If I didn’t know Lou Reed any better, I’d think that this was one of those fist-pumping inspirational songs about being, you know, a shooting star. I also can’t help but notice a mild similarity to Bad Company’s song Shooting Star, which had been a hit a few years previously. That song was supposed to be a warning to people who make bad life choices, but it was unmistakably fist-pumpy. It’s still all over the radio to this day, so I’m absolutely assured that Lou Reed would have heard it at some point, and if I know Lou, he probably had something caustic to say about it. The sarcasm in his voice as he sings the words “you’re just a shooting star” makes me dead certain that he absolutely was mocking Bad Company, not just coincidentally alighting on the same corny metaphor. I mean, have you ever heard Lou Reed resort to a corny metaphor about the brilliant transience of life? If he was going to make a metaphorical point about how life is short and beautiful even as it is tragic, he would probably liken it to something that comes in a needle, or a transactionary sexual encounter, or something else urban and nasty. Anyway, Lou is a blunt guy who isn’t generally given to flighty metaphors anyway. But he isn’t above making fun of b-list rock bands with heart-swelling big hits. I can’t believe nobody has talked about this.
Speaking of cult favorites… In a just and fair world Shocking Blue’s Mariska Veres would be known as one of the greatest female rock vocalists of the 60’s and 70’s. There weren’t very many, so it’s not a matter of being overshadowed by too much competition. Veres had a big brassy voice reminiscent of Grace Slick, drag queen looks and a sexy European accent – all the makings of a rock icon. Shocking Blue enjoyed some consistent Continental popularity and one big international hit (you know the one.) Unfortunately, they didn’t stay together for very long, and while they made some great singles they never made an album that really held up as an artistic statement, those being the years when the grandly ambitious statement album was an unquestionable requirement for cachet and respect. Mariska Veres also missed her pop icon opportunity by her own personal choices i.e. she did not live a rock star kind of life. She didn’t date any fellow rock stars or hang out with celebrities or get up to controversial hijinks in her spare time. She just lived a normal life when she wasn’t performing, and while that’s admirable in its own way, it’s hardly fascinating. It’s hard to be remembered for talent alone when you’re not willing to be a slave to the fame, and posterity rewards those who do wild and crazy things, not those who do their job and go home.
If Tom Tom Club has done anything to shock the world, it’s proving that there’s still life and music after getting burned by David Byrne. And I wouldn’t call it shocking but rather pleasantly surprising that they’ve had such a consistent run over the years. Good party music that sounds fresh and fun is always welcome, even or even especially if, it flies below the radar. I have to call Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom one of my favorite cult records. I mean, it’s a favorite record period, but definitely top among those that I wish more people knew about. (Also I’ve been waiting for an excuse to post this topless picture of Tina Weymouth, because deep down inside I’m a mouth-breathing 13-year-old boy, I guess.)
We all know ‘shock rock’ as a genre, aimed squarely at youngsters with easily offended families. It was a big thing in the 90’s. What Marc Bolan has to say about that – despite being dead long before that whole conversation rolled around – is “If you know how to rock, you don’t have to shock.” Most likely, all Bolan had in mind when he wrote those words was probably sex …or nothing. Bolan had a habit of churning out hard-boogieing riffs and leaving the words for an afterthought. But I think that he would agree with my out-of-context interpretation; shock value is no substitute for knowing how to rock.
Fatboy Slim has been around long enough that you can probably recognize the elements of his aesthetic within a few seconds. You know, irresistibly catchy beats paired with herky-jerky samples that are almost discomfiting in their oddness, almost pushing the boundary into ‘too weird to dance to’ but always still making you dance. Having an identifiable style is a tall order for a demi-anonymous musician working in a genre that’s faceless kind of by definition. There’s a lot of interchangeable DJ’s and producers cranking out beats and splicing samples, and whatever human warmth their music generates usually comes from passing guest vocalists. In that environment a career with lasting power is unusual. Norman Cook, of course, is a trailblazer who helped usher in the era of mainstream electronic music, and it’s probably fair to say that some of the genre’s cliches originated as his own personal tics.
Here’s an artist you should start getting to know: Zola Jesus. Hers is both an unusual story and yet a very thoroughly modern one. To make it short and sweet, she’s a child of Russian emigres, born Nika Danilova, raised in small-town Wisconsin, who started her musical career making tapes in her bedroom and posting them on the internet. She built an audience of fans who were entranced by her otherworldly voice and ice-witch aesthetic. She’s made five albums and still lives in Wisconsin. That’s a modern-day, internet-age ascent to… not exactly fame, but the kind of niche success that outlasts mere celebrity and allows for decades of artistic growth. In pre-internet times, weirdo artists had to built their weirdo careers by locating themselves in the kind of cultural centers where weird-taste having people gather, playing and touring incessantly, and hoping for a write-up in one of a handful of influential publications. Nowadays you can do those things without leaving the comfort of your home. Word of mouth is still word of mouth, though, and self-promotion is still work, so I’m not saying that bedroom artists who make it out of their bedrooms are less deserving of acclaim. It’s just that they’re less likely to die trying. Kids these days can just network and self-promote without having to step in bigger stars’ vomit in the back hallway of the CBGB.
Alongside the lifelong familiars you watch, listen to and follow over the years, there is the ephemera, random songs for instance, that you remember and hold on to despite not really knowing what they are or where they first appeared or why you liked them in the first place. Who are Arling & Cameron? A couple of Dutch guys who became moderately successful in the European market for their electronic lounge music, or whatever you want to call it, and ended up on a Putumayo compilation for using vaguely Middle Eastern musical samples. Apparently their trademark is using unexpected and often ironic samples from culled from different eras and corners of the world, and it’s earned them equally far-flung collaborators, from Bebel Gilberto to Nina Hagen. In fact, they’ve recorded a number of acclaimed albums, which of course never percolated outside the Euro-market. I would never know about it, were it not for the tireless efforts of the Putumayo record label. The compilation album I bought in the early 2000’s are still leading me down new paths of discovery, which, I’m sure, was the ultimate goal all along.