Today, we reach what is widely considered Negativland’s masterpiece, Escape from Noise. It is the perfect mixing of sound and music. It also has the advantage of being more song oriented. As we saw yesterday with the first side of A Big 10-8 Place, songs mixed into one another and what was called a song was almost arbitrary. Here, that’s not really true. Whether you think that’s good or bad is up to you. I don’t think it much matters.
But for today, we will listen to “Car Bomb.” What I especially like about it is that’s it’s kind of a parody of maximum rock-n-rock. But it works as maximum rock-n-roll and is also better than the vast majority of maximum rock-n-roll. The truth is that Negativland could do anything, because they understood sound — a fact that was clear enough from their previous albums.
Escape from Noise album cover image via Wikipedia, licensed under Fair Use.
Negativland’s third album A Big 10-8 Place is widely considered their first great album. A lot of it is reminiscent of John Lennon’s “Revolution 9.” But I’ve always thought of that as Lennon trying to do Stockhausen without actually understanding Stockhausen. Negativland are fully in the tradition of musique concrète, but from a pop music standpoint. This is especially true on tunes like A Big 10-8 Place, Pt One. But that tune is pretty subtle.
Similar, is the other long song on the album, 180-G, a Big 10-8 Place, Pt Two. It is a 15 minute long sound collage with directions on getting from San Francisco to Concord (the band’s home town). But I must admit, having grown up here, I don’t much follow the directions. They talk excessively about “180 and the letter G.” I don’t know what they mean. Hwy 180 is down by Fresno. But it’s not supposed to make sense. There are various other aspects of the directions like, “You’re going to have to shoplift.” It’s an amazing piece of music. Do check it out.
I really want to introduce you to “Clowns and Ballerinas.” But I don’t want to give you the wrong idea of Negativland. Then again, I’m not sure it is possible. It’s like the blind men and the elephant. Negativland is so many things all at once. And the best thing to do with them is to listen to a whole album — or at least an album side. The first side of A Big 10-8 Place starts with “Theme from a Big Place” then goes into “A Big 10-8 Place, Pt One” and ends with “Clowns and Ballerinas.” So I’ve made a playlist so you can listen to the first side of the album. I think you will see what I mean — how it works as a whole better than it does as a collection of songs:
Album cover image taken from Amazon, licensed under Fair Use.
Negativland’s second album, Points, goes more in the direction of pure sound collage. It’s really remarkable stuff. Listening to it, I try to remember what technology was available. It was 1981, so it was mostly tape recorders and analog synthesizers. I’m on record as being against synthesizers from the early 1980s, but this is because it was when the digital ones came out. And so you got a lot of stuff that all sounded the same. But analog ones had been around for a long time and people did different things with them. Negativland did a lot of interesting stuff on Points.
The song I want to highlight is quite odd for the album, “The Answer Is…” It sounds like they discovered their grandmother’s electric organ. And, in fact, I’m sure that’s exactly what they did. But it just goes to show that you can do great work with any tool at all. But in addition to sounding like a little concert in your grandmother’s living room, there is a little bit of Ronald Reagan saying, “The problem isn’t being poor, the problem is, um, the answer is…” They cut it there. It’s perfect because that was generally the answer that Reagan had.
Remember, this album came out in 1981. It was probably recorded shortly after Reagan was elected. What a great way to come into adulthood! Looking back, it’s so embarrassing. Reagan really was a mediocrity in all ways. This song is a great tribute to him. Anyway, check this out. It’s probably unlike anything else you will hear this week, month, year.
Points Cover image taken from Amazon, licensed under Fair Use.
I know a lot of you are really saddened by the death of a music legend last week. So I figured that we should commemorate Richard Lyons’ death by listening to a week’s worth of Negativland.
According to Rolling Stone, Richard Lyons had been fighting cancer for over 12 years. He had a very aggressive kind of skin cancer, which sucks, given that most forms are relatively trivial. He apparently did not suffer much. But he was only 57.
Richard Lyons formed Negativland in 1979 with his high school friend Mark Hosler. They lived just down the road from me in Concord. The band itself is normally described as “experimental.” That’s true, but doesn’t mean all that much. But you just have to listen. Some of it is hard to call music at all. Their focus has always been on sound — not that there is too much of a distinction there.
It’s hard to know where to start with Negativland. The first self-titled album is fascinating. It’s a sparse combination of music and found sounds. Some of it reminds me of stuff that Laurie Anderson would do later. For example, “4” (all the songs on Negativland are simply numbered) reminds me of Example #22. I hear a lot of things that remind me of other music — stuff that comes both before and after — but it’s hard to put my finger on it exactly. Overall, the effect is riveting.
I can’t find individual tunes from the first album. So I’ve embedded the whole thing. It’s worth listening to. But I’ve cued it at “6.” I don’t have much of a reason for doing it, other than that it is the only song that has what could be called lyrics. And they include the oddly hilarious, “Seat be sate; play Black Sabbath at 78.” The lines are delivered by David Wills, the third founding member of the band.
Image of Richard Lyons cropped, rotated, and reduced from one taken from Rolling Stone, licensed under Fair Use.
As I’ve been picking through these early years of Merle Haggard, it’s hard not to get angry. To most people, he is remembered by his most vile and largely artless work: “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Are the Good Times Really Over.” Those three reactionary songs are hard to get past. And it isn’t all. I like the song “Workin’ Man Blues,” but he has to ruin it with that crack about welfare. But there is a depth of feeling in his early work that is irresistible. Take, for example, “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” off Sing Me Back Home.
Story songs are tricky, especially when you don’t have much of a story to tell. And the story of “Hickory Holler’s Tramp” is a simple one. The singer’s father turns to booze and runs away with another woman, leaving his mother with 14 children to raise. So she becomes a prostitute, and the song is a celebration of that. And of course it should be. You do what you must for those you love. The song is highly sentimental, but it is hard not to find it touching.
Of course, there really is no disconnect between “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” and “Okie from Muskogee.” It’s just a question of empathy. Haggard understands a mother abandoned with children to raise, since that was the story of his mother, although under very different circumstances. But the stereotype of hippies he used again and again indicate that he knew nothing of the young people he stood in opposition to. The key issue is that songs are very personal. If you don’t have empathy, you lose something really important. And what you are left with are less edifying emotions.
But “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” is a really beautiful song:
Album cover licensed under fair use, via Wikipedia.
Some of Merle Haggard’s early albums were really just rushed together collections to capitalize on hit singles. That was the case with Branded Man. But the fact was that Haggard’s work was so strong at this point in his career that the albums are still great. But I don’t especially want to talk about the album when the title track is so interesting.
It tells the story of a man who has been released from prison who finds that society will not let him forget his past. One doesn’t need to have been to prison to feel that the world just won’t let go of your past. And despite Haggard’s success after he left prison, I know that he is speaking from experience.
My favorite line from the song is, “I paid the debt I owed them, but they’re still not satisfied.” That was written in 1967 when society was actually far more forgiving of past indiscretions than it is today. The truth is that when someone goes to prison, they never pay their debt to society. We are, on the whole, an awful people. And there is no end to the punishment. It goes on and on until you die.
I suppose you could justify the whole thing by noting that people are afraid. But I don’t much think that’s the case. I think that people simply lack empathy. I’ve long found it fascinating that people who live in high crime areas are more forgiving than people in low crime areas. That’s not about fear; that’s about a lack of imagination regarding the lives of others.
Just the same, “Branded Man” also shows the other side of this. Even if society did manage to forgive the singer, it’s hard to think that he would see it that way. The saddest line in the song is, “Determined I would rise above the shame.” Well, shame is an internal thing. But at least the singer knows he should feel shame. Too bad the society itself does not.
Branded Man album cover image licensed under Fair Use, via Wikipedia.
We move into Merle Haggard’s third album, I’m a Lonesome Fugitive. It’s interesting to listen to this early music, because you really hear the influence of Hank Williams. And he really is the best that country music has to offer. It’s too bad that he died so young. There’s something very precise about the music that Haggard was doing at this point. And it is something that we don’t much get in the later music — great though some of it was.
Today’s song is “House of Memories.” It’s a beautiful song — not at all what people normally think of when they think of Haggard. It’s about that point after a break-up when you can only remember the good things that are gone. I think that is how we get over relationships. At first, we can only think of the good times. But eventually we see the relationship for the mixed bag that it was. But “House of Memories” is a good way of rendering that first period.
I don’t much think about “love,” but I am indeed haunted by memories. These are memories of every embarrassing thing I’ve ever done. A lot of them have to do with love. Sadly, most do not. It would be great to be able to pass off everything to hormones. Instead, I have to depend upon what I think is a very true excuse: I’m a slow learner. But ultimately, it is all about brain chemistry. I know people who fret about their past and others who don’t care at all. I’d like to be in the latter category, but I’d be such a terrible person if I were that it is best that I’m not.
I’m a Lonesome Fugitive cover licensed under Fair use, via Wikipedia.
One of the writers I work with is from Bosnia. And I wanted to complement him on something he had written by quoting Patton, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” This particular writer is actually quite well known and only works for us as a kind of favor. Since I know his other work, I know what kind of things he would do a very good job on, and I was very impressed with something he had written and I wanted to use the line. If I knew him really well, I could have just written, “You magnificent bastard, I read your book!”
The whole thing ended up in an exchange about Rommel. He seems to know a great deal about the wars of the last century, which isn’t exactly surprising, given that he lived through the Bosnian War himself. Anyway, he mentioned that Rommel became famous on the Isonzo front — I believe in the Battle of Caporetto in particular. He wrote, “Due to the extremely harsh terrain, the Central Powers had to deploy elite mountain infantry… As a tribute to their gallantry, Die Bosniaken Kommen march is still played at Austrian military events.”
I don’t like to pass up any opportunity to do something different for a morning music. So I grabbed onto it. We’ll get back to Merle Haggard tomorrow. But today, we’ll listen to this march. I find it curious that marches aren’t used more in the teaching of music theory. You can see in them so clearly two-part counterpoint. And from there you can add the harmonic structure. But I suppose the use of Baroque music is more pure.
Die Bosniaken Kommen was written by Eduard Wagnes in 1895. According to Wikipedia, it is “played on all military events in Austria.”
Merle Haggard’s second album, Swinging Doors, is a perfect country music album. My biggest complaint about popular music generally and country music specifically is how fake it is. And I suppose that’s true of Haggard too. I mean, the man was born in Bakersfield, California. Yet listen to that accent he affects in his songs. And yet, it seems entirely authentic coming from him.
(To be fair, Elvis Costello sang with a distinctly American accent on his first few albums. I don’t think it was affected. I think it was just the result of listening to American singers. I assume the same thing was going on with Haggard.)
My favorite song on Swinging Doors has always been “The Bottle Let Me Down,” because its funny and I love country drinking songs more than anything. But arguably, the strongest song is the title song, which is about the exact same thing. And it includes a very clever refrain, “I’m always here at home till closing time.”
It’s kind of funny that I love these kinds of songs, because I’m not like that at all. Unless a drug puts me to sleep, it only makes me more introspective. This is why I hate cannabis. I don’t need a drug that encourages me to consider everything I’ve ever done in the most negative way possible. If I had to live in the state of mind that cannabis brings out in me, I would have killed myself decades ago.
Admittedly, alcohol does not make me self-critical. Instead, it makes me more accepting. But that wouldn’t be a good thing in dealing with a break-up. Just the same, the way that Merle Haggard tells the story in “Swinging Doors” strikes me as exactly what I would be like. And that does make it hilarious. But only in a fictional setting. In real life, it’s just pathetic.
I want to take a quick break from Merle Haggard, just because I feel like it. I remember two major things about being in Paris. We performed at many places but two really stood out. The first was Notre Dame de Paris. The thing about that was that we were only allowed to perform sacred music there. That cut out most everything we did. The only thing I can remember that we did was Bach’s cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, which means something like “Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life.” You probably know it best from last of its ten movements, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” For whatever reason, I just want to listen to it today.
It was very special to perform there. I’m not religious and I never have been. But I love religious art, architecture, music, and even ceremony. It’s all meant to heighten the religious experience. But to me, all that peripheral stuff is the religious experience. And they are probably more important than ideas in the religion anyway — especially for the illiterate masses that followed the religion all those years in a language they didn’t understand.
The other great Paris experience was performing under a gazebo in the Luxembourg Garden. It was probably a weekend afternoon and there were many hundreds of people sitting around listening to us. They hadn’t come to listen to us. They were just there. People played there all the time. It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. But we were perhaps 15 minutes into our performance and it started to rain — hard. I figured everyone would run away. But they didn’t. They just opened up umbrellas and continued to listen. It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.
Since Merle Haggard died last week, I figured we’d spend some time listening to his music. He’s always been a struggle for me because on the one hand, he was one of the most talented songwriters ever. On the other hand, he wrote “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” — two of the most vile and reactionary songs ever. And they weren’t the only ones.
The thing is, I think Haggard was a smart and thoughtful guy. But that kind of working class bigotry toward anyone considered an outsider came all too easy for him. It’s weird and it also explains why he was all over the board when he discussed these songs. Mostly, I don’t think he much knew what he was doing. He just wrote the songs and how ever they turned out was okay. Analysis was not really what he did. But he should have. Anyone with his background and good fortune should have embraced the outsider to the core of his being.
Five years after his release from San Quentin Prison, Merle Haggard released his first album, Strangers. It’s not a great album. Over half of it is other people’s material, and I’ve never been so much taken with him as a performer. And it doesn’t include his best material. But much of it is quite fine indeed. It isn’t very distinctive, however. In particular, today’s song, “If I Had Left It Up To You” sounds like George Jones wrote it. And that’s true of most of the tunes on the album, they sound like someone else wrote them. But that doesn’t make them any less good. And for a first album, well, wow.
The final song that I used in my videos was Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues.” There are two versions of it. This is the slower version and strikes me as more haunting, although the two versions are similar. The song tells the story of the singer going down to the crossroads and trying to catch a ride. But no one stops, “Didn’t nobody seem to know me.” And he’s praying to God that he gets a ride before nightfall.
It seems like a spiritual: when humans let you down, you can always turn to God. But the thing about such songs is that they never have a happy ending. Indeed, they have no ending at all. This is because they are all about faith. God will reward the faithful. I don’t much see it myself. To me, we live in a world of callousness and loneliness with nothing but our own thoughts to keep us company.
When I think seriously about the human condition, I’m very disturbed. We are, in our consciousness, completely cut off from other people. We are, in fact, totally alone. But we are so used to the idea that there are others around to interact with that the clear view of reality it terrifying. We are all down at the crossroads trying to flag a ride. But it isn’t that they don’t know us; they don’t even know we exist because they are all so lost in their own lonely delusions.
As for the music on “Cross Road Blues,” well, it’s amazing. I’m still struck with just how modern it sounds. It probably helps that just about every rock musician has recorded the song. But there’s something more than that. There’s a reason that Robert Johnson stands out compared to other musicians of that period in the Mississippi delta. It’s hard to believe it’s just one man and a guitar performing.