Who is this Street Musician? (San Francisco, 1999)

Go ahead and file this entry under the alternate title, “Yet Another Reason I’m a Music Obsessive.”

I suppose I have relatively little in my life to regret. None of the ‘big’ decisions I’ve made (where to move, what career to pursue, relationships to develop) can be changed, so whenever I do get a pang of regret, it’s usually something arguably small: a concert I didn’t attend (e.g. Dillinger Four in DC this October) or a record I didn’t buy (e.g. that Brainiac reissue in New Orleans). Though, to be fair, Dillinger Four haven’t played their final show (just wait for them to get drunk enough and find the right bar in Minneapolis) and according to an old colleague Oliver Wang, those records will eventually find their way back to you if you’re paying attention.

So, here’s an anecdote about something almost twenty years ago that I regret to this day. In April 1999, my family and I flew out to San Francisco on a trip with my sister’s youth jazz band. Being an aspiring filmmaker at that time in my life, I hauled my little camcorder around the city with me. My sister’s band had a gig at Ghirardelli Square one afternoon, and I decided to film my walk down (what I can only assume was) Beach Street beforehand. I stopped for a moment to film an old man with an acoustic guitar, singing a wonderful rendition of “Georgia on my Mind.”

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I glanced down at a small case of cassette tapes he had on the ground next to him, wondering if I had the cash in my wallet to buy one. I’d already spent most of my trip allowance (or conned my parents into spending their money) on CDs and I’m sure a small assortment of embarrassing souvenirs teenagers buy on trips to any big city.

Before I could act on that impulse, my Mom yelled for me to come join them over in the Square, since the show was about to start. I reached into my pocket and threw some change into the bin next to his tapes and left, already feeling pangs of regret for not buying a tape.

I have no idea what his name was, and no amount of video technology that’s been coded this century could focus and zoom in on the grainy video I shot of him that afternoon. Honestly, I’d have to go back to the tape in order to even see whether I’d even caught a glimpse of his merchandise case, but its doubtful. Not that having one of his tapes would necessarily answer these questions, but even at that age, I was incredibly curious about the stories behind his music. At any rate, I wish I’d been able to capture more than 15-20 seconds of him playing that one song.

So, I just figured it wouldn’t hurt to throw this out into the ether to my San Francisco friends or anybody who sees this that may have lived/worked around Ghirardelli Square at the time: does anybody know who this old man is? I would be amazed if he was still alive, considering how this was almost two decades ago and he already appeared to be well into his seventies. I wonder whether any of his tapes (I vaguely remember him having more than one different release) circulated locally, or whether any wound up in thrift stores after his patrons downsized? I recognize how unlikely it is that anything would come from this, but crazier things have happened on the internet. Come on, global village – redeem yourself!

 

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The Mystery of Govi

I’ve been embroiled in trying to meet a couple of deadlines this week, so here’s another entry in a similar vein to the one about the Caretaker. Have you checked that one out? Because The Caretaker’s stuff is amazing.

Govi was an enigma to me for at least ten years. Maybe fourteen or fifteen, even. I realize calling him an “enigma” is appropriate, since he and Michael Cretu are both German-bred zen-seeking musicians with a flair for making music that suburban moms did crossword puzzles to in the nineties. Also, they both had ridiculous hair/general appearances while at their commercial peaks: Cretu looking more or less like you’d expect the person who made “Return to Innocence” to look, and Govi in full Alan Jackson cosplay on the cover of Cuchama, his third album and likely his first to be named for an indigenous holy site in the California desert. Because it was 1993 and fans of schitzophonic world music weren’t much for buying vinyl (it’s hard to flip the record over with wet clay all over your hands), the label Real Music (out of Sausalito, why not?) released it solely on CD.

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Here’s a video somebody made for the song “Torero” accompanied by footage that appears to be taken from a Made-for-TV prequel to “The Prince of Tides.”

Now, I’ve never seen “The Prince of Tides,” and I have no idea what it’s about, but I think horses running on a beach wouldn’t be out of place in there. Here’s my story about why I love this song.

In June of 2000, I returned home from a coming-of-age trip to Spain with about 35 of my high school classmates. After sleeping off my first bout of jet lag, I went straight to the Napster-equipped family computer (possibly KaZaa, if it was after Lars Ulrich and his rich buddies detonated Napster) and searched for Flamenco music. One of the tracks that come up on the server just said “Govi-Flamenco.Mp3.” It had a very high usage rate on the network, which meant it would probably download in fewer than 3 hours. I double-clicked, and within a few minutes, I had a 5-minute long dream that transported me back to the whitewashed houses of Andalucía and the parched landscape on the outskirts of Segovia (my favorite place on that trip, and to this day one of my favorite cities on Earth).

The Mp3 lived on the hard drive of whatever computer I was using for years. I had a Compaq Presario laptop through my four years of college and into my first year living in DC. I burned it to mix CDs I would use for studying or really anything that required an ethereal Flamenco gypsy experience (so, you know…anything). Even as Wikipedia expanded into hegemony, it never occurred to me to seek out this recording’s origin story.

One day last year, I  was on YouTube, streaming music in my office when I wound up on some post-rock channel. Every now and again, I’ll decide that my work mode requires some This Will Destroy You (whose music, ironically, has the opposite effect on me). I listened to The Best Pessimist’s “Walking with Happiness,” an beautiful instrumental track that’s as great as its title is terrible.  YouTube, in its quest to make you listen to the same VEVO artist 35 times per day, slid me over into world-music territory on its algorithm. I clicked over to ensure that “Return to Innocence” wasn’t the next song in my queue, and I saw a few tracks by Govi lined up on the right column. I hadn’t thought of that name in ages, but I started stumbling through YouTube trying to remember what that song was called.

After a few false starts, I landed on one video with that unmistakable Flamenco guitar intro. This was it! It was called “Torero.” It certainly lent more credence to my idea that this was just some Spanish guitar guy backed by studio musicians. I didn’t expect, though, for Govi to look as vanilla as he did. After some light googling, I found out he wasn’t Spanish at all. He may have well been trying to fool people into thinking he was; he had an album called “AndalucÍan Nights,” for crying out loud. This would put him in league with Martin Denny, whose successful 1950’s Exotica records went to excessive lengths to put listeners in an Hawaiian frame of mind, despite being recorded by non-Islanders in New York City.

Speaking of Hawaii, guess who is based there now. Govi. He is German by birth (born Werner Monka in 1949),  played in various bands describable as “classic” rock in his early twenties, then went full-on New Age and moved to India. He adopted the name Govinda, which he shortened to Govi – how conveniently vaguely Spanish. I have no idea how well his albums have sold, but I guess he wouldn’t keep making them if nobody was buying them. He looks perfectly happy now at age 69, somehow looking younger with all of the gray hair and wrinkles than he did with the mustache and fluff-mullet thirty years ago when he put out his first album of pure moods. Speaking of which, it took long enough, but they included him on the fourth one.

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Of course, Govi has an official website with his authorized bio, if you want to check that out. I struggle to think of any other “mystery artists” I have, which is what makes me somewhat sad that the mystery of Govi has been solved. It doesn’t effect my enjoyment of “Torero,” but knowing what he looks like and his life story does strip the song of some of its power for me. Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten older and less imaginative, but when I hear the track, I don’t think as much about Southern Spain as I do about what Govi would look like playing it in some studio. This was at the root of the evil behind the cinematography of any novel, as well as MTV, open-access encyclopedias and streaming media: “We codify the image so you don’t need your own anymore.” Mystery is important, sometimes.

Texas punk cartoonist Ben Snakepit told a great story in his zine (it might be in the Tales from the Crapt zine; not sure) about once when he was a kid, he bought a Dead Milkmen tape at the mall. The cassette had a much more chaotic and abrasive band recorded onto it. Years later, working in a record shop, he heard the mystery band and all the memories of that moment, listening to this surprise recording in his room and being confused, came rushing back to him. That’s the first thing I thought about while writing this.

Alright, back to editing. If you have a similar “mystery band discovery” story, I would love for you to share it in the comments.

Picking an Alternate National Anthem for the United States

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Each week in my American Popular Culture class this semester, I posed an open-ended question to my students on our discussion board. These topics traversed subjects as eclectic as everyone’s favorite gags from film and TV, favorite local food spots, and even conducting digital ethnographies using Youtube comments from classic music videos. One question I had in mind was inspired by the right’s manufactured controversy over NFL players (and other athletes) kneeling through the National Anthem in acts of protest and solidarity.

Though “The Star Spangled Banner” elicits a range of responses that reside on a spectrum between detached ambivalence and fiery Nationalist passion, I very quickly found myself wondering whether perhaps the United States had outgrown her National Anthem. After all, it was inspired by a battle fought more than two centuries ago, written by an amateur poet with no intent to become anything greater than prose. From a musical standpoint, it’s challenging to sing (even for talented vocalists), which complicates the communal dynamic of crowds being tacitly expected to sing along.

I did not have a spare week in which to pose this question on our discussion board, but I had the opportunity to do so on the final exam. My question and preface are pasted below, followed by a list of our class’ responses. The impressive range of choices, both stylistically and historically, was pretty inspiring, coming from an engaged and creative group of students. It has me thinking about a possible future paper about an assignment like this, discussing how human geographers can use music and pop culture to approach discussions on national identity.

For 87 years now, “The Star Spangled Banner” has been the National Anthem of the United States of America. Prior to 1931, it had been played at official events like the World Series (1918).
Over the past decade, and particularly since 2001, the anthem has come to represent and elicit a wide array of passions in equal elements Nationalist and Globalist. Over the past few years, this has come to a head in light of the Take a Knee movement in professional sports and in other areas of popular culture. What began as a protest to bring visibility to police and State violence quickly escalated to a question of Patriotism. It also led to a greater introspection on the history, context, and meaning of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Let us say, hypothetically, that the US government decided to pick a backup/unofficial National Anthem. I ask you all as members (or consumers of) American Popular Culture, to PICK THAT SONG. It has to represent (to you) what America is all about, what makes America great, or what America needs to greater understand about herself. This response only needs to be about 50-100 words and should include a link to the song if possible. Don’t be afraid to get creative.

  • Buffalo Springfield – “For What It’s Worth”
  • Toby Keith – “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” (2X)
  • Various – “America the Beautiful” (2x)
  • Beyoncé – “Formation”
  • U2 – “In God’s Country”
  • Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong – “Summertime”
  • Car Seat Headrest – “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”
  • Journey – “Don’t Stop Believin'”
  • James & John Johnson – “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Freebird”
  • Colt Ford – “Workin’ On”
  • Crush 40 – “Live and Learn”
  • Lana Del Rey – “National Anthem”
  • Miley Cyrus – “Party in the USA” (2x)
  • Dick Dale – “Misirlou”
  • Lee Greenwood – “God Bless the USA”
  • Journey – “Lights”
  • Woody Guthrie – “This Land is Your Land” (2X)
  • Johnny Cash – “Ragged Old Flag”
  • Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”
  • Ray Charles – “America the Beautiful”
  • Smashing Pumpkins – “Tonight, Tonight”
  • The Temptations – “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”
  • Kendrick Lamar feat. U2 – “XXX”
  • The Eagles – “Hotel California”
  • “Welcome to McDonald’s” (“Welcome to the Jungle” Parody)
  • Wu-Tang Clan – “C.R.E.A.M.”
  • The Arcade Fire – “Wake Up”
  • Robert Johnson – “Cross Road Blues”
  • Bruce Springsteen – “The Promised Land”
  • Don MacLean – “American Pie”
  • Billy Joel – “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
  • John Williams – “Imperial March” from Star Wars

My biggest surprise was that it took as long as it did for someone to mention a Bruce Springsteen song (and that it wasn’t “Born to Run,” which I thought would be a shoe-in here). I would blame it on a generation gap, but there were two students, both born in the mid-90’s, who picked songs by Journey. Feel free to mullet mull it over.

Three of the artists – U2, The Arcade Fire, and Queen – are not American per se, but I accepted all three enthusiastically. On U2’s first appearance on American television in 1981, Bono proudly declared that unlike certain other Irish bands, “we want to be here!” By the time that their Live Aid performance (speaking of mullets…) propelled them into rock-god territory a few years later, a healthy majority of their songs expounded love for the United States and her tumultuous history (see: basically the entire track list of The Unforgettable Fire). By the time they created The Joshua Tree (1987), U2’s fame was powerful enough to influence many commonly held ideas of “Americanness” in pop music. On Rattle & Hum (1988), they had about as many songs about Ireland (“Van Diemen’s Land”) as they did about Nicaragua (“Bullet the Blue Sky”). So many of my favorite songs from that era of the band were love letters to America, which meant a lot, considering how few love songs U2 wrote in their first two decades.

As for the Arcade Fire, Win and Will Butler came up in Texas; I don’t know if there’s ever been a more American band from Montreal. As for Queen… try to go to an American sporting event without hearing “We Will Rock You.” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” for anyone born after 1980, will always be inextricably linked to the most middle-American of SNL adaptations, Wayne’s World.

I meant it when I said “get creative.” On the last day of class, I shared my pick for alternative national anthem, which I chose for my own reasons, and not because Rudy Martinez has been known to say as much from time to time:

Five Latino dudes from Michigan, one of whom had the audacity to change his name to a piece of punctuation, building a bizarre mythology, distilling proto-punk through an in-your-face Farfisa organ, and continuing to perform for more than 50 years: what could be more American than that?

Brain Massage: The Radio Dept. and Fan Videos

The Radio Dept. are Swedish band who make perfect soundtracks for riding trains into stations at dusk, wandering around a beautiful city far from home, or just flipping through old photo albums and wondering where the years have gone.

When I come around to my unit on Sweden and the pop music industry in GEOG 371: Exploring Europe, narrowing down the bands I want to sample in my lectures is nearly impossible. Choosing one artist to represent a country,  language, or nation is always daunting, but for Sweden, I need to content with a nearly overwhelming volume. Stockholm and her smaller urban counterparts have been consistently grinding out both chart-topping hits and beloved indie pop gems for as long as I can remember. I remember seeing Refused destroy their instruments in the octagon back in 1998, which blew my teenage mind. In college, I sold some friends on Randy by simply naming off their song titles. Although I was reading Rolling Stone and devouring MTV news documentaries as often as they would air them at the time, I somehow missed that Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and many others owed their platinum success to Max Martin and the late Denniz Pop. Over the years, I would fill in these gaps in my knowledge while keeping tabs on the hottest Swedish artists diligently packaged and sold by indie labels. From what I remember of late 2006, it was impossible to go out anywhere in the DC area without hearing Peter, Bjorn, and John at some point.

In late 2010, I discovered Lund’s The Radio Dept. and wondered why it had taken me so long. Songs like “The Worst Taste in Music” and “Pulling our Weight” were exactly what my brain-soul Venn diagram needed at that time in my life. I included their music on my podcast (I believe they concluded an episode where I interviewed Harry Shearer, making for an odd but good juxtaposition), and sent their songs to anyone who would listen. I got one chance to see them at the Rock n’ Roll Hotel in Northeast DC on February 1, 2011. I was just out of touch enough with indie music trends to sleep on getting tickets; the show sold out fast. Fortunately, I found a face-value ticket on Craig’s List. The show was pretty good. No fireworks, no “duuuuuuuuuude you have to see this band before you die” sentiments, but pretty good. They took longer to come back for an encore (a ten minute wait for the demure and sweet “1995“) than any band I’d ever seen. I suspected that their blogger-bred reputation of being somewhat elusive and cranky was well-earned.

Recently, my friend in Long Beach sent me photos of The Radio Dept. playing a gig in Los Angeles, and I then spent the better part of the week catching up on the group. I was sizing up their music videos on YouTube for possible use introducing my Sweden lecture in a few weeks, and I discovered (or was at least reminded that) they have relatively few for a band of their renown. Again, this may have to do with their introverted, pointedly non-corporate approach to making and releasing music (see: their long gaps between albums).

In the course of this search, I found a handful of fan videos set to Radio Dept. songs. Fan videos, in a similar vein to fanzines, are publications created outside the artist’s purview. They use a particular song as a soundtrack to accompany film footage, and the Radio Dept. make exquisite music for this. Their dream-pop aesthetic, especially their more instrumental songs, creates a beautiful bed for equally dreamy footage.

There isn’t a heavy academic underpinning to this entry; I just wanted to revive my habit of spreading The Radio Dept’s musical love. I can see myself making something this an assignment in a future class, incorporating production, music, and geography. If I had a computer that could better handle video editing, I would start making these all the time, to procrastinate, inevitably.

The Eagles of Death Metal on the Attack on their Concert in Paris

I regret being silent about the November 13th terror attacks until now, particularly since they affected so many people and places I got to know this July.

As difficult as this is to watch, I found it incredibly moving and important in understanding the band’s perspective on the horrors that took place at their November 13th concert at Bataclan in Paris. You can see how traumatized they were, particularly band co-founders Jessie Hughes and Josh Homme (the latter of whom wasn’t even there for the show). When I initially discovered that one of the massacre points was at an EODM concert, it shook me even further. I’ve been a fan of this band for a long time (ever since seeing them in 2006 in DC), and may very well have gone to that concert if I’d stayed in Paris beyond this summer.

On a personal note, to the best of my knowledge, everyone I met and got to know this summer in France is doing well. Tragically, a colleague at the Universite L’Est wrote and told me that one of his fellow geographers died in this attack. All the best wishes to Matthieu’s department and to his family.

Cheers to the Eagles of Death Metal for their willingness to share this, their devotion to their fans, and particularly Hughes’ commitment to being the first band to play the venue when it reopens. Other videos of this show on Youtube show Hughes lavishing praise on the incredible Paris crowd, who had been spending most of that chaotic night having the time of their lives. Cheers to Vice for their continued good work in shining a light on how music is powerful enough even to transcend the evil found in places around the world.

 

The Case for “Les Chaises Musicales”

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One beautiful day this July in Montreuil, France, I woke up (a bit later than I’d care to admit; I’m a night owl and I’d had a lot of interview notes to write up) and wandered down toward the Metro station. I bought a sandwich from the pastisserie and wandered over to the park next to the Public Library by the mairie (town hall). The park, always abuzz with activity, afforded few benches which I could sit upon without the mid-day sun blinding me. (Fair notice: if you invite me for lunch and insist that we eat outside, I’ll do it because I’m a grateful person, but I won’t exactly love it; the sun scorches, bugs bite, and the wind blows). I wandered past the library’s entrance looking for a good spot to sit and eat when I heard Johnny Cash’s voice emanating from a nearby grotto. It wasn’t Sun-era Johnny Cash, either; this was dying, recording-in-an-armchair, Rick-Rubin-calling-the-shots, Johnny Cash. The song was “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” from American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002). Anyone familiar with Johnny Cash’s baritone, especially at this point in his life, could imagine how much hearing it changed my sunny disposition (however slightly; I was so excited for what I was about to discover).

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The library management had placed some lawn chairs out in the grotto and set up a pair of high-definition speaker monitors, blasting an eclectic playlist of 19 songs. An equally eclectic crowd sat and listened to the music. It was amazing. They weren’t talking or treating it as background noise. While some read and others napped, they were all just sitting casually and listening. Some of the selections were mainstream (The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”, others weren’t (Calexico’s “Woven Birds”). Some tracks were instrumental (Morton Feldman’s “Variations”), others were vocal (Billie Holiday’s “Summertime”), some hip-hop (RZA’s “My Lovin’ is Digi”), some rock n’ roll (Elvis Presley’s “Blue Moon”), some folk (Woody Guthrie’s “You Souls of Boston”), all strangely transcendent to hear flowing out of a public library’s outdoor PA system.

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The moment I sat down, Nirvana’s unplugged rendition of the Meat Puppets’ “Plateau” started playing, as if they sensed an aging guy in an 80’s hardcore t-shirt had wandered over.

I don’t know how often they do this, but I can’t think of a nicer way to spend a lunch break. If I find the time anytime soon, I would like to bring this to the Knoxville Library and see if they’d like to give it a shot on Market Square or somewhere else central. It’s a great way to both present popular music in a sophisticated way and provide an ostensibly free public service for people who want to engage in public life. As much as I imagine Parisians to be more prone to this, that’s all the more reason to give it a test-run on this side of the pond.

A Note on ‘Sounds French’ by Jonathyne Briggs and Non-English Punk

Cultural forms, particularly popular music, offer a utopian possibility of unity through a shared cultural expression. The examples of [Johnny] Hallyday and the Fête [de la musique, every June 21st] mirror the dichotomy between the two. One could observe that the French rocker creates a unified audience for his music through a homogenization of sounds and styles and that the Fête stresses the diversity of musical cultures while combining cultures… The paradox between these positions is that music (and other forms of culture) can serve to promote singularity and plurality.

The above quote comes from page 7 of Jonathyne Briggs’ Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities, and Pop Music, 1958 – 1980This book is one of the best synopses of any nation-state’s popular culture I’ve read, and is absolutely essential for anyone interested in learning about the development of pop music in France. It’s already been incredibly helpful in my understanding of the framing of punk music against France’s popular and sociopolitical culture as I work on going through my recordings and notes from this summer.

Of course, there are so many avenues through which to explore this. The companion site to Briggs’ book provide links to various songs he alludes to, such as “Rock and Roll Mops” by Henri Cording (Salvador) and his Original Rock n’ Roll Boys (1956), largely credited as the first proper French “rock n’ roll” single. As Briggs writes, Henri Salvador did not take rock n’ roll seriously, and made a novelty song aimed at capitalizing on what he thought was a trend (not completely unlike Bill Haley did with “Rock Around the Clock”), but the song did begin a (protracted) slippery slope of rock n’ roll legitimacy in the French language. The first thing I thought of while reading this was how Plastic Bertrand provided the same type of parodic cornerstone for French-language punk music with “Ça plane pour moi” (1977). Granted, Bertrand’s song was more tongue-in-cheek, but it remains one of the most recognizable French-language songs in the Anglo-Saxon world. Tell me I’m wrong.

While I have yet to publish anything on it (academically or on here), I will encourage a greater focus on non-Anglo-Saxon punk culture, because it would afford us a more nuanced understanding on the conditions that spread it, as well as (very importantly) challenge a long-held single-story that particular socio-political environments were necessary for it to grow. More to come.

R.A.S. show ends in violence as Neo-Nazis infiltrate the crowd, 1984. Photo courtesy of Philippe Roizes, all rights reserved.

One of the final R.A.S. shows ends in violence as Neo-Nazis infiltrate the crowd. Paris, 1984. (Photo courtesy of Philippe Roizes, all rights reserved)