeds remained his signature group, and they were as seminal as the name implies. Muddy Waters loved the Seeds so much that he described them as “America’s own Rolling Stones,” and wrote the liner notes to one of Saxon’s lesser side projects, an attempt at garage/ blues fusion. Joey Ramone claimed that listening to the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard” inspired him to sing, and the Ramones later covered a second Seeds standard, “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine.” I’m pretty sure the Ramones also took haircut tips from the Seeds.

The most heartfelt tribute I’ve seen to Saxon’s legacy came from Los Angeles native Nels Cline, whose genre-bending guitar work has found him collaborating with everyone from Charlie Haden to Mike Watt to Willie Nelson, fronting his own improvised music group, and playing lead for the fiery nineties roots-punk combo the Geraldine Fibbers on the way to his current lead duties with Wilco. In an obituary last week, Cline described Saxon as his first rock idol, not simply for the Seeds’ music, but for the charisma he exuded while appearing on TV programs with names like “Boss City” and “The Groovy Show.” Cline wrote that he “would stare in disbelief as he—clad in shiny satin Nehru shirts bedazzled with some gaudy brooch—would gyrate around lasciviously, holding the microphone in every cool way imaginable. He seemed from another planet.” Years later, Cline ran into an aging hippie at Trader Joe’s with an unmistakable style, and you can guess who it was. Saxon and Cline went on to play an improvised set, using the name Flower God Men and their Assistants. The flower god man has taken his final flight, but the thrill ride continues.

The Seeds, “Pushin’ Too Hard”

The Seeds, “Mr. Farmer”

If a deep, slow groove with big implications for globalization are your bag, all 10.5 minutes of “900 Million People Daily All Makin’ Love” should be required listening:


The Aviator, Part I: Michael Jackson

Can you just imagine digging up the King,
Begging him to sing
About the heavenly mansions Jesus mentioned….
He went walking on the water with his pills.

Warren Zevon, “Jesus Mentioned”

broad_inaugural_12When Elvis left the building a generation ago at what seemed then the very advanced age of 42, I loved a few of his songs, but mainly considered him a bloated, Eskimo Pie-addicted man-cartoon that some kids’ parents liked. Only later did I discover what the fuss was about: the Memphis truck driver getting “real, real gone” in the magical Sun Sessions; the swaggering sex machine; the out-of-control mystery train that not even a dozen corny movies and a thousand prescriptions could completely derail. No wonder even Nixon cited Elvis as the explanation for the Bermuda triangle (“Elvis needs boats”).

This week, at the young, tender age of 50, another larger-than-life man-cartoon made an inglorious exit. Like Presley, Michael Jackson walked on water, first with his brilliance and later with his pills. And as with Elvis, I dismissed most of what he did long before he left. But MJ was an arresting presence even for those who, like me, did my best to ignore him. Elvis even seems an inadequate comparison for his stratospheric global reach. A closer comparison might be Howard Hughes, another man-child of erratic brilliance, whose master aviator’s soaring heights later gave way to reclusive paranoia and heartbreaking tailspin.

For now I will set aside the aspects of Michael Jackson’s life better left to the justice system and to his maker. As an admiring non-fan, I’ll count down five of his huge accomplishments:

1. He Liberated Eastern Europe from Communism.

Who do you think accomplished this, Reagan and Gorbachev? Please. The invasion of Afghanistan was bad enough, but the Kremlin’s most self-destructive act was its 1985 decision not to censor a vinyl version of Thriller. Long before MJ built a 35-foot statue of himself in Prague, his invisible gloved hand shook like a thousand Adam Smiths, securing our opportunity to visit McDonald’s in Vilnius.

Michael Jackson, HIStory Teaser

2. He Made Globalization Irreversible.

Don’t blame him for the shortcomings of NAFTA, GATT and world-beat fusion music. The new century would still be inconceivable without globalization, and MJ was its mascot. If there’s any doubt, listen to Caetano Veloso’s version of “Billie Jean.”

Caetano Veloso, “Billie Jean”

3. He Stopped Quincy Jones from Making Bad Solo Records.

Quincy Jones has a great ear for talent other than his own. Long ago, Q made five-martini bachelor pad classics like “Soul Bossa Nova,” which featured the amazing Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But by the late seventies, he’d spent far too much time making lame film soundtracks. Soon after Q started mentoring MJ, he woke up and started sailing the high seas of Eighties soul-funk cheese, producing bizarre period classics such as 1981’s The Dude, which even features a zany cover of a song by Ian Dury and the Blockheads sideman Chaz Jankel. The Dude abides.

Quincy Jones, “Soul Bossa Nova”

Soul Bossa Nova (Tema da Nike) – Quincy Jones

4. His Voice Was Better than Your Favorite Singer’s Voice.

Maybe that’s stretching it. Still, once you get beyond the tabloid crassness, Jackson had a voice so divinely inspired that comparisons are almost unfair. Production values and taste are things that can be questioned, and I’ve criticized those in most of his work. But his abilities were already astonishing by the time the J5 featured his preteen lead on “I Want You Back.”

Jackson Five, “I Want You Back”

5. He was Jackie Robinson in Aviator Glasses.

It’s hard to describe how segregated most of the pop mainstream was at the end of the seventies, with much of white America (including me) still in “Disco Sucks” mode and rap still emerging from the underground. Off the Wall and Thriller shattered that rigidity. If the path that followed has had some cracks in the pavement—like having to endure Fred Durst limply pretending to be funky—MJ still helped prepare the country and the planet for their multiracial future.

Indian version of “Thriller”

Funny videos

Holiday in Cambodia: Khmer Rock, Dengue Fever and the River of Time

Part One: Life During Wartime

Last week, when Aretha Franklin put on her oversized bow hat and melted fire with her inaugural version of “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)”—Samuel Francis Smith’s 19th Century rewrite of a German rewrite of “God Save the Queen”—a piece of my heart held the memory of another queen of soul, one generation and half a world away, who met with a more tragic fate. Blessed with a voice of equally staggering power and beauty, Ros Sereysothea rose from poverty and illiteracy to become the most beloved singer in her native Cambodia during the sixties and early seventies. Thanks to the excellent Los Angeles combo Dengue Fever, discussed below, the music of Ros and her contemporaries is finally experiencing a rebirth on both sides of the Pacific.

Ros’s story carries a distinctive rock twist. Along with the cherub-faced godfather of Khmer soul, Sinn Sisamouth, a former Royal Court crooner turned unlikely garage rocker, and the more playful female vocalist Pan Ron, who makes me think of Martha Reeves, Ros meshed Khmer music with the range of Western sounds that made their way across the Pacific during wartime—everything from Motown and classic R&B to surf, psychedelic and garage rock. Eastern sounds from Bangkok to Bollywood also entered the mix. The resulting Khmer rock underground was like nothing else heard before or since. A track like Ros’s “Chnam Oun 16” (translated as “I’m 16” or “Sweet 16”) virtually defies description, but to me it sounds a bit like an even more intense Asha Bhosle performing an upbeat Aretha number, backed by the 13th Floor Elevators. The song sounds so alive that it seems to mock death itself for its weakness and cowardice.

Ros Sereysothea, “Chnam Oun 16”

As John Swain captured in his Indochina memoir River of Time, Khmer rock’s seminal figures remained upstarts in their heyday; even Ros and Sinn scrounged for cassette sale revenue and never reached the upper echelons of Cambodia’s economic elite. But their musical revolution came to an abrupt end after April 1975, when Pol Pot’s forces overrode Cambodia. Few of the leading Khmer musicians survived the genocide. Sinn Sisamouth was sent to a work camp and executed. Pan Ron disappeared. Ros Sereysothea’s demise remains the subject of conjecture, but Greg Cahill’s short film about her life, The Golden Voice, concludes that after her discovery in a slave labor camp, she was forced to sing pro-Khmer Rouge songs and marry one of Pol Pot’s henchmen, who later had her killed. In another account, she died from malnutrition in a Phnom Penh hospital weeks before the Vietnamese invasion ousted Pol Pot. Either way, this achingly beautiful and surprisingly rocking music—which often paired melancholy sentiments with sparkling melodies—virtually disappeared, preserved only because fans risked lives and livelihoods hiding priceless cassette tapes. The musical history of a generation went undercover in the face of what Hannah Arendt, commenting on a different genocide, termed “the banality of evil”: ordinary people following orders confiscated and destroyed the tapes, even as they were silently humming these same songs under their breath.

Sinn Sisamouth, “Ma Pi Noak”

Pan Ron, “Rom Ago Ago”

After the click-through: Dengue Fever and the renaissance of Khmer rock and roll.

Continue reading Holiday in Cambodia: Khmer Rock, Dengue Fever and the River of Time