You gotta wonder what it is the Pet Shop Boys have to be so mournful about all the time. No matter how uptempo their beats are, in their hearts they’re always sad. I’m sure that in real life Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant are very fun guys who aren’t mopey at all. But on record, they’ve set their tone as ‘music to cry to after coming home from the gay bar all alone’. Which honestly is a niche that needed to be filled. You can give them credit for showing that synth-pop and dance music can be thoughtful and emotionally deep. To this day there’s a lack of deep thought and feeling in the genre, as though people who go out dancing don’t have those things either. There’s the argument that people go to clubs and listen to dance music to escape from the thoughts and feelings that haunt them the rest of the time, but that’s a little bit simplistic. I mean, there’s nothing more emotionally triggering than dragging your alienation down to the club only to discover that it won’t go away no matter how much you drink, dance and grind up on strangers. Also, we’re still having trouble letting go of the idea that music with synthesizers and beats in it is something you only hear at the club while wearing booty shorts. Sometimes it’s basically emo with Casio keyboards instead of acoustic guitars. Or when songwriters like PSB get ahold of it and suddenly it’s filled with the full emotional complexity of the human condition and stuff.
When the occasional urge to listen to hard-driving punk rock kicks in, I put on some Social Distortion. It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes a little angry music can be very satisfying. It’s one a very few things I’ve held over from my ex. Their eponymous 1990 third album is a favorite for those times when it’s necessary to get pumped up and overcome the gloomies. You can’t be sad if you’re angry, right?
“There’s only one good thing about a small town, there’s only one good use for a small town – you hate it, and you know you have to leave.”
There’s only one valid statement about small towns, and Lou Reed just said it. Lou was talking, for broader context, about his friend and mentor Andy Warhol, who was from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a fair-sized city, but it ain’t New Yawk, and for an outsize personality like Warhol, it certainly felt as constraining, judgmental and provincial as any one-horse nowheresville in one of the flyover states. Warhol left Pittsburgh armed with talent, ambition and unforgettable weirdness – and the rest is history. One of Warhol’s most towering gifts was, of course, his nose for interesting people, and he dragged a veritable army of interesting weirdo from all walks of life up out of obscurity with him. He was a fame funnel, making superstars out of thin air. The Velvet Underground et al. were some of his most important protegees, a group of creative outsiders who – unlike some of Andy’s ‘superstars’ who didn’t really know how to do anything except look funky – had a broad cultural impact that truly has not been overestimated. It was fitting that, upon Warhol’s death, Lou Reed and John Cale got together for a tribute album. (This despite the fact that they never really liked each other very much and were not exactly buddies.) Songs for Drella runs the gamut of emotions one would expect, from raw grief to gauzy nostalgia, and you could say that the sentiment behind the project is probably stronger than the actual finished product. But out of all the notes it hits, this one hits home the most. It’s a humorous ditty lightening up a pretty bleak concept, and it pays homage to Warhol’s irreverent nature. Delivered deadpan in Lou Reed’s signature Long Island-mook accent, with Cale providing the piano chops of a silent film accompanist, it’s just damn funny. And it’s sweet in its irreverence, and it’s truthful to the essential comic absurdity of Warhol’s life: he was just a weird kid who wanted something bigger, and he wound up being a one-man cultural revolution.
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.
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.
Little ballerinas are the last thing you would expect in a Nick Cave video, and if you have any familiarity with Nick Cave at all, you would expect the little ballerinas to come to some ungodly end. But sometimes a child is just a child. And sometimes a Nick Cave song is just a love song with little to no murder. One way that Cave surprised the world after his heroin-and-Berlin punk rock beginnings – besides not dying and developing a taste for three-piece suits – was establishing himself as a master of the stately piano ballad. He has since produced an enviable body of piano ballads both morbid and perfectly romantic, and it’s obvious that his silky baritone is suited to nothing better than a lone Steinway and a solo spotlight.
I’ve always liked Social Distortion for being a degree or two smarter than the average three-chord punk rock band. Let’s face it, it’s in the nature of punk rock music to either be mindless or to appear so underneath the three-chord simplicity. Its primary function is to be fast and loud. Any cleverness or social consciousness comes behind the aggression. Social D has made a run of clever and relevant songs, without sacrificing the basic formula. And one thing that fuels the basic formula, besides angst towards the world at large, is songs about unattainable hot women. It’s an adolescent view of the world, defined by what you don’t have and what you want. Obviously, that includes matters of lust. I, personally, have a low cutoff point for enjoying other people’s hormonal aggression. But sometimes you gotta enjoy a good ode to a good knockout, because somewhere deep down, your inner teenage misfit still relates to it.