Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The author playing with his college rock band 22 years ago.

The author playing at the reunion of his college rock band two weeks ago.
(I didn't play upside down or stage-dive, but I did slam dance a little.)

There’s a wide-ranging discussion going on now in Blogville about the woes of College Rock. College Rock is too white-sounding, too middle-class-bound, too bland; plus, the kids hype it all too quickly.
Simon Reynolds anticipated a whole bunch of the discussion back in May, in this interview conducted by K-Punk -- the disintensification of indie, the chasm between white pop and black pop -- and he did it very smartly.

Carl has brought the changing of the generations into the discussion, which is something I wrote about back in August, in relation to the disintensification question.
Passion is no longer the fashion in the world of popular music consumption. The turn away from passion might be the most brilliant move in the Oedipal chain of generational outrage yet. It makes total sense after 40 years of propaganda that [pop, rock] Music Is the Most Important Thing In Your Life!!! When Paw and Grampaw are geared up for someone to top Marilyn Manson and Eminem in the offensiveness department, disintensification is the perfect non-topper topper. "That'll really piss the old folks off! Not giving a hoot about their 'outrage' jones!"
Similarly, back in May, and also in response to Simon’s stuff on disintensification, I wrote,
Edginess has been subsumed into the mainstream. Nothing is more corporate than edginess, nothing more mom-and-dad play-it-safe play-your-prescribed-role fit-into-the-pre-existing-narrative than going for being “edgy.”
I stand by my points, but I have to give the palm to Simon for insight into the disintensification question, with this quote from his interview last May:
A new landscape is emerging that is doubtless generating new ways of experiencing and discovering music, new forms of collectivity around music, yet it’s hard for me to see the changes as anything other than dis-intensifying. The web has extinguished the idea of a true underground. It’s too easy for anybody to find out anything now, especially as scene custodians tend to be curatorial, archivist types. And with all the mp3 and whole album blogs, it’s totally easy to hear anything you want to hear, in this risk-less, desultory way that has no cost, either financially or emotionally. I sense that there’s a lot more skimming and stockpiling, an obsessive-compulsion to hear everything and hoard as much music as you can, but much less actual obsession with specific arty-facts.
But as Scott of Pretty Goes With Pretty pointed out in the comments to Carl’s recent post on the generational question, it’s mostly us older folks who are angsting about the state of indie now. As I wrote in my post of August:
70 years ago, a leading popular music critic was Frederic Ramsey, Jr. Who? Times change.

And when times change, the old guard gets pissed. When Rock came and started making a lot of money -- and, even worse, started drawing more of the fashionable attention -- a lot of the old guard freaked out. Not because they weren't still popular or they weren't still making money -- they were still making lots of money. But their style was no longer the most fashionable.
People younger than me are the old guard now. Not all of them are pissed, but some of them are, and angst abounds. In rock-fashion terms, I’ve been old and out-of-it for so long that the angst strikes me as funny.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Once there was a young man named Mick or Bob or Robert who became a rock star. Because he was a rock star, hundreds of young women made themselves available sexually to him. He was a young man, only in his early 20s, and he enjoyed this immensely. Understandably, he began to be jaded about women. He wrote songs about the pleasure he took in putting women in their place. The more he did this, the more people loved him, men and women alike. People like someone who seems like they are in charge.

* * *

An earlier singing star named Frank or Bing or Rudy had been equally blessed with female affection, but he did not write his own songs. An unglamorous-looking fellow backstage named Ira or Larry or Hal wrote the songs. He was not so inundated with sexual offers, and he filled his songs with great romantic tenderness and longing. The more he did this, the more people loved Frank or Bing or Rudy. Especially the women, but the men too.

* * *

Once there was a young man who loved music very much. He loved it so much that he wanted to listen to it and write about it all the time. And he had a flair for words, and he got a job listening to and writing about music all the time. Because he was a music critic, hundreds of nubile young bands made themselves musically available to him -- and all for free. Understandably, he became jaded about musicians. Many of them he found unattractive. And even the ones he found attractive, he treated with condescension. Because he could. Because there was always another band. There would always be another musician. And the musician would always come to him for free, no matter how badly he treated them. He could do this because he seemed like he was in charge, and people like someone who seems like they are in charge.

Thomas Mann followed blues lore and had his fictional composer Adrian Leverkuhn sell his soul to the devil in exchange for musical prowess. A decade earlier, blues master Robert Johnson had been rumored to have done the same.

The purpose of art is enchantment, says poet Ange Mlinko, and I agree. A culture mistrustful of enchantment conjures diabolical sources for the artist’s power.

Nonsense, says Mike Nesmith of the Monkees, in “The Devil and Peter Tork.” When Mr. Zero -- the devil -- comes to collect Peter’s soul, which Peter had pledged in exchange for fame, fortune, and the ability to play the harp, Nesmith denounces the devil as a fraud.

I say that contract is null and void because in fact, Mr. Zero, you didn’t give Peter anything in return for his soul. Peter didn’t want fame and fortune, all Peter wanted was just his music. You didn’t give him the ability to play the harp. He loved the music that came from the harp. The power of that love was inside him from the first, and you didn’t have anything to do with it at all.

Don’t you understand what that means when you have that inside you, what comes out? If you love music, man, you can play music. People say, “Well, I can’t carry a tune, I can’t sing, I’m tone deaf.” But nobody’s tone deaf. All it takes is just love, because in the final analysis, love is power. That’s where the power’s at. And you want to tell me that you gave it to him, but I know different, ‘cause I’m a musician. And that’s really all there is to that.

Monkees vs. Mann. Nesmith
’s argument resounds with beauty and truth, but I’m still enjoying Doctor Faustus. And I do want to hear Leverkuhn’s 12-tone orchestrations for Robert Johnson’s tunes, in that mash-up made in Hell.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Before we went to Michigan my son and I started going to a Tuesday night open mic at a bookstore north of the University District. Our first time there he sang “Home on the Range” and I played guitar, and I sang my setting of a William Blake poem and he played drum. Our second time there we did one of my songs, with him singing on the choruses and playing drum. We’ve missed the last two Tuesdays but we’re planning to go this week. The open mic regulars are totally sweet and indulgent of us, and there are some fine musicians there.

week the kid wants to sing a Chinese song he learned in pre-school to the tune of “Frere Jacques.” We’ve been practicing singing it in round, me singing the French version. He’s enjoying the challenge, which is a delight for me. We’ll see how we do this Tuesday.

* * *

This afternoon we went to a Totem Pole Raising ceremony for a pole carved by Wayne Hewson, a Tsimshian Indian from S.E. Alaska, at the Burke Museum of Anthropology at the University of Washington. The pole was very beautiful, and the ceremony lasted an hour and a half, with two dance groups singing songs and dancing. Some of the dancing was funny, and it was great to hear the stories behind the songs, some of them very personal. It was a beautiful and moving celebration.

After the ceremony we looked around the museum. I was admiring a mask carved by a carver from the Nuu-Chah-Nulth tribe in Vancouver Island; one side of the mask was painted Nuu-Chah-Nulth style and the other side was painted in the style of the Maori people from New Zealand. I turned around to show the mask to my beloved spouse, and a Native American man said something to me in his language. I said, “I’m sorry, I only speak English,” and he said, “I carved that.” It was the artist, David George. He said that he had been inspired to make the mask after visiting New Zealand and admiring Maori art, and that he had taken a long time to come up with the mask’s design, but that once he had the design the carving flowed like water. He was delightful to talk to.

* * *

Speaking of meeting the artist, last Sunday, on our early morning flight from Detroit to Chicago, en route back to Seattle, I thanked the great jazz saxophonist and composer Roscoe Mitchell -- whom I have seen in concert three times -- for his music. He smiled and shook my hand -- a true thrill.

Photo by my beloved spouse some time around Labor Day in the neighbor’s driveway behind our house.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


While falling asleep at the keyboard one evening I typed that word.


It's not a word. This collection of syllables. I don't know what I was getting at. Lingering over the feeling of wracking one's brain to remember something? I don't remember!

I should use it. As a closing salutation for correspondence. It would be cryptic, except it's so obviously faux and goofy.

You see what I'm saying? Please let me know if you have any questions, and as I hope this missive finds you well, I remain,

as ever,

rackulingarly yours,


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

our friend Ian duct-taping the milk crate down for stage-diving --
I hadn't remembered that he did this every show
(photo by David Isaacson)

The CFG show happened last Friday. We played fine for a bunch of middle-aged you-know-whats who hadn’t played together for 22 years. We jumped around. Our friend Ian stage-dived. There was slam dancing. It was a blast.

The whole week was wonderful. Road-tripping through Michigan with my old friend Nick and my son -- a rare treat. Visited Nick’s relatives, whom I hadn’t met, and visited mine, before the college reunion. Relatives were all lovely and the reunion was immense -- people dear to my heart I hadn’t seen in 5, 10, 15, 22 years, a whole bunch of us together, catching up, reminiscing, looking at pictures, playing music, slam dancing. I spontaneously recited two of my dear poetry teacher’s brief poems at an open-mic reading in his honor. I also caught the Michigan-Purdue game with my brother and a cousin and a bunch of my cousin’s friends, and for the first time heard the details about the time my cousin streaked with a bunch of his friends down the center aisle on the opening night of Jaws. Ah, the '70s. One of the other streakers was with us at the game.

It feels like I could write a book about the trip. At one point, one dear old friend, who is now a tenured professor, threw a beer glass on the pavement from the patio of a bar, nearly provoking a fight. When another dear old friend, by way of explicating the backstory, began telling of how the now-professor got expelled from the dorm freshman year for throwing a flaming cereal box out his dorm-room window, I laughed hard for a solid minute. Everybody's life is like that, if not necessarily so colorful, then so richly interconnected.

But I don't have time/space to write a book now, or even a properly meandering blog post.

In the meantime, CFG lead guitarist and Turtletop correspondent my dear friend J-Lon uploaded a bunch of CFG songs for anybody to download for free. The songs should be up for about 6 days or so. If you aren’t able to download them, and you want the songs, send me your email and I’ll get them to you somehow.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Just found out that our Friday night show has been moved up from 9:00 PM to 8:30 PM in Ann Arbor, at the Halfway Inn, a/k/a the Half-Ass, in the basement of East Quad.

Road tripping through Michigan has been a blast.

Cheers --

Friday, October 12, 2007

the commodity fetishism of rebellion.

In the summer of 1983 my friend Phil was short of cash and had decided to sell his Stratocaster. I was flush from having worked on a fish-packing barge in Alaska for part of the summer, and I was in a band and needed a guitar, so I bought it for $300. The band was C.F.G., for Civilian Fun Group. We had a lot of fun.

In addition to being a sweet guy and a wonderful guitarist, Phil was also a beautiful painter, in a hard-edge post-punk abstract lyrical stencil-spray style, and he had painted his guitar.

A couple of years later I had pretty much stopped playing electric, focussing instead on my acoustic which I had bought in ’82. But I held onto the Strat and played it occasionally.

By the mid-’90s Phil’s paint job had started to chip off, so I asked another painter friend to paint it, and she did, and I never played it again.

I head off to Michigan tonight to visit family and old friends, including some time at a college reunion, where C.F.G. will play a set after a hiatus of 22 years. To get ready for the show, I had to get my Strat out of storage and set up to play. Its having been neglected all those years made me think it should get “set up,” which is guitar-tech-speak for what a car mechanic would call a “tune-up,” except you couldn’t call gear-work on a musical instrument a “tune-up,” even though that’s literally part of what the job is.

The guy at the guitar shop looked at it, looked at the serial number, shook his head, and said in a low voice, “I hate to make you feel bad, man, but if you hadn’t had the guitar painted it would be worth $5,000.”

I cracked up. Luckily, it was painted when I bought it.

And then I felt bad.

* * *

Probably no blogging from my travels. If you’re in the Ann Arbor area October 19, I'll be playing with my college band, C.F.G., in the basement of East Quad, from 9:00 to 9:30. I doubt there will be stage-diving like in the old days, but you never know.

Monday, October 08, 2007

the well-heeled novelty pimp
hopes that the bands that pay his big salary
fail and fade away after their novelty wears off

It blew my mind when I read a couple years ago that local college indie rock public radio DJ John Richards made $120,000 in 2004, but I didn’t realize that he is the enemy.

He is.

[Correction: It turns out he was only making $90,000 at the time; and, he claims that he's been offered considerably more money to work elsewhere, which I believe.]

In his piece on indie-rock band the Annuals in the terrific music edition of Oxford American, writer Bill Wasik gets Richards to bare his novelty-pimping soul.

But why did so many of these bands disappear? What about the second album, or the third? Why did indie rock seem to have become wave after wave of disposable new bands? “You have these bands working really, really hard, they’re writing great songs, they’ve had five years maybe; and their best material is going to make it on their first album,” Richards said. But then, he went on, “you have a label involved at this point, you have deadlines now—another album in six months, nine months.”

Richards said he now assumed that he would not even see second albums, no matter how good their sound. “Even an Annuals,” he said. “I’m not even thinking about a second album from them. I just assume that this is the document that I have. . . . You think: ‘This is a great movie—I hope there’s not a sequel.’”

To have one of the most famous champions of a genre hoping that the bands he is championing disappear soon, hoping that they end up economic failures -- the mind boggles. I listen to Richards’s show occasionally. He’s cheery and upbeat for his six figures, and I generally like what he plays when I’m in the mood for unobtrusive indie-rock background music. But the guy has a seriously creepy way of working. "Get 'em while they're fresh & young. Use 'em up and boot 'em out."

The Oxford American music issue is crammed full of terrific stuff. Most everything in it I’ve read could be a candidate for the annual Best Music Writing series. And -- it comes with a CD compilation full of lovely music, accompanied by in-depth essays for each song -- really, it’s a book!

Picture of John Richards from seattlest.com -- thanks!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Hank Ballard, composer of "The Twist" and later James Brown collaborator

Chubby Checker doing some inter-racial Twisting
with a woman whose name has been lost in the mists of time

My beloved spouse and I saw Hairspray last night, the new movie adaptation of the stage musical that was adapted from the 1988 film of the same name. The plot revolves around the integration of a Baltimore pop-teen-dance TV show in the early ‘60s.

Coincidentally, James Wolcott has a brief history of the Twist in the current Vanity Fair. Wolcott identifies the source of the dance. Songwriter Hank Ballard saw black teenagers doing the dance on the real-life prototype of the Baltimore show fictionalized in Hairspray, The Buddy Deane Show, and wrote the song. Chubby Checker covered it, and the dance spread like crazy from there.

Wolcott mentions that the Twist was the first popular dance to de-couple the dancing couple and set people dancing singly, which in some respects is the birth of the ‘60s.

I’ve written before of what a loss it represented when the waltz did away with group dancing and ushered in couples dancing. I enjoy couples dancing, but its joys are less ecstatic, communal, and social than in other forms of dancing.

* * *


Some reactions to the film.

1. The acting is charming throughout. The standard blond villainess -- actually, her blond villainess daughter -- is even able to make the malapropism “moral turpentine” funny.

2. I love musicals. Serviceable tunes, witty lyrics -- it’s the mass dancing that I love.

3. John Travolta in fat suit does a great job in the Divine drag role (both pictured). Though the fat jokes would have been less comfortable if an actual overweight woman had played the role, and the love scenes would have been more touching too. And -- cowards! -- Travolta doesn’t get to smooch “her” husband Christopher Walken onscreen! Lame!

4. Great to see Travolta in a musical again.

5. The fetishization of dark black skin in one of the numbers sung by the black characters was historically simplistic and morally off.

6. Likewise the super-valorization of the white people who took part in the civil rights struggle. Yes, they were brave and good, but I doubt that the protest march was the brainchild of a white teenager, and I doubt that black people prostrated themselves in gratitude.

Despite my cavils, my spouse and I enjoyed it. Great dancing, mostly charming lyrics, mostly sweet story, terrific acting -- we laughed a lot.

In real life, The Buddy Deane Show was never integrated.

LeCompte goes to every performance of every Wooster Group play. She folds herself into an aisle seat, next to whatever assistant is logging her complaints or her satisfactions, and tries to pretend that no one will recognize her, though of course by now some do. She is an avid eavesdropper. She has been known to tape the comments that her audiences make after a performance, and even accused of planning to use them for a new play. (She denies the part about the play, but not the part about the taping.) She enjoys the thrill of anonymity; she says it gives her a kind of nice power, and, besides, she could never endure the scrutiny she gives her actors. “I hide from being watched by watching,” she once said. Even the thought of having her picture taken leaves her close to panic -- though you can catch glimpses of her in the rehearsal videotapes stored upstairs at the Garage; she is the small blond woman scurrying across the stage in old jeans, a baggy black pullover, and bright-red flats.

Jane Kramer’s profile of Elizabeth LeCompte, director of the Wooster Group, in the current issue of The New Yorker has a moment that perfectly illustrates New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm’s notorious statement, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Given that the picture at the top of this post illustrates the quote, there’s a story going on here, and Kramer isn’t telling it. It’s apparently the story of Kramer and photographer Sylvia Plachy breaking down LeCompte’s panic at having her picture taken. But I think it’s the story of LeCompte deciding to abandon her anonymity while pretending not to. The pretense is supposed to work to flatter the reader into believing that he or she has been allowed into a secret, as Kramer boasts of having been.

“Well,” in effect says Kramer, “you’d recognize her if someone -- probably her -- were to let you into her storage unit to look at old rehearsal videos -- you wouldn’t miss her then, she’s the blond scurrying about.”

It’s so coy, all the way around! A conspiracy between writer and subject to flatter the reader. Silly.

Other than that flurry of duplicity, the profile serves good thought-food. There’s a whole multi-media performance-theater tradition of which I’m barely cognizant; the article mentions famous directors Peter Sellars, Richard Foreman, and Robert Wilson, all of whom I’d heard of and read about, and all of whom name LeCompte as their better. I’d never heard of LeCompte, but I’d heard of her group, some of their productions, and some of the attendant controversies. And I’ve never seen any productions by any of them.

The article also proves that if you want to get national recognition in theater, you have to go to New York. I’ve known three companies -- one in Seattle and two in Chicago -- that put on wonderful original work for years -- the two in Chicago are still at it after more than 20 years -- and they have no national profile at all. The director of the Seattle group quit to focus on his writing and editing; he’s written several books to great acclaim and bought a house on Vashon Island. But as successful as he has been as a writer, I liked him much more as a theater director. Truly gifted. But there was no money to do the theater he wanted to do.

LeCompte’s approach to theater interests me. Some day I’ll have to get to New York and check out some of that big-money multi-media media-friendly theater for myself.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


My son wrote this poem a few months ago and came across it again today. It includes a quote from Dr. Seuss. I suggested the words "higgledy piggledy" and "awopbopaloobop" when he asked me for some nonsense words. I helped him with the spelling.

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