Sing Your Life

I can see Morrissey having an alternate career singing lounge jazz. If he had more musicality and less dysfunction, he could have made it on the cocktail lounge scene for sure. He would, of course, be a very a very campy lounge singer, perhaps the kind who specializes in warming up the crown before a drag show. Alternate universe. As it is, Morrissey turned out to be a campy old queen of a very different stripe, and he certainly made his mark with the choices he made. It’s his life to wreck in his own way, after all.

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Silver Stallion

Gender-flipped, radically reconstituted covers of hoary male narratives is one of my favorite subgenres. I love the idea of finding something intimate, feminine and modern in something tough and masculine from another era. Cat Power didn’t invent that idea, but she was doing it before it became trendy. She really knows how to weave her own narrative out of narratives written by people with wildly different lives and points of view. Her cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man is a classic exercise in finding new truth in old tales. Nothing represents old-school rugged manliness like the Highwaymen: Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, outlaw country’s grand old men. The Highwaymen were formed as a reminder of what outlaw country used to be, before country music became just another bland, pandering, million-dollar pumping mainstream industry. They weren’t shy about leaning on leathery cowboy motifs, a reminder that in their day real men did really manly things, with horses and/or motorcycles, and they did it while day-drunk on whiskey-cocaine highballs. They were broadly implying that being a so-called bad guy living outside the law was some kind of moral high ground because at least they hadn’t sold their souls working for the man or whatever. In practice it just meant a lot of drunk driving, neglected families and money woes, but it’s a nice all-American fantasy of rugged individualism. Those guys probably intended riding off on a silver stallion as a metaphor for refusing to go to rehab (real men don’t go to rehab, real men die of cirrhosis like God intended!) but what does it mean for a woman living in today-times? Obviously it’s still a narrative of personal liberation, of freeing oneself from the woes of mundane life and zooming off, one way or another, into a lonelier, grubbier, but more self-actualized life. Which honestly is still the same message, delivered in sexier tones. Wherever you personal silver stallion takes you, saddle up and ride it as far is it goes.

Sick Boys

Well, it’s the new year and already I can’t keep up with the days. It’s the season to set goal and make resolutions, which, if you’re into that sort of thing, let me make a few suggestions. Resolve to listen to more old-school punk rock, and live a more punk rock life, and wear more moldy leather jackets, and maybe invest in some crude tattoos and put some hardware in your face. Or not. When I put on bands like Social Distortion, I feel like I’m not living up to my full potential as a no-fucks-given, in-your-face, shitkicking badass. Because what these guys lack in chord changes, they make up for in attitude, and I’m thinking that attitude might be the vocabulary word for the season. Let’s try to roll with that.

Shuck Dub

Here is the small sliver of intersection where the blues meets electronica. Those two genres don’t seem like natural bedfellows, but R.L. Burnside went there. It was a brave and foolhardy move, but it worked, and it made him famous. Burnside was one of the last practitioners of old-school blue music, and it the deepest blues tradition, spent most of his life toiling away in obscurity. But he was also savvy to new ways of making music, and he didn’t mind letting his songs get the remix treatment. Turned out audiences liked that new amped-up blues sound. No genre is more directly sprung from the blood, sweat and tears of America’s history than the blues, but modern audiences find it pretty inaccessible, especially since many blues recordings are so technically primitive. Making it sound like it wasn’t recorded in the middle of a literal cotton field goes a long way to making it more accessible. And there’s nothing too sacred to be remixed and turned into fodder for new genres.

Show Must Go On

Queen is enjoying a lot of attention today, thanks to being in a movie and whatnot, and honestly it is heartwarming to witness a new generation of teenage fans celebrating Freddie Mercury’s life and legacy as though he was only alive yesterday. No one could pretend that Queen was ever underrated before, but their fandom definitely skewed elderly and balding. No one more richly deserves to be an icon for the youths than Freddie Mercury, for myriad reasons, and his unwavering dedication to making the show go on is not least of them. This song was clearly written to be the triumphant encore spewing pyrotechnic wonderment over Wembley Stadium, but it was one of those masterpieces that came along too late. Queen’s final recording sessions were a race against time, as Mercury was fast losing his years-long fight with AIDS. He died only months after the last album was released. The critics, not knowing that dying was something he’d been planning to do, said the record was overly sentimental and pointed out that Mercury’s voice was sounding slightly diminished, ranging only over three octaves instead of his usual 5- or 6- hundred. In hindsight, of course, everything looks different. It is dazzling that such a powerful and inspiring piece of work could come from a man in the final throes of terminal illness. Freddie Mercury never revealed his illness to the public, not so much because of the stigma but because of his own discomfort with being seen as an object of pity. He didn’t want to be a martyr, a figure of pathos or a cautionary tale. He wanted to carry on making uplifting music and inspiring people with his showmanship. The idea that “the show must go on” no matter what is an adage as old as show business itself, and Freddie Mercury lived that motto to the fullest until, literally, he couldn’t live anymore.

Shopping for Girls

From the vantage point of today, why wouldn’t you want a bunch of feedback-laden, industrial-sounding songs about unsavory things from David Bowie and a bunch of guys with bad hairdos? Like, bring on all of those things. When you’re browsing for David Bowie songs, don’t you sometimes think “I really want something that sounds like Nine Inch Nails but have it be about Thailand’s child trafficking industry”? Here is David Bowie’s Nine Inch Nails-sounding song about child prostitution. Which, by the way, was a subject that came up because of the very legit activism of guitarist Reeves Gabrels and his investigative journalist wife: 
“That song actually came out of an investigative magazine article that Reeves’ wife wrote on child prostitution around the world. And one of the places she went to was Thailand. Reeves had the rather unsavory job of hiring the children and then getting them out of the brothels to Sara, who could then interview them. We were just talking about those experiences one night. And I’ve also been in Thailand and witnessed the same kind of thing. The actual approach of how to write the song was quite devastating. ‘Cause it was so easy to slip into sensationalism. I tried all kinds of ways of approaching it … the moral point of view … and I just ended up doing it straight narrative. That seems to make it stronger than any other approach.”

Why this approach wasn’t met with wild acclaim in its own time, I have no idea. Maybe because 1991 sucked? 

Sho Nuff

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.