Upper middle class white music journalists, when discussing the blues, make no sense to me. I ran across a rock critic chat on blues music on social media this morning. And it immediately hit me why, although I like the blues and play it a lot, it was an exchange best avoided.
Scholars of popular entertainment can spoil what was thought unspoilable with an ability to suck the vital juice out of anything. What usually happens when one encounters this type of thing is a creeping feeling of embarrassment because you can’t canonically list all the old folk blues artists or successfully debate who belongs in unique sub-genres of your own coinage.
Before you know it you’re actually questioning if you know anything at all.
Well, I know quite a bit.
I learned to love the music’s capacity on guitar decades ago because I had records by ZZ Top and the British groups in the white boy blues boom of the late Sixties and early Seventies. And I picked up the harmonica in middle age because, as a folk instrument, it was just made to be easy to play.
Harmonica, and folk musics in general, are supposed to be simple and inviting. It is music that anyone with human DNA can dip into. You can write what you know, tell stories, make daily observations.
In America this has been turned into a genre where reverence to various stodgy pieties and ways-of-performance are embalmed as benchmarks and methods of accounting and keeping score by white American ruling culture. You cannot bring a sense of humor or alienation to it, two things that are as much a part of old folk musics as community experience.
But if you want something wrecked for the day’s enjoyment, find some pop culture critics to talk about it.
In any case, I realized I had more than enough tunes over the last three years to constitute a blues album that has some relation to my American existence.
And here you have by example, what I’m talking about, Stumbling Into the FutureCulture of Lickspittle. Running time = a little over 26 minutes.
That looks short. But it’s a good length to show breadth of style and the human touch. And it is definitely not repetitive (Go from “Pasadena 2012 Blues” to “Good Boy” and tell me that) although many of the songs are in the same key.
The alternate title occurred to me after I’d left the YouTube playlist: Culture of Lickspittle Blues. D’oh! So I changed it from the original post and URL marker.
Was planning on posting a continuation on natsec rent-seeking but just couldn’t today.
Didn’t have it in me (as spied on Twitter) to live up to the recommendation directed at someone else: “Become DickDestiny and go all out pls. [Give him the] Beat down … ”
This song, a lot more polished that the vinyl recording by virtue of the Letterman band, was from a release just before The Breeders went platinum in the mid-90’s with The Last Splash. And it is 150 plus seconds of why rock and roll exists.
Newton — Pine Grove Municipal Swimming Pool Splash Party, ca. ‘71-’72.
Taken by my father, George C. Smith, Jr., a Polaroid of my rock n roll band, Newton, at a Pine Grove swimming pool splash party. He could never get anything right, cutting his son almost entirely out of the picture. Did it occur to him to back up a couple steps or take an angle?
It’s the only thing left, besides some childhood books, of my old life in Pine Grove, PA. I’d forgotten about it until this week when I opened a trade paperback, bought a few years ago in Pasadena, and it fell out. I’d been using it as a bookmark. The polaroid is still nice and stiff after forty-some years.
Credits, from left to right, classmate Rodney Felty, Mike Pijar on drums, Ray Symons and me. Harry Brommer, an old friend and the pool’s handyman, built the stage we played on. Part of the reason we got the gig was because two of us were lifeguards AND I had a Fender Vibrolux Reverb amp. John Herber, the swimming pool supervisor had had a band in that played through Fender “reverb” amps the year before and liked the sound.
It was an uncharacteristically cool summer night and most of the audience did not swim at all.
Both my parents are dead now — George Jr., the keepsake photographer, and Mary Elizabeth Smith. The photo doesn’t make me miss them.
They had the good luck to be part of the time when the middle class was at its height in the USA. The first college graduates in their families, they found jobs straight out of Penn State, my father as an accountant for Alcoa Aluminum, my mother as a school teacher at Pine Grove Area.
They had no debt, lived in apartment for about one year before moving into a new home in the freshly-minted Legion Acres subdivision of the Pine Grove borough.
My mother was able to quit her career as a school teacher to have children and start it right up again a few years later, scarcely missing a beat. Alcoa Aluminum felt the early wave of the great de-industrialization of America and closed the largest extrusion plant in the world in Cressona, PA. My dad’s job was spared. He quickly transferred to a small bottlecap producing facility near Lancaster.
I visited it once, a pathetic place, mostly automated where you had to wear plastic ear plugs all day. Alcoa, it seemed, could still domestically make soda pop bottlecaps at a profit in the late Seventies.
I never liked my parents much. Besides the outward physical similarity in looks, I had nothing in common with them. They were mediocre. Although they had a good start they were ill-suited to raising children, mostly because they lacked empathy and warmth. They took what society and time gave them, doing just what everyone else they knew did.
That was OK. America is and was a huge country, one where you can’t have a vibrant civilization (which we don’t have) where everyone has to be at the very tip-top of the global totem pole in coveted skills.
They didn’t have to deal with the stupid lies we’re fed daily by the 1 percent and Tom Friedmans of the country. My parents thought the United States would always be the best place in the world. They were full of aphorisms about it.
“Time is money,” George Jr. always said, a lesson he learned from business. Yes, in corporate America your time is worth less and less money, maybe almost nothing.
Neither my father nor my mother liked writing, or music, or language and thought, or reading. (Paradoxically, my mother became a reading teacher later in her career. She did not read books and took mine when she needed to put something in her middle school classroom library.)
And they didn’t understand science at all although they believed it was very important I be trained as a scientist.
So as I got older the family disconnection always worsened. It was happening when I was playing guitar in Newton at the Pine Grove swimming pool.
Whose kid was I? Not theirs. We shared nothing, not a single blessed value. What, when, who or why? There were no answers.
So I’m looking at the swimming pool photo, again this week: Half-assed but good enough for three-quarters.
I’ve outlived the man who took it. My father died in the mid-Eighties, younger than I am now. Not a moment in our lives has been the same. DD came along a few years after he was gone. We would not have been pals.
Another ugly paradox: Corporate health care gave him the best benefits to be had, no questions asked. These kept him alive for five years after cancer struck. Congruent with modern America, I’ve had no health insurance for a number of years. Before that I had a program familiar to many, one that only pays for treatment of catastrophic illness, one that will eventually kill you. No treatments for the dozens of things people normally need to go to the doctor for.
This is what my parents had for life. It was not because they were spectacular examples of American exceptionalism, because they had some mythic work ethic, some always fresh and absolutely essential worth in the machine. It was because they came into the economic system before it had turned into a grinder that would gradually pit all against all. The country had enough leaders who believed a great society should not just be a matter of fortune at birth and root, hog or die.
You never can tell what an old photo will trigger in the head.
Something you miss? Or a distant condition already vanishing when the photo is taken, then quickly gone, the flickering half-life of a short-lived isotope, a fluke.
In the age of Google the memory of a family name is framed by the member who’s the best writer. Often not the person you want it to be.
From a Minneapolis newspaper, on the REO/Styx/Nugent oldies tour:
Nugent, 64, was the most polarizing figure on the bill, thanks to his outspoken views on politics, hunting and guns. But it seems like it’s been at least 30 years since Nugent cared what anyone else thought about him, and he carried that cocksure attitude over to his performance. Basically, it was one long guitar solo, punctuated by an obscene amount of swearing and some “USA! USA!” patriotism tossed in for good measure.
From the Toledo Blade, an article on the same tour explaining the Midwestern love of “classic rock” — or, as readers of this blog might call it now — WhiteManistan rock:
[Toledo venue manager] Miller refers to classic rock and country music as the arena’s “bread and butter,” attracting “a traditional and loyal audience” who identify with the songs about the Midwest experience — see Styx’s “Blue Collar Man,” for example.
Cronin also noted similarities in the two fan bases, and said that REO Speedwagon keyboardist and co-founder Neal Doughty has a theory that classic rock is really the new country.
“Not musically, but just in as much as it’s long lasting,” he said. “It’s the music of heartland, and it’s another alternative” …
The music of heartland for some, of stomach-turning for others. Modern country became the refuge of classic rock in the last twenty years. Neal Doughty of REO has it a little bit sideways.
The musicians in modern country play light classic rock with banjo and fiddles glued on for seasoning.
See the most recent comment on Brad Paisley, here. After bombing with “Accidental Racist,” his record company launched another weird dud, “Beat This Summer.”
Now I ask you, who thought conjuring the spirit of a slightly older Jon Benet Ramsey by putting the song to a video in which a very little boy and little girl have a puppy summer affair on the Santa Monica pier was a great idea? Wistful, I don’t think so. It made my skin crawl.
God save us from the clueless in WhiteManistan and heartland music.
The title track, [Ready to Die], was inspired by an incident at a Georgia Waffle House. “There were three old dudes there, about the age of the Stooges,” says Iggy. “There were all pensioners with John Deere caps and flannel shits and everything. They would sit around the Waffle House down there plotting to blow up government offices. The waitress who brought them their pancakes overheard it and called the Feds. I though it was so poignant, but also funny. They wanted some meaning in their life. I started writing, and even had a line about ‘get off my lawn!’ But it didn’t hold water when I went to record it because it was too much of a cheap shot at these people. We kept the chorus that goes ‘I’m shooting for the sky because I’m ready to die.’ It’s basically about how depressed and lonesome you get dealing with modern life.”
Iggy and Williamson get about everything wrong on the details, not that it matters much. But it’s still a shame. (Disclosure: I was consulted for one of the scheduled trials of two of them men involved, and by newspapers that covered it.)
Poignant and funny are not words I’ve ever used to describe these types of, unfortunately, not uncommon things. And I would have never figured old extremists caught in a domestic terror beef as subject material for a Stooges tune.