Smack Jack

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.

Sleeping Beauty

“This song is about reincarnation, but most people think it’s about cosmetic surgery” says Lena Lovich. That’s a big leap in meaning and philosophy, but I can see how most people take words at face value. It’s nice to see Lovitch still up there doing it, shaking her crazy old lady bones. She doesn’t seem like one to espouse cosmetic correction of any kind. She seems like more the kind to tell everyone to let their freak flag fly. Weirdo types like Lena Lovich really blossom with age, don’t they? Especially women, who delight in outliving expectations of prettiness and acceptable behavior. It’s admirable to see the creativity of old ladies who’ve embraced the role of the crazy spinster aunt or witch in the hut in the woods. It’s so much less of a battle after you’re through being young and attractive.

Sister Ray

This is the jam you put on at parties and/or work as a test to find out who your real friends are. (It’s a trick. You have no real friends.) The Velvet Underground, leaning heavily on their underground-ness, used long violently loud jam sessions like this one to alienate as much of their audience as they could before getting booted out of whatever venue they were playing. It was certainly the first time in the realm of rock music that topics like mainlining drugs and sucking on a ding-dong were topics of conversation, at least in as blunt a manner. No euphemisms or clever entendres for Lou Reed, he calls it sucking dick for heroin in plain English. The Velvets did end up with the distinction that all of the fans they did acquire, all went on to become degenerate drug fiends and sex perverts in their own right. And so the moral corruption of social fibers, or whatever.

A Sinful Life

Timbuk 3 was so much a part of the soundtrack of my life growing up that it was a shocking letdown to find that they’re not actually well known or wildly popular. I thought everyone listened to this band! I grew up with their cassette tapes clacking around in the glove compartment, but I guess that was just my extended family and literally no one else. Well, obviously, I absorbed their music and appreciated their worldview. I love music with both weight and humor, and I love the balance the Timbuk 3 strikes with their social commentary – still relevant! – and general mistrust of major institutions like national holidays and organized religion, paired with a sweet romanticism and faith in humanity. The tattered heart may redeem itself in the arms of another tattered heart, and the rest of the world can continue its journey down to hell.

Shocking You

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. 

Shock the World

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.) 

Shivers

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.