The Next Big Thing: Jewish New York and Punk Comedy

A few years ago, I had the distinct yet hardly unique pleasure of introducing my girlfriend at the time to the Fox animated series The Critic. For those unfamiliar, it was a side project of Al Jean and Mike Reiss, two of the guys who made The Simpsons into the best sitcom in history for those six blazing seasons in the mid-1990s. The Critic featured the voice of Jon Lovitz as Jay Sherman, a relentless, basic-cable film critic caught in a world of a megalomaniacal Ted Turner-like station owner (Duke Phillipps, perhaps the second-most consistently funny character on the show) and a revolving door of celebrities, both real-world and apocryphal. He is about as stereotypically Jewish as Fox would allow a character to be without banning it outright, as they did with one episode of ‘Family Guy’ (which, upon viewing, I didn’t see anything wrong with, convincing me the “banning” was a typical Seth MacFarlane publicity stunt). However, Sherman had been adopted as a baby by an extremely wealthy WASP family, including a father named Franklin who was once Governor of New York and is completely insane (not to mention the most consistently hilarious character on the show). He has a teenage half-sister who he loves dearly and provides a platform for perhaps my favorite cut-away joke in sitcom history (which MacFarlane has been trying, and failing, to match for years). The show was a brief, blazing cocktail of New York and Hollywood in-jokes that fell prey to an unfortunate fate split between ABC and Fox and ultimately the corporate cutting-room floor. My girlfriend, after about an episode and a half, turned to me and asked “so, why the hell did this get cancelled so quickly?” I hadn’t really read into it at that point, so I guessed, “I don’t know, maybe it was just too niche Jewish New York?”

In retrospect, I was only marginally right, but that phrase carries so much weight. I also couldn’t help but think about it when reading Steven Lee Beeber’s fun chapter in Sounds and the City (2014). It is entitled ‘Juidos n’ Decaf Italians: Irony, Blasphemy, and Jewish Schtick,’ and is a brief history of a band often credited with cranking the gears of punk rock in motion, The Dictators.

The flip side of the dust sleeve is the other members saying "YEAH!" while Handsome Dick Manitoba raises his arms victoriously in the background. The photo is identical and you can't make this stuff up.

The flip side of the dust sleeve is the other members saying “YEAH!” while Handsome Dick Manitoba raises his arms victoriously in the background. The photo is nearly identical and you can’t make this stuff up.

Who were the Dictators? Funny you should ask, me typing rhetorically! They were an incredibly Jewish predecessor to the Ramones whose brilliant debut album ‘Go Girl Crazy!’ hit shelves forty years ago this past spring. Beeber’s chapter inspired me to throw their record on as I was getting ready to leave the house one morning last week, and it reminded me how not only may “Go Girl Crazy!” be one of the funniest records ever recorded, but it truly did anticipate an entire generation of self-effacing, perpetually two-steps-ahead of the haters punk music (only, with one foot solidly in classic rock).  I’ll embed it here so you can listen while reading. It provides a stunningly (not stunningly) good accompaniment.

So, what is it about The Dictators that puts them into a class firmly their own, and kept them from achieving the household name status that fellow Long Island Jews Jeffrey Hyman and Tommy Erdelyi achieved? The credo that genius is rarely understood in its time applies, yes, but it’s pretty easy to look back four decades and realize that most of their jokes flew over the heads of the general populace. As Beeber (p. 83) writes:

Song titles like “Back to Africa,” “Teengenerate,” and “Master Race Rock” speak not only to a comic-ironic take on American culture that is inherently Jewish, but also to darker – equally Jewish – experiences like racism, anti-Semitism, and Nazis. As we supposed to laugh or be offended? Amused or disturbed? Is all this funny ha ha or funny strange?

This is fair enough. Put yourself in the shoes of a fan of Epic Records’ output at the time, but in a middle-American city with an underwhelming Jewish population. Let’s say… Knoxville, TN. You managed to call up the local record shop (Cat’s Records, at the time, I believe) and get this oddball release with that wacky cover. A bombastic, husky quote about his “vast financial holdings” confuses you before you hear a note of music. If the first track didn’t confuse you a bit, then their cover of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” at track two will certainly get you scratching your head and asking “what the hell…?” As funny as their version may seem now, it came off as weird and simply un-rock n’ roll in the mid-1970s. It’s times thinking about albums like these (critically revered years after their release) where I wish there had been a blogosphere, Facebook, or some kind of indexed record to see just who was actually on board with this band forty years ago. No matter how poorly the Dictators’ relationship with Epic went, not to mention how their relationship with their erstwhile singer went, it’s still remarkable (from a satirical standpoint) how they found comedic pay-dirt in Cher two decades before The Critic did.

When the Dictators formed, several decades had passed since Moses Horwitz, Louis Feinberg, and Jerome Horwitz needed to call themselves Howard, Fine, and Howard and tone down Yiddish references to succeed in Hollywood (albeit with rare, sly exceptions). In the 1970s, Woody Allen had brought Jewish New York to the big screen in a self-effacing, modern way, but Jewish culture was still not fool-proof. Despite how New York, at the time, had the largest Jewish population of any city in the world (Beeber 2014, 77), Jews still composed a severe minority on the scale of the United States. The subtleties of their humor hit too many cultural roadblocks on the roads leading out of places like Brooklyn, NY and Highland Park, IL.

The history still requires a much more complex look, particularly because it wasn’t really until the 1920s that Jewish people had gained an authoritative voice in the United States. As Jews began to carve a niche in American society, Vaudeville maintained a reliable set of tropes through which to lampoon them. The most straightforward frames through which to ridicule Jewish people came in the form of the places most adherent to tradition and ritual: weddings and funerals.  Many Hebrew dialect recordings revolve around Wedding gatherings (“At the Yiddish Wedding Jubilee,” in which our friend ‘Cohen’ makes a drunken cameo at the open bar) or a cultural preoccupation with marriage (“Marry a Yiddisher Boy”). Funerals did not provide as much fodder as weddings, despite how many Vaudeville comics joked that the two events were one in the same. Regardless, a funeral setting allowed “Cohen Owes Me $97” to turn in one of his finest performances as a stereotypical tightwad.

While none of these depictions of an (at the time) marginalized ethnicity are completely easy to stomach today, they are comprehensible within their historical context. One maxim that has remained true throughout the history of recording has been Taylor’s (2001) idea of how “the various media and technologies we use to disseminate and store information change our perceptions” (p. 29). Youtube has made a wide array of virulently racist old material readily available, so for an education institution dedicated to preservation and historical archivism to play down these antiquated discourses would be irresponsible and, as the UCSB site says “would deprive scholars and the public the opportunity to learn about the past and would present a distorted picture of popular culture and music making during this time period.” While racist imagery of black performers and non-black performers donning blackface, though firmly taboo, still persists, the image of the Jewish immigrant as buffoon has become folded into history. McLean (1965) expanded upon how “the minstrel show had emphatically relegated the figure of the Negro – a black intruder in a white world – to a role of comic inferiority,… an impotent and exotic creature in a land settled and governed by white stock” (p. 26).

Jewish people, being a vast majority Caucasian, did not face the same levels of ridicule. Many Jewish performers could pass themselves off as secular just as many secular performers could pass themselves off as Jewish for Dialect comedy purposes. Because of this, to determine who among dialect comics was Jewish and who was not presents a challenge. Maurice Burkhart is one example of a performer who could easily have been Jewish and lampooning his own culture to climb a ladder of success. Others, like Julian Rose, were less ambiguously documented as goys, and were coincidentally less fortunate. As Merwin (2006) wrote, “over time, many of these extreme forms of ethnic parody began to seem less funny, as immigrant groups became more accepted in American society… the Immigration Acts of the 1920s prevented new immigrants from arriving – providing fewer examples of unassimilated Jews for American culture to parody” (p. 22). This coincided with the slowing down of immigration after World War I. Shellac records and radios began to appear en masse during this era as well. Julian Rose, like many other Hebrew Dialect comedians, did not survive this windfall, at least not in the United States, where Travis Stewart (2013) says “the act wore out its welcome” (Travalanche) by the end of the 1920s. As radio exploded and changed the nature of telephony within music and theater, the second generation of American Jews emerged and changed the world. While several of them grew to fame using goyish stage names, a slew of Jewish entertainers (George Burns, Jack Benny, George Jessel being three on top of a very long list) were integral in radio’s arrival as what Timothy Taylor (2005) called “blurring [of] the distinction between public and private in America in the twentieth century” (p. 259).

This is not to say that Jews had not already experienced a steady, increasing flow of acceptance within the entertainment field prior. Jewish musical traditions were among the first elements of Eastern European culture that infiltrated the American mainstream. The ending of “Under the Matzos Tree” skillfully incorporated a couple bars of the traditional Jewish wedding song “Mazel Tov,” and “Marry a Yiddisher Boy” fit perfectly within the established framework of the Barbershop quartet. This was unsurprising, as many Hebrew performers, whether they were Jewish or not, adopted pieces that descended primarily from the New York City / Tin Pan Alley tradition.

Citing author Michael G. Corenthal, Merwin (2006) credits the millions of records sold by Jewish comedians (and comedians doing Jewish routines) during the early days of the record industry forged an integration with Christian America, bringing Jewish life into non-Jewish homes the continent over (p. 10). Even as a ridiculed, persecuted minority, the American Jew had, as McLean (1965) put it, “paradoxically, come to speak, through its rich tradition of humor, for the plight of mass man” (p. 114).

Generations later, certain programming that could be referred to as “quintessentially Jewish” such as ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ succeeded, but largely through modulating more British arcs of awkward interactions and hellishly antisocial scenarios into American settings. Imagine Ricky Gervais in “The Office,” and ultimately Steve Carell reinventing that character archetype on our side of the pond. I would argue this, rather than “Jewish” humor was what made Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David into household names. If you want to split hairs, Seinfeld was probably the least entertaining character on his show.

Regardless, is this a matter of sociology, geography, or just some sick academic specialty in “comedy?” Beeber (p. 83) continues…

Hard to say. But, in combining their talents with [Andy] Shernoff’s and using Handsome Dick as their mouthpiece, [Rock critics and early promoters of The Dictators] Sandy Pearlman and [Richard] Meltzer just may have creating the missing link between pre-punk and punk – the Italian-acting, Nazi-referencing, Jewish tough guy, a wiseass and holy fool who’s 100 per cent New York.

One of Beeber’s major points here was the cultural hybridity of the Jews and the Italians, using the term “Juido” (admitting that there are plenty of people who may have issues with the portmanteau). This was a reality I grew up with; my grandfather’s best friend in the world was a first-generation Italian-American named Biagio (“Billy” to his friends). The Hartford where they grew up was obviously no New York or Philadelphia, but the natural inclination the Jews and Italians had to run together was just as strong. One group had flocked to Ellis Island from Eastern Europe and the other from Southern Europe, one group read the Torah and the other read whatever the Pope had to say. However, both Jews and Italians came into their own as Americans around the same time and grew up with guilt-tripping mothers. Even when I was in college, the Jews and Italian-Americans in my communications classes found themselves sharing countless “Oh man, me too!” moments. They have long provided valuable foils for one another both on-screen and off, for reasons that those belonging to neither group can understand but never truly get. 

I grew up relatively close to New York, but didn’t spend as much time there as I would have liked at the time. By the time I was old enough to hang out there on my own, much of the city was getting freakishly safe and expensive. The last time I was there, in 2012, I met up with my friend Tor, who was in the states from Oslo. He brought me to Manitoba’s, the erstwhile frontman’s dive bar in Alphabet City. We stepped inside, and in some strange way, it felt slightly like the New York of the 1970s had been stuffed into this (admittedly sanitized) time capsule. I’ll never forget seeing Blum himself sitting on a bench, holding court with a group of like-minded individuals in a corner. His wife was tending the bar and their young son rode around on a razor scooter. Most memorably, Blum just looked happy. He looked at home. No matter how much his city had changed, his humor and attitude never could.

It is still curious yet not completely unsurprisingly how readily the Dictators are minimized in discussions about the first wave of punk in light of New York counterparts like The New York Dolls, The Ramones, and Blondie. In October 2007, a friend and I went to see Beeber doing a JCC-sponsored appearance at the Black Cat Backstage to promote his book The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGBs. I remember most of the conversation revolving around the Ramones (for obvious reasons) as well as later-wave Jewish-led/influenced New York bands like Reagan Youth. I’m sure the Dictators came up once or twice, but I don’t remember them dominating the conversation like they could have. They were not the most famous “Jewish” punk band to rise from that era, but they were undeniably the most Jewish. Take that for what it’s worth. Handsome Dick Manitoba, Ross “The Boss” Funicello, Scott Kempner, Stu Boy King, and Andy Shernoff were, cumulatively, a wonderful, bombastic proto-punk Jay Sherman. Beloved in retrospect, given the shaft by corporate interests and history. Too bad the Dictators were never able to work out a brilliant crossover episode on ‘The Simpsons.’ I would love it if the “Flaming Moes” episode featured them rather than Aerosmith.

LINER NOTES

This entry features pieces of a paper I previously wrote for a course on Music and Technoculture, which would have done well to include The Dictators within the pantheon of New York/Jewish humor. Here are the works I cited above:

  • Benjamin, W. (1968). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Illuminations (pp. 219-253). New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc.
  • Beeber, S. L. (2014). Juidos ‘n’ Decaf Italians: Irony, Blasphemy, and Jewish Shtick. In (Lashua, B., Spracklen, K., & Wagg, S., eds.) Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place and Globalization. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 76-91.
  • Burns, G. (1989). All my best friends. New York: GP Putnam’s Sons.
  • Gay Jr., L. C. (2003). Before the deluge: The technoculture of song sheet publishing viewed from late 19th-century Galveston. In R. T. A. Lysloff & L. C. Gay Jr. (Eds.), Music and   technoculture (pp. 204-232). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.
  • Gilbert, D. (1940). American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times. New York: Whittlesey House.
  • Katz, M. (2010). Capturing sound: How technology has changed music (Rev. ed.).   Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Lysloff, R. T. A., & Gay Jr., L. C. (2003). Introduction: Ethnomusicology in the twenty-first century. In R. T. A. Lysloff & L. C. Gay Jr. (Eds.), Music and technoculture (pp. 1-22). Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
  • McLean, A. (1965). American Vaudeville as Ritual. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.
  • Merwin, T. (2006). In their own image: New York Jews in jazz age popular culture. New   Brunswick: Rutgers University press.
  • Stewart, T. D. (2005). No Applause – Just Throw Money, or The Book that Made Vaudeville Famous. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc.
  • Stewart, T. D. (2013). Stars of Vaudeville #572: Julian Rose. Travalanche Weblog. 17 Jan 2013. Accessed 4 Apr 2015 here.
  • Taylor, T. D. (2001). Strange sounds: Music, technology & culture. New York: Routledge.
  • Taylor, T. D. (2005). Music and the rise of radio in twenties America: Technological   imperialism, socialization, and the transformation of intimacy. In P. D. Greene & T.     Porcello (Eds.), Wired for sound: Engineering and technologies in sonic cultures (pp. 245-268). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.
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John Jakle and Keith Sculle on the U.S. Postal Service

8c443-floridapostcard

[One sample] postcard [in our collection] was mailed on a Saturday in 1919. The message concerns an intended ride to town the next day by electric interurban car. “I wrote you a letter telling you I would be in town Sunday on the quarter to 9 car, but that makes me hurry so much that [I] will come later… on the quarter to 11… meet me…and I will take you to church.”

Today, most Americans forget (if they ever knew) how fast and dependable the U.S. Postal Service once was. In many localities, postcards could be used to set and change appointments, even within the course of a few hours’ time. Streetcars carried mailboxes, which were emptied after every run. In many cities, mail was delivered to homes several times a day.

– from Picturing Illinois: Twentieth Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo by John Jakle and Keith Sculle, p. 127. This completely clarifies, to someone going through antique postcards in 2014, the function and timing of postcards from that era. I’m fairly surprised the authors didn’t mention this much earlier in the book.

(Re)Photography in the American South (Part One: New Orleans)

For a wide variety of reasons, postcards (specifically, antique ones) have been occupying a lot of my mental landscape recently. As I previously mentioned, a large collection of old ones landed in my lap last year. While I’ve been rotating the wheels in the arduous process of cataloging them, I’ve also had the assignment to review Picturing Illinois: Twentieth-Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo (2012; University of Illinois Press), an excellent history of that state patched together through postcards from the first half of the twentieth century, land in my lap as well. I’ll keep this blog posted as that unfolds, but for now, the book is providing me with great context for what I’ve been gathering through this particular collection, that of which spans from the early 1930’s through the mid-1940’s. 

The reason I haven’t been able to update this site too much lately was because I happened to be on a road trip across the Gulf Coast recently. Considering how much (Re)Photography has captured my fleeting interest over the past year, I did not miss my opportunity to track down a few of the locations in a few of my postcards and make some attempt to recreate the pictures. Today and Wednesday, I’ll be sharing a handful of arguably successful examples.

ROYAL STREET IN NEW ORLEANS’ FRENCH QUARTER

Postmarked Jan 17, 1941. The Caption: "Royal Street is known throughout the world for it's curio dealers, perfume shops and antique stores where one can find beautiful specimens of old furniture, jewelry, chinaware and ancient firearms. In early Creole days Rue Royal was the main street of the French City and along its narrow thoroughfare are clustered many historical buildings. Every block of Royal Street teems with interest. It is one of the most interesting streets because of the many old homes, priceless wrought-iron railings, quaint courtyards and lovely gardens."

Postmarked Jan 17, 1941. The Caption: “Royal Street is known throughout the world for it’s curio dealers, perfume shops and antique stores where one can find beautiful specimens of old furniture, jewelry, chinaware and ancient firearms. In early Creole days Rue Royal was the main street of the French City and along its narrow thoroughfare are clustered many historical buildings. Every block of Royal Street teems with interest. It is one of the most interesting streets because of the many old homes, priceless wrought-iron railings, quaint courtyards and lovely gardens.”

I’ve gone on record before saying that New Orleans is one of my favorite places in the world, crumbling infrastructure, rampant corruption, sauna-like heat 10 months out of the year, and all. I wouldn’t disagree with the postcard’s label on the back declaring it “AMERICA’S MOST INTERESTING CITY” at all; at least, that’s what I call it to anybody who has not yet visited it. There is nowhere on earth I can imagine quite like it. Even outside of the French Quarter (or, as many would argue, primarily outside of the Quarter) you’ll find plenty of unique local flavor, particularly because there won’t be quite as many hundred thousands of tourists devouring it and driving up prices.

That being said, no trip to NOLA is complete without at least a leisurely walk through the French Quarter. Considering how ornate the city has made sure to keep almost all of the structures within the Quarter, it’s easy to forget how many people actually live within that section of the city. I can’t imagine life is particularly easy for anybody in the Big Easy, and especially so for those who live in that hallowed ground between Canal Street to the West and Frenchman St. to the East. Based on my limited experience, one piece of advice I’d give is to take a walk down Bourbon Street just to say you did- and then get the hell off of Bourbon Street. The Quarter actually has plenty of good local haunts that friends there have helped me discover, even along other such touristy thoroughfares like Royal Street. 

Last Sunday, I found myself with a little time to kill before finding a bar in which to watch the World Cup Final, so it occurred to me to pull out the postcard (above) from my bag, take a walk down Royal Street and see if I could spot where that illustration was made back in what I would assume was the 1920’s or 30’s, based on the mailing date of the postcard. I began on Canal Street, stopping into a hotel I once stayed at with my family in the late 90’s. I’d be lying if I said the pull of nostalgia outweighed the lure of functional air conditioning; although a storm had passed before I got to town, the humidity was still thick enough to make me pass out if I’d even tried chasing after a bus. I set down Royal Street for at least six blocks, pacing incrementally to study every lattice-work to compare it to the one on the postcard. I nearly interrupted two different tour guides to ask them if they either recognized the balcony or knew whether Royal had ever had a streetcar line (artists hired to illustrate places for postcards often took certain artistic license to complete their task of selling their employer’s city to outsiders; for all I knew, he/she could have been playing on outsiders’ attraction to streetcars, many of which were starting to disappear from American cities over the course of the 1940’s). In retrospect, I’m glad I chose not to be “that guy” and interrupt the tour guides and all of their patrons.

When I got to the corner of St. Ann, I turned around and looked up. There it was.

Picture 007I had landed upon a new set of challenges. I had no way of knowing if the restaurant owned or had any access to the balcony where the photographer stood when taking the picture on the postcard. The only way was to, as politely as possible, ask. I stepped into Pere Antoine and asked if I could speak to the manager. There turned out to be several around, as they were in the mid-afternoon shift change. One of them, Holly, politely told me how cool the postcard was, and regretfully, the second story were all private residences. The restaurant had access to the balcony, but only managers and nobody from the public were allowed on it. She offered to bring my camera up there and take a picture from that perspective for me, which was very generous. As I prepared to hand it to her, she stopped me and said, “wait a second. Let me find James.” James was the restaurant’s GM, and he nearly flipped when I showed him the postcard. He asked if he could scan it and email it to the restaurant’s owner. I pulled out a few other New Orleans and Louisiana souvenir packets from the late 30’s, and the restaurant’s whole staff eagerly gathered to look through them. James looked at Holly for a few seconds asking almost rhetorically if anyone would really mind if he escorted me up to the balcony. As he went to get his keys, I smiled to myself and thought, repeatedly: ‘This is why you ask. This is why you always ask.’

Picture 009

July 13, 2014.

Not bad. The planter (which James and I attempted to move, unsuccessfully) clearly was not in the photo illustration, and the Desire line (yes, that one) had long been torn out of the street below, and somebody covered the wooden structure with red stucco years ago, but otherwise, the block does not look a whole lot different than it did eighty years ago. James even pointed out that the yellow building on the opposite side of Royal, while the windows had been redone, was still yellow

Thank you again to the enthusiastic and courteous staff at Pere Antoine Restaurant for making this possible. I was more than happy to stay there to drink and watch the second half (and extra time!) of the match. I’ll definitely be stopping back through to say hello the next time I’m back in the Crescent City.

Before I end this entry, I’m going to include these bonus tracks of sorts. I actually had a moment of pause while searching for the postcard balcony (which was located at 741 Royal Street) while passing by a gorgeous building at 700 Royal. It turned out to be a three-story facility that remains one of the most-photographed buildings in New Orleans. After getting back to Knoxville, I checked my archives and was able to dig up a pair of photographs I took on that block in 1998. 

The Royal Cafe at 700 Royal Street in April 1998.

The Royal Cafe at 700 Royal Street in April 1998.

From what I can remember, I took this picture while on a walking tour of the area (the exact kind of tour I would come close to annoyingly interrupting sixteen years later). I remember fixating on the latticework and the hanging planters at the time; the latticework is still beautiful and the planters are no longer there. Also, the Royal Cafe, despite the best songwriting efforts of Mark Eitzel, closed down within the past decade, and I think there’s a tourist shop on the street level now. No idea how the upstairs spaces are being used. 

The 700 Block of Royal Street, April 1998.

The ??? Block of Royal Street, April 1998.

I believe I took this facing Northeast, farther West from that previous photo, considering the direction the cars are facing. In retrospect, I wish I’d taken more candid photos of people at that age; the benign inter-era fashions of the late 1990’s deserved more attention. Anyway, if you look farther down the street (provided this is still Royal Street, which I think it is) you can faintly spot the corner of St. Ann.

It’d be interesting to compare the palimpsest landscape of certain New Orleans neighborhoods to one another, hurricane destruction notwithstanding. Businesses and residents come and go in the French Quarter much like any commercially-zoned area, and like most historically-protected area, the city suppresses any major changes. This dynamic probably formulates the bread and butter of New Orleans more so than any major American city (though that conversation also includes tourist-savvy places like Boston and St. Augustine, the latter of which was enduring a serious septic rooting project when I stopped through there last week).

I’ll keep paying attention to this in my own way on subsequent visits. And there will be subsequent visits, believe me.

Anyway… TUNE BACK IN SOON FOR “(RE)PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE AMERICAN SOUTH (PART TWO: MOBILE, BIRMINGHAM, AND CHATTANOOGA)” coming Wednesday. 

“Watch Me for the Changes and Try to Keep Up…” (Summer Update)

Here’s a quick update to what I’ve been up to so far this summer. If you have any questions about the status or background of anything I may have not explained thoroughly enough, please send me an email.

POSTCARD BOOK REVIEW

via UI Press

I am currently reading this neat book about the “golden age” of postcards (I hadn’t realized that was a thing) from Illinois by John Jakle and Keith Sculle in order to review it for the journal Material Cultures. I’ve always been fascinated with the shifting discourse on depictions of place throughout the years, especially given how integral postcards have been in these constructions of twentieth century America. I’ve posted a few items about vintage postcards on this site, but Jakle and Sculle take that analysis to the next level with the book. From what I’ve read so far, they aim to juxtapose the images of pre-Depression Chicago with that of rural Southern Illinois, arguing that the two were light years apart ideologically, yet inextricably tied together via the icons of industry. I’m pretty excited to learn more about the Chicago of that era. I might argue that few world cities are more interwoven with the “Roaring 20’s” mentality and urban blue-collar America, even to this day. I love that city, and I can’t wait to visit it next year for the AAG Meeting. Who wants to join me at the Oakwood at 3:30 AM? I really hope that place is still around. Anyway, I apologize in advance for getting sentimental about my visits there. No apologies for rooting against the Blackhawks in the Western Final, though. I still have a soft spot for the Kings after those two years in Long Beach. Now that I think about it, I’m grateful to not be at the Oakwood while I write this.

PAPER ON THE USE OF THE S.W.O.T. ANALYSIS IN PEDAGOGY

I have been fortunate to collaborate with Dr. Ronald Kalafsky to be second-author on a groundbreaking work he has been piecing together on our GEO 451 – The Global Economy course. For those unfamiliar (which I was before TA’ing this course, with no real foundation in macro-economics), the S.W.O.T. Analysis is an analytic paradigm that companies use to evaluate locations before investing resources. It stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It was an interesting experience, especially since many of our students had never participated in a SWOT Analysis before, and should hopefully be interesting for anyone involved in the overlap between economics, geography, and teaching. More updates on this as it develops, but for now the research seems to be in good hands with Ron.

CHAPTER ON THE NEW ECONOMICS OF MUSIC

Wombleton, the best British record shop from the 1960s that happens to be in Highland Park, Los Angeles (Timeout LA)

At AAG 2013 in LA, I participated in a panel that Brian Hracs (Upsalla University) organized about the “New economics of the music industry.” Well he recently announced that he will be turning several of the papers presented into a published book about new approaches to studying the confluence of place, music, and money. My chapter is currently titled “Emotional Landscapes and the Evolution of Vinyl Record Retail: A Case Study of Highland Park, Los Angeles.” I still have a lot of revision to do, but my argument is, as my Master’s Thesis argued, that relying on consumers’ emotional attachment to places (both concrete and imagined) is a key component in operating a physical music retailer today. While artists do their part in luring listeners in with iconic cover art that evokes place, the retailers are doing the same, and three businesses I got to know in Highland Park (one of my favorite places in all of Los Angeles) were perfect examples. Stay tuned for more details about this one.

“HEY CHUCK! IT’S YOUR COUSIN, MARVIN BERRY! YOU KNOW THAT NEW SOUND YOU’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR? WELL LISTEN TO THIS!”

“Watch me for the changes and try to keep up…”

I don’t think I can leverage that as a title for the chapter, but I’m going to begin a chapter on the soundscapes of Hill Valley, CA. How exactly does the diegetic sounds (specifically, the music) in Back to the Future formulate our perceived landscape of Marty McFly’s hometown? We’ve had this project in the works for well over a year now, and we’re excited to see if slowly kicking into motion over this fall. I’m very excited to have a “Back to the Future” panel at AAG 2015 (naturally) featuring a number of the chapter authors in “Save the Clocktower! Imagined Geographies of Hill Valley 1885 – 2015.”

I’ve been getting more emails from interested writers for the project, and I’m still anxious to see what materializes over the next year. Ideally, I’ll get my own drafts done before long (including an introduction for the book with my good friend Teresa Anderson-Sharma), since I’m going to be teaching GEO 101 in the Fall here in Knoxville. A busy time, but I’d never get anything done if I didn’t stress myself out from time to time.

THE ERGS! on One Week // One Band

Philly, 2008

This one doesn’t have as much to do with Geography, but it’s nonetheless great for anybody interested in my music writing. I’m very excited to be contributing a week’s worth of entries on the kings of Jersey dork-pop for the great site One Week // One Band over the week of June 23rd. I wish I spent more time in New Jersey so I had more to write about their humble middle class middle-NJ origins… wait, no I don’t. But if there’s one positive thing New Jersey has given us by the boatload over the past few decades, it’s been great music. Perhaps no band has encapsulated the pissed off turn-of-the-century zeitgeist with as much humor as The Ergs! did. They stopped playing formally in 2008, all three members are still very musically active (Jeff in Black Wine, Joe in Night Birds, and Mike in every band that isn’t those two) and their legacy is growing.

So…. that’s what you can find me up to this summer. I’m also on board with your bike ride around the Knoxville area or spontaneous regional road trip. If I don’t see you around, I hope you have a great break, too and get out enough. See you back here soon.

New Steve Propes volume ‘Old School’ now available

I really do have a (long overdue) post coming up about media geographies and the magic of A/V clubs in the 1980s, but I wanted to take a quick moment to plug a new book by Stephen Propes, a longtime Long Beach resident and a very helpful collaborator during my thesis research on vinyl record history. OLD SCHOOL: 77 Years of Southern California R&B & Vocal Group Harmony Records 1934 – 2011 may be the most comprehensive compendium ever written by Steve (or anyone else) on this style of music in Southern California. It is available on Amazon, where I found the following abstract:

A never before published chronological compendium of musicians and/or groups, titles, original record labels, local and select out-of-town radio and record store chart positions…combined with the stories of the records, either from those involved or from original research…and in notable cases, an idea of the value of these discs. Popular music in Southern California has a surprisingly short history prior to World War II. Though a recording scene existed in the early 1920s, for all intents and purposes, the aggressive recording, pressing and marketing of phonograph records in the L.A. area didn’t really take hold until the 1930s, and in fact, many of these 1930s releases were party records with double-entendre themes. However, the post WWII era was a different matter. With the emergence of some L.A.-based pop and race music stars, generally with radio, nightclub or motion picture connections in the early 1940s, the serious business of recording for the mass market began in earnest. The development of rhythm and blues and soul in any major market has never been fully documented in the way this book portrays over 1,400 record releases by over 850 groups or artists described here. Many of the records featured in this work hit either the local or national popularity charts, or both, however not all records made a visit to those lists of best sellers. Some of the artists described within had spectacular multi-decade careers, but many of them were of the one-off or best case, one hit variety. Though the work concentrates on rhythm and blues and soul music, there are other genres, such as novelty, jazz, gospel and pop sprinkled in when the story supports inclusion.

The “Greatest” Music Collection in Crisis

While I do not want to suggest that anybody could draw solid conclusions based upon this one (albeit massive) collecting case study, I would like to weigh in on the topic of Paul Mawhinney’s record collection.

My favorite record store in the DC area is actually fairly far from DC – it’s a beautifully-curated shop in Annapolis that sits in the shadow of the Maryland State House called KA-CHUNK!! Records (capitalization and punctuation are formalized). Everytime my friend Jessica and I would venture out from DC, we would each find something eye-popping in stock and always wound up having a great conversation with the owner, Matt Mona.

Mona recently posted this commentary to Facebook about this “article”* he found on Gizmodo regarding the “world’s greatest music collection” belonging to Pittsburgh-area veteran Paul Mawhinney.

“If you’re looking for a sign that we live in a digital world that cares not for the physical manifestations of our analog past, you need only look at Paul Mawhinney’s record collection.” UGH! NO! It’s a couple million records collected absolutely indiscriminately! He just kept one of everything he sold in his store at a time when LP’s were the dominant format and weren’t limited in nature. They’re not expensive records because they made a bazillion of them and most are probably terrible. That and we’re talking about a multi mullion dollar collection where the buyer is going to an insane collector or a large chain store like Amoeba who would struggle to flip all these records when there’s only a small percentage of records that are truly valuable. It’s not a barometer of people’s lack of caring about physical music, it’s a barometer of insane millionaire collectors. Write this article again when someone can’t sell an affordable record collection sized at a couple hundred to a couple thousand and then you might be on to something.

Mona brings up a key point regarding something widely misunderstood about record collecting and modern archivism in general. As Russell Belk has written extensively, (paraphrasing) discrimination is what separates the collector or archivist from the hoarder. While Mawhinney does know a great deal about vinyl and is clearly as passionate as any music fan, the volume of his collection creates myriad problems. Even more than a decade ago, before mainstream publications were coveting vinyl as the next great hope of tangible music, thousands of ostensibly valueless records were just as available as they are today at dusty shelves in Goodwills and other thrift stores.

David Lowenthal, who (for some painfully bizarre reason) did not figure too heavily into my thesis research, wrote in “Possessed by the Past:”

Beleaguered by loss and change, we keep our bearings only by clinging to remnants of stability. Hence preservers’ aversion to letting anything go, postmodern manias for period styles, cults of prehistory at megalithic sites. Mourning past neglect, we cherish islands of security in seas of change.

This is probably the most sympathetic paragraph in the entire book. His acerbic tone doesn’t suggest that he belittles our collective mourning of a socially constructed past, but he does fear that by allowing the lure of heritage of outpace other modes of retrieval, we cheapen everything that our forebears stood for. The short film that the “article” decorates is a well-made vignette that gives the owner a mouthpiece, but really lays on the appeal to nostalgia and ignores the pragmatic reality behind Mawhinney’s situation. A lot of press and the narrative on vinyl’s “revival” does this, as Jason Heller illustrated by his rant on Record Store Day earlier this year.

So, the long and short of it is: if the average record nerd had $3,000,000 to spend, what could they possibly do with this collection? Just to transport it would require extensive human-power and would cost a fortune, and finding a place to store it before even making motions to sell it would cost money unless this mystery buyer had his/her own warehouse space. It reminds of an episode of Pawn Stars where Rick speculates buying a fighter jet, but balks at it, because it would ultimately cost up to $10,000 a month to hangar that thing if nobody buys it off of him. The commitment-laden overhead would just prove too big. I know that fighter jets aren’t exactly a popular collectors’ item, but such are the risks that come with the new collectibles economy.

Mawhinney’s collection is the fighter jet of pawn-shop items. It’s disappointing that he’s having such trouble selling it (at least, for the big handful of gems buried among his shelves), but it’s definitely no indicator of vinyl’s role in today’s world. Almost in spite of the digital world, analog will always have a place, and its redefinition within that place is what is so interesting right now. At least, I hope it’s interesting enough for people to read my thesis (which, if anyone’s interested, should be filed with the CSULB Library within a few weeks [/plug]).

via The Independent

LINER NOTES
* I don’t like referring to embedded videos with a couple paragraphs of commentary around them as “articles” because it disrespects the work that good journalists and social scientists do on writing actual heavily researched pieces for reputable websites and journals.

** The “article” on Gizmodo, coincidentally, was written by someone with whom I attended undergrad, and who does know his music. He introduced me to (smog)/Bill Callahan, so I do owe him a modicum of gratitude. Additionally, he may (partially, if my memory serves) have introduced me to The Dismemberment Plan, so for that alone, my hat is permanently tipped in his direction.