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Archive for the '33 1/3' Category

On Dinosaur Jr.’s “You’re Living All Over Me”

[Editor's note: Thirty-Three and a Third (33 1/3) is a series of books written about music albums featuring one author per album. Published by Continuum Books, the series title refers to the speed (33 1/3 revolutions per minute) of an LP album.]

The problem with writing this 33 1/3 Dinosaur Jr. book was neatly summed up by a show of theirs that I went to the other night. It was at London's Alexandra Palace; actually the Flaming Lips were headlining, and Wayne Coyne came out front before their set and did a 10-minute preamble thing, humorously drawing the crowd's attention to various nuances of the health-and-safety code and regularly punctuated by a shrill "Motherfuckers!" (meant affectionately). Dinosaur, by contrast, shuffled on, tore full-blast through their set, and shuffled off again, all within about 35 minutes. J Mascis made a kind of "whoo" noise into his mike before they began, and Lou Barlow said "this is the last song" before they played the last song. But that was about as far as it got in terms of patter.

Expending 3,0000 words ...


33 1/3: The Drowned and the Saved

[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 salebuy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]

Looking back over the process of writing my contribution to the 33 1/3 series, I find that I did not have the expected problem — how do I come up with enough stuff to say about an album to fill an entire book?

Instead, I have struggled terribly with the problem of when and how to shut up about it. Writing a book on Throbbing Gristle's Twenty Jazz Funk Greats has given me a rare indulgence; the opportunity as an adult to re-enter an all consuming adolescent obsession, but this time armed with the scholarly rationale that I was not simply wallowing in nostalgia but critically kicking the tires of the aesthetic that once held me in thrall. The trouble with this kind of acutely emotional investment is that one can get lost in a forest of treasured arcana in which every tiny fact, every comparison, every possible reference and allusion feels essential. Surely the fact that the album was tracked and mixed on rented equipment previously used by Sir Paul McCartney says something significant about the pop aspirations of this self-recorded effort?

Could it be an accident that the recordings were completed on the same day as the anniversary of the declaration of World War II? Sweating the details is all very well, but too many private reveries about the precise frequencies of certain highhats can alienate and overwhelm the more casual reader . Such folks may need a bit of persuasion in order to immediately grasp the tight conceptual relationship between the Throbbing Gristle song "Still Walking," in which four vocalists recite the same lyrics slightly out of synch with each other in order to render them deliberately unintelligible, and the occult practice of casting a spell by creating a "magic square" that superimposes the same invocatory text upon itself in the four cardinal directions, a common practice in the calligraphic artwork of 1960s Tangiers expatriate Brion Gysin, an acknowledged influence upon the band. TG's work is low on form (sometimes it is only tenuously musical, if at all) but high on content, and the archive of references and connections between this album's artwork and lyrics and a promiscuous cast of occultists, filmmakers, painters, novelists, criminals and assorted kooks has had to endure some tight squeezing in order to fit within its back-pocket-sized volume.


33 1/3: In Praise of Distraction

[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 salebuy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]

Being interested in music, I often think, really means being interested in almost everything. The hidden perk of working in music criticism (as opposed to the visible ones, the shows, drink tickets and everything else that ushers us along to our no-doubt-early graves) is that one's research about a singer or a composer or a trombone player always leads to other sorts of questions altogether — about the social dynamics and urban development of the city they come from, or the politicians who campaigned to their songs or tried to get them banned, or the physiology of what happens to the lips of horn players as they age. And then there's the question of who listens to the music, not just where it comes from but where it eventually goes — what kinds of trouble do kids get up to listening to this song, compared to the sort of trouble they got into listening to last year's song? Are they huffing glue or sipping cough syrup? Committing arson or whip-riding on rear fenders?

As a result, the best music writing is often a cascade of branching tangents . My favorite books in the 33 1/3 series are usually those that seem to be about an album but are really about something else — Erik Davis's book that pretends to be about Led Zeppelin but is really about magic and technology; Douglas Wolk's book that pretends to be about James Brown's Live at the Apollo but is really what it might have been like to live through the Cuban Missile Crisis; Franklin Bruno's book that pretends to be about Elvis Costello but is really about race and soul and Englishness and Americanness and the fact that Franklin is so uncannily able to detect borrowed hooks and chord structures even when they are chopped in half and played backwards that the producers of Name That Tune should be glad their show went before he was old enough to come win all their money. (Then again, lucky for them Elvis Costello was never a contestant, too.)

My own book might the series' dodgiest pretender, as it claims on its cover to be about a Celine Dion album, and then goes on for about 9 of its 12 chapters without saying more than a few words about that album, going on instead about taste and globalization and sentimentality and schmaltz and TV shows about teenage girls. My book is a lab experiment in disguise, in which I was the rat, being exposed to various test conditions or stimuli that might help me understand how millions of people could be fans of Celine Dion while I and nearly everybody I'd ever met couldn't stand her. The test tubes and beakers of the experiment are, of course, tangents. It is a travelogue of sorts, as the subtitle says, "a journey to the end of taste."


33 1/3: Swordfishtrombones

[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 salebuy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]

There was a brief mad moment when I was deep into writing my book about Swordfishtrombones when it seemed like the only sensible response to the record was to rewrite Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds with Tom Waits as the main character. Or possibly several of the characters. I allude to this in the introduction to my book, and from my tone you might think I was joking. But for at least two days that's exactly what I was doing: rewriting At Swim-Two-Birds.

You might think I'm mentioning this as a cautionary tale of a writer driven temporarily mad by his task or to exemplify the wrong turns that writers often take while trying to finish a book. But it wasn't a wrong turn at all. It was exactly what I needed to do.


33 1/3: Love and Death In the Golden Land

[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 salebuy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]

I live in Brooklyn, NY, in a converted public school building three blocks west of the East River; right now, if I were to strap on an orange life-vest, lug a canoe a mile south to the Red Hook Container Terminal — where stevedores still shift massive crates of cargo in and out of the borough's last active port, collecting ships from Upper New York Bay and pushing them back into the big, dim Atlantic — sneak it offshore, and splash north for thirty-odd miles, I could disembark outside the little brown house where I grew up, where my parents still plant tomatoes and grill hamburgers and throw pebbles at the red-headed woodpeckers still tapping tunnels into ancient awnings. I have lived in New York — on and off the banks of the Hudson River — for most of my life. We eat sesame bagels and pepperoni pizza and rake Maple leaves and watch baseball and smear our fingertips with the New York Times. My universe is insular, small: East.

As such, my notions of California are fragmented, strange, fictionalized: The Big Lebowski, the Playboy Mansion, Raymond Chandler, My Dark Places, Jefferson Airplane, Metallica, Star Maps, The Price Is Right. I didn't think too much about the west coast — where the sun sets, where it's always three hours too late — until I found a small stack of books by Joan Didion, the most arresting writer of place I have ever read, the kind of author who can nail an entire region in twenty-five words. In Didion's clutches, Southern California's San Bernadino Valley was "a place where little is bright or graceful, where it is routine to misplace the future and easy to start looking for it in bed." Las Vegas was geographically implausible, "the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies' room attendants with amyl nitrate poppers in their uniform pockets." In her essay "Goodbye to All That," Didion explains her experience in my beloved New York as a kind of untruth, not entirely dissimilar to my own hazy impressions of the westernmost edge of the Unites States of America: "I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage."


33 1/3: ‘And what do you do?’

[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 salebuy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]

Being a published writer who is not yet a household name brings its own unique set of pressures. One of the most tedious of these is being asked what you do at parties. If you can reply 'I'm John Grisham,' then all well and good. However, few of us can say this. In fact only John Grisham can say this and not be completely lying his tits off. If you're talking to someone who doesn't read an awful lot, the kind of person who says, for example, 'I only read biographies' then the conversation will contain several inevitable questions. Let's pick up the exchange from where he/she asks the fateful opener. 'Ah, I'm a writer,' you reply...

1) 'So, have you had anything published yet?'

No. I just go around saying 'I'm a writer' even though the closest I've come to book publication is when I walk by a branch of Barnes and Noble. Do people think you're a total maniac? The kind of person who goes around saying 'I'm an astronaut' because they caught the last fifteen minutes of The Right Stuff on cable the night before? If you say you're a writer and you haven't published a book — or had a movie made, or whatever — then either a) you're 18 years old. Or b) you are a total maniac. And, by the way, you're not allowed to call yourself a writer until that is how you earn your primary living. And by 'living' I mean an income capable of supporting a person living on more than rice crackers and rainwater. Who doesn't live with their parents. Also, don't get suckered into saying 'I'm a writer' then having to backtrack and shuffle when the next question is the invariable 'What else do you do?' Or 'Do you make enough money to live on from that?' Then you have spend a 'lively' five minutes making out that you stayed on at the Dairy Queen — or teaching Grad School, or working at the library — for the love. (Nothing wrong with working at the library mind you — Philip Larkin did it all his life.)

2) 'So, what's your book/film/quartet of poems about?'

Do not, under any circumstances, be drawn into a detailed plot summary. Unless you are Martin Amis/Martin Scorsese/the ghost of T.S. Eliot no one really cares. They're just saying it to have something to say. Personally I favour one of two responses to this question: 1) 'Oh a whole bunch of crap happens. Anyway...' and then changing the subject. Or, b) 'Oh, they live, they love, they learn. Normal human stuff. Anyway...' and then changing the subject.

Actually if you spend any time around writers, musicians, or whatever you'll notice that the last thing the really talented ones want to do is talk about is their work. Those of mediocre — or zero — talent will happily drone on in cerebellum-frying detail about the difficulty they're having with the protagonist's motivation/Act II climax/tricksy, multi-viewpoint flashback sequence. The good ones will try and change the subject immediately. Usually to either sex or sports. (That's when you know you're talking to a real writer: they don't want to discuss the merits of first-person via localised third-person narrator. They want to know who won the game and if you can help get them laid.)

3) 'So, where do you get your ideas from?'

AHHHAGGGHHH!!!! You know, I'm having an idea now right now. It involves removing your liver with a corkscrew and feeding it to you...


33 1/3: Geeks Ahoy! — One Man’s Journey (A Life)

[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 salebuy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]

Atomic Books, Baltimore MD

The last stop on my East Coast tour this summer was in Baltimore.

I met Rebecca at the train station. We're used to living in Boston, where you can walk everywhere, so when the lady at the information desk told us we'd need to take a cab the twenty blocks to Atomic Books, we laughed it off. We were Bostonians! 'Course, Baltimore's way hotter, and the black bag that I had overpacked with books and CD's didn't help things any. Neither did our collective lack of navigational skills. Twenty blocks turned into thirty, forty.

We made it, finally, to Atomic Books, this smallish room crammed to the gills with fanzine anthologies, comics and out there film. Both of us felt comfortable there within seconds despite being cranky and soaked in sweat — Rachel, the place's co-owner, exuded this friendly, hospitable vibe that has yet to be equaled in any other city. We looked around the place, and both of us felt it: if we had a place, it would be just like this.

My reading was at Atomic Pop, the trinket/Hello Kitty sister store. After dinner, Rebecca and I bought some beer to drink with Rachel (and co-owner Benn, and Maggie). Thanks, Benn said. You can put that with the beer that's in the cooler in the back.

Well!

After my reading and a screening of 'We Jam Econo,' the Atomic folks hooked 'Guitar Hero' up to their projector cart and we drank and hung out and rocked and bullshitted each other for hours afterwards. The hospitality was amazing — the second time that day of if we had a place, it'd be just like this.


33 1/3: Guilty Viking Pleasures

[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 salebuy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]

The notion of the guilty pleasure is a funny one when it comes to rock or pop music. This is music we listen to because we like it, right? 'Nuff said. It's like those "God said it, I believe it" Christian bumperstickers: I dig it, therefore it's good.

But a lot of the stuff we like is stuff we like so much that we want to explain why we like it, to justify our pleasures, to praise or argue about value. This is especially true if you are, like me, one of those goofballs who write articles and books about pop and rock records. But here's the rub for the pop-rock scribe, whose ranks have only ballooned in the wake of the Internet and the rise of the music blog: Is all the music you love worth writing about? Or is some of it too trivial, lame, regressive, possibly even, you know, wrong? Amidst our refulgent culture of sonic hedonism, when everything is loved by someone, the general critic still has a peculiar privileged access to the guilty pleasure: the band that consensus (or our friends) dictates we really shouldn't like, for political or aesthetic reasons, or that if we do like we shouldn't be too loud about.

I faced that issue a bit when I decided to pitch David Barker about a 33 1/3 book on Led Zeppelin. I wanted to write about Zep because they were my favorite band in high school, and very few critically substantial things had been written about them. But while Zeppelin is now generally loved and even revered, in their time they were widely reviled and mocked by hipster rock critics, and they remain a bit embarrassing — at once too blue-collar and too sword-and-sorcery and too ridiculously successful for substantial verbiage. It's no accident that, with some important exceptions, almost everything written about them is tawdry tell-alls or fangeek lore. And that was part of the fun of writing my book: I wanted to see how seriously I could take the sonic fictions that Led Zeppelin created, and how deep the rabbit hole of occult interpretation would take me. It went pretty dang deep.


One Dozen Rectangular Things Made of Paper That I Enjoy and Think Perhaps You Might Also

[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 salebuy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]

I'm psyched to be writing a blog entry for Powell's Books. Since I live in Portland, OR, I often accompany friends to the actual physical store — usually the behemoth Burnside location. More often than not, we'll each get lost in the stacks for an hour, or more. I actually received a nice shout-out from Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff the other month about this very thing. In an interview he did for Pitchfork, Will recounts how we went to Powell's together and he said "Tell me what to buy," so I did. One of those books was apparently A Night of Serious Drinking by Rene Daumal, which then made enough of an impression on Sheff that it influenced his last album. Hooray!

Will's one of those friends I see once or ...


33 1/3: Four Books That Influenced Live at the Apollo Rather Heavily

[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 salebuy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]

1. George W. S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context

Trow, an essayist and occasional fiction writer who died last year, wrote this essay in 1980 — a meditation on television, American culture, the cult of celebrity, and where we are going and what we are doing in this particular handbasket. It's one of the most astonishing pieces of writing I've ever seen: not for its argument, as strong as it is, but for its sheer slashing style. Here's a little piece of it from its original appearance in The New Yorker (complete with charming extra hyphen in the title). I ripped off Trow's short-sections-with-headlines-that-sometimes-repeat trick outright for Live at the Apollo, and to make up for that, quoted a couple of lines from it, in a fairly inappropriate context — which seemed perversely appropriate. ...


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