Back in Knoxville

I had these highly ambitious plans to check in while on a road trip through the South recently. You can probably guess how well that turned out. 

That being said, I’m back in Knoxville for a little while now, and I’ve got some classic moments to share in re-photography and maybe other introspection on life on the road in 2014 if time permits. Stay tuned.

Pensacola, FL.

Pensacola, FL.

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Alex James on Music (or, why it doesn’t hurt to judge people based on their avocations)

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   The earliest tonal instruments were made from reindeer toe bones. They’re closer to a whistle than a flute to look at, but they are technically flutes because you blow across the hole, rather than down it… It didn’t look like much, I must be honest. It didn’t sound great either but those crusty little bones were where it all started. A primitive musical instrument made by a primitive scientist.
Twenty thousand years later, anyone sitting down at a piano is sitting on top of a huge mountain of accumulated knowledge. When you hold even the cheapest guitar, you’re wielding a very sophisticated tool. The twelve-tone scale is a triumph of scientific understanding. It’s such a perfect structure that it’s rarely questioned or even understood by the people who use it. All musicians know how to tune up their instruments, but very few have any idea what they are actually doing as they tune. Musicians rarely have any more of an inkling of what music is than an electrician knows what electricity is.
All the really tricky business of the evolution of music has taken place, and it’s not important to know everything. It’s just important to know what sounds good. All anyone needs is one little idea. It can even be someone else’s idea. All you’ve got to be able to do is pick the good ones. There are no rules that can’t be broken in music-making. Confidence is all-important. Things that are completely wrong can sound new and interesting if they are done with conviction.

via the artist’s twitter

– Alex James, pp. 158-9 in his autobiography bit of a blur (London: Abacus, 2008). I’ve always been interested in the non-musical passions of musicians, and James is perhaps one of the prime examples of proof that a truly brilliant brain cannot be shut down by mountains of cocaine, booze, and women. Over the course of his towering rock stardom, he became a Visiting Scientist at one of England’s top research facilities, a recreational pilot (following drummer Dave Rowntree down that path and terrifying Damon Albarn in the process), documentary (about cocaine) host, and a devoted maker of fine cheeses. And somehow (probably by not being English), I missed out on this football anthem he ground out in 1998 with comedian Keith Allen (Lily’s dad) and everything-person Damien Hirst. Also, I just did some light googling to find that image, and I discovered via his twitter that he and Jamie Oliver are throwing a three-day food festival at his farm in the Cotswolds. Bizarre.

via the anti-emo empire

It’s no coincidence that the rock stars that history remembers the most kindly are the ones who were never content to be doing solely what their “role” in the public eye commanded. I recently went internet-rolling on the late Dead Milkmen bassist Dave “Blood” Schulthise as this past March 10 was the tenth anniversary of his suicide and my friends/colleagues Scott, Jose and I had a rare opportunity to catch The Dead Milkmen right after the AAG Conference in Tampa. Some say he was the band’s controlling force and secret weapon. I wouldn’t disagree, but either way he was definitely one hell of a bass player. The Dead Milkmen were (and still are) some of the finest satirists of the past three decades, and the more I read about Dave Blood, the more I understand how his way of looking at the world influenced their art. If you have a few minutes, check out this wonderful interview that Mark Prindle did with Blood the year before he died. He finally had the opportunity to explain the deep love he developed for Serbia relatively late in his life, and how it gave his life new meaning after the Dead Milkmen broke up, he had to stop playing, and he no longer had music.

These are the things I think about while I should be focusing on getting all my end-of-semester work off of my plate. That being said, I do apologize for the recent lack of updates. I’ll be back soon to talk about some projects I have coming up for the summer. It’s going to be a busy one.

The New Orleans – New York Times Blog Wars and the McDonaldization of the American City

Friday Reads: Us Savages in New Orleans have Done Been Discovered.

There’s still a contingent of politicians down here that are way too generous to their friends and to their own bank accounts. There’s plenty of institutional racism, sexism, and provincialism to go around. But I see this every where and at least New Orleans fills its cracks with good food, good music, and a lot of friendly people. Believe me, that makes up for a lot.  However, for some reason, we’re attracting a lot of folks who want to turn us into Brooklyn or what Brooklyn has become.”

I’ve noticed a lot of animosity in the blogosphere as of late regarding the New York Times’ treatment of New Orleans as some kind of sub-cultural/human curiosity sideshow (where kale is nowhere to be found; what an atrocity). Sky Dancing Blog has some choice words (and excellent, eclectic sourcing) regarding this surreal cultural condescension. Click the link above and get up to speed.

New Orleans is one city I’ve loved deeply since the first time I visited it in 1997, and perhaps my fascination with her, outside of the music and brain-splittingly good food, has been rooted in its purported lack of shine and grittiness. Also, the whole “no other place existing like it in the world” thing. To use a lazy epithet, what you see is what you get.

This leads us down a major philosophical conundrum when we think about the “livable city:” What happens when the continued urbanization of America (and the entire world, for that matter) produces not necessarily standards but ways of living that hollow out a city’s underlying character? Is this just capitalism running amok and bleeding into a concept not unlike the McDonaldization of the American city?

I’m no expert, considering how I’ve never lived in Brooklyn nor New Orleans (and would be hard-pressed to afford visiting either at the moment), but isn’t there something remarkable enough about a city that’s so notoriously blighted and corrupt yet lovable that you wouldn’t want to change it?

Here’s the rub: this debate has inevitably overgeneralized New Orleans and Brooklyn. Both sides (but mainly the outsider accounts, not to split hairs) treat the former as if it is not a massive unrefined agglomeration of moving/mutating parts, but one homogeneous entity. Perhaps this was the dream of urban re-developers at one point fifty years ago, but that pursuit was abandoned by all but the most die-hard (and loony) urban theorists decades ago.

For all the grief that gentrifiers get, you would imagine that somebody would clue them into Jane Jacobs’ (yet-to-be-disproven) theory of the necessary multiple uses of city blocks. The reason their new neighborhood is so great is exactly because you have new buildings next to the old, the scabs next to the sutures.

I am not claiming any ownership of either city; both New Orleans and Brooklyn represent seemingly divergent ends of the paradigm of urban culture in the United States, and both deserve praise for various facets of their existence, but to try to move one towards the other would be frightening. That being said, I think the most interesting aspect of this whole outrage has been this near-tribal trumpeting of ownership and provincialism (particularly considering how the writer of the blog I linked here admits to not being a NOLA native). Considering how much I’ve taken a shine to Knoxville (for all of its almost-cartoonish shortcomings), I am learning firsthand about what it’s like to adopt and defend an underdog of an American city.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this rant, if it even qualifies as one. If it doesn’t, I have one coming up soon about chili. Enjoy your week, everybody.

Me at Metairie Cemetery, 2008.

Me at Metairie Cemetery, 2008.

Alan Lomax on Music and Transformation

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An art so deeply rooted in the security patterns of the community should not, in theory, be subject to rapid change, and in fact this seems to be the case. Musical style appears to be one of the most conservative of culture traits. Religion, language, even many aspects of social structure may change; an entirely new set of tunes or rhythms or harmonic patterns may be introduced; but, in its overall character, a musical style will remain intact. Only the most profound social upheavals – the coming of a new population, the acceptance of a new set of mores – or migration to a new territory, involving complete acculturation, will profoundly transform a musical style, and even then the process takes place very slowly.

– Alan Lomax (1959), in American Anthropologist, explaining why music may be the great barometer of culture. For the uninitiated, Lomax may be one of the major reasons that this site exists, and there will be more on him soon, especially as I try to sort through my own feelings on his system of cantometrics. All I know is, his 50s recordings from the American South are eternal.

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.

Geography vs. Geology

I have been traveling and sizing up the next place I’ll be living, studying, and doing research. More on that soon. For now, I’m hanging out in the Midwest for a few and sizing up a few different writing projects. More on those soon, too.

For now, edu-tain yourselves with this great little piece someone I knew from my program at CSULB helping solve an age-old facepalm-inducing confusion. Please forward to anybody who doesn’t know the difference in 2013:

Geography vs. Geology.

On Kelner’s Theory of the Meaning of Life

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According to [Martin] Kelner, this theory states that life is all about acquiring STUFF, then acquiring more STUFF, maybe changing your STUFF around a little, then acquiring even more STUFF, then getting a bigger place because there’s no room for all your STUFF, getting rid of some STUFF, then getting a smaller place because you haven’t got as much STUFF. Then you die.

John Windsor, discussing broadcaster Martin Kelner’s “Theory of the Meaning of Life” in the volume The Cultures of Collecting (Elsener and Cardinal, eds., 1994). Emphasis his.