Sometimes imitation is an insincere form of flattery. When I stumbled upon a new TV game show called Know Ya Boo, I found it reminiscent of the Newlywed Game. That’s mainly because it is a complete ripoff, from the smarmy questions of host Tom Haverford to its strange contestants. But a recent show provided an unexpected musical twist.
Haverford asked the male contestants which rock star their “ladies” would most like to “get with.” Andy, a friendly but dimwitted musician who fronts the modest Indiana band Mouse Rat, replied “that’s easy–me.” But sparks flew after his cynical girlfriend April instead chose Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel. Not quite catching on, Andy later predicted that April’s “favorite place to smush” (don’t ask) would be “at the Neutral Milk Hotel.” And why not? After all, who says “love machine” to the ladies better than a reclusive genius whose most acclaimed work, 1998′s In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea, is a surreal concept album based on Anne Frank’s Diary?
Sadly, Know Ya Boo isn’t real. It’s a scene from NBC’s Parks and Recreation, set in the underachieving fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Tom Haverford is really comedian Aziz Ansari, who has previously been spotted stalking M.I.A. and singing songs about duck people with Devendra Banhart. Neutral Milk Hotel, the short-lived leading light of Athens, Georgia’s Elephant 6 collective, is perfectly placed to get an affectionate sendup, given the religious fervor that has built for the the band over the past dozen years on scores of websites and at least one well-researched thesis. Sample blog tribute: “Christianity had Paul. The United States had Federalist papers. Indie rock has Neutral Milk Hotel.” Needless to say, there’s also a ukulele tribute band, Neutral Uke Hotel.
All this fast-track canonization prompted me to stop listening to In the Aeroplane for a few years. I typecast Jeff Mangum, an imaginative guy with a polarizing voice and a low-fi approach to high-concept songwriting, as a shade too precious to reach the pantheon. But it turns out that my dismissal was premature as well. Zach Condon’s first Beirut album, 2006′s Gulag Orkestar, had so many of Mangum’s fingerprints–compressed folk strumming, evocations of Eastern European marching bands, words as travel snapshots–that I gave Aeroplane another spin. I’ve had it in heavy rotation ever since. Far from sounding like he was trying to create the Rosetta Stone of hipster cred, Mangum now sounds to me like a boy awkwardly growing into a man, haunted by a girl’s diary most of us have ignored since high school, willing to risk making a total fool of himself because he had to find a way to sing through his pain. Back in Chicago, we called that the blues.
And one day we will die
And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young
Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see
Mangum is finally on tour again, bringing back the evocative title track of Aeroplane . I hope he also covers “Sex Machine.”
Neutral Milk Hotel, “Holland 1945″
Neutral Milk Hotel, “Two-Headed Boy”
Neutral Milk Hotel, “In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea”
The day after the rapture, I drank coffee, watched both my children play soccer, drank more coffee, and ate jambalaya out of a paper container at a food festival in what looked suspiciously like downtown Oakland. In the end, or lack thereof, the armageddon craze led to little more than a flurry of judgment day music playlists, most of which included the most pretentious song ever written (sorry, Jim). It all seemed a little too predictable, until a research tangent led me to something more fun and equally preposterous: Samuel Beckett once served as a chauffeur for Andre the Giant. The Historical Meetups website explains:
In 1953, fresh off the success of Waiting for Godot, Beckett bought a plot of land near the hamlet of Molien, in the commune of Ussy-sur-Marne, about forty miles northeast of Paris. There he built a cottage for himself with some help from a group of locals, including a Bulgarian-born farmer named Boris Rousimoff. Over the years, Beckett and Rousimoff became friends and would occasionally get together for card games. Rousimoff had a son, André, known as Dédé, who was something of a physical marvel. By the age of 12, André was over six feet tall and weighed 240 pounds. No school bus could hold him, and his family lacked the means to buy a car big enough to schlep him back and forth to school in Ussy-sur-Marne. Enter Boris’ old card-playing buddy Beckett, who owned a truck and was more than willing to pay his friend back for his help with the cottage by giving a lift to his enormous pituitary case of a son on his drives into town. Years later, when recounting his conversations with Beckett (which he did often), André the Giant revealed that they rarely talked about anything besides cricket.
Elvis Costello, “Waiting for the End of the World”
John Coltrane, “Giant Steps” (animation by Michal Levy)
For those actually interested in the outcome of the 1862 Battle of Puebla, many of the United States’ Cinco de Mayo celebrations must seem about as Mexican as chop suey. In the ranks of cultural misappropriations for inebriates, it’s right up there with St. Patrick’s Day, except that instead of offering you dyed-green Bud Lite, someone will show you a picture of Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav wearing a sombrero. And you thought 911 was a joke.
But let’s not get too smug about this. 911 was not a joke. Celebration seems in order this week, even if many of us are too tired and numb to find the right words. I’ll dedicate the selections below to the unsung heroes who patiently get their jobs done without bluster and self-promotion. In tribute to Mexico, where millions struggle for basic dignity while caught in a crossfire few of us understand, I’ll throw in some blustery promotion for my favorite Mexican painter and band. Rufino Tamayo, a former wrestler from a Oaxacan Zapotec family, was sometimes derided as too “historical” for resurrecting pre-Hispanic art. Yet his art was both traditional and subversive, finding a riotously colorful new context for centuries of forgotten folklore. Never claiming the only “right” path, he insisted that the fundamental thing in art is freedom.
Much the same could be said for Mexico City’s Cafe Tacuba, a band whose two decades of subersively traditional, traditionally subversive music are captured in a 2010 documentary, Seguir Siendo. Josh Kun’s essay on the band captures the dizzying number of moving parts involved:
Tacuba has always made music that strives to participate in international conversations while being identifiably Mexican. They referenced Mexican cultural history, wore huaraches in their videos, played acoustic contrabajo and acoustic jarana guitar, spliced son jarocho, boleros, and banda into punk, disco, and classical, and sang songs about the metro and falling in love with a chica banda. Their belief that they could be avant-garde without ever having to leave home—which they spelled out on Re (1994)—has made them a favorite of like-minded music boundary-pushers throughout the Americas.
“Seguir Siendo: Cafe Tacuba” (Lado B, Track 1)
Cafe Tacuba, “El Aparato”
Finally, to betray my own Midwestern nerd-rock roots, I’ll close out today’s cross-cultural rambling with a couple of extremely non-Mexican provocateurs who also delight in muddling the traditional and the subversive. The first is by Liz Phair, the almost-famous New York Times journalist and Bollywood rapper. As an Oberlin graduate, she’s highly qualified to rhyme “Cinco de Mayo” with “Burnout Ohio.” The second is by Bob Dylan, who eventually disbanded his Woody Guthrie tribute band to become an ace storyteller and the country’s finest deejay. His chronicles of Yankee power are highly recommended for long walks in the drizzling rain:
Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?
Liz Phair, “Cinco De Mayo”
Bob Dylan, “Isis”
Everyone hearts Bo Diddley, everyone hearts The Clash. And once upon a time it all came together. One can only imagine the evening was slathered in awesomesauce, but “every generation has its own little bag of tricks.” Now about those amp stacks…
Louvin Brothers, “Great Atomic Power”
2011 will be remembered as a perilous and fascinating time. Thousands of protesters filled city streets, unwilling to tolerate assaults on their basic rights. Their out-of-touch head of state was even caught joking about clubbing dissenters. Is this Cairo or Tripoli? No, it’s mild-mannered Madison, Wisconsin.
Comparisons between Mideast and Midwest have obvious limits. Jon Stewart was only partly kidding when he claimed the real danger for Madison protesters was that they risked getting caught in a drum circle. Still, Wisconsin has had its own bumpy ride. For years, Wisconsin remained under the autocratic rule of strongman Brett Favre. The triumphs that followed his departure soon crossed paths with reactionary forces. But those days may be numbered. When Governor Scott Walker recently insisted upon removing public employees’ collective bargaining rights, he enraged leaders of the one institution in Wisconsin more revered than even the Lutheran Church: the world champion Green Bay Packers.
What does this have to do with music? Plenty. Even as Wisconsin returns to the forefront of progressive protest, pundits on both coasts tend to push it to the cultural margins. Ask about the “Wisconsin sound,” and some will think of aging brewers and dairy farmers singing to the cows between Chicago and Minneapolis, and the bored kids trying hard to avoid them. I could walk through the stereotypes, but Cheeseheads With Attitude have already done the job. And don’t call them losers.
In these troubled times, Wisconsin needs and deserves a more compelling soundtrack. To fill this void, I’ve prepared my own Wisconsin-centered playlist.
Violent Femmes, Kiss Off
Robin and the Three Hoods, That’s Tuff
Clyde Stubblefield, Funky Drummer
Hubert Sumlin, Down the Dusty Road
Goose Island Ramblers, No Norwegians in Dickeyville
Spanic Boys, Keep on Walking
Woody Herman, Goosey Gander
Chi Coltrane, Thunder and Lightning
Mustard Men, I Lost My Baby Now
Die Kreuzen, Man in the Trees
Oil Tasters, Get Out of the Bathroom
Les Paul, Vaya Con Dios
Bunky Green, Step High
Richard Davis, Oh My God
Cedarwell, Weirdest Places
Bon Iver, For Emma
For those expecting seas of cheese, the talent of those associated with the Badger State might surprise you. The old-school hall of fame includes the Wizard of Waukesha, guitar innovator Les Paul, as well as longtime Milwaukee resident Hubert Sumlin, who earned his reputation as Howlin’ Wolf‘s guitarist. The incomparable bass work of Madison’s coolest professor, Richard Davis, graces two of my all-time favorite albums, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch.
“Wisconsin” and “funk” aren’t words often heard together. But the mastermind behind the most influential breakbeat has also lived in Madison for decades. That man,Clyde Stubblefield, is the funky drummer behind James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” whose heavily sampled signature riff is a cornerstone of hip-hop and funk. Tap the rhythm and enjoy the nonstop dancing in your head.
I’d better stop this regional rant before it starts sounding like Sufjan Stevens’ next concept album. But in this age of bearded bards in alternative rock, Wisconsin has two of the best. The best known is Bon Iver, whose heralded For Emma, Forever Ago emerged from singer Justin Vernon’s blustery retreat in a Wisconsin cabin. Thankfully, rather than turning into the Unabomber, Vernon produced an album that slowly smolders with surprising strength. More recently, I’ve been listening to Cedarwell, whose excellent 2010 album A Stone, A Leaf, A Door draws its title from one of my favorite novels, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. Both the music and leader Eric Neave’s facial hair make me think of Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam. And as an added bonus, Neave has spent some quality time with Lars from Balcony TV.
The musical heritage of Wisconsin’s European immigrants is also far from the single vanilla flavor some might expect. James Leary’s book Polkabilly: How the Goose Island Ramblers Redefined American Folk Music provides a fascinating look at this largely unheard music of the upper Midwest. Leary provides a great account of how a Goose Island Ramblers performance baffled a panel of experts on traditional regional music:
Here were three men from South Central Wisconsin, togged out variously in Cowboy hats and Viking horns, playing a shifting array of instruments (guitar, mandolin, fiddle, eight string fiddle, one string electric toilet plunger, harmonica, Jew’s harp, jug, piano, accordion, and bandionion), singing in Norwegian, German, Polish, English, and “broken English,” while playing a repertoire that shuffled, bent and fused British and Irish fiddle tunes, ballads, and sentimental songs with Hawaiian marches, Swiss yodels, and the polkas, waltzes, schottisches, and mazurkas of Central and Northern Europe.
This may sound like a fictitious band that someone like Tom Waits might invent to annoy an interviewer. But the Ramblers were real, and really American as well. Music like this isn’t for everyone. I just happen to think that if you really want God to bless the USA, you should stop listening to Lee Greenwood and start learning how to play the electric toilet plunger.
For anyone over 40 (or maybe 30), having a music collection probably means that, in addition to racks of CDs and ridiculous piles of MP3s, you’re also sitting on bookshelves (or “borrowed” milk crates) full of vinyl LPs. Hundreds of pounds of space-consuming, damage-prone vinyl. LPs were music you could touch, with glorious full-color 12″ album art, meandering liner notes, and the practical involvement of lowering needle to plastic. Long-playing records represent an era when music was less disposable – we actually sat down to listen, rather than treating music as a backdrop to the rest of life. Dragging a rock through vinyl was not some kind of nostalgic love affair with the past – it was just the way things were. The cost of admission was pops and scratches, warped discs, having to get up in the middle of an album to flip the disc, cleaning the grooves from time to time, and getting hernias every time you moved to a new apartment.
Digitizing LPs has almost nothing in common with ripping CDs. It’s a slow process, and a lot of work. But it can be incredibly rewarding, and going through the process puts you back in touch with music the way it used to be played (i.e. it’s a great nostalgia trip). Over at birdhouse.org, I’ve written up a guide which I hope will thorougly cover the process of prepping your gear, cleaning your records, and capturing as much of the essence of those old LPs as possible, so you can enjoy them in the context of your digital life.
The UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism recently hosted a panel discussion titled
The Future of Music Journalism: Computer or Curator?, with the following lure:
Critics and tastemakers have been talking about, reviewing, and exposing music to the masses for generations. With the advent of sophisticated algorithms, computer programs such as Pandora and Apple Genius are now suggesting new or unusual music for listeners.
Tim Westergren, Founder, Pandora
Doug Brod, Editor-in-Chief, Spin
Joel Selvin, Senior Pop Music Critic, San Francisco Chronicle
Niema Jordan, Executive Editor, 38th Notes
The panelists debated “algorithms and blues,” wondering aloud whether technology has freed listeners from music journalists — or made them more valuable than ever. The discussion had a bit of trouble focusing on the topic at hand – many seemed more interested in the completely worn-out question of the impact of blogging on journalism. Fair enough – there are a hell of a lot of excellent music blogs out there, and there’s no question they soak up a lot of eyeballs/traffic that formerly went to Rolling Stone and Spin. But at the same time, very few of the music blogs have the expertise, or go into the depth that RS and Spin do. Still, it’s a pretty tired question by now.
Now that rapper-singer-activist Michael Steele has been relieved of his quixotic effort to make the Republican Party multicultural and funky, he can return to his regular day job as Humpty Hump in Oakland’s quintessentially nineties hip-hop combo Digital Underground. Still not convinced that Steele and Humpty Hump are the same person, despite the fact that they’ve never been seen in person at the same time? Try listening again to his signature classic “Humpty Dance,” which lays out the platform with some sexy dirty politics Meghan McCain could only dream of:
I look funny
but yo I’m makin’ money see
so yo world I hope you’re ready for me.
But the “Humpty Dance” is also about inclusiveness, not just acquisitiveness. Although Steele/ Humpty may not have been a stellar fund-raiser, he understood clearly that the party of Lincoln could only survive by expanding its constituency beyond whites and even blacks:
Puerto Ricans, do the Humpty Hump, just keep on doin’ the hump
Samoans, do the Humpty Hump, do the Humpty Hump
Let’s get stoopid!
In 2012, neither party will be able to escape the demographic reality that the country of the future will look more like Oakland than Fairfax County. And that means that, regardless of ideology or economic philosophy, we’ll all soon be doing the Humpty Dance. Personally, I’m looking forward to finding out how Mitt Romney will deliver lines like “I’m spunky, I like my oatmeal lumpy.”
At this point, however, Steele/ Humpty is probably relieved to be dancing with himself. That’s because the Tea Party Movement seems to be backfiring in its efforts to reintroduce archly ironic social satire into political theater. After years of halfhearted efforts to educate the masses, this remains the same country that once believed a 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was reporting a real Martian takeover, or that Rob Reiner’s 1984 spoof This is Spinal Tap was an earnest documentary about an obscure metal band.
That tradition of extreme gullibility continued this week. Pundits across the political spectrum, and even CNN, actually took literally arch-ironist Michele Bachmann’s SNL-style spoof of a “rebuttal” to the State of the Union Address. Ignoring even her most heavy-handed satiric elements–the red and blue chart, the vacant gaze, the claim that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly” until slavery was gone–some even reported that Bachmann had spoken to the wrong camera by mistake.
But Bachmann’s strategy was clearer to anyone who has obtained an overpriced education in art history or critical theory. In homage to Velazquez’s iconic painting Las Meninas, she was slyly commenting on the skewed self-awareness of the viewer and the viewed in televised political speeches. As Foucault described the role of the artist in Velazquez’s masterpiece, “for the spectator at present observing him he is to the right of his canvas, while the latter, the canvas, takes up the whole of the extreme left.” Same goes for Bachmann’s speech directed away from the spectator, except that nobody is to the right of Michele Bachmann.
Digital Underground, “Humpty Dance”
“War of the Worlds” Radio Documentary, Part 1
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  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  — Clinton wielded the scepter of Funkentelechy, and wore the righteous robes of the Afronaut (actually Holiday Inn bedsheets covered with Crayola scribbles).