While My Samisen Gently Weeps?

I watched Kubo and the Two Strings over the weekend. Good movie, definitely recommended, but that’s not what I want to talk about.

I just don’t understand why Regina Spektor sings George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” over the end credits:

It’s a nice enough cover, but what does it have to do with a movie about a young, one-eyed boy in ancient Japan? Yes, Kubo was a street performer, but he played a samisen, not a guitar. And his tunes were not sad.

Could it really be as arbitrary as the song was written by a Beatle and the film stars a beetle?

Salon des Refusés: Big Star

In 1863, the Salon des Refusés was launched to counter the conservative aesthetics enforced by the Academy of Fine Arts in the annual Paris Salon. That year, the “rejects” included such later revered painters as Manet, Courbet, Whistler, Pissarro and Cezanne. Perhaps it is now time to establish a Salon des Refusés for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame‘s rejects.

The rules of eligibility for induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame include:

Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.

And yet many artists who have had huge impacts on the development and evolution of rock & roll have been snubbed over and over, including: Kraftwerk, Chic, Big Star, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, New York Dolls, T. Rex, Television, The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Sonic Youth, Joy Division.

Big Star is pretty much the definition of a cult band, not very well known, but absolutely worshiped by its fans, including many much better known rockers such as The Replacements, The Bangles, and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees R.E.M.

If you are not (yet!) a fan you may still have heard at least one of their songs. “In the Streets” was the opening theme for That ’70s Show . . .

. . .  but it was performed by Todd Griffin in the first season and Cheap Trick in the other seven. Here is Big Star’s own, complete version of that Alex Chilton-Chris Bell composition:

As you can easily hear, Big Star kind of merged the sounds of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees The Beatles and The Byrds. However, since The Byrds were also influenced by The Beatles, Big Star tilted just a bit more towards the invading Brits. Alex Chilton and Chris Bell modeled themselves on the Lennon-McCartney partnership, but filtered the band’s music through their native Memphis sensibility, as can be heard in songs such as “The Ballad of El Goodo”:

Big Star quickly became critics’ darlings, but rave reviews never translated into sales (at least partially due to marketing and distribution problems which made the record very hard to find). Many remain befuddled as to why the album did not live up to its title, #1 Record, and turn the band’s name into fact instead of irony (by the way, the name was not purely hubris; they named themselves after a Memphis area supermarket chain).

Chris Bell left the band after the first album out of frustration. He struggled with depression the rest of his short life, but continued to record music. Just one single, “You and Your Sister,” . . .

. . . was released, and then only on an obscure indie label, shortly before a fatal car crash earned him entrance into the notorious 27 Club in 1978. Compiled from his solo recordings, Bell’s I Am the Cosmos album was hailed upon its release 14 years later.

Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens labored on. Some consider their next album, Radio City, even better than the first, possibly a perfect pop-rock album.

It opens with “Oh My Soul” . . .

. . . (does that riff make you want to “cut loose, footloose, kick off your Sunday shoes”?), continues with “Back of a Car” . . .

. . .  and ends with “I’m in Love with a Girl”:

And then there were two, when Andy Hummel left the band shortly before the album’s release.

In many ways, Big Star’s 3rd (later reissued as Sister Lovers, the band name Chilton and Stephens briefly adopted at this time) is actually an Alex Chilton solo album. It contains the beautiful chamber pop of “Stroke It Noel” . . .

. . .  and the amazing sound design of “Kanga Roo,” . . .

. . . but the album was never finished.

Although recorded in late 1974 and early 1975, 3rd was not officially released until 1978, by which time its creators had long since moved on. The album has been reissued a number of times since, each time with a slightly different title and a completely different track listing (most recently as the three disc Complete Third, which follows every track from its rough beginnings to its final masters).

Alex Chilton had already been a “big star” as the 16 year old singer for The Box Tops, whose first single, “The Letter,” was a #1 hit in 1967:

This brush with stardom left Chilton deeply ambivalent about success. Big Star’s lack of recognition (at least during its lifetime) led to an even deeper withdrawal from the “star-maker machinery behind the popular song.” Chilton would spend the rest of his life dodging fame, sometimes engaging in what others might consider self-sabotage. He followed his own idiosyncratic interests, producing records by outsiders such as The Cramps and Tav Falco‘s Panther Burns, even briefly joining the latter band as a lowly sideman, and releasing a string of increasingly eccentric solo records.

Of course, this just endeared him more to his cult followers, who congratulated themselves for recognizing their leader’s perverse genius. His fans can, and do, debate whether albums such as Like Flies on Sherbert (sic) or Live in London are masterpieces or disasters (or both), but only a devoted fan would ever care enough to sit through all of either one. For anyone else, a single compilation culling the worthy tracks scattered across his vast solo discography should suffice. But even as Chilton was digging himself deeper into obscurity, his Big Star was rising.

Brian Eno famously said of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees The Velvet Underground, “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. . . . I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself thinking that some things generate their rewards in a second-hand way.”

The same could be said of Big Star.

Big Star helped lay the foundation for a whole strain of indie power pop (along with The Velvet Underground, whose “Femme Fatale” Big Star covered). Chris Stamey played bass behind Alex Chilton in 1977. By the following year, he, Peter Holsapple, Will Rigby and Gene Holder would be spreading the gospel of Big Star in their new “jangle pop” band, The dB’s:

R.E.M. recorded in Memphis’s Ardent Studios because Big Star produced all of their records there, and released a cover of 3rd‘s “Jesus Christ” as a 2002 fan club single:

Big Star’s sound also resonated through L.A.’s “Paisley Underground” bands. The Bangles recorded Big Star’s “September Gurls”:

Apparently Katy Perry spelled “California Gurls” with a U in honor of Alex Chilton’s then-recent death.

The Replacements recorded the homage “Alex Chilton” while their hero was still alive:

As Paul Westerberg sings: “I never travel far, without a little Big Star.”

Big Star’s legacy certainly traveled far, though. In his essay “The Great Crusade: Birthing The Cult Of Big Star,” included in the book for the Big Star box set Keep an Eye on the Sky, Bob Mehr wrote:

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, Scottish rockers Teenage Fanclub released their widely acclaimed masterpiece Bandwagonesque — an album so in thrall to Chilton, Bell, and company that some critics have taken to calling it ‘Big Star’s 4th.’

You can understand why when listening to such tributes as “Star Sign” and “Alcoholiday”:

Teenage Fanclub named its next album, their fourth album, Thirteen after the wistful Big Star song:

Big Star surely deserves to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, both for its “unquestionable musical excellence” and its “significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.”

Why Should Kanye’s Fans Know Who Paul McCartney Is?

When Kanye tweeted his new single featuring Sir Paul McCartney . . .

. . . many of his followers asked who the unknown collaborator was. While even Rolling Stone acknowledged that it is impossible to tell how much of this ignorance was real and how much feigned, predictably, many critics reacted to the idea that anyone might not recognize the former Beatle as if it were a sign of the apocalypse.

But why should any of Kanye’s fans know who he is? Or care?

How many of the outraged fans knew, or cared, who Frank Sinatra was when they first heard the Beatles? (And I bet they remember the ’80s joke: “Did you know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?”) While there are still enough aging baby boomers who automatically buy any new McCartney album out of some combination of habit and nostalgia, isn’t it natural for the boomers’ kids and grandkids who make up the bulk of Kanye’s audience to ask the same question Janet Jackson did decades ago, around the same time as McCartney’s last hit single, “What Have You Done for Me Lately?”

A Charlie Manson Wedding

He may not surf, but apparently Charlie does get married. Congratulations, Charles Manson.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that his bride, Afton Elaine Burton, . . .

. . . resembles former Manson Family member Susan Atkins, who was featured on the label of the “Death Valley ’69” single, . . .

. . . by Sonic Youth, with Lydia Lunch, their retelling of the Manson story:

Manson’s Family took over Beach Boy Dennis Wilson‘s house a few months before committing their murders. The Beach Boys even recorded one of Manson’s songs. “Never Learn Not to Love” . . .

. . . is a slightly rewritten version of Manson’s “Cease to Exist”:

And, of course, Manson named his vision of the upcoming race war he intended to capitalize on “Helter Skelter” after the Beatles‘s song:

Do We Want Pop Culture to Be PC?

While I am certainly not defending what Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson said in GQ — I find his views on homosexuality, race, etc., absolutely disgusting — I do defend his right to say any idiotic thing he may believe.

And A&E absolutely has the right to suspend or fire him if they also find his views repugnant, but could this have really been a surprise to them? I find it very hard to imagine they were not already well aware of his beliefs.  Judging by the earlier examples dug up to show the current statements are not aberrations, he has not exactly hidden them; so it seems likely A&E systematically edited these views out of the massive amount of raw footage they must shoot for the reality show.  In which case, they are not suddenly waking up to the views of their star; they are responding to a crisis created by those views becoming widely known to the public.  They are engaged in spin control.

As much as I abhor his views, I am very uncomfortable with those calling on A&E to fire him because of them.  Yes, stop watching the show if you can no longer stand the sight of this homophobe, even organize a boycott, but if it’s okay for me to expect a network to fire a star, even a reality star who is — rightly or wrongly — assumed to be voicing his own views and not those scripted by someone else, whose views I find execrable, then it is also okay for someone with different views to expect a network to fire a star whose views I agree with.

Furthermore, if I were going to start choosing my viewing or listening by the values and/or behavior of the stars, writers, directors, singers, producers, etc., onscreen or off, I would have to research everyone involved with the pop culture I consume in order to fairly impose those standards across the board.  And then I would have to look at the companies who distribute the culture and their corporate structures and connections.  I doubt many could withstand that scrutiny.

Bringing this back to popular music, I’d have to throw out much of my collection if I started imposing a morals clause on any artist who has expressed values that do not conform with my own.  Many of my favorite artists would have to go:  in their songs and interviews, Lou Reed and David Bowie have both said many things over the years that have violated my standards.  Even as I cringe at some of the things Kanye West says, I still buy each new album the day it comes out.  I would have to stop listening to any rapper who continues to glorify the thug life he may or may not have actually lived.  I’d certainly have to toss Eminem and Tyler the Creator, both of whom seem to be working through checklists of society’s standards to violate.  Even the Beatles, now thought to be the standard of good taste, openly advocated drug use and violent revolution against the government.

But do we really want our pop culture to be PC?  Instead, doesn’t pop culture, especially pop music, offer us a safe way to indulge in the non-PC attitudes and feelings we all sometimes have?  Can’t shouting along with sketchy refrains like “beat on the brat with a baseball bat” actually be cathartic?

The Beatles Yesterday and Today

Justin Moyer recently wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece, “Let Them Be,” that calls for an end to the Beatles being held up as the standard against which any and all new pop music artists and trends are measured.  He argues that as good as the Beatles were, their time has passed.  The Beatles knew when to let it be and their aging fans should now let others play the next bars.  But baby boomers will not go gentle into that good night, to paraphrase the poet from whom another voice of their (my) generation took his name.  And many of them responded to Moyer’s column, in online comments and letters to the editor, to defend their Beatles.  Moyer was not there, they say.  He could not possibly understand.  After all, he was not born until 1977.

Far from countering Moyer’s point, this proves it.  In condescending to post-boomers for not being there, boomers admit the band they cling to is intimately tied to a specific time period and only those who grew up in that era can truly understand their music.

This is nostalgia, pure and simple, which Luc Sante defines as:

This word can be generally defined as a state of inarticulate contempt for the present and fear of the future, in concert with a yearning for order, constancy, safety, and community–qualities that were last enjoyed in childhood and are retroactively imagined as gracing the whole of the time before one’s birth.  (from his book Low Life)

Most of us feel things far more deeply in adolescence, including the soundtrack of that emotional time in our lives.  So is it later music that fades or our ability to feel new music as intensely as we did the old?

Although Ben Greenman is writing about the hip hop of his youth, don’t his insights expose echo boomers’ sentimentality towards the Beatles?  (I have substituted the Beatles for Greenman’s hip-hop references):

I was around, as a record buyer, as a fan, when [the Beatles] started.  It was all so new and so much of it shone.  But over the years, I have found myself less and less able to find that shine in new music.  People say it’s the fault of that new music, that it’s responding to different market factors, that there’s not the same common language and community, and maybe that’s true to some degree.  But it’s also my fault, and yours.  At this point I have a storehouse of records to go back to, and they sustain me.  If I need another hit of  [insert your favorite Beatles album here], all I need to do is get the CD out of the cabinet (or, more accurately and more disconcertingly, just search for the songs in my iTunes library).  So what is the value, even the marginal value, of new music?  (from Questlove‘s fascinating new memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues)

I was there when the Beatles were still together.  I remember the anticipation of each new album, waiting to see where they would take rock music next.  But isn’t it long past time to let others set new standards and take pop music in new directions?  Isn’t there a time and a season for every new music under heaven?

The argument is often posed that there will never be another Beatles.  Not only will there be, there already has been.  Michael Jackson.  And Motown 25th Anniversary: Yesterday, Today, Forever (taped March 25, 1983, broadcast May 16 on NBC) was his Ed Sullivan show:

The next day everyone tried to moonwalk.  And the mourning of his passing was no less overwhelming than that of John Lennon’s almost three decades earlier.  Yes, there were differences.  Jackson’s artistic peaks came as a solo artist, not as a member of a group, and he was the King of Pop, not Rock, which reveals that rock is no longer the major paradigm for pop music.  Or albums the primary way of consuming pop music.  Pop has done to rock what rock once did to the pop that preceded it.

If the Beatles still rule, it is over an empire on which the sun has largely set.  And the motto stitched onto the empire’s tattered flag seems to be “music ain’t what it used to be.”  But that attitude speaks more to many boomers’ refusal to give any new music a fair hearing than it does the quality of the new music they refuse to hear.  No one is trying to stop boomers from listening to the music they love most — it is all readily available in multiple formats — and nowhere does Moyer dismiss the Beatles or their music.  Indeed, he ends by declaring Revolver “one of the best records of the 20th century.”  (Personally, I prefer Rubber Soul).  But different times, different generations require different music to define them and it’s about damn time boomers allow theirs might not be the last music that matters.

Isn’t it time to roll over the Beatles, and tell the boomers the news?