Somewhere, buried deep within my summer to-do list, is a low-priority item to re-tally my Blur collection. The collection includes all physical items of audio and video (still haven’t pulled the trigger on that elusive laserdisc) as well as promotional items and reading materials focused on the band. I’m already eagerly awaiting a stateside release announcement of Graham Coxon’s forthcoming autobiography, so I can put it next to Alex James’ first book. Also, this reminds me that I need to get my hands on Alex James’ second book (the one about cheese).
On a recent trip to Ohio, I stopped into one of my favorite massive independent (there really should be no other kind, and before long there likely won’t) bookstores and discovered the On Track series by Burning Shed publishing. To my shock, Blur were one of the first artists included. Essex musician Matt Bishop took on the enviable unenviable task of writing about every song Blur have ever released and likely some they haven’t.
The first comprehensive song-story book I ever owned was Niall Stokes’ U2 compendium, which Thunder’s Mouth Press released in the interim between Zooropa and Pop. At the time, I didn’t know I would ever write about music and place (ostensibly) for a living, but needless to say, it was inspirational. Every song does have a story behind it – an ethos would no doubt inspire Continuum to start the 33 1/3 series in 2003. Even the most obscure B-sides and demo tracks may have more interesting stories than the biggest hit. When I first read Into the Heart, I had a rudimentary understanding (at best) of what B-sides even were.
Bishop’s book on Blur has been enjoyable thus far. My lack of musical theory background does hinder it at moments where the musician-author gets fanboyish and technical over Graham Coxon’s chords and swerves, but I have nothing but love and respect for anyone willing to take on a task as unforgiving and headache-inducing as writing comprehensively about every single one of a superstar band’s recordings. And that’s coming from ME.
What I love most about going through Bishop’s vignettes has been how it’s given me a new lease on just why I like accumulating Blur materials. I never sprang for the 21 box, as I already owned most of the albums and, being in grad school, I couldn’t justify the expense on CD’s. A decade later, YouTube’s rampant monetization has made an endless rabbit hole of obscure recordings available at the push of a button. That being said, it’s overwhelming when you have literally anything better to do with your time, especially away from a keyboard or off of your phone. I still feel like I’ve heard less than half of Blur’s recordings, and I’ve been a fan for over 25 years. I’m fine with that, though, because I’m learning new things on almost every page of Matt Bishop’s book. As much as a handful of my favorite bands are less known, I love being a Blur super-fan, because there are always more recordings and more material out there to discover. I can’t even imagine what Beatles completists must go through.
Take, for example, an alternate, rocked out version of “Far Out,” which was, for at least a decade, available only via the 1999 “No Distance Left to Run” DVD-single (oh right…they made those, didn’t they?) and file sharing piracy. I knew that “Far Out” was recorded late in the Parklife sessions and remains the only Blur album track on which Alex James sang lead, but I didn’t realize they recorded any other version of it. The 1994 release was a cool aside but hardly an album highlight. The 1999 alternate version release is something else entirely. As off-kilter as this can be at times, I still love it:
Bishop also goes into details about the Parklife recording sessions based off of Steven Street’s camcorder footage, which disappeared from YouTube after being posted many years ago. Fortunately, somebody downloaded the footage from STreet’s website and re-uploaded it to YouTube, so I will embed it here. As I say about any streaming audio or video, enjoy it until it disappears again.
Like a lot of academics who prize their reading (for fun) time, I have a habit of starting approximately three books in the process of finishing one. This is generally because I spend a lot of time in bookstores, and I can’t help that publishers have been loading shelves of late with enticing new non-fiction with enticing new covers. The University of Nebraska Press did masterfully to release a burst of dormant endorphins in the recesses of my Gen-Y brain with the cover to Brad Balukjian’s mid-2010’s travelogue, The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife. The artwork mimics the 1986 Topps baseball card packs to a T, and the book’s descriptor immediately clicked as something almost directly curated to my interests. The author’s bio on the back cover also revealed a kindred spirit: a history lecturer who owns a VCR. Also, I just saw that this book found a publisher after 38 rejections, so, more relatability right there.
Regarding the book itself, I am of several minds. To be fair to Balukjian, there is an ember of jealousy in me that he got to be the one to both have this adventure and splatter his personality all over these pages. I did wince at moments, remembering my own experiences being shut down or ignored by potentially pivotal interview subjects. His persistence and fearlessness in engaging even distant relatives of certain players is hard not to admire. He also responsibly acknowledges some ethical dekes on his part, including lying about wanting to buy a rich-person golf-munity home in Southwestern Florida on the chance of running into the notoriously elusive Carlton Fisk at the clubhouse. One of my favorite moments in the whole book (perhaps showing my hand as a researcher forced to operate under late capitalism) came at the end of that sequence, when Balukjian’s fib gets him a free fine-dining lunch. I’m sure there were some embarrassing moments of explaining his presence somewhere (or being escorted out) that he may have omitted, but the candidness of Brad’s research methods were highly relatable and educational, as much as they would likely not stand up to IRB scrutiny.
I have been critical in the past about the insufferable Gen-Y/Millennial propensity to find an audience for their premature memoirs by using some pop-cultural Trojan Horse. Two that spring to mind are the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson and Jack of All Trades. The former uses Calvin and Hobbes to tell Joel Schroeder’s story, and the latter focuses on the same subject matter as Balukjian, albeit more tragically, insufferably, and self-effacingly on part of Stuart Eisenstein. Neither are essential, but I’d still recommend both if you’re anywhere near my demographic.
A positive spin on this came at various moments when Brad reached into his long-term battle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which usually thickened the narrative and helped contextualize his level of dedication to an array of subjects. Also, OCD is an over-used catch-all term by people who really don’t understand much about it. I was unfortunately in that group until reading an old acquaintance’s zine about his adult life with the illness, ceasing outright to use the term casually. I would imagine this book would do the same for a reader with a similarly myopic understanding.
I won’t deny that Balukjian could have kept some of his personal tangents to himself, but I acknowledge it would be hypocritical of me as a someone who encourages writers to “put their personality into their writing.” A generation of Americans who don’t remember life before Reality TV have been conditioned to expect some type of highly personal juice (e.g. mental health and/or sex confessionals) woven into a project’s greater DNA. The publisher may have had a hand in nudging Balukjian to include those asides, and I may be in the minority to say so, but whenever he diverted from the lives of his baseball cards, I couldn’t avoid getting distracted.
Whether or not the personal expose superstructure is your thing, I’m not going to throw stones at Balukjian. It’s easy to criticize an abstraction (millennial memoirs-in-disguise) when you ignore a couple of wider, sadder realities. Nostalgia is certainly a helluva drug (as reflected in my usage of a nearly-two decade old Chappelle’s Show reference), and it’s nothing that ’80s babies can claim. Shit; one of the first pop songs most of us remember learning the lyrics to was “Kokomo,” a song that effectively sound-tracked the Baby Boomers’ descent into, to quote Todd in the Shadows, “sad, paunchy middle age.” It also put Mike Love into the driver’s seat of Beach Boys, Incorporated , whose brand for the past three decades has been reminding old people about how great their adolescence was and trying to get young people on board.
One thing I wish Balukjian had expanded was asking that inevitable question of what happened to baseball cards. At least twice he gives cursory nods to a cocktail of overproduction, the rise of the internet, and a declining interest in Major League Baseball (that 1994 strike was a real kick in the teeth, and not just because it inspired Fox to give Joe Rogan his first sitcom job). He includes one glimpse of a more critical discussion in the epilogue, when former Topps factory employees mention “outsourcing” before changing the subject. The Jack of All Trades documentary approached the question more centrally, including an amazingly thoughtful interview with Jose Canseco about how much trading card manufacturers steered the resale market in the pre-internet age. None of Balukjian’s subjects here, both the wonderfully hospitable and enthusiastic (e.g. Jaime Cocanower, Garry Templeton, Randy Ready) and the less so (e.g. walking brand/enigma Carlton Fisk, the embattled Doc Gooden, and notorious asshole Vince Coleman) had much to say about trading cards. Many of them were still involved in baseball coaching and player development, some lamented the game having changed in broad terms, but none really offered any further insights into just how and why things changed so much in the ’90s (the decade most of them retired).
As Sports Illustrated reported recently, Major League Baseball is inching their way toward drastic adaptations which may be necessary to ensure the Great American Pastime isn’t some hollow shell of itself by its “200th birthday” in 2039. Granted, the 1839 birthdate and Abner Doubleday mythology were cooked up by the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939 to help breathe life back into baseball following a prolonged identity crisis on the heels of the Great Depression. Again, millennials aren’t the first generation preyed upon with a nostalgia-laced breadcrumb trail.
Baseball cards are a real relic of Gen Y childhoods, partially because Major League Baseball was something that got “taken away” from many of us. As in other major American sports, owners spent the ’90s strong-arming cities into building expensive new stadiums for them with taxpayer money, ticket prices skyrocketed to the point that the only people who could afford tickets were rich transients (pick a random MLB broadcast and count the people behind home plate dicking around on their phones), and, echoing what happened in the ’60s, Basketball, Football, and Hockey all produced a bumper crop of flashier stars. Also, even the stars had a playing schedule that didn’t jive with people who would have to start struggling to remain in the middle class (up to seven home games a week, versus one or maybe two for other sports). Your Juan Sotos and Fernando Tatis Jr.s aren’t going to save the game, especially because YouTube and gambling apps have made it ridiculously easy to be a casual fan. If Garrett Cole and Steven Strasbourg were Pokémon, the card industry would have a visible revival on the horizon, but alas.
Then again, crazier things have happened. There are still boomers in horse-blinds who assume nobody under 60 listens to music on vinyl anymore. Nobody can predict the future, especially not Brad Balukjian, who has no problem stirring up a fun cocktail of pasts here: his OCD-affected personal and professional life, the sordid (and wholesome) trials and tribulations of more than a dozen different people who were lucky enough to earn Major League paychecks in 1986, and all the places around the country where those lives intersected or didn’t. I never really appreciated this about baseball cards during their peak and glut in the early ’90s, but thinking on books and documentaries on this era, adult me appreciates how card packs were a great equalizer. Every player, no matter how hot-shit they thought they were (or how valuable Beckett decided their card was), was given the same amount of space as Don Carman or Rance Mulliniks. I was not expecting to emerge from this book with a lifelong respect for Garry Templeton, who I’m not sure if I had thought about in 30 years, but here we are. Therein lies the magic of oral histories and the reminder that everybody has a story to tell.
Check out Brad Balukjian’s Instagram for a catalog of photos from his road trip that weren’t included in the book. Just scroll back for a bit.
“[Greg] Dulli’s a Catholic boy blessed with a filmmaker’s sense of story, a robust, overly industrious voice that can’t quite stay on key, sexual hang-ups for days, and the seeming conviction that he may, in fact, be black.” – Joe Gross on the Afghan Whigs in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (4th Ed), 2004.
For a substantial portion of my twenties, I lived with venerated guitarist and session musician J. Tom Hnatow. We met because I needed a room when I moved to DC, he had a room to let, and we both loved Tom Waits. He spent a lot of time on the road, but whenever he was home, we would, predictably enough, bullshit about music. To this day, whenever I listen to the Afghan Whigs, I occasionally remember the first thing Tom said when I brought them up: “It must have been no fun at all being in that band.” I trusted Tom then, and I still trust him now, given his pedigree from years of hard-scrabble touring and babysitting various collaborators with various addictions.
Though the Afghan Whigs emerged from Cincinnati at the height of the hair metal/scuzz-rock era, which their long-lost debut album reflects, there was always something different about their scuzz. Their first album on Sub Pop, Up In It was just as problematic as it came out in 1990 as if it had dropped last year (despite the term not having dissipated into popular discourse from the academic bubble yet). However, Greg Dulli’s blatant love and admiration for Miles Davis and Billie Holiday made listeners wonder how serious he was about the band’s whole “track-marks and rage” persona. Bob Gendron did a good job demystifying Dulli’s story in his 33 1/3 book about Gentlemen, the Afghan Whigs’ 1993 major-label debut which frequently centerpieces any listicle about “bands who actually got better when they sold out (imagine that)”.
First of all, I think that ideology is flawed, considering how my favorite record of 1998, the Afghan Whigs’ swan song 1965, is sandwiched in between two other records by underground artists who generated their finest work using major-label machinery*. Of course, there was no rhyme or reason to how or why certain music of the Nineties has aged better than most. It feels like a lot of the most timeless shit from the 80’s went against aural and production trends (fucking saxophones…), but the timeless shit from the 90’s were about purposefully bucking whatever was popular and giving LOTS of love to your pop forebears. 1965 isn’t even the only “apart-from-indie-and-punk” album named after the authors’ birth year to top one of my favorite-albums lists this decade**. Maybe it was the sudden floodgates of cultural-text access which the internet had opened, but both Greg Dulli and Tim Wheeler both seemed like they would have had a hell of a time being able to experience their birth years as adults. I often waver on this about my own year of birth.
Either way, the Afghan Whigs’ completing their transition to noirish R&B made 1965 a perfect title. The cover featured Ed White walking in space outside of the Gemini 4 less than one month after Dulli was born. Though it take a few glances to notice it on the cover, he was attached to the spacecraft via an umbilical cord – entirely to symbolize Dulli’s own introspection about his birth following extensive treatment for clinical depression. Granted, what the hell do I know? I’ve only met Greg Dulli once – briefly – in 2007 at a Dinosaur Jr gig in New Orleans. He told me that he and Mark Lanegan were bringing their Gutter Twins project to DC that March, welcomed me to New Orleans, then went outside to smoke. Maybe he isn’t as complicated as we imagine he is, or at least no more complicated than anybody who’s made a career out of writing songs about fucking and fucking up.
To wit: 1965– perhaps the album that I’ve listened to more times than any record ever made. I’m unsure why that is, outside of the fact that I love it, the CD has always found its way into my car(s over the years), and it puts me where I need to be when I’m in a place I want to avoid. I did first hear it at that pivotal point in my adolescence, when “Something Hot” made it onto the radio while sounding nothing like anything else on the radio. I also took a major coming-of-age trip to New Orleans in 1998 and was still reeling from that six months later when the album came out. I remember buying my used copy of the CD, opening the booklet and seeing that they had recorded part of it in NOLA. The album definitely feels like the pulse of the Northernmost Caribbean City, dribbling in Creole voice samples and steel-pan drums over “Citi Soleil” and nodding to “some old boy who lives Uptown” in “Crazy.” There’s a moment in “Neglekted,” just short of the 3-minute mark, when a key change drops and releases the song into a gorgeous lounge, full of smoky background vocals and a suddenly ebullient protagonist, floating through it all.
Like many bands who became my favorites in high school, the Afghan Whigs split up around that time, too. Given the demons that seemed to permeate the band’s aesthetic, it wasn’t a big surprise. Within a year and change, Dulli had returned as the Twilight Singers, which at first felt like the unfinished business of a guy who had scrubbed his old garage-punk band of all grunge influence. Within a few years, Greg’s buddy Ted Demme died, he scrapped his solo album, and he poured his noirish melancholia into what would become my favorite album of 2003. After spending a decade channeling his middle-aged angst into the Twilight Signers project, he reunited the Afghan Whigs and, in the past decade, has released two very good new albums (with a third on the way). Imagine that.
*Ween in 1997 and The Dismemberment Plan in 1999; the latter had been dropped before the album came out, but they used that Interscope money-fountain to record it.
**Ash’s 1977 also earns that esteem from me for 1996.
I hope you all had a great April. Mine was incredibly busy with a lot of projects in the pipeline. Hopefully I’ll have a few new announcements soon.
For now, enjoy this flyer I found in an old Spain folder this afternoon. I don’t remember the occasion, but I have reason to believe that somebody from CGT handed it to me in Madrid 18 years ago today.
I tell ya – this modern society a select few have built has got me jerkin’ back and forth between thinking “Maaaan, what a beautiful world” and “we’re all deep into de-evolution, everything is controlled by morons.” Well, once again, I’m back in the crate of the Not-By 30-Day Music Challenge monster I created toward the beginning of the COVID era, and yet again it is my birthday month. So, prepare yourselves to get sloppy while fighting that uncontrollable urge with the…
I had another idea that I may unveil this coming summer provided the usual suspects I know are still engaged with these song-a-day challenges then. But for now, go ahead and download this, share it with your friends, and hashtag it #NotByDEVO to guarantee good times.
If you’re curious, someone on the internet there’s a photo of me dressed up as Mark Mothersbaugh (or Bob, or Gerry, or Alan, technically) for Halloween in 2010. I even made my own energy dome. My best friend dressed up as Thor (bear in mind this was a year before the first Marvel movie for that character came out), and that January we put on a variety show called ‘Ragnarok’ where I hosted one segment in character as Mothersbaugh. Five years later, my friend hit me up, practically freaking out when they announced that the music for Thor! Ragnarok (2017) would be done by Mark Mothersbaugh. Life imitates art imitates full circles, sometimes.
I scanned these photos with the impression that Irving took them both at Marineland, a marine life expo located on Highway A1A between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. According to the manager behind Marineland’s social media accounts, the first photo (of a trainer with a gator) was not taken there, but the second photo, which features a dolphin jumping for a treat in a tank with spectators, absolutely was.
This certainly creates more questions about where Irving may have snapped a photo of a trainer with a Gator. I wonder if the St. Augustine area had any accessible “gator experiences” at the time. It may have been at Gatorland, which has been called such since 1954, but that was far down the road in Kissimmee.
Marineland, especially in the last two decades of Florida’s pre-Disney era, was a well-established attraction. The cover of the Marineland guide, which I’ve scanned into JPEG format and will share below, along with a few other highlights from the program, has become an enduring image of Florida’s pre-Mickey tourist trade.
The guide’s opening salvo is particularly interesting, especially because it begins with a reference to Mohammed. The reference was hardly inaccurate (given the can-do attitude that permeated throughout Florida’s post-war attractions), but something tells me a program for a popular tourist destination on Florida’s space coast (ghost to ghost) would not open with a Mohammed anytime this century.
Click to enlarge the above pages and check out their sales pitch to visitors! Read about how new and exciting Oceanariums were at the time. I’ve also cropped and enlarged the “Gull’s-eye” view of the park, which appears to be facing south, looking at the Porpoise Stadium under the Marineland sign.
It’s still difficult to tell exactly which of the Oceanariums (Oceanaria? …It’s not a word I tend to use much in conversation or writing) Irving’s photo of the clever jumping dolphin was taken in. The Porpoise School tank at the foot of those blue bleachers would make sense, but according to the program, the Circular Oceanarium had dolphin shows as well.
Because of a scheduling crush for conference space in Manhattan that became a moot point when it pivoted to fully online for the third consecutive year, Happy Virtual AAG Week, everyone.
Though I wouldn’t have been able to get to New York anyway, I was beginning to regret missing the chance to reunite with some friends and colleagues from all over the states and some (depending on COVID-related passport restrictions) from around the globe. Granted, considering how Omicron variant numbers were skyrocketing last month and NYC tends to be a vector of disease transmission, the Association of American Geographers decided to hold this year’s meeting virtually. Despite the pandemic restrictions, I’ve been happy to serve the Cultural Geography Specialty Group as their Program Director for that time.
For our AAG 2022 Keynote, our first choice was Arizona State’s Dr. Rashad Shabazz – a name I’ve known for some time in the world of musical and critical geographies – and fortunately, he was honored to do it. He will be delivering the CGSG keynote talk on his long-going research about Prince, entitled “Prince and Place: A Premier on the Geography of Music.” I will be chairing the virtual talk along with my good friend and colleague Hannah Gunderman (CGSG Chair) this Sunday at 5:20pm ET.
As of this writing, I don’t have the precise details on how AAG digital registrants can access Rashad’s talk, but once we do, I will try to update them here, and the Cultural Geography Specialty Group will also post them (as the image says) at our website CulturalGeographySG.org along with various conduits on Twitter.
“See” everybody then! Check our Rashad’s bio below this video.
About Rashad Shabazz
Rashad Shabazz’s academic expertise brings together human geography, cultural studies, gender studies, and critical race studies. His research explores how race, gender, and cultural production are informed by geography. His most recent work, Spatializing Blackness,(University of Illinois Press, 2015) examines how carceral power within the geographies of Black Chicagoans shaped urban planning, housing policy, policing practices, gang formation, high incarceration rates, masculinity, and health.
Professor Shabazz’s scholarship has appeared in the journals Souls, The Spatial-Justice Journal, ACME, Gender, Place and Culture, Cultural Geography, Occasions, and Places. In addtion, Shabazz has also published several book chapters and book reviews. Professor Shabazz’s scholarship is also public facing. He has also appeared on local, national, and international news programs such as the BBC, Time Magazine, and 20/20. He is currently working on a book that uncovers the development of the Minneapolis music scene from its beginning in the mid-19th century to the release of Prince’s magnum opus, Sign O’ The Times, in 1987.
There are two things “wrong” with this entry. First, Bazooka Tooth wasn’t my favorite album of 2003 (that designation belongs to either Blur or the Twilight Singers), but it remains my favorite hip-hop album of the 21st century so far (unless Clipse nudges it out). Second, I’ve already published this essay before on ZME Music, in 2013, to honor’s the album’s 10th birthday. However, I noticed that my entries have hit a snag recently, and I wanted to get this onto my personal site because increasingly more I.P. is vanishing from the internet, even from the early 2010’s, a point when most of us can agree that the internet had become culture. I’ll stop here and let you enjoy it. I’ll be back with some new, original material for you all to peruse soon. For now, good luck on the new semester to both students and professors! – Tyler
A Decade of Seeing New York as Ancient Rome: ‘Bazooka Tooth’ Turns Ten
“People can label me whatever they like. I don’t really care any more…I get told that I’m weird—but you forget that the whole reason you liked [Boogie Down Productions] in the first place was because you never heard anything like that before.” – Aesop Rock, quoted in the Harvard Crimson, 2003
As Ian Bavitz was writing the songs that filled out the 70 minutes of Bazooka Tooth, hip-hop was undergoing a protracted identity crisis. When the album dropped, ten years had passed since The Chronic had redefined the way that hip-hop was produced and marketed. Even as the 21st century ushered in an era of exponentially caving-in space-time compression, five years since a pair of game-changing deaths (in addition to the events of Columbine High School, September 11, 2001 and immediate eternity of unfocused war) gave an increasingly corporate hip-hop industry plenty of time to back away from controversy in a cartoonish manner. This is not to say that 2002 was a bad year; Phrenology, Quality, Original Pirate Material and others provided antidotes to the ubiquity of Nelly and Ja Rule. Unfortunately, the canon of chart-topping hip-hop across the end of the century contained an insurmountable number of songs about absolutely nothing.
In early mid-2013, Jamie Meline and Mike Render released a collaborative theme album entitled Run the Jewels, a front-runner for many critics’ hip-hop album of the year. The second track opens with a verse by superstar Big Boi.
“If you told me ten years ago that El-P was going to release a single with Big Boi, I would have called you crazy,” said my friend Ted the first time we listened to the song.
In 2003, Company Flow and Outkast were more so marketable ideas than extant groups, but both had been immeasurably influential on drastically different scales over the prior five years. By the turn of the century, Funcrusher Plus had put El-P and subsequently his label Definitive Jux on so many nascent hip-hop fans’ maps, and Stankonia put Big Boi and his erstwhile partner Andre 3000 into bigger houses. But within a few years, Outkast had split into two colorful halves and the brains behind Company Flow had set out on his own and unleashed his own fantastic brand of damage on an overindulged hip-hop world. Neither Facebook nor YouTube would exist for another couple of years, so MTV still had some artistic stranglehold. Hip-hop’s identity crisis played itself out on dying legions of CRT-monitors across the world. While Nelly was busy scanning a credit card in an exploited model’s ass at the end of the “Tip Drill” video, El-P was wandering around New York, getting radioactive guns pulled on him everywhere he went as he rapped “Deep Space 9mm.”
Had Def Jux’s moment in the sun come today, who knows how the lethargic minefield of PBR-financed music blogs and YouTube videos disguised as lazy websites would mishandle the label’s collective message. But by 2003, still well after the Napster-ingrained moment when college kids regularly saw fit to apprehend music by whatever non-monetary means necessary, every release branded with the Def Jux label was feverishly devoured. These included landmark releases by El-P’s friends in Cannibal Ox, the midwestern turntable wizard RJD2 (Deadringer, seriously) and most significantly, an enigmatic, racially ambiguous Long Islander who called himself Aesop. In 2001, Aesop Rock had helped rocket Def Jux from relative obscurity (amongst anyone without their ear to the ground of the East Coast indie hip-hop scene) when he created and dropped Labor Days. Unprepared for the circumstances of this trajectory, he recoiled as his label blew up amongst indie tastemakers and increasingly influential online music filters. On September 23, 2003 he released his auto-iconoclastic follow up, complete with surreal cartoon album art, a nonsensical name, and an unforgettable pastiche of antisocial hip-hop songs splayed across the album’s seventy minutes like a string of tags and slogans spray painted on the side of a rusted-to-death cargo train sitting forgotten on Staten Island.
The most nostalgic cats are the ones who were never part of it. (El-P on “We’re Famous”)
Allow me to begin with the story of how Bazooka Tooth evolved into this writer’s favorite hip-hop album of all time. I had missed the Labor Days train two years prior, which still disappoints me, but my introduction to Ian Bavitz later came at a crucial point in both his career and my own life.
As a budding music fan, I was unable to avoid hip-hop. When I was in fifth grade, Snoop and Dre hit my television screen at least once a day. It took me well over fifteen years to realize how important (and legendarily good) “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” had been. Legions of my fellow white kids swallowed the romanticized fantasy world of gats, rims, and bitches, but I rejected it wholeheartedly. I was adequately disillusioned when Tupac died, but his music had never gotten through to me. It simply seemed insincere to me (and still does) that people who never really had to struggle for anything were coddling together sympathy for immaculately marketed thugs and “thugs.”
For the majority of middle school and high school, I avoided disappointing my mom by bringing home any CDs defaced with Tipper Gore’s two-tone ego crest. From what I recall, the first pieces of music I bought that carried the Parental Advisory tag were cassettes, The Bloodhound Gang’s One Fierce Beer Coaster (a gem of mid-90’s mookish satire) being among them. I kept dabbling in hip-hop, rap, and techno as the 90’s progressed and got weirder, but it wasn’t until I was firmly lodged in the pseudo-intellectual bubble of the four-year university that the “hip hop as sociology” puzzle began making sense.
Inspired by the buzz around this rapper’s name, I burned a CD-R of my college radio station’s promotional copy of Bazooka Tooth. Within ninety seconds into the opening/title track, Ian Bavitz’s obtuse, obscure lyrical flow and four-pack-a-day rasp had earned a new, enthusiastic fan. Despite the floodgates to content that Napster, Limewire, and the like had opened to me by age 20, I had never heard anything like the clinking and clanking nihilism of that opening track, and it still resonates.
I kept a radio-censored version of the album on steady rotation throughout my junior year of college. I was still accustomed to mainstream, professionally engineered radio edits on hip-hop songs that covered their audible tracks, but these weren’t clean and didn’t seem professionally engineered. They simply highlighted the swear words, twisting and reversing them on an ostensibly limited budget. To this day, I still imagine Skipper labeling dolls with the name of “Yiddish” rap artists prior to “tearing their still-beating hearts out of the loose-leaf carcass.” It took me a couple of years to get my hands on the original version. I was actually disappointed to hear that Aesop had in fact referred to “shitty” rap artists on “NY Electric” rather than slide in this nod to his own ambiguous Judaism (I never knew anyone with his last name and wasn’t the only one of my friends who wondered this; he was actually raised Catholic).
I had no idea that Aesop’s longer-time fans held Bazooka Tooth, with its undeniably muddled production and less-coherent lyrics (than that of his first few releases, at least) in relatively low regard, particularly next to the mind-blowing dexterity on earlier tracks like “Flash Flood” and heart-stopping storytelling of “No Regrets” (I still care deeply about Lucy, whether or not she was based on a real person). I was not the only one who liked this album, yet I was one of the few people I knew who loved this album. I saw nothing wrong with a rapper challenging his listeners with double-talk and mondegreens. Considering the post-internet, pre-social networking era that Aesop’s mid-twenties works existed in, this was not much different from David Lynch challenging his viewers with analeptic plot devices or David Foster Wallace challenging his readers with a novels’ worth of dense footnotes.
In fact, when I continue thinking on this, the Bazooka Tooth triple-LP set was the first record I ever bought new. Until that point, I was a dilettante accumulator of used vinyl for leisure and novelty. After this shiny, beautifully illustrated record broke the ice, I increasingly began taking vinyl more seriously. (Equally noteworthy, if connected more to Aesop than this particular work: When I joined Thefacebook.com in 2004, I listed “Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives” under my interests section. It stayed there for a surprisingly long time).
Anyway, that’s enough self-absorbed nostalgia from me. I included this to illustrate one of several reasons why Bazooka Tooth deserves this level of tribute, especially since I know that my story is hardly unique. This record is a difficult one to explain and (whenever necessary) defend, but there is too much insanity packed into these fifteen tracks to explain under the pretense of linear thinking. Let’s go to the tape.
Hyde heckles Jekyll and makes Hitler look cuddly. (Aesop on “Cook It Up”)
When you are white and male, society opens an extraordinary number of doors for you. This flies in the face of an irreparably shitty post-millennial job market, privatized higher education producing near-lifelong debt, and any memory of when this system you were born into was completely worth the hassle. It’s particularly unfortunate having entered the real world right as any hope of succeeding in your parents’ footsteps faded over the horizon and crumbled behind the World Trade Center, surrounding for years by people who can still smell metal in the air tonight. Regardless of when or how you fail, you get chastised if you blame anybody but your hegemony-feeding white male self. You never had to fight racism, sexism, or (necessarily) classism, so what claim do you have to a struggle?
Bazooka Tooth wasn’t my introduction to twisted, nerdy hip-hop progenitors, but to put it bluntly, it was the first time one of these weirdoes (as C-Rayz Waltz proudly declared his crew on a VHS documentary about their label) blew me away. Aesop Rock led to El-P led to Sage Francis led to me starting to actively disintegrate the prejudices I’d had against hip-hop in a whole new context. While it would be patronizing and unfair to juxtapose the “black struggle” with any type of “white struggle,” Aesop, Sage, and others illustrated that there was such a thing as the latter with increasing proficiency. It just wasn’t externally inflicted. Growing up unable to meet high expectations, being condescended to by peers and adults for being “weird” or “different,” and unable to find a comfortable medium through which to develop, aren’t tantamount to society thinking you’re a problem, a leech, or “not a real American,” but that doesn’t mean one’s life can’t objectively suck. A generation of suburban kids who had grown up thinking (for some reason) that Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan understood their frustration now had a whole new fucked up set of intellectual leaders that were nerdy, wore their damage on their sleeves, and couldn’t care less if they fit into any profession. Even the most highly trained were capable of failing and shooting forty-one shots over par. El-P and his friends decided to build their own scene, and around the time that Bazooka Tooth dropped, kids of all races who loved television and manic depression were listening.
“No bad moves allowed when you are in the public eye; kill it, you are the weakest link, goodbye.” – Aesop on “Easy”
This exposure and ground-level fame came unwelcome to an under-prepared agoraphobic who admitted that, for a stretch of his early twenties, he couldn’t leave his house without getting dizzy and falling over. Ironically, this was exactly the anti-bravado that hip-hop needed to recapture its appeal to those alienated by raw materialism, including cars that creditors had probably already repossessed from Mystikal. To even call this music “street level” would be a misnomer, as its progenitor spent much of his early twenties too much of a jittery, drooling mess to walk down any street, risking exposure to either the cameras or guns, one of which were going to shoot him to death. “Aesop Rock” was already a suitable stage name for a gifted lyricist and uncompromising personality, but now, even his pseudonym needed an alter ego into which he could safely retreat. We all made Bazooka Tooth; we’re all guilty.
Wisely, Bavitz and his cohort gave the obtuse Bazooka Tooth a few years to age before he demystified his back catalog with an official lyric booklet in 2005 with the deluxe release of the Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives EP. Reading along with these songs for the first time (and each subsequent time) brought about dozens of aural epiphanies (I’ve been listening to this record consistently for a decade without noticing the ‘Heavy Metal Parking Lot’ reference). This was particularly true in the case of tracks like “NY Electric” and “Freeze,” where Aesop’s anger over both New York’s compromised life condition and his own fame were palpable, if not completely coherent at first. Provided with the comprehensive lyric sheets, the listener was able to connect these dots, but a tangled jungle of pop-culture references still confronted them. Bavitz’s categorical obsession with comic books of his youth and obscure political scandals lent itself surprisingly well to critically dense poetry that almost transcended his formal (four-year college) education. He had already established himself as one of the most impressive MCs in independent music, but now he had proven himself one of the most confrontational lyricists, too. It came at a time when Hip-hop needed a solid set of middle fingers to flash at convention, and Aesop, Murs, El-P, Mr. Lif, and company were happy to extend them. It still surprises me to remember that Bavitz was only in his mid-twenties when he recorded Bazooka Tooth. At the time, it wasn’t so shocking to college-age kids like me, since 25-year olds had so much life experience that we lacked. The surprise is that even now that my cohort and I have surpassed that cornerstone age and then some, Aesop’s wit and perspective on songs like “Babies with Guns” and “Kill the Messenger” still sound like they come from a mind way more developed than my own.
“Ain’t it strange it’s a fad to bite your idols when the only reason you liked them was cause their shit wasn’t recycled?” – Aesop on “Frijoles”
If the blatantly unsolved murders of Biggie and Tupac sent hip-hop into a political regression of sorts, it was equally unsolved, untimely murder of Jam Master Jay that really stepped on the collective throat of Bavitz and his label mates. The violent realities of an out-of-control capitalist venture had already begun setting in by the time that Meline began burning his poetry onto vinyl in the early 90s, but it all paled in comparison to watching a pioneer fall. Run-DMC was suddenly no more, and as painful as this reality was, the slate had, in many ways, been cleared. On “Freeze” (the closest thing this album had to a single), Aesop concludes the song with a nod to Jam Master Jay’s “resurrection and second death,” which acknowledged how nobody was forever, even if your heroes’ music lived on eternally. Mizell’s October 2002 murder happened right around the moment before Hip-hop had come of age sufficiently to reflexively capitalize off its own nostalgia. Before long, a new race to the top had begun. As his label hit an arguable peak with this succession of releases by Can Ox, RJ, and Aesop, El-P didn’t waste the opportunity to remind people about where he and his progeny had won any succession of little victories as the hip-hop “industry” allowed over the turn of the century on “We’re Famous,” a very unconventional version of one of hip-hop’s great conventions (the diss track).
Nobody involved in the Def Jux process seemed content resting on any laurels. Countless rappers that Ian and Jamie had grown up watching had worked (and innovated) their asses off until earning that coveted SNL appearance, that insurmountable platinum record, and then simply got lazy. In retrospect, Bazooka Tooth was a logical step in a career for a rapper who never cared to be confined to peoples’ expectations. In the decade since, he has reunited with Blockhead (“None Shall Pass”), united with Kimya Dawson (“Uncluded”) and even, in the single most controversial move of his career, left New York for the Bay Area. The man that once thickly territorialized his domain over the five boroughs might have taken his own advice and shot himself in the foot while it was in his mouth if he honestly gave a shit what people thought. The white rapper with a Boston University diploma, dropping Suzanne Vega references during free-styles, had his mind made up. Satisfyingly, he has found ways to grow musically as well as ways to keep getting weirder; he promoted his solo album Skelethon with a web-series that featured him dragging a dead cat around a hallucinatory San Francisco. Is he trying to lovingly deconstruct his new city in the way in which he did New York? Bavitz may not be Jewish, but one could make the argument that he’s successfully evolved into hip-hop’s fucked-up take on (the positive part of) Woody Allen.
“Brinker 1-9, 9-11-01 Witness. Maybe you don’t get this.” – Aesop on “NY Electric”
(from Cryptic’s tumblr)
While hip-hop was floating relatively irrespective of the streets, Aesop Rock and his cohort were engineering hostile beats and noises on personal computers in smoke-filled apartments. Whether or not they realized it at the time, they were setting the tone for an exponentially increasing trend in bedroom-production. Additionally, their love of the music they were creating transcended their hatred of their situations, and it showed. Despite Aesop’s professed love of soaking up dialogue from films that ‘take place in other eras and other places,’ the early 2000s had locked him solidly into New York, as if there was anywhere else he could have gone. This once-invincible urban wonderland had folded to this dystopian reality where it was suddenly possible to curfew the city and shut down every block. The Big Apple has yet to regain its glory.
To New Yorkers, especially starving artists, 9/11 wasn’t the end of life as they knew it, but it did exacerbate everything that had already been shitty about their lives. “When you’re a poor person,” confined Vast Aire in the aforementioned documentary, “24 hours is like 10 years… When you’re not poor, time is leaving you. Money is everything, and that’s just sad.”
In 1961, activist and urban studies guru Jane Jacobs wrote that “Time, in cities, is the substitute for self-containment. Time, in cities, is in dispensable.” The poor urban dweller is consistently wondering where their family’s next meal is going to come from; days, hours, and minutes move slowly. Time stretches out like the poly-rhythmic, cumbersome beats on Aesop’s record. Nobody intended to let anyone dance to this joint. Why would anybody want to? On the most arguably dance-able track, “11:35,” Mr. Lif cites a poor immigrant named Jose falling to his death in an industrial grinder like something out of The Jungle or Manhattan Transfer, among other modern-day micro-tragedies, before the beat cuts to a jerky, uneven shuffle. Building upon a series of sentiments (alienation, depression, inertia, paranoia, agoraphobia), Aesop mans the production helm, mixes molasses into the aesthetic, and paints that long-overdue picture of a dystopia-tinged New York, that defeated metropolis where biggest brother’s watching bigger brother watching big brother watch you, spectral particles of the world trade center permeate the atmosphere, and in distinct corners, angry young men dig through neighbors’ garbage and shoot decrepit, sickly dogs behind barns. Fittingly, Vast Aire materializes at the end of “NY Electric” to eulogize the world where buildings fall and hopes crash.
Instead of turning this anxiety inward as he did so often and effectively on Labor Days, Aesop was now projecting these sentiments clearly across the world’s picture-in-picture widescreens and outward onto the human race (itself now an endangered species and willfully hunted by each other, including their infants). The species is ripe for a takeover at the hands of Martians, which is exactly what happens at the end of the album. Conceptually, Aesop’s fantasy of a decisive Mars victory is far-fetched, but hypothetically who could argue in favor of humans after over an hour of unflinching misanthropy?
“Every leader dead and it’s making you upset.” – Aesop on “Kill the Messenger”
There’s no way of knowing where Bazooka Tooth would have gone if Def Jux or Rhymesayers released it today. It would still have acolytes, no doubt, but who would be downloading any of the singles off iTunes or which radio stations outside of New York’s proudest independent and pirate stations would take a risk on any of it? It remains a document of a particularly triumphant era for underground hip-hop as the underground emerged, rubbing its eyes at the strobe lights and adulation. Considering how much has changed in this past decade for both Aesop, El-P, and backpacker hip-hop (if anyone even uses that term anymore), their string of timeless works under the strangest conditions is remarkable, fomenting a style of revolution that will not be apologized for.
To me, Bazooka Tooth is the strongest microcosm of this moment in time, and I know that many people (possibly even Bavitz himself) may disagree. But as the record proved [eighteen+] years ago, cryptically and consistently, we live in a world with no simple answers, and the answers that seem simple are going to fall out from beneath us when the impending end of days crushes New York along with the world that its residents believe revolves around it. In Meline’s half-joking words to an interviewer a decade ago: “You didn’t realize that we were in the middle of World War III and that we’re all gonna die soon?” Aesop Rock understood that time, his crew’s city, and even the human race were changing too fast to even recognize when he pieced this disturbed anti-masterpiece together. [Nearly two] generally painful decade[s] later, we can still take comfort in how no matter what happens, we’ve got something built if we all die tonight.
“Bazooka Tooth,” baby.
Here are my top 10 albums of 2003, for anyone interested:
The Twilight Singers – ‘Blackberry Belle’
Blur – ‘Think Tank’
Aesop Rock – ‘Bazooka Tooth’
Prefab Sprout – ‘I trawl the Megahertz’
Dizzee Rascal – ‘Boy in Da Corner’
Airbag – ‘Ensamble Cohetes’
Junior Senior – ‘D-D-Don’t Stop the Beat’
The Shins – ‘Chutes Too Narrow’
The White Stripes – ‘Elephant’
The Unicorns – ‘Who Will Cut our Hair When We’re Gone?’