Someday I’ll get my hands on a hard copy of Outside and immerse myself in whatever information is hidden there. In the meantime I’ll just immerse myself in David Bowie at his most disturbing. Outside was one of those records that smacked me right in my impressionable adolescent brain with its deep ideas and macabre aesthetic. It was the Bowie iteration most suitable for a kid who read and reread Helter Skelter. It hasn’t become any less relevant in the intervening years. I still ask myself just how much does human creativity balance out human depravity, and to what degree those things feed into each other. We’re also in a brave new media world that allows ritualistic displays of public suffering to become entertainment. I mean, the psychotic breakdown of Britney Spears wasn’t intentionally a piece of performance art or guerrilla theatre, but it was one of the definitive pop culture moments of the 2000’s, and that’s actually a fairly mild example of human sacrifice-as-pop-culture. We really need to ask ourselves a lot of questions about what we’re entertained by and at what expense. The way we’re going, ritualistic art murder is not just around the corner, it’s about to be the latest commodity.
Nina Hagen was the soundtrack of my entire 9th grade year. Her weirdness did a lot to transport me out of the petty misery of high school. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t have access to the visuals – it might have ruined me for real life even more than it did. Nina looks damn good as a man though, and her face shows the same flexible range as her voice. This kind of aesthetic excess belies Nina’s D.A.R.E.- approved message. “Smack ist Dreck” indeed, but clearly people don’t become like this by prudishly saying no to things. Apparently the song was written by Nina Hagen’s babydaddy, who was himself a heroin addict and eventually died of AIDS, so there’s an element of tragic irony at play. The real message impressionable little minds are likely to absorb is that being a wildly weird and interesting person requires the rejection of conventional mores of behavior aka doing dumb shit that might put you in the ground but at least you died interesting.
It’s some kind of miracle that every Blondie song sounds like a Top 10 hit. Every single one of them. Album after album where even the third-from-last song would be anyone else in the world’s once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece. How did they do it? There’s been no lack of bands that have tried to replicate the formula; you got your pretty blonde singer, you got your girl-group harmonies, your post-punk tempos and your synths. And it’s mostly led to lots and lots of mediocre punk-pop. No, thanks. I guess that Blondie is just magic.
This Jethro Tull song is barely over a minute. That makes it a tiny speck in the universe of a band given to epics in the 15 to 25 minute range. A minute is barely enough time for Ian Anderson to draw a deep breath before a mighty flute solo. It’s a blink of an eye, a fruit fly’s lifespan. Yet, there have been artists aplenty, from the Ramones to Tierra Whack, who’ve said all that they needed to say entirely in one and two minute songs. There’s time enough to say all you need to say in one minute, and if you can’t do that, you don’t deserve to be writing epics in the first place. Ian Anderson, for all of his ambitions, knows this. He can slide a quiet slip of a song in between all of the big thoughts and say what he has to say. I’ve always loved this, as a breather, a small moment of contemplation. And if nothing else, I love the line “and you press on God’s waiter your last dime, as he hands you the bill…”
I am not the kind of person who skips over Keith Richards’ grackle-voiced contributions when I listen to Rolling Stones records. Nor would I want to listen to an entire album of his croaking either. Keith’s there to lend a little bit of soulful grit to what’s become a very shiny and polished enterprise, but he’s hardly a born frontman, in either personality or vocal gifts. Not all of the Keith songs are standouts, but they never fail to reset to the mood to an earthier level. As far as the obligatory “let’s let Keith have the mic” numbers go, this one is by far one of my favorites. It is such a poignant outro, without even knowing the knotty history behind Steel Wheels. It’s all there in his voice. You can hear the many miles and years logged to get to that precise moment, the history and tragedy and burned bridges and grudgingly given love that make the Rolling Stones the often barely-functioning family that they are.
Here is a song that, for audiences of 1957, is not sexual or suggestive at all. And when I say it’s not suggestive or sexual, I mean that it is deliberately, degenerately both of those things. How were the good people of 1957 ready for Little Richard? Or rock’n’roll in general. I don’t think us kids who grew up in modern times can fully appreciate how violently rock’n’roll blew holes in people’s minds back then. No wonder the Boomers are such a psychologically crippled generation. They witnessed the invention of a new art form, and it must have been like that scene in the The Thing where they finally show the Thing in all of its Thing-ness. They learned about sex from sexually deviant black men who were somehow allowed to appear on television. I mean, have you seen Little Richard? You just have to take one look at him to know he had some action going on his life like your mama never dreamed about. Like, seriously, that dude was kinky.
Some things you can pry from my cold dead fingers, always and forever. A few days ago I was saying that about my beloved T. Rex records. Well, I had said it in a much more elegant way than that, but I think the gist of it was plain to see. The point is, some things, some cultural totems and personal touchstones, can only be pried away in death. You can add my Talking Heads records to that. You can pry Speaking in Tongues from my cold dead fingers, if that’s how you wanna put it. It’s a record that, besides being a famous classic and an instant party, is one of those works that doesn’t get older or worn out by too much familiarity. It goes beyond mere personal nostalgia, though of course, I did grow up with it. If something can remain meaningful across a lifetime, from childhood to adulthood, and exponentially so across generations, that’s the antithesis of personal nostalgia. Personal nostalgia is when we feel sentimentally attached to things we rationally know are actually valueless or downright bad just because we imprinted on them as ducklings; things that, from novelty pop songs to toppled political regimes, should really be best forgotten. When something that amused our childhood selves continues to be meaningful over decades, meaningful beyond just the ability to trigger memories, that’s your testament that art really is the only human thing that carries over. This is why we care so much about buildings on fire.