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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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As part of a group remake of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, I have committed some pretty serious crimes against Bowie:

In my defense, a) It Ain’t Easy is easily the worst song on the album (Bowie’s version only works because he’s got Mick Ronson there to save the day), and I basically had to destroy the village to save it; b) Bowie didn’t write the damned thing anyway (which really shows in the lyrics, which are pretty Zeppelin); and c) I actually think my guitar parts are pretty cool.

This alternate version from the same challenge is also pretty excellent.

SubCaudaWeb1So, yeah. After working on it for most of 2012, I’ve finished and put out an EP on behalf of my fictional band, the Awesome Boys. It’s pretty good stuff, I think; if nothing else, it’s a good approximation of what the inside of my head sounds like, processed into something catchy and entertaining.

In an email to a local rock writer, I described the album thusly:

It’s always hard to come up with a description of your own music, but I guess I’d call Sub Cauda “ambitious garage rock.” There’s a lot of guitar and weird noises coaxed out of a Kaossilator. You could maybe say it’s music that draws equally from the Flaming Lips and Guided By Voices. Or probably not. But that’s a start, I guess.

That’s probably as good of a description as I can do. Anyway, go check it out! The whole thing is free to stream or download on my Awesome Boys site; or if you prefer SoundCloud, 5 of the 6 songs (minus a pretty rad Bowie cover) are streaming over there.

Today’s great music: the opening track of Bowie’s best album, where he and Brian Eno bring some sounds back from the future.

 

Today’s great music: this song makes absolutely zero sense, but it’s a riot anyway.

Today’s great music: I’m pretty tired of U2 at this point, but Jack White injects a hell of a lot of life into this one. I actually remember “Love Is Blindness” being a lot better when U2 was doing it live than on the album, because they’d let the Edge off his chain for a few minutes of anarchy at the end.

 

Today’s great music: Louis Armstrong being suave as hell singing “Mack the Knife.” Check out the scar tissue on his upper lip from his unorthodox trumpet technique.