New Article Published in ‘Arts and the Market’ Journal

Aside

aamcoverJust a quick announcement that I have a new article out this week! I wrote a piece about the idea of the vinyl record as a souvenir for the Emerald Publishing journal Arts and the Market. Thanks to the editorial staff for helping me sculpt this one, which originated as a research paper for a seminar on tourism. I drew equally on some older MA thesis research on the marketplace around vinyl as well as some PhD research on the seismic legend around harDCore.

Sonnichsen, T. (2017). Vinyl tourism: records as souvenirs of underground musical landscapes. Arts and the Market 7 (2), 235-248.

You can check out this issue as well as prior issues of Arts and the Market on the Emerald Insight page here. Depending on your institutional access, you may be able to find the HTML or PDF version of the article directly from there. If not, then don’t hesitate to contact me and I can help get you a copy.

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ANTIFA: Paris in the 80’s

Thanks for the support on the last post about our GEOG 320 Project. I’ve got more coming soon from the Cultural Geography class, as well as some news about a couple of local and regional presentations I’ll be making this fall!

1984_RAS_show_nazis_in_the_crowd

A fight breaks out against Neo-Nazi skinheads in the crowd at the final R.A.S. show, 1984. Photo courtesy of Philippe Roizes, all rights reserved.

In the meantime, here is the most fascinating way you could spend your next hour-and-change. ‘ANTIFA: Chasseurs de Skins’ presents 1980’s Paris in all of her brutal reality. Some friends of mine had a conversation about just how much music influenced personal identity and clannish behavior for Generation X. This often played out politically in violently reactionary pockets of Western Europe on the heels of the “no future” era and international malaise of the 1970’s. Class struggles became, at the behest of the political right, “racial” and political struggles, and these played themselves out in the punk scenes in and around Paris for several years. It’s easy to forget how a band like Berurier Noir could have had such a profound impact outside of just music.

One thing that hit me while watching this was, comparatively, how pacifist the North American left is versus the French, Spanish, and British left(s). Actual progressive voices get quelled easily here (and the ones that don’t, well, have been putting their foot in their mouths of late). This is, among many other reasons, why the Presidential nominee of a major party has been able to succeed on a platform of symbolic (and actual) violence at a grassroots level. Unsurprisingly, violence is the only rejoinder many of these people understand or respect. Racists, Islamophobes, and other people who lack the inherent ability to think critically (or at all, really) have little reason to fear bricks to the head or other such retaliation, so they behave in an animalistic way and refuse to practice compassion. But then again, that’s just one American’s opinion and interpretation of a wonderfully done documentary.

For more context, see this article about the Black Dragon gang of anti-racism warriors and an accompanying documentary in the same style.

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.

Bow Down to Gainesville (Part 1)

People hate Florida, and I know why, but I really do not understand why. Perhaps liberals harbor some type of pent-up resentment over the crooked procedures that ultimately threw the presidency into George W. Bush’s lap in 2000, or internet-shackled millennials still implore their twitter followers to #FF Florida Man to a religious degree. Being fair (and realistic), Florida is not only saddled with one of the most interesting iconographies of any American state (palm trees, oranges, Gloria Estefan, EPCOT center, gators, The Gators, ‘Noles, early Spanish landscapes, the Everglades, and for some reason, Hulk Hogan), but also carries singular contradictions, a place where, as Travis Fristoe writes, “[people] get misty eyed at shuttle launches and wave foreign-made American flags as plutonium is launched into orbit.”

See? (via TheCasualGeographer)

On a personal note, it is easily the state that I have spent the most time in among those in which I’ve never lived. Florida, more than most US States, as far as this site is concerned, lies at a solid intersection of emotional and imagined geographies. I say emotional geographies because I will always have a soft spot for my once-annual visits to see my Bubbe in North Miami Beach, frequent jaunts to see Goofy and ride Space Mountain, and the places I experienced over the course of a handful of highly meaningful trips I have taken as an adult. This is not much different for hundreds of thousands (potentially millions) of other Americans and international visitors.

I evoke imagined geographies because this aforementioned iconography of Florida generates a substantial series of mental landscapes reflective of Tim Cresswell’s treatise on how “even a totally imaginary place has an imaginary form in order to make it place-like.” Florida is a state of contradictions, split heavily between the isolated peninsula and the not-just-South but “Florida-South” (as a friend who grew up on the Gulf Coast puts it) panhandle. Bubbling somewhere in the midst is the University town of Gainesville.

To someone who may not be as fascinated with punk on both a musical, subcultural, post-structural, or visceral level as myself, Gainesville is a modest college town that lies at the crossroads and functions as a gateway between the “Florida-South” and stereotypically Jewish / Cuban Southern Florida. The University of Florida Gators are known for not messing around when it comes to several Division-1 sports, nor are they known for mincing words when it comes to their friends at Florida State University up the road in Tallahassee. But what Gainesville has becoming increasingly mythologized over is punk rock. No Idea Records started (initially as a fanzine) in the town in the mid-1980’s, but grew, over the following decade, into a powerhouse of sun-soaked, working-class punk rock in the form of bands like Hot Water Music, Against Me!, and Rumbleseat.

In March 2010, I took advantage of a filming trip to northern Florida and paid a brief visit to Gainesville simply to see or get a mere impression of what this fuss was all about. I drove into a sleepy city (U of F happened to be on spring break… poor planning on my part I suppose) and eventually found Hyde and Zeke records, which was one of No Idea’s scattered storefront presences at the time. I had a nice conversation with the owner, bought an original pressing of the Operation Ivy “Hectic” 7-inch, and made my out of town. I was not so naive to assume that I would stumble upon Radon (or a modern facsimile)  playing a bar or house show somewhere; I knew I was about fifteen years too late (that, and I was not able to make it down for the annual Fest). But the Gainesville I discovered myself was a far cry from the legend it had built up through years of punk rock lore.

That is not to say at all that Gainesville is not worthy of such a reputation. When it comes to reminders of why the city has such a place in punk rock’s collective, self-centered heart, no band better encapsulates the spirit to both outsiders (and, as the story goes, to insiders) than Radon.

Based on this band’s story line, I’m going to assume this photo was either taken in Gainesville or not far from it. And based on those overalls, I’m going to assume this photo was taken in 1992 or not long from it. (Source: LeadUsDown.com)

Let’s talk about this band, and why despite their deep obscurity and a relatively slender catalog of officially released music, they are virtually unmatched* in musically and aesthetically projecting all of their town and states’ personality quirks onto an ever-expanding canvas. First of all, I would like to thank Mitch Clem for introducing me to this band through his punk comic strip Nothing Nice to Say. His character Blake’s lamenting not having a girlfriend whom to dedicate “Rehab Barbie” implored me to look the band up, and before long, I could not stop listening. Even without considering the geographic ramifications of the band and their town, the music itself is rock-solid. A vast majority of Radon’s limited discography (augmented by a 2006 reunion album, which I love despite the title) is as catchy, well-played, and timeless as anything that emanated from that strata of rock music in its time. Dave Rohm (guitar/vocals), Brent Wilson (bass/vocals), and Bill Clower (skins) were not good vocalists by any means, but they still managed to convey messages ranging from cryptic to explicit with the concision and intelligence of musicians twice their age and thousands of times as popular.

Radon are well-regarded enough to garner this level of niche attention and praise, though still willfully obscure enough so that only a small handful of their songs have made it onto embed-able media (“Lying to You,” the opening track off 28, is the only song of the album’s ten that I could find on any video site). Given how much attention the post-modern age has bestowed upon overlooked artists like these, seemingly shoving them into the spotlight around manufactured legend (see: Rodriguez), it is no surprise that Radon are not a (blatant) exception. Granted, while the album 28 (or as certain authors imply, self-titled…even the record’s name is open to interpretation) and the assorted, iconic single releases are not going to land serialized reissues with accompanying coffee table books (that I know of), it does bring a smile to my face that the former is gradually dripping through the lattice onto a slowly rising pedestal of consideration as one of the great pieces of American rock music of the 1990’s.

I spent some time trying to convince the great music writer/fan Hendrik to let me whip together a series of posts about Radon for his One Week, One Band site, but there hasn’t been an opportunity yet. So, imagine how my eyes nearly jumped out of my head when I passed by a bookshelf in Columbus recently to discover that Travis Fristoe and Aaron Cometbus had beaten me to the punch. Oh well.

(LeadUsDown.com)

This collection of two contrasting essays on Radon (in light of their LP “28”) is a parody (of sorts) of, and tribute to, the indispensable 33 1/3 series.** Being a quintessential yet still “willfully obfuscated” cult band (with a tightly wound niche of a cult at that), there is no way any major publishing house would take a chance on these three brilliant rednecks.

Aaron Cometbus approaches the band Radon in a highly post-structural sense. He avoids dealing with them directly (his actual meetings with the members in the past had been awkward), but he hits the nail on the head when explaining why; even they have less ownership of this music than members of the Gainesville diaspora do now. Radon reminds even the pedestrian Florida punk fan of what makes the city such a lynch pin the narrative balance between punk rock’s music and cultural mores. They strike an emblematic balance between punk-as-lifestyle and punk-as-critical-art. Their decidedly acapitalist (not explicitly anti-capitalist) approach to making and performing music still gives outsiders like myself an unfettered window into how music and performance dictates the spatialities of human emotion, especially of a specific somewhat middle-American place. It reminds me of how Nichola Wood and Susan J. Smith wrote in 2004:

We might not wish to privilege music as an emotional relation above all other means of social elaboration; but equally there is a good argument for using musical performance as a starting point in charting when, where, why and how a range of emotions infuse the spatialities of everyday life.

(Via punknews.org)

Both Cometbus and Travis Fristoe approach the band as individual fans taking the legacy of both the trio and their scene into account. Their collaboration does not include any quotes from the band, outside of scattershot far-past conversation nuggets here and there, but it hardly matters. Radon were about more than what Dave, Brent, and Bill had to say about their songs. The writers, especially Fristoe, evaluate the gravity of Radon upon Gainesville and Gainesville upon Radon. This often expands to the trio’s ostensible home-state, too. I don’t know if all of three of the members grew up in the Sunshine State, but the band as an entity did, which is what counts. They recorded their pair of 7″ records in a living room in Tallahassee^ and scraped together the motivation to release a full-length several years after the ten songs that compose it were at their peak of relevance to those who experienced them the first time around. Cometbus ties the band and their music together with place-based geography quite impressively when taking the songs on “28” into account (emphases mine):

Radon come from a really weird state, and one of their strongest qualities is their ability to evoke a sense of place. Other bands might just as well be from anywhere; there’s no scenery in their songs, or if there is it’s of some faraway metropolis where they once played a gig. They offer a tourist’s point of view while overlooking home, the strangest place of all.

Rap is site-specific, but very few punk groups really paint with the local colors or weigh in on the local issues. Radon’s LP (and I’m not here of their later, reunion release) has not one but four Florida-specific songs.

The first is a tribute to the mysterious Rastafarian jogger who moved like Pac-Man through their town; it conveys the slightly askew atmosphere and humor of Gainesville’s kudzu-covered “student-ghetto.” The second is an impassioned plea for justice for Haitian refugees – a political anthem that inflames and informs without resorting to hackneyed slogans. The third views Florida through the lens of science fiction: the alien landscapes and mines where “one million tons of phosphogypsum tailings rise to the sky.” The devastation and corruption behind the Tropicana bottle’s “unlimited sunshine.”

Last but not least, Grandma’s Cootie, one of the most heartbreaking songs ever written, ending with a rollercoaster climb at Disney World and a view of the beach.

That’s what made Radon unique: their ability to be personal and political, direct and evasive, local and universal. They were willing to tackle complicated subjects and also embrace life’s simpler pleasures and absurdities. They broke your heart and made you laugh at the same time. What a band!

The song about Haitian refugees that Cometbus refers to, “Haiti,” shuns pop songwriting convention to call attention to hypocrisies of the Florida government; they barely rhyme any of the lyrics, prodding the establishment with the line (repeating at the end) “If we all came over on a boat, how come you act like you walked here on the water?” The sentiments that Fristoe highlights about his own time living and breathing (the chemical radon?) in and around Gainesville are no less impassioned:

Florida will always be a science fiction place, no fables or coded songs needed. The Everglades sit irreparably dredged and drained for Big Sugar. Disney’s obscene and autonomous nation-state stands dead center, tax-free. Invasive animals (Burmese pythons, Nile monitor lizards, Cuban tree frogs) run rampant. Sinkholes open up without warning and swallow homes whole… The picture Radon painted may seem fantastical, but it’s not far-fetched.

Is it impossible to discuss Radon without evoking their home state and its laundry list of contradictions and obtuse (sur)realities? Clearly, the band was writing and performing songs with absolutely no responsibility to anybody but themselves, their friends, and the place that made them. It follows somewhat naturally how the story of Radon is a story of Florida. As Blake Gumprecht writes, “less commercially successful performers are less bound to market demands [and] are the ones who have, historically, presented the highest percentage of themes tied to specific places.” This is perhaps one of the tightest theoretical parallels between classic blues and punk. Just as the story of Blind Lemon Jefferson is the story of rural Texas, the story of the Ramones is the story of Queens, New York. Once a band no longer tells the story of a/their place, do they lose relevance or quality? Not necessarily, but the gauge of their music-as-anthropological barometer is cloudier.^^

Radon’s most unwitting accomplishment, then, was something that the trio had no fair method of recognizing at the time. They were the simple pleasures of listening to a band singing and playing to what they knew, which was, essentially a tiny world of dive bars and nearly-condemned houses. Increasing that scale seemed impossible, which was why their early songs reflected that mob mentality so well, and why it fascinates those of us on the periphery of that expanded bubble two decades on. Like Baudrillard wrote on the time and place of an object’s creation, the moments and places-in-time that generated Radon’s music cannot be recreated, yet we still attempt to as best our minds can. As Fristoe goes on, “Music history is useful, so are facts, but each lonely person in their bedroom in their bedroom listening to records is an equal, valid force. Let us instead champion the precariousness of memory, mondegreens, and true believers.” Despite Radon’s intentions (whatever they were), their legacy is intact, and so is Gainesville’s. Bow down.

LINER NOTES
* Please don’t let this take anything away from artists like Load, Tom Petty, Torche, or even Blowfly (long stories there). If I expanded the focus of this piece beyond Gainesville at a very specific era in time, I would never finish a single entry. I imagine that nerds all over the internet have proffered their lists of most hopelessly brilliantly innovative music states, and Florida deserves to be near the top of every one. “Artistic flourishing in pre-internet isolation” could easily formulate a series of dissertations.

** One of my highest accomplishments was making it onto the 33 1/3 shortlist for publication last year for a proposal I wrote on The Dismemberment Plan’s classic album “Emergency & I.” This is still technically a project in the works, but the blanket of emotional geographies I folded that record and the city of Washington DC into in the proposal make it a perfect item for this site. I’ll get to it eventually, I’m sure.

^ This is what I remember from the “In Your Home” liner notes, at least. If anyone wants to fact check me on this, go ahead. Warning, I may call you a nerd for it. Unless you were in Radon, in which case I’ll be ecstatic that this made it that far.

^^ Whenever I make or articulate this argument, I often hear the Bruce Springsteen (Joisey), Beach Boys (SoCal), Beatles (Liverpool), etc. argument. In all three of those cases, one could return the argument that they represented their locations while at their younger and most iconic periods, or that these locations were represented for commercial aptitude during the bands’ rising phases. The Beach Boys’ cartoonishly dumb later output (e.g. “Kokomo”) disproves much of that prior argument almost single-handed, and I would be the millionth person to point out that they were not really surfers.

CITATIONS

  1. Baudrillard J. 1968. The System of Objects.  Trans. James Benedict.  2006 Edition. London: Verso. Radical Thinkers.
  2. Cresswell, Tim. Place: A short introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
  3. Gumprecht, Blake. “Lubbock on Everything: The Evocation of Place in Popular Music (a West Texas Example).” Journal of Cultural Geography 18.1 (1998): 61-81.
  4. Wood, Nichola, and Susan Smith. 2004: Instrumental routes to emotional geographies. Social and Cultural Geography, Vol. 5, 533-548.