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3 January 2011

Michael Jackson vs. Kanye West vs. Quincy Jones: a short attention span essay on pop history, real history & their relation to “blood & treasure”


So you’ve heard Kanye West talking shit like he’s the next Michael Jackson, no? If not try this one on for size: “As far as rapping goes, how can I say this? Jordan, Michael Jackson – it’s what I do.”

His attempts to insert himself in a royal lineage are subtle, no?

Well, actually no, he’s not being subtle at all. One of the primary tenants in Kanye’s five-point plan to achieve greatness is his understanding that subtlety has no place in pop.

Here’s why.

1. Big H history is a matter of large forces — war, disaster, fortunes gained & lost. It is not determined by the people (as one of 2010’s dead would have us believe); rather it is determined by the fate of a nation’s “blood & treasure,” that poetic dyad which legacy-minded presidents and statesmen use to make war sound noble & necessary. It is a game of unimaginable resources; of living and dying; of a cast of thousands.

2. Pop history, by contrast, is a fickle bitch. It is usually a matter of memories (feeble ones incapacitated by the pop cult triad of sex & drugs & rock’n’roll); it is a matter of insistence via memoirs which depict all the fair weather friendships & alliances made in a pop art career; it is a matter of shadowy aesthetic influences cast forward arbitrarily a generation or two past their moment of initial fashionability. It’s a story of whispers, rumors and cross-generational games of telephone. Pop history may not be determined by the people, but it’s certainly chronicled in outlets like People (which, come to think of it, sorta does a guy like historian Howard Zinn proud).

At their best, pop stars learn a way to make their pop historicizing meld into real history. Read more »

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18 December 2010

“The way I keep in touch with the world is very gingerly, because the world touches too hard.”

If the short, sentimental, uninformative docupoem about him by Anton not embedded up there then look for it here. “The difference between art & music…” he says in the documentary, well, it’s different forms of drowning. Am I right? Probably not. Because Captain Beefheart aka Don Van Vliet didn’t so much confound expectations as deny they were even possible…

    “Don van Vliet, alias ‘Captain Beefheart’, is one of the most influential, misunderstood, talked about, admired, copied, treasured, loved and quoted musicians and yet he is still an obscure and mysterious artist. His quite abrupt artistic transformation from working with a microphone to a paintbrush in 1982 and his consequent move from the desert to the ocean meant even less direct contact with the outside world than before. Subsequently there is very little information about Don from this time onwards and this short black-and-white film made in 1993 is an unique opportunity to see and hear this unique man. The film is approximately 13 minutes long, directed and photographed in black and white.”

But please don’t mistake Captain Beefheart for being an uncommercial artist. In fact, they were so commercial they once made one:

Before you go, you might want to read why in the New York Times’ obituary. O captain! My captain! More rambling after the jump!
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26 November 2010

Take it Sleazy

On Wednesday night, Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson died. Here’s a nice balanced obit.

I’m not writing as a particular fan of his work. (He was most definitely a Dionysian but after a brief fling with industrial music in high school, I’ve mostly been on the side of Apollo.) I do offer much respect though, both for his body of work and as a lifer in pop (sub)cultures. (More on lifers from yesterday’s blog.)

Christopherson was a co-founder of Throbbing Gristle, partner of the amazing graphic design studio Hipgnosis, and a video director for artists as likely as Sepultura and Nine Inch Nails — and as unlikely as Yes.

Naw, you say? But no, totally, he made this video for YES:

That he was able to bring his own vision to projects like this, projects that were quite unlike his own output, is the greatest testament to his gift as a creator. His collaborators recognized this. Listen below to one of the first recordings of Christopherson’s Coil project. The title of the song “How to Destroy Angels” has recently been adopted by NIN’s Trent Reznor for a new musical project he started with his wife Mariqueen Maandig.

While some of the obituaries that have come out in the wake of his death seem to be masking the occasional sleaziness of his life, I like how his own site, Threshold House aka is considerably less circumspect. Ergo this message serves as the current homepage:

I’ll close with a song by one of his more well known post-TG groups, Psychic TV. Therein, I can hear the bits of Sleazy’s cultural output that I do take as an inspiration. While he will be remembered as an icon of industrial music, a culture primarily understood for its darkness, its transgression, its harshness, the real wonder of his output is that he could effortlessly display how, within darkness, there was often a certain light.

UPDATED NOVEMBER 29, 2010: I’d be remiss in remembering Sleazy if I did not point you toward this collection of tributes collated by my friend Brandon over at Stereogum. Best of all, the piece included this quasi-Buddhist quote from the man himself (via The Quietus).

“We are all only temporary curators of our present bodies, which will all decay, sooner or later. In a hundred years or so ALL the humans currently alive will have died. I take great comfort in knowing, with certainty, that thing that makes us special, able to enrich our own lives and those of others, will not cease when our bodies do, but will be just starting and new (and hopefully even better) adventure… If we don’t get to meet in this Life, maybe in the next you can buy me a beer!”

Call me a hippie for taking great pleasure in that quote. Go ahead. Try it.

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21 October 2010

Obits: Benoit Mandelbrot, mathematician who almost flunked me

While at college I took a class from this guy. He invented fractal geometry. His name was Benoit Mandelbrot. A few days ago, he died. I remember it being said that he did not know how to use computers. The class was a gut mathematics course. My purpose in taking it was to fulfill a math & science requirement. If my recollection is correct, I almost failed.

(I like computers.)

But who can argue with the logic for his anti-computer stance? The greatest proof of his theories was the shape of a coastline:

    Dr. Mandelbrot traced his work on fractals to a question he first encountered as a young researcher: How long is the coast of Britain? The answer, he was surprised to discover, depends on how closely one looks. On a map an island may appear smooth, but zooming in will reveal jagged edges that add up to a longer coast. Zooming in further will reveal even more coastline.“Here is a question, a staple of grade-school geometry that, if you think about it, is impossible,” Dr. Mandelbrot told The New York Times earlier this year in an interview. “The length of the coastline, in a sense, is infinite.”

    In the 1950s, he proposed a simple but radical way to quantify the crookedness of such an object by assigning it a “fractal dimension,” an insight that has proved useful well beyond the field of cartography.


It was this insight that eventually led him to geometrical figures familiar to psychedelic drug users and Grateful Dead fans, figures like this:

…and this…

…and, more familiarly, this…

…and, most of all, this…

Once again, he did not like computers. I’d be skeptical about the utility of computers, too, if my ideas manifested themselves as a vegetable:

Or the look of the sky through trees:

Hugs Benoit. I’m sorry I almost flunked out of your class. You’re an inspiration:

    “He knew everybody, with interests going off in every possible direction,” Professor Mumford said. “Every time he gave a talk, it was about something different.”

    When asked to look back on his career, Dr. Mandelbrot compared his own trajectory to the rough outlines of clouds and coastlines that drew him into the study of fractals in the 1950s. “If you take the beginning and the end, I have had a conventional career,” he said, referring to his prestigious appointments in Paris and at Yale. “But it was not a straight line between the beginning and the end. It was a very crooked line.”

(Quotations taken from his obituary in the New York Times.)

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10 May 2010

Obits: Alan Rich, classical music critic

A few weeks ago the august and (by some accounts) curmudgeonly classical music critic Alan Rich passed away.

As is my way, I’m not so good at the blog-paced instant response. I made a terrible journalist when I was in that field, but I did get to know some quite good ones while I toiled among them, Alan Rich being one of them. Let me log some remembrances.
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