For decades relegated to lone VHS copies buried in college libraries, Dan Graham’s dense DIY documentary traces a history of rock‘n’roll in which Patti Smith is, to quote the film itself, “the Mary Magdalene to the fallen rock idols of the 60s.” Graham primarily draws a line between the ecstatic trances of 18th-century Shakers to the performative primitivism of art-punk (via Patti and Sonic Youth) and the ascendant circle-pit culture of hardcore bands Black Flag and Minor Threat. In the film’s second half, however, he branches out to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, the hippie counterculture and even Jerry Lee Lewis as part of a mesmerizing thesis on rock as embodied belief system (at one point, an archival recording of a theological conversation between Lewis and Sun Records’ Sam Phillips is revelatory). The VHS aesthetics and crude editing take a second to get used to (they’re raw even by 1984’s tape-to-tape standards), but it’s all appropriately punk— collaged together with the seams showing.
For Pitchfork, I wrote about the transcendent Rock My Religion and 19 other music documentaries currently available on Netflix Streaming and other locales around the web.
‘A lot of what we used to associate with music — it being an indicator of tribalism — I think we’re seeing that more in food these days, instead,’ Gold says. ‘If you’re vegan, or a conscious omnivore, or nose-to-tail person, or a gluten-free person — those people get together and self-identify.’
I assume Twitter is going to eviscerate this, and while I agree that the headline does reflect an unnecessary either/or position in the piece, I do think that there’s a lot of truth to the connection, even if it should be framed as a dialectic rather than a binary.
Mainly, it lies in the recognition and unveiling of the commodity fetish, as producers and consumers. This is really where punk was born: pulling back the curtain on how the musical sausage was made (as it were) and inspiring folks to do it themselves, because yes, it’s really that easy. The foodie/locavore/grow-your-own movements do the same thing at a time when it’s very popular to rage against factory farms and genetically-enhanced/tortured-animal foods.
I like this quote, from Pulitzer-winning food critic and music writer Jonathan Gold, because it gets at another appeal that foodieism and modern indie share: the fetishization of micro-categorization as cultural capital.
I met Peyton Manning once. It was in 2001, well within the brief window when he was considered a good if-pick-prone quarterback and the Colts were still a fairly mediocre playoff qualifier. I was at a bar called Chumley’s in Broad Ripple—a hip-esque Indianapolis suburb mostly known for being the place where Butler University students party—with my roommate at the time (and for the prior couple years). It was a weeknight, and we were sitting on the patio with a couple other friends. We watched Manning walk in by himself, and then go up to the bar and sit down (his wife would join him later). A few minutes later, one of our tablemates pointed toward the bar and said “hey, Peyton Manning just went to the bathroom, go get his autograph.” I didn’t want his autograph, but I did get up and go to the bathroom. It was earlyish in the evening, it was spring and the sun was still out, and for a few minutes me and Peyton Manning were the only two people in the bathroom.
There were two urinals, and I peed next to Peyton Manning, who was using the other one. He finished first, and went to the sink to wash his hands. I finished soon after, and waited awkwardly behind him. It was about a month before the draft, that was my small talk. When he turned around to dry his hands and politely nodded to acknowledge me, I asked something along the lines of “who are you guys thinking about for the draft.” He sort of chuckled out a response, something really brief about how he trusts the management and coaches, and left.
I told my story immediately, and excitedly. We hung on the patio for another couple hours, while the bar filled up. When we left, it was pretty clear that Manning was still up at the bar, drinking, only now there were about 100 people surrounding him.
I met Reggie Miller once. It was during his rookie season (‘87-‘88), and my dad and I were at Market Square Arena for a WWF event. Dad noticed, several rows below us, that Reggie was sitting with George Irvine, the Pacers’ coach at the time. This was at a point, note, when the Pacers were still terrible, and would be for several more years. Reggie was a brilliant draft pick in retrospect, but at the time, Pacers fans were disappointed we didn’t get Steve Alford.
There were quite a few empty seats in our section, so I left my dad in his seat (he didn’t care) and went and sat literally next to Reggie for the entire event. It was an hour or so before people started bugging him for autographs, and I never even bothered him with such trivialities (I’ve never really been an autograph guy, even at 10). Instead, I bugged him with my intimate knowledge of WWF rivalries, explained who Mr. Perfect was, and noted that Ultimate Warrior was going to blow the roof off the place when he ran out. Reggie and Irvine were both surprisingly (think Mr. Wilson vis-a-vis Dennis the Menace). Thinking back, it’s a level of proximity and interaction that I couldn’t imagine anyone having with a professional athlete nowadays.
The main thing I remember? Reggie had “HOLLYWOOD” bleached down one leg of his jeans.
At the same time the very idea of MTV was feeding fears that music was becoming ever more superficial (check out the Mobius strip of Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing,” which both came from the POV of a character dismissive of video stars and had an acclaimed video), MTV Unplugged played a critical role in the development of authenticity policing. The idea that pop stars — entertainers — had to prove themselves in stripped-down formats went hand in hand with the suspicion that they were inauthentic in the first place, an idea that music videos didn’t invent but certainly advanced. (Milli Vanilli released Girl You Know It’s True in 1989, the same year MTV debuted Unplugged.)
Pitchfork: He develops the Consumer Guide format, which you describe as a ‘management strategy’ for the flow of music he was receiving, as well as a ‘commentary’ on criticism itself.
DP: Again, Christgau is hyper-aware. When he creates the Consumer Guide, he’s trying to figure out how to manage the workload of being a rock critic, which at that moment paled in comparison to the amount of music being produced today, but it’s still an incredible amount of music. You have to remember, he’s getting this music on record. He’s not skipping through tracks and listening to the first five seconds and then going to the next thing, as we’ve all done. He can, and does, listen to music for eight hours a day and still not listen to the entire stack of music. So, writing these short reviews and giving them letter grades was a way of saying, ‘How can I condense this workload and comment on what it means to be a critic?’
I talked at length with Devon Powers about Writing the Record, her great new book on the role of Richard Goldstein, Robert Christgau, and the Village Voice in codifying rock criticism in the late 1960s.
I was down an end-of-semester rabbit hole last week when I learned that Storm Thorgerson died. Thorgerson’s design and photography work for Hipgnosis, and that company’s work for Pink Floyd especially, made a huge impression on me when I was in high school, and to this day, I have a sort of automatic attraction to a certain kind of surreal image—the unexpected object, sitting benignly in a landscape—that occurs no matter how ridiculous the image is.
Hipgnosis made a lot of other kinds of images, though. Thorgerson wasn’t the only one at the company, of course—he founded it with Aubrey Powell, and Peter Christopherson of Throbbing Gristle was among the many others who did outstanding work for them over the years—but with Powell, he was half of its guiding vision.
I don’t like all the work they did—they went through a phase with a lot of illustrated, roboticized images in the late 70s that I find especially puzzling, and those last few rounds of Pink Floyd reissues (immersion sets aside) struggled to find a coherent way to visit with the past and never quite located it—but they have did really fantastic stuff that’s among my favorite album art ever.
The one above is the front and back of the first solo album by Gary Brooker, best known as the pianist and singer for Procol Harum. Hipgnosis did a lot of great covers that told stories, and this is probably my favorite. The front cover especially just perfectly captures the sense that everything is going terribly wrong, and this guy is OK with it. Hey, man, why panic if you’re gonna crash? Might as well go out smiling.
I don’t know if Thorgerson went out smiling necessarily, but I do know he went out working—he kept doing LP art to the end of his life. You can argue with some of the results. When he was called on to work for a band trying to re-live the glory days of 70s rock, he could produce work that looked like an imitation of himself, but I suppose that’s always a potential trap of greatness and innovation. As I get time, I’ll run through some more of my favorite Hipgnosis covers over the next few days.
For all the fuss made over Bowie’s hair, costumes and poses, it’s the way his voice has shifted over the years that interests me most. The changes have been as subtle as the outfits were overt. Listen to Hunky Dory or Ziggy, and all his vowels are flat, his mouth’s nearly closed, his voice is resonating off the back of his front teeth, and he cuts right through all those twelve-string guitars and tinny pianos like the knife of his namesake. But as you go further, through Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs to the Berlin years and beyond, a weird thing starts to happen: the voice migrates toward the back of his throat, his jaw drops, his vowels open, and he sounds ever more like his hero Scott Walker, whose spooky intonation on 1977’s Nite Flights is almost a dead ringer for Bowie’s, except that it’s really the other way around. (…)
I always wondered why this happened, and whether it was something he did on purpose. Singers’ voices tend to age in interesting ways, sometimes gracefully, sometimes not. Joni Mitchell’s, burnt (with grim purpose, one suspects) to a dry husk by cigarettes, is an extreme example, as is Robert Plant’s, whose much-abused high register has deserted him, though he seems to delight in combing through its damaged remains. Dylan, of course, went through a phase in which his voice seemed to give up on the very idea of singing (though I have an affection for the weird Jim Nabors-like ‘country’ voice of Self Portrait and Nashville Skyline). Closer to the present, Michael Stipe’s voice, originally grave and gritty, turned dark and husky, then brightened, cheered up, and became strangely weightless; Bill Callahan’s voice opened, dived, and doesn’t yet seem to have found the bottom; Gil Scott-Heron’s oratory ripened into a splendid growl; Lou Reed’s went kind of warbly, lost its once-unassailable authority and eerie tenderness, and hasn’t been able (or perhaps doesn’t want) to find it again.
I remember when Deep Impact and Armageddon and Volcano and Dante’s Peak came out, but I thought this wasn’t still a thing. I was wrong.
I’ve been obsessed with this phenomenon ever since Jonathan Bernstein wrote about it in SPIN back in 1992 (thank you, Google Books!) when Christopher Columbus: The Discovery and 1492: The Conquest Of Paradise were released. Other 20+ year-old examples of Hollywood’s pathological habit from the piece: JFK/Ruby (1992), Like Father Like Son/ViceVersa/18 Again! (1987/1988), For Keeps/She’s Having A Baby (1988), and my favorite, Weird Science/Real Genius/My Science Project, all three released the first two weekends of August, 1985. What a great month to be a nerd.
My favorite example not referenced in either work is Without Limits and Prefontaine, the dueling movies about runner Steve Prefontaine, released in 1997/1998, which collectively made less than $2 million in the box office. Man, were they wrong about the Prefontaine market.
Twins and Rain Man, two stories about recently reunited brothers—one conniving and unethical, the other almost childlike in his naivete—making a big trip across the country, as the conniver tries to exploit his brother at every turn. Released a week apart in December 1988. THINK ABOUT IT.