…is a free newsletter I’m starting as a birthday gift to
myself. Each installment will be a short-to-medium thought about art, working
with a very broad definition of art: visual arts, comics, movies, music,
literature, god knows what else; and covering both appreciating art, art
history, art theory, making art, all that. Sometimes focusing on individual
works of art or artists; sometimes wandering all over the place. I can’t
promise structure or high-quality copy-editing, but I can promise fun (and a
bare minimum of one post a month). And although I hope this’ll still be fun and
interesting for my pals from the world of academic art history, I want to aim
this more at people who like to appreciate art and culture but haven’t spent a
bunch of time in seminars talking theory.
SO SIGN UP OVER AT SUBSTACK! I’m in the process of working through my mountain of ideas for posts, and I’ll start sending them out once there’s a moderately-sized pool of subscribers.
I hate Dad Rock. Not the music, at least not categorically; I
love it and hate it at more or less the same rate that I love and hate all of
the other imaginary categories of music. No, it’s the term I hate.
You’ve heard the term, right? Basically means safe,
nonthreatening rock (mostly) that appeals mostly to people over 35-ish. When I
first heard the term, it meant the “classic rock” that my generation’s boomer
parents were always listening to: Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, the Beatles, the
Stones, Van Morrison, you know the drill. As Gen X has gotten gray and paunchy,
I’ve started hearing Wilco, the New Pornographers, and the Mountain Goats get
put into the file.
Some of that is music I like, a lot of it is music I hate, but
the label bugs me either way. Part of it is the specific choice of modifier: “dad.”
I don’t have kids, I’m not going to have kids, and I’m irked at the intrusion
of child-having status as a qualifier in a situation where it doesn’t apply.
But really, that’s not the problem; again, it’s not really the music that I
love that’s getting the label (I was a Wilco superfan when I was younger, but I
drifted away from them around 2007; coincidentally, around the time they
started getting labeled as dad rock).
The Brooklyn Side sounds
exactly like what it is: a natural continuation of The Bottle Rockets, but with more budget to spend on studio time
and better gear. Recorded at Coyote Recording Studio in Brooklyn (the album’s
title appears to come from the climactic line of “Sunday Sports,” but there’s
kind of a chicken-and-egg question lurking here) in 1994, Brooklyn catches the band in the same form as their first album,
just a bit more polished and better produced. The collection of demos on the
combined reissue makes it sound like many of the songs come from the same
creative burst that populated the first album.
It always hurts to talk about when one of your heroes fails, but that’s what I’m out to do here. Charles Schulz is one of the great figures in comics; Charles Schulz sometimes fell on his ass. He did here. Acting with well-documented good intentions, he tried to do a good thing, and slid into what could most charitably be called mixed success. By introducing Franklin, a black character, into his immensely popular comic strip Peanuts, Charles Schulz wanted to harness his cultural power and use it to send a positive social message about racial harmony. He explicitly wanted to integrate his strip in a way that wasn’t demeaning or insulting. Thirty years later, though, Franklin was considered one of the prime exemplars of tokenism, a perception that has only grown as time has continued to pass.
Peanuts in 1968 was a cultural
juggernaut, appearing in well over 2500 newspapers. In an era when newspaper
comics carried a cultural weight nearly unimaginable today, Schulz was at the
very top of the profession, giving him one of the most visible platforms in the
country to trumpet any message he chose.
For the most part, Schulz avoided
politics in the strip, instead examining emotional and existential humor.
Last October, I inadvertently participated in Inktober by drawing a bunch of funny birds, like the ruby-throated hoverbro or the barre chord owl. Then the drawings sat in my sketchbook, unused and forgotten. Until! Until a friend asked me to make her a calendar, and I remembered that I had a buttload of drawings just sitting around doing nothing. A little bit of photoshop fussing, et voila:
I combined the calendar into a single PDF, printable on regular office 8.5×11″ paper. Feel free to download, print, and let your boss contribute 13 sheets of paper towards making your cube more fun in 2020!
To make one logistical element clear: I haven’t been able to nail down the order of events in 1994 involving the recording of Wilco’s A.M. and the Bottle Rockets’ The Brooklyn Side. I know they both happened in 1994, and I know that the A.M. sessions ran roughly from June through August, and that the Brooklyn Side sessions happened some time that year; could have been before, could have been after. I’m choosing to wedge A.M. in between the first two Bottle Rockets albums, but that might not be accurate, and certainly doesn’t reflect the release order.
Anyway: for Bottle Rockets fans, A.M. represents a portal to an alternate universe that briefly opened in 1994. Uncle Tupelo had broken up, with most of the 1994 lineup of the band staying clustered around Jeff Tweedy. To get the new enterprise off the ground, Tweedy reached out to his friend and former almost-bandmate Henneman to play lead guitar on Wilco’s first effort as the band found its feet. Henneman stepped in and left his mark all over the record.
I’ve had a rough year. I
had two dogs die, my house has needed some expensive repairs, and my habit of
closely following the news has turned into daily exposure to toxic waste. We
all crave simple comforts in difficult times, and I’ve fallen back into an old
habit: when I’m in the mood to read comforting trash, I reach for Tom Clancy.
And after the current bender, I think we should talk about him a little.
Right now, through time and
space, I can hear the question you’re asking yourself: why do I care
about the work of some hack writer of right-wing airport trash who’s been dead
for a decade? And that’s a good question, one I’ve been wrestling with
inside my head for a while now. I have a few solid answers: first, because the
work of said dead right-wing hack writer really does provide a perfect
encapsulation of one of the dominant forces in our dyspeptic,
sliding-through-disasters-towards-even-greater-disasters political system, and
to understand that is to understand another corner of the current ongoing
shitshow. Tom Clancy’s books are by, of, and for Boomer Dads, and if
understanding the mind of the Boomer Dad isn’t sufficient to understanding what the hell is happening in this
country, I think it’s at least necessary.
If The Bottle Rockets
sags on its back half, it at least ends on a strong, if depressing, note. “The
Lonely Cowboy” is the Rockets in full short-stories-about-small-towns mode, a
character study about a man who feels like he’s living in the wrong time.
There’s an almost rider-on-horseback swagger to the song, but that can’t really
hide the crushing desperation of phrases like
Sometimes he goes down to the local theatre And watches pale riders on the movie screen At times it seems so unbearable and unfair He just falls apart at the seams
This is strong stuff. It’s a rare Bottle Rockets song
written by other members of the band (Ortmann and Parr), but it fits in
seamlessly with the rest of the band’s work, and Henneman fully inhabits the
character he’s singing about. If the Rockets’ small-town mopers can drag
sometimes, this one works really well because it’s so specific; we’re hearing
details about the suffering and interior life of a particular, well-drawn
person, and that makes all the difference (contrast this with the universal
dreariness of songs that just focus at the town or even regional level and say “this
sucks”). No instrumental pyrotechnics on this one, no flashy drums or guitars,
just raw competence that conveys weariness without being wearisome. A damn good
end to a damn good album.
The combined version of The
Bottle Rockets and The Brooklyn Side currently
available on Spotify contains some bonus tracks, but I’ll be setting those
aside for this project, since they’re mostly demos of songs that have already
been covered or will eventually be covered. So that’s it for The Bottle
Rockets. But it’s not time for The
Brooklyn Side quite yet; first, watch for a longer entry about another
high-profile Henneman project that was going down at about the same time.
A light country song, so close to being disposable that I
nearly forgot to do an entry for it. Henneman’s lovelorn narrator addresses the
moon on the subject of the end of a relationship; they guy from “Got What I
Wanted” had a few drinks and went outside to talk to the moon.
The instrumentation is crisp and the harmonies are nice, but
this is fundamentally just the Bottle Rockets in “unusually good bar band”
mode. A very nice John Keane pedal steel part is pretty much the only special
Going back to listen to the song for this piece, I was surprised how fast and produced it is. Not that, in an absolute sense, it’s very much of either; but the version of it that exists in my memory is just Henneman’s voice and guitar creeping along at a carefully-controlled tension-inducing glacial pace. Those are the parts that stick with the memory, at least for me. The surrounding material that enables the effect just got edited away.