Wherein I rail against a specific podcast in order to make some bigger points about music, criticism, gatekeeping, and cultural bullying.
  1. A TALE OF TWO PODCASTS

I am an enthusiastic person. I get excited about cultural objects (books, musicians, painters, movies, you name it) and then go on recommendation sprees. If you are even casually acquainted with me, I have probably breathlessly tried to convince you to watch or read something at some point (if I breathlessly recommended Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest to you, I am sorry; it started out a lot better than it ended).

In late 2017, I went on a recommendation spree for Tyler Mahan Coe’s podcast about the history of country music, Cocaine and Rhinestones. It had sprung up out of nowhere as this fully-formed, beautiful thing. At the moment I became aware of the show, the most current episode was a close read of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” wherein Coe went deep on both the lyrical content and Haggard’s wider biography and public statements to determine just how literally the song was intended to be taken (a subject near and dear to me, since the a fight over the sincerity level of Hag’s culture-war songs once nearly broke up a band I was in). I love (older) country music and well-researched cultural history; the whole thing could have been cooked up in a lab by scientists working from extensive notes on how to craft the most enticing possible podcast for me.

There are several specific things about Coe’s approach to Cocaine and Rhinestones that I admire and enjoy. One of them is his methodology; every episode features direct engagement with primary sources (the music itself, public statements by the artists and their families, police records, and so on), along with an admirably up-front assessment of the reliability of given sources (not all of Charlie Louvin’s stories hang together).

More than that, though, the show is built around a fantastic generosity of spirit. When the country music industry has been shitty to people on gender or ethnic lines, Coe calls the industry out. When a received story about a person has unfairly gained currency, Coe pushes back- for instance, his careful arguments against the idea that Buck Owens habitually screwed people over in business dealings, or that Wynnona Judd was a talentless puppet of producers. The podcast succeeds because, over and over, Coe meets artists where they are, taking their work in the spirit it was offered up. One of the defining features of country music is gatekeeping over the issue of authenticity, which Coe dynamites as a bullshit excuse to marginalize artists for no real reason. The very agreeable impression one gets from the show is of a very knowledgeable, passionate guy who loves music with an open mind and wants to tell you about it; when Coe announced a Patreon program to support the show because he wanted to make it his life’s work, it was a pretty easy sell. What music lover wouldn’t want to support this work?

I want to make this plain: in light of everything I’m about to say, I remain an all-in fan of Cocaine and Rhinestones. But it turns out that Coe has another podcast. The other one is a joint project with a guy named Mark Mosley; the show is called Your Favorite Band Sucks. The format is pretty much what you’d expect: each episode, the two of them pick a band and rail for 45 minutes or so about how and why the band sucks. Episode one was the Beatles. Episode two was the Rolling Stones. At this writing, they’ve just dropped one attacking the Beastie Boys. Previous targets have included U2, the Police, Sublime, Nirvana, Steely Dan, and Radiohead.

More »

Hank Fuckin’ Williams

It’s hard to admit, but I don’t really have a lot of good memories of my mother, or much of a sense that I got any great legacy from her (except for being alive, which I guess, yeah, that does count for something). Mostly, I remember her needing stuff from me – a lot of going to the kitchen to fetch her drinks or cigarettes when I was younger; writing her resume, engaging in one of her ritual “debates” about the Kennedy assassination, or lending her money as I got older. And emotional validation all the way through.

On the cultural front, not much. She introduced me to Herman Wouk’s books about World War II, and that’s something that’s paid off in a bunch of ways throughout my life. So that’s a definite plus. Otherwise, almost nothing.

Except: my mother loved country music. Not the country music that was current when I was a kid – this was the 80s and early 90s, so I guess the current stuff at that point would have been Randy Travis and Garth Brooks – but the country music of her parents’ generation. We had this enormous 70s-vintage console stereo (turntable, radio tuner, and yes, an 8-track) and when my father wasn’t around she’d often put a Hank Williams or Johnny Horton record on and crank the fuck out of it. And the giant console stereo had giant console speakers, so when it cranked, it really kicked out the jams. And, like punk, classic country is music that really, really benefits from volume. Hank Williams and Johnny Horton (along with Roger Miller and sometimes Johnny Cash, and I’m sure a bunch of others) do this thing where they’re singing out at the very edge of what their voice can handle, and you can hear their vocal chords distort just like an overdriven guitar amp and it’s fucking glorious at extreme volume. And Hank’s wonderfully spare arrangements sound great when they can fill up a room with sound.

More »

What the title says. Made these as sort of a detour from narrative Nowhere Band strips, but they don’t really belong over there. So here they are. Will probably do more at some point….
2016-10-13-production-1

2016-10-17-production-2

quiltedThis was originally written as a paper for an art history class in curation.

Last year, my birthday fell shortly before David Bowie Is, the “first retrospective of the extraordinary career of David Bowie,” closed its run at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. My wife surprised me with tickets to the long-sold-out show. We packed for a crash road trip, hopped into the car, and drove from Minneapolis to Chicago, listening our way with mounting excitement through the entire Bowie oeuvre during the 10-hour trip.

Viewing the exhibit was an overwhelming rush; the line to enter the museum had stretched around the block. The show was designed to hit attendees through multiple senses – as one walked through the space looking at objects, a location-sensitive headset would blast music or interview clips related to the object under view. The crowd itself – packed into the galleries as tightly as the fire marshals would allow – provided a constant buzz of energy as several rooms full of Bowie superfans communed with artifacts connected with the great man.

We left the exhibit exhausted and happily dazed. But on the drive back to Minneapolis, questions started to bubble up as we talked it over. What had we learned in that exhibit? It didn’t really seem like we’d gotten much in the way of new information. The experience had been intense and fun, but had there been an intellectual point? Had the whole thing really been an enjoyable but ultimately empty wallow in pop idolatry? As months passed and the undigested bolus of David Bowie Is lingered in my head, a slow, slinking surety settled in that it had all been a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

More »

A portrait of the artist as a young punk.

A portrait of the artist as a (very midwestern) young punk.

As I write this, I’m about halfway through a master’s program in art history. And for the most part, I like it a lot. I like being exposed to new art and new ways of thinking and being able to get into deep discussions with smart people about works of art and lesser-known artists.

There is a side of it I don’t like, though – one that doesn’t come up in class too often, but dominates when I’m talking to people outside the program about it. If I mention that I’m studying art history, people naturally seem to want to jump to talking about classifications. Is Van Gogh impressionist or post-impressionist? Is Frank Gehry a deconstructionist architect?

I know there’s some value to that kind of discussion, but I think it’s minimal. It’s more interesting to talk about Frank Gehry’s architecture itself than whether it fits into an arbitrary category (a category made up, in this case, retroactively for a museum exhibit, borrowing a really unrelated term from lit theory). And more importantly, these discussions remind me of another ongoing argument that’s been annoying me for years: is Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” a punk song?

More »

So, the desire to transform Husker Du songs in weird acoustic ways just seems to be this year’s obsession (see the last post, ferinstance).  As threatened there, I’ve gone further down this road. Here are rough mixes of ganked-up versions of Celebrated Summer (yeah, again, but with more thought into the arrangement on this one) and Powerline. These mixes aren’t final at all, but they’re good representations of works in progress. There will probably be more of these, and for that I apologize.

Maybe my apology should take the form of an acoustic cover of I Apologize.

Celebrated Summer

Powerline

08. February 2015 · 1 comment · Categories: Music

A while ago, I gave one of my favorite Husker Du songs the Leo Kottke treatment:

I might end up doing some more of these. God knows I know a lot of Husker songs.

This is one of the first long-form comics I ever drew, back when I was pretty clearly just beginning to learn how to draw. It’s an adaption of an excellent essay / short story by Twin Cities music writer Jim Walsh, who was nice enough to let me take his words out for a spin. Resurrected because Fleetwood Mac seems to be having some kind of goddamned renaissance.

Rumours-01
More »

The_Replacements_-_Tim_coverThe other night, while cooking dinner, I listened to the Replacements’ Tim. It’s one of those weird cases where Tim’s been one of my favorite albums for decades, but between the march of time, the constant ingress of new music, and my slow disengagement from the practice of listening to albums straight through, it’s actually been years since I’d listened to the whole thing straight through.

Now, I can’t claim to be unique in being a middle-aged white guy in south Minneapolis who has Tim in his Pantheon of Great Albums. The conventional wisdom with the Replacements has always been that the 3-album sequence of Let It Be, Tim, and Pleased to Meet Me represent the band’s apex. I never quiiiite agreed with that (I think Hootenanny’s more fun than Let It Be), but it’s definitely been a settled matter in my head for a very long time that Tim was one of the best albums by one of my all-time favorite bands.

So it was really weird to be cutting vegetables, drinking a beer, and thinking that Tim actually kind of drags in a lot of spots. There are great songs, for sure, and the album works really well as Bob Stinson’s last stand. Buuuut. “Hold My Life” never really did sit well with me as the rockin’ opener to a rockin’ album. And the production here is terrible all the way through, even if a Ramone was doing the production.

And hey- isn’t “Here Comes a Regular,” while an undeniably great song, kind of self-pitying? Westerberg’s singing this elegy to his own life, when the Replacements were notoriously self-sabotaging. That’s… it’s not the end of the world, it doesn’t ruin the song, but it does really color the whole Replacements thing. Self-destruction isn’t as fun when paired with self-pity.

So as my spaghetti sauce simmered, I recognized that, at least in this case, you can’t really go home again to music that you loved when you were younger. Listening to Tim as a 39-year-old homeowning cartoonist just inevitably creates different associations than approaching the album as a 25-year-old bass player in a shitty apartment in St. Paul who’s convinced that music semistardom is right around the corner as soon as the correct mix of onstage drunkenness and energy gets worked out. I still do love Tim in particular and the Replacements in general, but it’s changed.

I’ve long believed (this is the one useful thing that I got out of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) that art actually happens at the intersection of the work and the person experiencing it. If I’m a different person now than I was 15 years ago (and I’m pretty comfortable making that statement) then there’s a different thing going on when the person interacts with the work.
I don’t know. I try not to view everything through the lens of the past. But then again, as we get older, past is one thing we steadily have more of.


In this periodic feature, I’ll take a look at the endings of bands with interesting flameout stories.

The Clash

The more I learn about the Clash, the more convinced I am that their implosion is a lot like the reentry burnup of the space shuttle Columbia– the fiery, visible disaster was just the inevitable result of seemingly innocuous events that happened quite a while before.

In the case of Columbia, a chunk of foam insulation broke off of the shuttle’s external fuel tank during launch and smacked into the ceramic tiles that comprised the craft’s heat shield. These “foam strikes” were common events during shuttle launches, and were considered no big deal. Columbia made it into space and spent 2 weeks in orbit conducting business as usual. Then, as the shuttle broke orbit and glided through the atmosphere at Mach 24, the heat shield failed where the foam had struck. At the speed the shuttle was travelling, this was fatal; the craft wrenched itself to pieces, and the wreckage burned itself down to the ground.

And so, the Clash. I think they were pretty much cooked the second they signed their contract with CBS. Mark Perry of the fanzine Sniffin’ Glue famously said that “Punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS;” I’ve never agreed with that sentiment, but I do think that the signing of that particular contract started a countdown that led, more or less inevitably, to a rump version of the band releasing a farewell album so terrible that polite society has chosen to pretend it doesn’t exist.

More »