moments before the wind.

April 30, 2007

by the stars of the southern hemisphere

The Pop Conference has this way of subsiding but never really ending, because all of a sudden I start to see everything as this reflection of some kind of culture war being played out in the musical arena.

Anyways, I have a big list of other blogs from EMP speakers. It’s almost done, and I think close to comprehensive, so stay tuned for that. I just need a little more motivation to sit down and finish it.

For now, something different. I’m reviewing this book called Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, who is this classic American songwriter that I’ve never heard of before who seems to have worked with anyone important who ever existed(Elvis, Billie, B.B., Dylan…). More on that in the actual review when it comes out at

What I am responding to most immediately has nothing to do with the book or the story of this particular guy’s life. It’s the format of the book. The litany of people, dinners, run-ins, venues, the teeming masses of unheard of musicians that form this amoeba-like body of artists and businesspeople what somehow every now and then spits out music that we’ve grown to know and love. It’s just an endless catalog of conversations and half-remembered, half-reconstructed memories. Doesn’t matter who the book is about. I think about Wall of Pain, the Phil Spector bio, or David Hadju’s one about the burgeoning 60’s folk scene, Dylan/Baez/Farina-style. It’s like there is no way to expose the complex network of assoications that add up to a career, so all there is to do is make these lists.

And then we read the lists. Abandoning all expectation of narrative for the moments where we come upon certain obscure names, have a private moment of recognition at this odd factoid of history revealed. It’s sort of like scanning the wedding announcements in the paper and, like I do every few weeks, recognizing someone from high school or somewhere else.

And then the names all start to overlap. They’re all in each other’s biographies, all the same cast of characters. It’s like reading the same story over and over again, told from a slightly different angle.

How else can you write a book about such a big thing? I think about what Rushdie wrote in Midnight’s Children: “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.” True. House of Leaves is also like that, and it’s not a list. Biographers aren’t novelists, I get that…but still…show me a music biography that goes beyond. Please.


April 23, 2007

EMP Pop Conference #16 – End Bits

One thing that I continually find entertaning is the feedback loop at the conference, presenters quoting writers to help support their point, and those writers are literally sitting in the audience listening to their own words spoken back to them. This kind of validation (or cancellation?) is a kind of black hole, a weird moment in time when the reasoning behind an argument starts to sound circular. For some reason the fact that the original writer is in the room listening sort of serves to render the intellectual capacity of the argument null and void. Like anything that is circular, you have to wonder whether it’s useful to end up where you started. Of course it can be. And of course it can’t be.


There seemed to be an exceptional amount of political commentaries built into the arguments I saw. The theme of the conference, “Waking Up From History,” propelled many writers to arrive at the concusion that we should actually wake up TO history, to learn from history, and to draw conclusions between the cultural sphere that our work covers and the political sphere of which we are citizens.

Some examples:

-Robert Bennett on the Jazz Diplomacy program and the things we should learn from it.
-Scott Nelson’s timely mention of “abortive gun policies” in the paper about John Henry’s exhumation – I’m not sure how he managed to reference the VA. Tech shootings in that conversation but at the time it made perfect sense.
-Brendan Greaves’ talk of Terry Allen’s border politics and the ways in which the Texas/Mexico border is treated by the government versus the inhabitants. 
-There was also an entire panel about New Orleans, as well as a smattering of other related papers throughout the weekend, all of which contained a fervent expression of the power of music and solidarity and the essential character of the city.

In general, as there seems to be in more and more things these days, there was a real sense of urgency that was more palpable than in previous conferences. It may have been the effect of the theme, but in general people’s research was very much rooted in the grim realities of life and music’s ability to help maintain and even create hope where all seems quite hopeless.

EMP Pop Conference #15 – Analog as Analogy

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, digital, distribution, folk, indie, marketing, music, recording, writing — alimarcus @ 2:18 pm

Erik Davis brought a decidedly esoteric (in a good way) perspective to the issue of the analog/digital divide. He quotes Joanna Newsom speaking of her analog aesthetic as a reaction to the “crispy mosquito of digital sound boring into your brain.” Fantastic, in both ways.

Enlarging the divide into a debate about Analog Ethics (could be the name of the best graduate seminar EVER), Davis proceeded to codify the opposing notions of analog and digital in a larger framework, ultimately reducing it to the phenomenological difference between the wave and the particle. If you are me, then this is incredibly interesting considering that you believe the ultimate meaning in paradox is that they collapse each other into one and the same thing, though you don’t know what to name that thing or whether to liken it to religion, existence, life, or anything more mundane like music.

Also, if you are me, you will find yourself up against a kind of wall, because if digital and analog are all part of it, whatever it is, then what the hell is real and what is fake and what is worth arguing about anyways?

Well, here’s a thought. Davis spoke of the freak folk genre (boy, I dislike that term!) as a crowd that generally seeks authenticity in their musical experience. But I have to wonder about seeking authenticity. Is seeking authenticity akin to seeking good karma? I always thought that someone seeking good karma is totally missing the point, because then they are acting in complete self-interest. So if one is seeking authenticity, then are they truly false as a result of their hyper-conscious (postmodern) decisions?

But gah, authenticity!

EMP Pop Conference #14 – Van the Man

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, country, distribution, folk, music, recording, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 1:51 pm

A note about a song. Charles Hughes said that “Dark End of the Street” (1967) should be America’s national anthem. I didn’t previously know the song, but the part of it he played was beautiful. It made me think of Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road,” released in 1979 on Into the Music, because of the obvious lyrical relationship.

Where writers Dan Penn and Chips Moman write:

I know time’s gonna take its toll
We have to pay for the love we stole
It’s a sin and we know it’s wrong
Oh, our love keeps going on strong
Steal away to the dark end of the street
You and me

Van says:

Little darlin, come with me
Wont you help me share my load
From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road

In my mind, there’s no other possibility except that Van is responding to this hugely popular song of the previous decade. It’s just too explicit. I wonder what Hughes would say about the racial politics surrounding Van and his music, with the mixture of a serious anglo-saxon background and a decidedly soul, R&B musical influence. Maybe he would say that the exact kind of hybrid that Van exemplifies is a direct product of the mishmash love triangle in the south. See this for more on that.

EMP Pop Conference #13 – What You See Is What You Get

Filed under: authenticity, country, distribution, folk, live shows, music, radio, recording, writing — alimarcus @ 1:32 pm

Michael Bertrand spoke of the radio barndance on WLS in the 20’s and specifically on the minstrelsy aspect of the shows.

Without getting into the details, I just want to post this quote from his presentation. It’s a wonderful thought and is applicable to most everything in today’s world as well:

“When listeners heard dialect through their radio transmitters, what exactly did they see?”

I mention this because I think we all conjure up visual images in the absence of being provided one. Especially when we read books, there’s an imaginary space in our minds that we situate stories within. On the radio, especially the kind of radio that is pre-television, serial soap operas and variety shows, it’s just the same. And of course every listener conjures a different image. What an idea, that every perspective is completely relative. Maybe it’s the same even when we are provided with visuals.

Another barndance based out of Nashville in the 20’s is still running today; it’s called the Grand Ole Opry.

EMP Pop Conference #10 – The Pure Land

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, digital, distribution, folk, indie, live shows, music, recording, writing — alimarcus @ 10:46 am

Phil Ford quoted an old professor of mine, Scott DeVeaux – so much UVA love this weekend. DeVeaux taught a really wonderful class, Music and WWII, where I thought about many things for the first time and will never forget. The quote he read, I wish I had been able to record it, was so typical of the way DeVeaux spoke – it was perfect.

Ford’s presentation was about some obscure acetate recordings that the Beats made. I sort of lost track of the talk, just a personal ambivalence about the Beats – it’s hard for me to really pay attention to it. He made a general point about the purity of experience though, which is what they were striving for, and all of a sudden the quality of the recordings became an issue, then extrapolated to the larger circumstance of all recorded music. Ford talked about the expression of a particular kind of inability to attain this purity, which he then likened to “the melancholy of recorded sound itself,” a loaded and entirely plausible statement.

Recording brings a kind of distance to the musical experience. Yes, OK, well, this is an obvious point, however existential you’d like to make it. The physical distance between the room in which the sound was made and the room in which it is heard cannot be stressed enough. Is this distance detrimental to the musical experience? On both ends, for the musican and the listener, I think something is lost. Other things stand to be gained, of course, but some people may never be able to reclaim the visceral experience of proximity.

I learned about a different kind of music that seems to be entirely about the visceral experience of proximity in Lorriane Plourde’s talk about a kind of Japanese experiemental music mainly performed at a gallery called Off Site. I can’t remember the Japanese term for the genre, but it involved cramming a bunch of listeners into a typically small Tokyo apartment space, where they listen to a performance that consists mainly of sounds that you must strain to be able to hear. These performances are so quiet (made up mostly of sine waves and feedback noise from a mixer), that apparently you must strain to stay awake as well. What Plourde took away from her study of this music was the sense of physical tension, explaining the palpable sense of stress and, well, strain, among the audience members and their relation to the performing artist. More of a happening than a concert, it illustrates a lot about what remains to be sought out in a lot of American commercial recording. Conceptually, this experiemental form seemed to me to be sort of a reactionary form of art, forcing the kind of particiption and recipriocation that hardly any popular music asks of us anymore.

EMP Pop Conference #9 – Titanic As Metaphor

Filed under: distribution, folk, music, writing — alimarcus @ 10:06 am

Ali Neff gave an entertaining talk on the continuation of the trickster image from the days of salvery and minstrelsy to her contemporary folklore work in the South. Of course the thing that I latched onto was a little tidbit about the Titanic, since my songwriting has become increasingly colored with Titanic allusions over the last 6-12 months. (I find the deterioration of American politics/policy is well expressed through the Titanic metaphor, and poignantly illustrates the kind of self-destruction and greed that dominates personal as well as political issues…but anyways…)

The story of Shine and the Titanic is a well-known toast down in the southern parts, something I did not previously know anything about. See example here. Neff sort of glossed over this, making a larger point that was relevant to her presentation, but I just wanted to stop for a minute to bring to light yet another way in which the image of the Titanic has leapt into popular imagination as a signifier for something distinctly American and foreboding.

EMP Pop Conference #8 – John Henry

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, country, distribution, folk, live shows, music, writing — alimarcus @ 9:41 am

Saturday was one of those days that was full of echoes, like a 15-hour-long song cycle, rhyming continuously throughout the hours. I often have the feeling that my entire life is a series of these song cycles (maybe 100 or so) all happening at the same time, but let’s just talk about Saturday’s John Henry.

In the morning, Rachel Richardson, a Wallace Stegner Fellow and from the UNC-Chapel Hill Folklore department, gave us a narrative comparison between “John Henry” and “John Hardy.” It was a fairly standard lyrical analysis, and became captivating once she turned to the realm of female characters in blues ballads. She drew some conclusions about the stereotypical roles of women in these songs (wives, daughters) and, noticing that their voices are never represented, decided to write her own version of “John Henry” from his wife Polly Ann’s point of view.

It struck me as a very Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea) method, and despite the obvious imitation, I have to credit Richardson with originality here, because in the context of 19th century folk song, this is truly novel. Even the songs that are sung from a women’s perspective put the women in their place, so to speak. For instance, “I Never Will Marry” (A single woman laments, “the shells in the ocean shall be my deathbed/ the fish in the water swim over my head”), or “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” (“They’ll tell to you some loving story and make you think they love you well/ and away they’ll go and court some other, leave you there in grief to dwell”). Or how about the ones where even the women who have the true love of a man get murdered, like “Banks of the Ohio,” where the male singer stabs and drowns his love because she said no to a marriage proposal, or “Polly Von,” where he accidently shoots her while out hunting?

And then Richardson did something truly original, and commissioned her re-written lyrics to a musician friend, Jocelyn Arem, who (beautifully) performed the song up at the lectern as part of the presentation.

“He let me go out of his hands
For that hammer and a crooked fight
Damn hammer and a crooked fight.”   -Richardson 

Why was this the first music performance I’ve ever seen in three years at the Pop Conference? Kicking myself for not having thought of it first, I enjoyed the spirit that it brought to the whole presentation. The idea that folk music is just a thing that happens in rooms, in life, in regular places – it just crossed a boundary that made a lot of sense, and all of a sudden made many other presentations lacking in that sense.

But back to John Henry.

In a different panel later in the day, Scott Nelson walked us through the process by which he tracked down the sequence of events in the real John Henry’s life to city records and signed contracts to buried bones in the Virginia clay. Literally de-mythologizing the hero of the song, Nelson brilliantly unveiled a mystery, revealing a narrative that is just as much a part of American history as the legend.

It turns out, John Henry was a prisioner at the Virginia Penitentiary. Along with hundreds of other convicts, he was leased out to the railroad companies to build the tunnels, work that men would not volunteer for due to the incredibly high risk of death (Nelson says that in 1866 the highest export from the state of California was Chinese bones, the dead men who came to America to work in the tunnels). Anyways, Nelson found records of a steam-engine drill at Lewis Tunnel, across the WV border but near the Big Bend Tunnel of the “John Henry” ballad. He found contracts that fined the railroads $100 for every man not returned to the Penitentiary, which explains the hundred of skeletons found buried in mass graves, Henry’s presumably among them.

The bones are now at the Smithsonian being analyzed, and Nelson mentioned an upcoming article in the September issue of National Geographic. What a great story. Also, he mentioned that Henry’s prison record marked him as 5’1.25″ tall – that’s my height, on a good day. How could a man my size have acquired this superhuman strength? Fascinating.

Oh, and Nelson also credits the legend of John Henry as the inspiration for superman – “Steel-drivin’ man” : “Man of Steel.”

I had to leave to conference in a big rush due to a show I had to play that evening in Tacoma. But on the drive down there, I’m explaining this whole day of John Henry to my pal in the car. The coincidence of these presentations provided a lot to discuss. And then, the other performer opened his set with “John Henry”! It was a lot of coincidence for one day. When things like this happen, I am reassured that I am doing something right, you know?

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