(Note: this piece first appeared in issue no. 1 of Chicago's Landline quarterly)
Modern children's music can be filed under several broad categories, depending on who produced the music and for what audience. Often enough, the involvement of actual children is somewhat marginal.
==Music by adults, for children. This comprises the bulk of what is usually thought of as “children's music” and is usually educational in theme, with some moral or practical lesson to impart (counting, sharing, the perils of nose-picking, etc.)
==Music by children, for adults. Relies heavily on saccharine cuteness (and prurient undertones) to manipulate the heart- and/or purse-strings, the classic example being Shirley Temple's “Good Ship Lollipop”. Think young Michael Jackson, or the creepy French child-star Jordy.
==Adults making children's music for other adults. Far less common and harder to pin down—what, after all, is children's music if actual children are absent? Seeking to clarify the nature of childhood through the lens of adulthood, this music usually falls short of the mark (you can't go home again!) but does so in fascinating ways, excavating all kinds of buried trash and treasure. Chicago spazzmaster John Bellows is a longtime practitioner of this medium, as are many so-called “outsider musicians” such as Daniel Johnston, Half Japanese and Tiny Tim.
==Children making music for other children, or for their own solitary enjoyment. While it might be argued that this is the most authentic form of children's music, it is rarely documented, and is therefore the most obscure of the bunch.
It is the last two categories that have piqued my interest, and that we wish to discuss today.
Case Study: The Tinklers, Casserole LP (Shimmy Disc, 1990)
From the opening track, the Tinklers' Casserole picks up the adult listener and throws him on the cracked pavement of a junior high playground. Over in the corner, two of the weird boys in class are banging on empty paint buckets and mocking their fathers' tiresome complaining in a ludicrous sing-song: Mary's trying to get me to paint the house, the neighbor's dog keeps me up all night, it's getting harder to pay those bills, there's something strange about those kids--structured like a childhood memory game, the verses grow fatter and tenser line by line. They veer into a hilarious parody of the day's Social Studies filmstrip, in which the “good kid” and the “bad kid” take divergent paths—one starts smoking cigarettes (maybe just one) and drinking beer, and ends up taking drugs and hanging out with gangsters, while the other kid joins the Boy Scouts, does volunteer charity work and ends up becoming a police officer—but in a thrilling denouement, the bad kid, through his underworld connections eventually becomes a bar-owner, and finally, we see them working together in society.
The Tinklers are a duo from Baltimore, Maryland that have been writing and performing since the late 1970s, though not as actively in recent decades. Though clearly grown men, they speak the language of late childhood incredibly convincingly, boiling down complex topics like gender studies to the level of jumprope chants: Mom cooks inside/Dad cooks outside. Most of their output might, in fact, be described as an extended parody of the midcentury junior high Social Studies class, the humor becoming painful and sublime with the dawning revelation that Social Studies class—ditto Sunday School, ditto sex ed—is a tool of hardcore repression in the hands of an oppressive ruling class, with occasional release-valve digressions like “I Love a Sandwich” and “Don't Put Your Finger in the Fan”. Their first album bursts with the exquisite fury of a kid who's gotten wise, clawing and scratching at every precept of modern life, from trade unions (Working together united we are one/This way building cars seems much more fun) to nuclear radiation (Mutations, meltdown up the creek/Mutations, bird with no beak). In one sense it's extremely authentic children's music; on the other hand, there might not be a parent on earth who's ever played a Tinklers album for their li’l sprout—“Hokey Pokey” might be safe enough, but what to make of “Eleanor Bumpurs,” the disturbing true-story ballad about the mentally ill black woman shot dead by the NYPD in 1984? Or the caustic satire “I'm Proud to Be a Citizen of the Roman Empire” (Living off the conquered peoples of the earth/We just sit around and widen our girth)? Certainly that's not going in Junior's Christmas stocking.
This, then, is clearly children's music of the third category, by-and-for grownups, and its aim is deeply subversive—to peel away at the layers of fraudulence that adulthood accretes, digging past all the false explanations and back to the burning, unanswerable questions of childhood (Is God a person, or is He just a feeling? What if no one had to live on crumbs? If Universe is endless, what's on the other side? Why am I so ugly that I don't have any friends? Where did Grandma go?) They're not, of course, the first or only group to work this vein—obvious predecessors include the Fugs, whose mid-60s blasts of musical clumsiness and puerile poetry (“Kill for Peace,” “Boobs a Lot”) practically spawned punk rock. But where the Fugs had the hip righteousness of the hippy-era Lower East Side to lean on, the Tinklers were just a couple of scrawny dorks from Baltimore without a scene; children's musicians without any children around.
Case Study: Coolman Tony, Surfin' Time With Coolman Tony (self-released, c. 2003)
For something completely different, we turn to the work of Coolman Tony (listen here), a completely-unknown artist from the Chicago suburbs whose preadolescent glory years coincided with the advent of computer recording programs like Garageband in the early 00s. I only came across Coolman Tony's recordings through a ludicrous chain of acquaintances (Coolman is my roommate's best friend's sister's boyfriend, if you must know, but I've certainly never met the man). The song I am Cool off his debut “album” Surfin' Time With Coolman Tony showed up in my house one day, hilarity ensued, and it enjoyed numerous replays over the following week. Built around the silliest of all possible Garageband loops, the tune nonetheless features monster hooks and the incomparably exuberant (if barely coherent) “rapping” of Coolman T. ((real name:) né Seth). Name-checking Pokemon, Harry Potter and Monty Python in the course of a blurry 1:21, the song comes across as a total wave of idiotic prepubescent id—charming, in its own way, and relentlessly catchy. I was intrigued.
Funny that, having come of age with the internet, Coolman Tony's body of work is much easier to track down than the should-be legendary Tinklers, whose cassette tape I had to wait for in the mail, for Chrissake--all five of his “albums” are free to download at lastfm.com. Worth noting as well is the far-more polished sound he is able to achieve, screwing around with Garageband on the fly, after frickin' soccer practice, probably, than the Tinklers could ever hope to, with their shoddy homemade instruments and rudimentary musicianship. But precocious polish aside—the kid was apparently a cello prodigy when not wearing his Coolman cape—the level of discourse in his work is certainly never elevated to that of poetry. Song titles like “Wafflehead,” “Pop It Extreme” and “Duct Tape Times (Takin' Over the World)” give a pretty good idea of where Coolman's head is at—where most 10 year-old's heads are at—spazzed-out on Milk Duds and Mountain Dew and babbling nonsensically. Turns out the adult-as-child frauds like the Tinklers might have a great deal more wisdom to impart than the genuine-article child himself.
Case Study: Human Skab, Thunderhips and Saddlebags (re-released on Family Vineyard Records, 2010)
Which is not to say that all made-for-its-own-enjoyment-by-children music is as silly as Coolman Tony's, or that all 10-year-olds think about is cartoons and junk food. Also popular at my house have been the youtube videos of Human Skab and Old Skull, two child-punk bands that put out a few songs in the late 80s and earned some small-time cult status before slipping into puberty and various doomed fates.
Human Skab was essentially one kid, 10 year-old Travis Roberts from Elma, Washington, who with the help of some cousins and neighbors recorded several albums' worth of sprawling, improvised punk-poetry, backing himself up on electric guitar and cookware from his parents' kitchen. Puking up whole worlds from the depth of his middle school subconscious, songs like “We Need to Destroy the Soviet Union” might scan as satire, Human Skab yelping like a sandlot Jello Biafra, until the incredible violence of the lyrics--No one will survive!/You will melt into a puddle, no bones will be there/Your babies will die—your teachers will die—your girlfriends will die—you in the Soviet Union!—start hinting at a more haunting core: Christ, the kid probably believed half the stuff he was screaming about, probably got his nascent political views from Dad's USA TODAYs. Things just get weirder on songs like “Screamin' Demon.” Best intro ever: In ten years, I'm gonna be cruisin' the coast, Travis adlibs into the tape recorder, Drinkin' my pop/I'm gonna be kissin' all the girls, I'm gonna be singin' all the rock, an eerie ode to explosives set to the insane screeching of a toy accordion, and the acapella “Dead Baby Blues.” I told my friends, let's go down to the graveyard and read some tombstones, he drawls, channeling Townes Van Zandt and Edward Gorey in the same breath.
Human Skab's sublimely strange tapes fell into the hands of obscurity-hunting tape traders (an LP collection was eventually released on Family Vineyard records), and he enjoyed some brief notoriety. Perhaps not that surprisingly, the scrawny kid shown sneering and mohawked, his arm in a dirty cast, on the cover of his LP Thunderhips and Saddlebags later joined the military, became a private contractor in Kosovo and Afghanistan, got into drugs, et cetera; also not that surprisingly, he got the “band” back together in 2009 to play retooled versions of the old songs—the shit he wrote when he was ten years old—and hopefully make a couple bucks; suffice it to say that the grown-up, tattooed incarnation of Human Skab, featuring rap-metal songs about post-traumatic stress disorder, hasn't enjoyed the same cult acclaim as the younger model.
Case Study: Old Skull, Get Outta School (Restless Records, 1989) and C.I.A. Drugfest (1992)
And then there's Old Skull, whose story is so fraught with baggage that their otherwise righteous noise is almost hard to listen to. Formed in Madison, Wisconsin in the late 1980s by the Toulon brothers, J.P. And Jamie (encouraged—some say manipulated—by their father Vern, a staple of the local punk scene), with pal Jesse on the drums, they released two albums on then heavy-hitting indie label Restless Records, Get Outta School and C.I.A. Drug Fest. Sounding like late period Black Flag, minus chops but with fury to spare, these little skater kids blaze through the issues of the day with total rage and pathos, as in their flailing take on the AIDS crisis: WHAT IS AIDS? HOW DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL?/unintelligible.../HOW DO YOU CATCH THEM? FROM WHAT WE KNOW: DIRTY NEEDLES /unintelligible…/WHAT IS AIDS? A TERRIBLE THING. WILL I GET THEM? I FEEL AFRAID! Or homelessness: PEOPLE THAT DON'T HAVE HOMES/WHEN I LOOK IN THEIR EYES I SEE SADNESS!/ THEY DON'T HAVE MONEY TO PAY THE RENT, BECAUSE THEY DON'T HAVE GOOD JOBS! /WHY DON'T THEY HAVE GOOD JOBS? THEY DIDN'T GET ENOUGH GOOD EDUCATION—BECAUSE OF WAR GAMES! THEY MAKE ME FEEL DUMB AND I'M PISSED OFF!
All of which seems kind of cute or whatever until you read their wikipedia page. After dismissing them as a novelty band and suggesting that their father may have ghostwritten their material, the authors reveal that J.P. later moved to a Lower East Side squat, joined a crust punk band, and died in 2010 as a result of substance abuse-related pancreatitis, followed months later by the suicide of his brother Jamie, who was also battling homelessness and drug addiction (father Vern had reportedly met a similar fate before passing away in 2001), the sheer irony and tragedy of which is makes the tunes doubly chilling.
Not that their music is all dark and foreboding; songs like the ludicrous “Pizza Man” (PIZZA MAN! GET ME A PIZZA! I WANT EVERYTHING ON IT! I WANT ONIONS AND EXTRA CHEESE! DOMINO'S THIN CRUST TASTES LIKE SHIT!) clearly fall under the rubric of kids being kids, despite being released by a hip label and featured on MTV's “120 Minutes” (the kids, interviewed while pigging out on milkshakes and nachos, talk about their stance on the “AIDS academic” and how many music lessons they've “tooken”: three), they're obviously still children, reveling in fucking around, venting all the rage and confusion of childhood with little blasts of pure, stupid, glorious noise.
So, I promised Robert I'd “cover” Bitchpork, and no matter how haphazard my attendance or compromised by drink my critical faculties may have been over the course of the weekend I intend to keep that promise—fortunately, the laws under which journalists usually operate are rather lax when it comes to music festivals. Festivals are by their nature feats of endurance, and asking a participant to describe one is a little like asking a boxer to describe the pounding he just took—dazed, thrashed and bleeding out both ears, he is what they call an unreliable narrator.
Anyway, I talked some shit on this 'blog a short while back that was a smidge disparaging of the city's undie music scene, suggesting that it was overrun by pseudo-psych noodlers; I hope this (highly incomplete) recap of Bitchpork, the city's preeminent different-music festival, will fill some of the gaping holes in that snarky little essay. 'Cuz, there actually is an extremely vibrant thing going on in Chicago, fleeting and sporadic as it might sometimes seem, for which Bitchpork is a pretty epic showcase.
Here, then, are a few highlights and lowlights from three days of peace, music and drug-sweat, unreliably narrated and with some borrowed photos (Gonzo Chicago, alley-oop):
My first day onsite is pretty much a wash. I arrive very much on the late end, already a touch soused and rapidly getting more so. I've missed, in fact, about 80 percent of the evening's acts, arriving just in time for the much-hyped reunion of whiz-drummer/racetrack aficionado Marc Arcuri and his English Softhearts—I remember this band from my f-ing teenage years, and I hate to say it but that was a REALLY long time ago. For a bunch of dudes who are even older than I am, they play with considerable snarl—you don't hear so much in the snot-punk vein these days, but as long as we have beer and hormones it will never really go out of style, either.
The rooftop has been blocked off, due to people being dumb and attracting the five-oh, and for the next hour or so I somehow end up manning the door to the roof—I'm too trashed by now to properly stand, but I am able to fold my arms and keep saying no to would-be outdoor revelers. By the time I'm relieved of my drunken post, the headlinin' act is on, reformed Columbia, MO psych-grungers Warhammer 48K. I'm pretty sure they rule, and I seem to recall some rippin' axe-work, but this portion of the evening remains stubbornly hazy. It's 3:00, I feel pretty well-whooped, and there are two long days of this shit ahead.
Reporting for duty much earlier in the night, the place is already bonkers—still no roof, and people are squeezing out of every hole, the narrow back-lot by now an open sewer. There's a brutal twilight set from local skull-damagers Lechuguillas, intensified by the urgency of nightfall, and then the jammin' + jivin' of clearly-from-Brooklyn boys Cloud Becomes Your Hand—weird robes, weird gear and the sort of hyperactive musicianship that hints at a year or two at Juilliard--but for all that, they still throw down some crafty grooves with e-marimba and that sine-wave synth sound from old-school Dre.
I miss a couple of acts—there's just such an ocean of people, and so many long-forgotten faces, people who slid off to Oakland or New Orleans half-decades ago but are making their li'l summer swing thru Chicago, that a person is swept into marathon bull sessions, smoking endless cigarettes out back—but I make a point of finding my way back for the almighty ONO. ONO, if you're not familiar with the group, has been performing in various permutations since the early 80s, but while their first incarnation fell on a lot of deaf ears—the early Chicago punk scene was not that keen on musical exploration or singers in wedding gowns—their ever-evolving marriage of gospel + noise has found enthusiastic support in today's much more art-minded climate. This belated respect has spurred them on to new vistas, and with the recent addition of singer-drummer Mimi Wallman they've hit on this weird, sublime strain of R+B—punked out, chopped+screwed 'n turned upside-down, but still rhythm&blues in the most fundamental sense. Like 'most any other R+B band they do a boatload of covers, but very much ONOize whatever comes their way—thus tonight's splintered versions of the Minutemen's Jesus and Tequila and Prince's The Beautiful Ones, the latter of which seems to send a cute boy at stage-center into fits of orgasmic rapture:
Then a short set from former Chicagoan Castle Freak, long a standard-bearer for downer-damaged eccentricity, whose playground-chant rapping sounds like it was left out in the rain and starting sprouting poisonous spores. And over in the west wing, the incomparable Mayor Daley, who, of course, slay, pretty much harder than they've ever slayed before. There's never any doubt that the language they're speaking is Daley-ese--the tense moan and merciless rhythms that the city itself seems often to emit, an abstracted and almost mournful take on metal—but within that language they manage to say some startling things, eliciting from audience-members what might be described as contemplative headbanging, and their brand-new nine-minute epic (short, by their recent standards) is the loosest, freest I've heard them in a while.
Then, once again, several bands are lost to my record—it's just so stupidly hot on the third floor that one is prone to drunken wandering, searching for pockets of fresh air. Mahjongg starts to play but once again I'm totally wiped and I have to wake up at 7:00 tomorrow morning for work.
By dusk on Sunday I'm fully in the vortex, starting to seriously consider the possibility that this Bitchpork might never end, that us coupla-hundred festivalgoers might be condemned to an eternity of this, millions of years of synthesizers, heat-stroke and low-grade drunkenness. Things onstage get righteous early on, though, with flags-flying performances from ReDeMeR, whose palette of glitter, neon and fierce metal is perfect for the setting-sun atmospherics of building's west wing; Shree Shrine, at their gentle, spooky best, with special guest Rollin Hunt on clarinet + dream-narration; and the amazing avant-primitive dancercise of Forced into Femininity. Significantly, the rooftop has re-opened tonight, a desperately-needed pressure-valve as the warehouse is starting to really cook—like, 90+degrees—and people are generally getting kind of flipped. I miss a bunch of bands in favor of some roof-time, taking in what passes for an evening breeze, but am eventually sucked back into the flames by the drum wizardry of Wumme, the mutant disco of Xina Xurner, and the escalating, Kubrickesque comedy of one Frog Clock, whose night-long performance—introducing bands from inside his “Frog Clock Box”—makes him hands-down today's endurance-champion:
A buddy of mine practically force-feeds me a weed brownie as the evening approaches, I can only hope, some sort of climax—just one bite!, I meekly protest, as he stuffs a huge hunk into my mouth. And from there on my journalistic integrity declines sharply. I can state with some confidence that Bobby Conn played, wearing naught but synthetic briefs and his trademark grimace, and that the band delighted with a rousing run-through of Passover, Conn's 1998 gypsy-metal ode to the great Jewish holiday—that much I remember. I can also vouch for Tracey Trance, subject of a recent Secret Beach profile, who put in a good ten minutes of his inimitable casio-mashing before succumbing to heat-induced entropy--kicking over his ailing gear, lighting up a joint and basically declaring fuck it. And I can recall vaguely the dudely riffage of Akhkhazu, making all the Pilsen prog-dweebs creamy in their jean-shorts.
And then—the all-out, house-burning spectacle of Turtle Powder, aka Randall and Drew, Bitchpork's undisputed kings of apocalyptic grandeur, whose 2009 festival-closer, a massive, slime-drenched, chicken-fucking orgy of human devolution, like Double Dare on DMT, rightly became local legend (that same year, I saw them out-freak some of New Orleans' freakiest freaks at the Krewe de Poux ball, not a minor coup). Happily for my fast-declining sanity, this was a moderately toned-down outing for the gang, which of course is like calling the neutron bomb a chilled-out version of its hydrogen predecessor. The performance featured noise elder Andy Ortmann as a creepy club-dude who's strapped to a large, evil-looking device and mentally raped by a duo of grotesque, oversized creatures from the future, hailing from a place called Count Dracula, Africa--
--followed by thirty minutes of Maximum Techno and mayhem throughout the room; I, for one, am practically assaulted in the 'pit by this short girl who keeps grinding me like a rabid dog, in the throes of some weird sexual delirium that after about ten minutes starts to really freak me out—I try to escape but she keeps grabbing me and swallowing me with her legs. I'm kind of relieved when the show ends, cuz I'm a thousand kinds of fucked up and I do not want to pass out on the toxic floors of Mortville.
When I finally make it home (thanks to a huge vehicular assist from Shree Shrine) I find myself quietly humming, all of things, a Gordon Lightfoot song, which amuses me greatly; it's as if the music-processing part of my brain has fried completely, blown like an overloaded transformer, and I've gone into some default emergency-power mode where the chorus of Sundown plays on repeat--basically, I've had far too much of a good thing, and am in need of some serious rest.
When Robert "Moniker Records" Manis asked me to start this li'l music blog to help beef up the Moniker brand or whatever, I jumped at the chance, figuring it would be at least a tentative step toward music writing, an occupation I've flirted with but never gone for whole-hog. So, to get a better sense of the job, I attended a panel discussion this evening at Depaul University featuring some of Chicago's more-or-less "professional" music scribes--and holy mackerel!, what a sorry-assed racket music journalism turns out to be. The sparsely-attended event, featuring writers and editors from Pitchfork, Gapers Block, Loud Loop Press and some other web-deal called Chicagoverseunited (the Reader's Miles Raymer was a no-show) was a fascinating, cautionary window on this supremely geeky world, and a taste of what more marginal writers like myself are missing.
I had numerous objections throughout, but this was, for me, the real rub: as a sort of prelude to the conversation, the moderator screened a well-worn clip from Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, proselytizing on the pitfalls of rock journalism--some sort of invocation I guess?, Bangs being the grandaddy of rock crit. Yet in the two-hour rap sesh that followed, the panelists proved to be vehemently, diametrically opposed to the whole Bangs school of music writing. With alarming schoolmarmishness, today's music scribes came down heavy on the side of objectivity, professionalism and politesse, armed with a whole list of rules (ethics, they called 'em) by which would-be music writers are supposed to abide: don't write about your friends (even if your friends make really good music); don't be needlessly negative; for that matter, avoid anything that smacks excessively of personal taste or opinion; essentially, excise all life, personality and colorful verbiage from yr. work to the point where you're basically re-tweeting press releases. Cuz today's web-scarred readers don't have time for a bunch of murky insight, OK?--they want the deets on Odd Future's latest digi-download, in fifty characters or less. So horrified was I by this ultramodern take on music writing that I practically leaped out of my chair when they opened it up for Q & A. So, y'all started out by invoking Lester Bangs or whatever, I queried, the founding father of rock writing, whose hallmark was extreme subjectivity (not to mention stylistic eccentricity), but then you turn around and espouse this whole journalism-school fantasy of professionalism and (god-help-us) objectivity... so, uh, what gives? The panel members offered various depressing responses, but it was the chick from Pitchfork who bummed me out hardest with her glib one-liner: IF LESTER BANGS WAS AROUND TODAY, she practically sneered, HE WOULDN"T HAVE A JOB.
Of course, she's probably right. Certainly no one would be paying him for his Romilar-fueled screeds (then again, ha-ha, no one is paying the music editor from Gaper's Block, either, except in Radiohead swag). But what I think she meant is that he wouldn't have an audience; no one would take him seriously. Because in this modern age of a billion 'blogs, you're either authoritative and by-the-book (read: Pitchfork) or you're just a crank, some guy with a laptop and a loud mouth. At the end of the two-hour talk, that was the basic take-home.
That said, I appreciate the admittedly modest platform that Robert has given me to write about music in whatever cranky, ill-informed and journalistically-unethical manner I please. Any illusions I might ever have held of being a legitimate music-writer are pretty well out the window at this point; even if I could swallow the bitter pill of professionalism, my garbled prose would infuriate any revenue-minded editor. Which leaves me free to do what I do best: write about my friends' bands, shit-talk music I've never actually listened to, and lace my criticism with run-on sentences and obtuse slang. Whatever noble intentions they might purport to harbor, the Pitchforks and Loud Loop Presses of the world are essentially just cogs in the, uh, entertainment machine; and while I might envy their readership, I certainly don't envy their obeisance.
My mom and I have had some eerily overlapping musical passions over the years. There's plenty that we would never agree on--she can get into some seriously tacky shit, like Hot Tuna (though I have my own uncool leanings, e.g. my ongoing fondness for 70s crooners like Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson)--but in general we have more in common than your average mother + son, and I've inherited some entrenched favorites directly from her. One of these is the great South African singer Miriam Makeba, who died in 2008. My mom had a CD of hers that she played frequently for years. I have distinct memories of the 1970 Africa album blasting while I was being made to vacuum the living room carpet, and it says something for the power of the music that this association with childhood chore-doing never precluded my love of it--I ended up stealing the CD from my mom (and losing it).
This is not a tune from my childhood, but one I found just recently on the 'net--arguably Makeba's biggest hit. The song, recorded in 1957, opens with a piano lick that sounds like a ten year-old's music lesson, but it's a trojan horse--out of nowhere leaps this swinging oldies band and up to the microphone steps Miriam Makeba. First, there's the striking super-clarity of her voice, and then there's the wildly acrobatic melody that she makes sound as easy as a playground chant. She sings in her native Xhosa (clicks and all) for a few verses, and then suddenly breaks it down in English: "Pata Pata is a daaaance," she explains, stretching the word out in some approximation of an American accent, "That we do down Johannesburg way / And everybody starts to move as soon as Pata Pata starts to play." Not hard to believe--the song is unquestionably danceable, tapping into a deep well of funkiness that was way ahead of its time; when Makeba growls, "Hit it!," during the tune's closing vamp, she's prefiguring James Brown by a solid decade. In fact, the song got a major second wind in the late 60s, when it saw a much-belated release in the US and climbed to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 (!).
By then Makeba was a star across the globe. Exiled from South Africa in 1960 for her outspoken opposition to apartheid, she was granted honorary citizenship by ten countries and held passports from nine, allowing her to tour, to wide acclaim, on several continents. Impressive enough for a township girl, but it barely scratches the surface of her startling biography--she spent the first six months of her life in prison; was a huge star in South Africa at the age of 24; had a private audience with President Kennedy in 1962; was married to Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael (as well as famed trumpeter Hugh Masakela); served as a UN delegate for Guinea, earned several major peace prizes and performed at the legendary Rumble in the Jungle fight/summit between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali--she was kind of like Bono, except she wasn't full of shit and her music didn't suck.
When I heard she'd died, a couple of years ago, I was taken aback--I'd spent the previous evening blasting her music. It wasn't the only time I'd seemingly conjured a singer's death--I had a similar experience listening to folk legend Odetta and reading the next morning that she'd just passed away. Maybe I should be listening to Brtiney Spears or something...
Anyway, here's another delightful version of the song, performed live on Brazilian TV in 1968. Dig those wily dance moves--not to mention the dizzying, height-of-Tropicalia set design.
I thought I'd follow up my San Francisco c. 2003 scene report with something much closer to home, though I offer this local roundup with the significant caveat that I don't go to a whole lot of shows and hardly listen to new records--my scope here is necessarily limited. Still, I'm not sure I'm alone in finding the whole underground scene here in Chicago a bit lackluster lately--last summer's infamous final show at the Mopery seemed to close out a particular chapter, and I'm not sure a new narrative has yet taken shape.
The Chicago underground c. mid-2011 is still seemingly awash in 'psychedelia', which wouldn't bother me in and of itself, if only there weren't a continued dearth of actual psychedelics in the city. Maybe I just don't run in hip-enough echelons, but I haven't seen or heard of any 'cid going around for at least a calendar year; psilocybes pop up only sporadically (pun intended) and fleetingly, and even the general quality of grass leaves a lot to be desired. Not to say that the music doesn't have its own merits, but the stretched-out Krautrocking of bands like Cave and Ga'an could really use some corollary chemical enhancement. Just sayin'--when your band releases albums with names like Psychic Psummer and pulsating, day-glo cover art, you're kind of making an unspoken promise that there will be good drugs available in the vicinity of your act.
Psychic Psummer was way back in 2009--I'm not seeing a whole lot of forward-motion, Chicago bandwise, since then; in fact, the tripped-out bongwater-treading has only become more egregious. I'll admit that I haven't heard a lot of this stuff, but a sampling of band names culled from the show calendar over at Acid Marshmallow (see what I mean?) is demonstrative: Dark Fog, Red Plastic Buddha, Nude Sunrise--it reads like a shopping list from post-peak Haight-Ashbury. One wonders what Steve Krakow (aka Plastic Crimewave/Psychedelic Steve),Chicago's banner-carrier for hallucinogenic music back when it was not very hip, makes of all this weak-dose noodling that masquerades these days as 'psychedelic'--perhaps he could remind the kids that the word's literal meaning (derived from the Greek) is SOUL-MANIFESTING,and it's not something that can be bought from Guitar Center. Anyway, it's not quite as stultifying as the noise/drone snoozefest that reared its head in the late 00s, but clearly the whole neo-psych thing has run its course, if it ever had one to begin with. Unless you're going to dose me up good and heavy before the show, I'm calling a moratorium on droney jams and one-chord freakouts, 'K?
There are, to be fair, a few bands taking the drug sound to new and interesting places. The great Mayor Daley, for instance, who have a long history of pothead bassists (I was one of them, c. 2006), have been gradually creeping toward a stoner-metal approach, their charred, resinous compositions regularly exceeding the 10-minute mark; the songs, however, are rigorously crafted, the product of much sober, industrious rehearsal, propelled by Paul Erschen's painterly drumming and Kelly Carr's nuclear-siren wails. Their comrades in Cacaw, meanwhile, still play with building-burning fury, with ex-Coughs Carrie Vinarsky and Anya Davidson vying for the city's most alarming vocals. It's been consistently fascinating, in fact, to watch various ex-Coughs forge their own musical paths since that band broke up in 2006--saxophonist/noisenik Jail Flanagan virtually inventing a genre with the flailing, operatic Forced Into Femininity; former drummer Jon Ziemba applying a soulful falsetto to the minimalist R&B of Bomb Banks; percussionist Seth Sherchanneling Italo-prog with the aforementioned Ga'an.
And while it's great that these veteran weirdos continue to make gutsy, challenging music, I keep waiting for a new generation of upstart freaks to come charging out of the city's basements with a whole 'nuther program. Aren't kids dropping out of the Art Institute any more--a grand Chicago tradition--to pursue reckless noisemaking? Or maybe there is a whole new crop of interesting bands and I just don't know about them cuz I'm not on facebook or whatever? Of course, I could mention some great shit coming out on Chicago's own Moniker Records, but that would be a touch incestuous and not at all in keeping with my stringent standards as a totally professional music writer...
As Moniker Records' free-range A+R guy, occasional publicist, drinking buddy and down-the-hall neighbor, I'm pleased to add to my resume the title of Moniker's official music blogger. I've written sporadically about music for my blog Secret Beach, but I'm pleased as punch to have an actual music blog, affiliated with an actual record label.
For my virgin flight, I thought we'd hop in the wayback machine and visit San Francisco circa early-2003. The war in Iraq, if you'll recall, was just gearing up, the city was seething with protest and dot-com gentrification was ravaging the Mission District, spiritual home of the then-thriving punk scene. With so much at stake, passions ran incredibly high, and out of this subcultural pressure-cooker emerged a whole slew of killer bands, playing like their very lives depended on it. I was around for just a few short months at the tail-end of this era, but the Mission punk scene left an indelible mark on my consciousness, and I thought I'd share a few musical highlights.
Early 2003 was an especially weird, wooly time for me. I'd been drifting around the country, down to New Mexico and then all the way up the west coast, living out some sort of ill-conceived hobo fantasy that involved copious slurping of Steel Reserve, probably the most aptly-named alcohol this side of Night Train. By the time I landed in San Francisco, I was already a bit of a wild-eyed mess.
I ended up "living" in my friend Joey's "room" in the back of the legendary punkhole Mission Records. Said room was just a 6X12 wooden box plopped unceremoniously between the zine room and the concert space. There were about a dozen other people tenuously living in the back of the record store, occupying various nooks and perches, and piles of people cycling through day and night. The place was relentlessly punk. There was a lot of breakfast beer-drinking, and, this being San Francisco, lots of gnarlier shit too, going down back there.
The whole scene, in fact, was reeling from the recent heroin overdose of this guy Matty Luv, who'd played in a revered Mission punk band called Hickey, started a needle-exchange program in the Haight and ran the door at many Mission Recs shows. "Hickey Is About Long Hair and Getting High," Luv winked, but they were about much more than that. It seemed like everyone who came through Mission Records had Hickey tattoos, and Hickey records were in constant rotation on the turntable--the band had cultivated a following intense enough to earn a name, the "Naked Cult of Hickey"; not so much a fan club as a worldview, a way of living.
For my money, the band's finest recorded moment is Last Nite on the Planet, off their Various States of Disrepair collection (listen here), and for a 1:40 punk song it traverses some really far-out terrain. A swaggering, street-punk intro implausibly jumpcuts into what sounds like a surf-movie soundclip, then dives just as abruptly back into the fray; It's myyyyy last nite on this planet!, Luv sings exuberantly (and there's so much to do!); and then out of nowhere comes this shimmering, blissed-out, Television-style guitar workout. And then the song is suddenly over, and Matty Luv is onstage, exhorting a live audience: White Zombie will ride in here, into this little sleepy town, on their DEATH-MACHINES, and take all your freakin' heads off with one swift swoop of their git-tars, MOTHERFUCKER! (Which, as apocalyptic scenarios go, is pretty righteous).
After Hickey broke up in the late 90s, Matty went on to play in bands like Yogurt and Miami, but it was Hickey who had the greatest influence, inspiring basically a whole generation of Bay Area bands--they were punk in sound but prankster in spirit. Matty's death had brought down some seriously heavy vibes. Everybody around Mission Records just seemed shellshocked. People were trying to mourn while coping with their own problems and addictions.
In many ways, Hickey, and Matty Luv, symbolized a way of life in the City that was starting to disappear by the time I came around; the years just before rent, already extortionate, became astronomical and priced all the vigor right off the peninsula. In 2003, Mission Street could still be genuinely seedy and unpredictable, strewn with teenage speedfreaks, plastered mariachi musicians, screeching children, a whole panorama of humanity. Next to Mission Records, the preferred lair for the punks was Hunt's Donuts, some three blocks up the street. Stirringly eulogized by Erick Lyle in his epic "The Epicenter of Crime: The Hunt's Donut Story," Hunt's (open 25 hours a day!) was indeed a locus of nefarious activity. It was a major hotspot for fencing stolen shit, and not just car stereos or jewelry but power tools, fur coats, you name it. It was also where a group calling itself Punks Against War started holding meetings in early 2003. It's hard to imagine from our present vantage, deep into the jaded post-Bush/Obama years, but the pre- Iraq War days were incredibly high-tension, especially in a place as intrinsically tense as the Mission, and the talk in the donut shop was of shutting down the city when the bombs started falling. It wasn't just the impending war; it was the daily struggle, the constant crisis, of being young, poor and angry in an increasingly repressive time+place. As a massive Punks Against War banner read--It's Not the War, It's the Way We Live.
Longtime friends and contemporaries of Hickey, Shotwell (basically just flea-market philosopher Jimmy Broustis and whatever rhythm sections he was able to scare up) had persisted into the 00s and were practicing with yet another new lineup in the back of Mission Records. On bass was Buzz, who lived in a little hovel above the shop and was sort of the disgruntled parent figure about the place. You could tell he probably had a heart of gold, but he oozed crankiness. And of course Broustis on guitar, vox and junkshop attitude. I was privately tickled to learn that gruff old Broustis was from Libertyville, IL, the posh suburb where my old man used to teach high school English. But he'd become a San Franciscan to his marrow. Sonically, Shotwell were pure Bay Area punk, almost distilled to its very essence--clattering drums, overblown guitar and a slightly slacker take on Clash-style righteousness. Clocking in at a mere 25 seconds, San Francisco's Witherin' (listen here) is a left-field anthem for a city on the verge of cultural decline, short enough that I can quote its lyrics in full: San Francisco's Witherin', the dust tickles my throat/Laughing at absurdity for a decade/I swear it's gonna blow/I swear--some days it blows!
Shotwell's sister-band, Miami, featuring the aforementioned Erick Lyle (then known as Iggy Scam, and a driving force behind Punks Against War), whose diving-guitar style evoked Black Flag's Greg Ginn, and the heroic singing of Ivy Jeanne Mclelland (check out the Shotwell/Miami split LP here), had broken up shortly before I got to town. Miami and Shotwell (as well as Hickey) had been at the center of a generator-show scene that flourished in the Mission at the dawn of the decade. Bands set up shows in doorways and plazas all down Mission Street; fifty punks would suddenly arrive, there would be free burritos and flowing malt liquor, and bands would play until the cops lost their tempers and fuzzed everybody out. The shows had a serious political resonance, a full-on reclaiming of public space, but they were also just great fun; punk rock, but totally recontextualized by the street. By 2003 Shotwell and Miami weren't playing as much in the street, but new bands were borrowing generators and playing shows, often outside the 16th Street and 24th Street BART stations.
Prominent among these was a band called Full Moon Partisans. Unlike most of the punk bands around, they lived in the relatively upscale Haight; they'd met as students at SFU, and didn't pretend to be as gutter as their Mission contemporaries. They weren't covered in tattoos, they weren't especially political, and they certainly didn't have any punk puritanism about them. In contrast to the 1-2 stomp of bands like Shotwell, the Partisans' sound had a wide range of influences, from the illicit, tape-traded Soviet rock of Sergey's youth (he'd left the Ukraine with his family in the early 90s) to free jazz to the Talking Heads and Iggy + the Stooges.
Sergey, Matt and Lauren, three-quarters of the Full Moon Partisans, had a little place on the Golden Gate panhandle, and when living at the record store starting becoming untenable I'd often crash at their house--they were generous with their couch-space. Their place was a lot more fun than Mission Records, the atmosphere not nearly as strained. There were always little parties in the kitchen, everybody bopping around with the lights off, like a bunch of 15 year-olds, to Iggy Pop's Lust for Life. The Full Moon Partisans quickly became my favorite band in town. Sergey was a dyed-in-the-wool romantic who wandered the Haight with a boombox in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other, a one-man advert for youthful vigor. This exuberance extended to his songwriting; Sergey sang of dancing on roofs and running through the streets, because that's what he did.
Lazy reviewers christened them "gypsy-punk", ala Gogol Bordello--because the singer was, y'know, Slavic, and they played a lot of weird minor chords. But their palette was much broader than that. Their second album, my favorite, encompasses everything from LA-style noir-punk to Soviet campfire-pop to the slithering, paranoid funk of Dictator Dance, probably the album's choicest cut. What I love about the song, beyond it's menacing groove--kinda like the Cramps doing disco--is that it brilliantly addresses an issue I've often pondered: the sheer bossiness of dance music. Put your hands in the air... jump up and get down... now slide to the left... and shake that thing... like a drill sergeant, the singer is always telling us what to do and when to do it. Dictator Dance (listen) makes this totally (and hilariously) explicit. You're gonna have to jump and shout/You're gonna do the runaround, Sergey commands. But as with any dictator, there is a core of vulnerability beneath all the despotic bluster. Just love me now and you will see/That all of you belong to me, he sings, sounding like Josef Stalin in a needy mood. It was a fitting song for a moment when the US was on the brink of war and the Bush administration was starting to look pretty totalitarian.
As the war approached--200,000 people, 500,000 people marching down Market Street in protest--there was a general feeling of panic in the City that I didn't feel equipped to deal with, and I bailed, back to Chicago, in late March. I've remained friends with many of these people, and a huge fan of their music over the years (Sergey and Matt of FMP now play in a noisier, scarier band called Didi Mau; Erick and Ivy of Miami play together intermittently in Black Rainbow), though I've spent little time in San Francisco since 2003. I gather that the scene there, despite some really brilliant bands, has lost some the urgency it had in those pre-Gavin Newsome years--there's a decent take on that decline here, which I'll quote at length: "The Mission punk scene isn’t the first San Francisco party to end tragically. Decades before the Haight Ashbury high came crashing down as paranoid and hallucinatory as any bad comedown, the African-American cultural heart of the city, the “Harlem of the West,” was literally bulldozed through under the guise of “urban renewal”; 50 years later, blacks are only 6.5% of the population. As a child I bore witness to another SF party ending, as I watched my pretty young uncle grow thin, sarcoma-spotted, snatched by the dark hand that swept through the city’s bathhouses and bars, stealing so many lives. The death of the SF punk scene, and the larger gentrification that encompassed it, was just another dying in a long series of cultural deaths. It feels more personal because I was there to witness its asthmatic last gasps, convulsive as a fish out of water."