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Death for sale

Posted in: General by Jennifer Otter on February 27, 2012

I taught a class recently about the role and myth of a young death in rock and roll. It was really interesting to see how my class (mostly made up of 19-20 year old second year students) split vehemently on who has the responsibility to keep stars clean. Some truly think that a record label, a manager and / or a publisher should be in control of the artists habits. Others thought strongly that the artistic community has been too coddled, and need to grow up and take personal responsibility. It was really interesting, as no one blinked at the news that Sony had “accidentally” raised the Whitney Houston catalog prices right after her death- and no one was surprised either when I showed them a screen shot from iTunes, less than 24 hours after Houston’s body was found, “commemorating” her – and urging fans to remember her by BUYING. The quick turn around in less that 24 hours- from paparazzi stalking her every belligerent move- to a valuable commodity after death- seemed as every day and unquestionable to my students as having a cell phone (OF COURSE!). Has our culture always had such a short memory and been so invested in down fall and consuming, or is this a new element that can be easily shared and hawked post 2.0 revolution?

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Thanks to Sebastian Bach and Welcome, SB Fans

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on February 27, 2012

Thanks to Sebastian Bach for his good note on Twitter and on his Facebook page about my recent post on his new video and album. As a result, a good number of SB fans are checking out R&T. Welcome, and don’t be afraid to let us know what you think about what you read here.

TB

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Tonight, I saw Björk live at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City, on her “Biophilia” tour. She played in the round, with a vocal ensemble of twenty women backing her up, all below eight large video screens. I did not expect that within the first minute, I would have been wondering whether something of what I saw tonight is a possible future for religion, or a religion of the future.

The opening and closing images on the screens were of constellations of stars, somewhere between computer-invented and computer-enhanced, spinning in slow revolution, posing unexpected shapes of natural gorgeousness, in the way only the night sky seems capable of doing. Björk performed ninety minutes of music, almost without breaks, and with the most minimal vocal interaction with the audience. The energy was all about what was happening on the stage, and above it on those screens — and, I must add, to the side of it, where a giant Tesla coil had been lowered, in a wire cage, to about twenty feet above the audience’s heads. In the careful attention to space, costume, sound, light, and bodies, all opening out to a biophilic “more” — this is one of those live shows that reminded me that the capillaries of “secular” music and “sacred” liturgy are so entwined as to evaporate those simplistic oppositional adjectives.

Björk has transcended most genres of contemporary popular music, although I still wish she would reach back and cover an old rock and roll tune from her early band, The Sugarcubes. Nowadays, her music consists mostly in her distinctive voice and her vulnerable, hymn-like, otherworldly melodies and vocal phrasings that manage to be both rococo and guileless at the same time, surrounded by musical arrangements that are part postmodern choir, and part house music with big drum breaks and thumping bass.

And there is that Tesla coil, which has somehow been linked to a synthesizer-type device, so the electric charges produced tones that anchored a couple of the songs. It is one thing to see it on a video, but quite another to see the thing working up close, and to experience those flashes of electricity as bass rumbles under the floor and in the air.

You can see it, and more to the point, Björk herself in this video of her performance of “Thunderbolt” from the current tour:

And the video below is the song “Possibly Maybe” from her show a few nights ago in New York, where you see and

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I have a deep fascination with rock locations – those places that frame the music and bring it to life.  As a semi-Seattle native by way of Hawaii, I went to Garfield High School that has Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones as alums and lived through the glory days of the rise of grunge and could walk the streets marked forever in songs by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden.  But the mantle of rock coolness moved south of Seattle at the end of the Clinton years and the crown passed to Portland, Oregon.  It is a great place that channels the vibe of other cities at opposing ends of the I-5 corridor here on the West Coast of America —the Beat sensibility of San Francisco and the caffeine-induced Grunge introspection of Seattle. It is a city that sports a wonderful river walk and the temple to used book lovers that is Powell’s, one of the greatest independent used bookstores on the planet.   Portland used to be the lesser cousin of major cities on the West Coast, until it found its hero and martyr in Elliott Smith.

Today’s cities become personalities when they lift up an icon that both embodies what the collective urban culture is yearning for and challenges the city’s future at the same time. For many cities this is an artist who, for a brief time, embodies the unique urban history of a place while adding chapters to its history. New York has Lou Reed in the 1960s, Detroit has Iggy Pop from the early 1970s, Seattle had Kurt Cobain in the early 1990s. And Portland has Elliott Smith. While Portland has become ‘popular’ as the American hipster capitol of late due in large part to the success of IFC’s sketch comedy “Portlandia” staring SNL’s Fred Armiston and Slater-Kenney’s Carrie Brownstein and indie bands like The Decemberists, it is really with Elliott Smith that Portland found its voice.

When most people think back on Elliott Smith’s career, three words come to mind: Good Will Hunting. Gus Van Sant, a fellow Portland auteur and indie darling, featured Smith’s fractured and tortured songs in the 1997 film about a genius trapped in the life of an abused, emotionally fragile Peter Pan. The movie starred then-unknown Harvard grad Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and catapulted Elliott Smith from the Portland indie scene to a spot on the Oscars stage next to Céline Dion. In an act that seemed to endorse Frederick Nietzsche’s aphorism that “God is Dead”,  Céline Dion ended up winning the Oscar that year. In many ways, if the movie had been focusing on a musical genius rather than on a mathematical wunderkind, we would have been watching Good Elliott Smith on the screen. Elliott Smith’s music came at a time when the Pacific Northwest grunge mania was finally dying out and his brand of “miniaturized psychodrama” seemed the ideal balm for a regional music scene that felt as if it had just been erased by corporate takeover. In a retrospective article of Elliott’s career, Portland writer John Graham talks about Elliott’s connection to his sense of place as a Portland musician:

“Elliott’s early solo albums are like cheat sheets for comprehending every Rose City songwriter who ever wrestled with a four-track recorder in his or her bedroom: Fighting the guitar for that elusive transitional bridge chord. Trying to decipher lyrics scribbled onto a bar napkin at last call. Whispering into the microphone so as not to wake the housemates. It was these confessional tales, on Roman Candle, Elliott Smith and Either/Or, which made him such an adored figure around town. There was something about the solo albums—so private and yet strident at the same time—that hit some kind of Portland indie-rock G-spot. Witnessing the odd symbiosis that occurred between Elliott and his audiences during those early shows was like being privy to a cerebral orgy.”

Elliott Smith’s music is the sound and heartbeat of Portland.  To hear lyrics like “They’re waking you up to close the bar / The street’s wet, you can tell by the sound of the cars” (from the song Clementine) could describe Glasgow’s Ashton Lane at 3 a. m in rainy West Scotland, but it’s a scene that is deeply grounded in almost every rain- and beer-soaked curb that a Portlander can identify. In Condor Avenue, a song Smith wrote at age seventeen and that later became the centerpiece for 1994’s Roman Candle, he writes like James Joyce describing Dublin in Ullysses:

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What’s in a Name?

Posted in: General by David Nantais on February 23, 2012

In the late 90′s, when I was a Jesuit scholastic studying Philosophy and Theology at Loyola University in Chicago, I played drums in a band called Skill-o-Bexx.  Yes, we were named after the Dominican theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Yes, it was my idea.  I thought it was a cool name and my two band mates, neither of whom were Catholic or even Christian, agreed.  I liked the name because I thought it flirted with irreverence and humor, two qualities which were (still are?) at the core of my spirituality.  I also admit that the name sprouted from a bit of intellectual arrogance on my part–it was cool that, while others in the audience would likely have no idea about the meaning of our band name, a few of us insider theology geeks would derive a chuckle from understanding its context and history.  The joke was on me, however, as our band played only two gigs before the guitar player quit.  So if any R&T readers are in the process of forming a band and need a name, Skill-o-Bexx is available!

Since that time I’ve discovered other bands that have overtly religious names: The band, The Sisters of Mercy, is one example.  I know little about them, but I appreciate that they refer to themselves as “intellectual love gods” on their website!

About 15 years ago a friend sent me a CD single by an East Coast punk band called Jesuit.  I regret that I can’t find it now, since I’ve moved approximately 300 times since then.  If anyone has a copy I’d love to get my hands on it!

One final example is the Jesus and Mary Chain.  Their debut album “Psychocandy,” released in 1985, is lauded as ground-breaking.  Alas, I know very little about them too–in ’85 I was beginning my “classic rock” phase and listening to Jethro Tull (“Bands named after historical figures in Agriculture” will be a follow-up post!).  I think Jack Black would have a thing or two to say to me.

What does it mean when a band appropriates a religious name as part of its identity?  Comments and other examples welcome!

Dave Nantais, Detroit, MI

 

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Rock and Roll Family Dynamics

Posted in: General,Is This The New Face of Rock? by Tom Beaudoin on February 21, 2012

From the comedy troupe Monsters from the Id, a video that for some of us might strike a little too close to home.

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Rock Music: Irrelevant?

Posted in: General by Christian Scharen on February 20, 2012

I’ve run across a couple articles in the past week or so reflecting on fact that rock’s icons are hitting old age, still very much on the scene, and what that means for the fate of the electric guitar. One article, by Guardian writer John Harris, says “Rock music may be uncool, but it’s not dead, as long as it accepts its status as the music of the aging.”

In another, on the website Popmatters, writer Will Layman says “Rock is the new jazz. Sorry, rock.”  He argues that rock has become irrelevant to the mainstream, and that its survival requires accepting a demotion to a niche genre, a move that could potentially strengthen the music in the end. But not make it popular in the way it dominated the music scene 30 or 40 years ago.

In a remarkable moment of self-reflection after watching the debut of “From the Sky Down,” a documentary about their classic 1991 album Achtung Baby, U2′s Bono said: “U2′s been on the verge of irrelevance for 20 years. We’ve dodged and we’ve dived and made some great work along the way and occasional faux pas, but this moment where we’re at, to me, feels really close to the edge of irrelevance. We can be successful, we can play big music in big places, but whether we can play small music, for radio or clubs, remains to be seen. And we have to get to that place again, if we are to survive.”

The big winner at the Grammy’s this year in the rock category were Foo Fighters, a band whose average age is 44. The lead singer, Dave Grohl, got his start in Nirvana almost 30 years ago.

And Lady Gaga’s Grammy nominated single, “Yoü and I,” draws on echoes of 1970s rock band Queen, including a guest appearance from Brian May, Queen’s lead guitarist and now an Astrophysicist and Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University.

Thus far the evidence in favor of rock’s irrelevance. Who will argue for rock’s vitality?

 

 

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Twenty-five years ago, Living Colour played “Open Letter (To a Landlord),” an anthem exhorting their listeners to commit themselves to vulnerable populations in the inner city, the displaced, the inadequately housed, the — for most 1980s rock fans — invisible persons in urban life.

They are still playing it, and perhaps even better than ever, as shown from this clip from a live show in 2007:

In the United States, discussions and activism about the right to decent housing, a basic human necessity, has expanded from the inner city to the suburbs in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse and the foreclosure epidemic and scandals. Many working class and middle class families have providers who lose their job, or fall a paycheck behind, and soon lose their houses, and have no legal representation or adequate recourse to negotiate with banks.

As I have recounted here at R&T, I have been involved in Occupy Wall Street since last October. In addition to our commitment in the Occupy movement to policies and social practices that combat material, intellectual, psychological, and spiritual poverty, many Occupy sites have committed themselves to helping families who are losing their homes to foreclosure. Here is a story about a recent success in saving the home of the civil rights activist Helen Bailey.

In addition to civilly disobedient actions like occupying foreclosed homes and helping families move back in, Occupy has been visiting foreclosure/auction hearings and singing a song called “Mr (or Mrs) Auctioneer.” The idea is to appeal to the moral sense of the court and the bank to halt the sale of the house and try to go back to the negotiating table with the family. Dozens of arrests have been made of Occupy participants singing at these hearings.

Here is an example from last October:

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There is an enjoyable review of Van Halen’s new album, written by the rock critic Chuck Klosterman, making the appreciative rounds among friends of mine, guys who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s under the tutelage of — speaking of rock and theology — “Running with the Devil.” For many of us, Van Halen is like an old friend we are very happy to hear from now and then, because we savor some good memories, although maybe we don’t want them back in our lives on a regular basis.

Van Halen is back with a new album, A Different Kind of Truth, and a new single, “Tattoo.” This is your cue to crank it. (Does David Lee Roth forget the lyrics at 1:20?)

I first encountered Klosterman’s writing in the 1990s when he wrote rococo reviews for Spin magazine, turning rock writing into a David-Foster-Wallace-like smorgasbord of elite intellectual references interleaved with low-culture minutiae, with his own transferences to the music somehow always the half-secret topic at stake. I remember laughing out loud on the Boston subway while reading his first book, Fargo Rock City, and sensing that a new kind of writing, unapologetically fan-centric and insouciant toward genre, was emerging. In Klosterman’s passion for hard rock and metal, I could identify with what I have called (in this R&T post) the conviction that rock’s musical “comfort food” can be a salvation.

As Klosterman’s review of the new VH album circulated among my friends, I thought about how the high and even nerdy degree of rockish literacy he exemplifies in this review, and in all his works, speaks to a new kind of literacy that has emerged in the last few decades, focused on pop culture materials.

Here is one VH song that helped inspire a million little Klostermans:

There is a story line emerging in some influential sociology of religion research today, that has been picked up by many religious institutions, that the post-1960s generations are essentially religiously illiterate. A chief pastoral task, it is argued, lies in cultivating religious literacy among highly secularized youth, young adults, and now

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Here is a new video and song that I wager few R&T readers know about: Sebastian Bach’s “Kicking and Screaming,” from his recently-released album of the same name.

My taste for this kind of music, 1980s-inspired metal (hair metal, somewhere between lighter pop metal and harder death metal), has hardly waned in the 25+ years since this genre became popular. Tunes like these are heavy on chunky riffs, melodic high-pitched scream-singing, existential male combativeness, bombast, and stadium-worthy choruses ready-made for thousands (of mostly guys) to chant while pumping fists in the air. That is a long way of saying that I accept that this music is not for everyone. But I continue to find it utterly crankable, energizing, and head-clearing. And I am here to tell you that Bach’s new album is refreshingly strong — playing, songwriting, singing. Should you consent to Kicking and Screaming, you’re going to be strapped to the hard rock wheel and taken across the metal landscape with only divebombing guitar solos and Bach’s indulgent sky-high peals to guide you through the shadows of midlife male restlessness.

The video above, for the title track, positions the fan in an interesting way that bears some affinities to what I have found useful in my own theological life and what I try to help my students do in theirs, especially my students in their thirties and older. It has to do with inhabiting two modes of experience at the same time.

In the “Kicking and Screaming” video, Bach is inhabiting two worlds at once.

On the one hand, he is taking pride in his craft and putting his heart into what he loves. At 2:36 it looks like he is going to break open from yelling that chorus at the camera. And all those shadow punches and that hurly-dancing seem like honest surrenders to some worthy fury he is channeling.

On the other hand, notice how often he is smirking, smiling, or making funny faces – starting with the comic

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