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Three By Steve Anderson
From the "Village Voice" music section, reviews of Joan Jett, Slowdive, and the Ramones
When I published “Paging Steve Anderson” in this space last week my intention was what I said it was—to devise a ploy that would help me contact Steve and tell him I’d enjoyed his East Village novel, As the Day May Determine, which I’d failed to manage when I’d read it a year before. And it worked. Now I know not only that Steve did filing for Susan Sontag but that he grew up in Peru, Kansas, earned a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas, and then nabbed a master’s from Hunter so he could teach English in Seward Park High School and retire on a Board of Ed pension like my firefighter turned shop teacher father, my school secretary mother, and my English teacher sister. I also remembered that I’d edited him at The Village Voice. But I didn’t recall just how much remarkable work he did for the Voice music section under such editors as Doug Simmons and Joe Levy. So much, in fact, that it seemed only mete that we resuscitate three of his Riffs, as we called music reviews, for this month’s Big Lookback.
To be honest, I couldn't believe how strong the candidates we weeded down to three were and wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were others just as strong. In somewhat rarefied yet also big-domed form, this the kind of writing I imagined when I conceived the Riffs format in 1974—not the only kind, I wanted many kinds: sprawling like Lester Bangs, perverse like R. Meltzer, doctorate-doffing like Greil Marcus, doctorate-bound like Debra Rae Cohen, flyboy in buttermilk like Greg Tate, uptown comes comes downtown like Nelson George, straight outta Princeton like Tom Carson, playfully humane like Carola Dibbell, woman of mystery like Carol Cooper, jack of all genres John Piccarella, and you bet I could go on. What’s especially striking about these three pieces, however, is their cultural reach. Son House and Charley Patton meet Slowdive. The Ramones meet both the Everly Brothers and Donizetti. And in a piece vociferously nominated by Voice music editor turned TV critic Tom Carson, an evolving, multivocal consideration of Joan Jett’s fifth album by a collective of Rome-based revolutionaries named olga, Tatya, Sergei, and Tuchkov: “My single favorite piece in the history of Riffs. (Yes, I know. Sorry, Lester. And sorry, Tom Smucker. Sorry, RJ.)”
To those who weren’t there this presumably seems a little silly. And if it wasn’t a tiny bit silly, I’m not sure there would have been a point—properly situated, silly is a corrective. But Steve Anderson, who lifted the title of this East Village novel you might want to read from the I Ching, understood that full well. I look forward to discussing it with him and maybe even you.
Joan Jett: Popular Front
September 29: After six months wandering the continent, we are established in Rome, which, despite the proximity of despicable papacy, offers suitable quarters for the progress of our cause. Olga and Tatya explored the Forum but were lectured by Sergei, who told them it was not upon the past we must ponder but the future, the future! I have been writing feverishly, and Tuchkov said the printing press will be ready next week. There is no end of issues to be addressed. Just today the post brought a missive from Parisian Bakuninists, a report of Baltic insurrection, and a copy of Good Music, the new album by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
October 3: Turmoil in the house. After one spin, it is clear the Joan Jett album will bring disharmony. Midway through the second side, Sergei denounced it as putrefying imperialism. Tatya retorted that this was the typical reaction to chunky I-IV-V riffs and that only a fool would equate power chords with despotism. Olga observed that the music’s bulky midtempos were more aligned with the human pulse than funk, neodisco, hardcore, and were therefore indicative of Jett’s democratic spirit. I emphasized Jett as an alternative to the rigid stereotype of rock women, but Olga called this empty gender analysis. “Of course she’s unlike Madonna and Cyndi, just as she’s unlike Suzanne Vega and Marti Jones. You don’t explain Raphael by saying he’s not da Vinci.” But Tuchkov took my part and said Jett’s womanhood must be considered. “If a man played this music,” he said, “we’d call it ordinary.” “If a man played this music,” cried Olga, “we’d call it Rick Derringer!”
October 5: Factionalism threatens. After dinner, Sergei claimed that the choice of the Beach Boys to sing backup on the single “Good Music,” as well as the presence of Darlene Love, exposes Jett as a glory-seeking revisionist, thus dangerous. Olga ran weeping from the room, but Tatya defended the alliance, likening it to the Ramones-Spector union in that both were earnest, pleasurable attempts to subvert the heinous embourgeoisement of rock radio and its listeners. She suggested Jett’s song might be more successful since the Blackhearts’ music could conceivably woo a metal crowd and Jett’s authoritative vocals excel in the anthemic, witness “I Love Rock and Roll.”
But Sergei detected corporate push, recalling how badly The Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth, the last album, stiffed—“Cherry Bomb” literalized—and how CBS snatched her on the rebound from MCA. “Don't forget the upcoming film, Light of Day, in which Jett portrays Michael J. Fox’s sister and both play in—c’est vrai!—a rock band. Comrades, machinery is at work to insure palatable product. She’s clever not to capitulate on one record: first Mike Love crooning, then no doubt a Lionel Richie duet—who knows what follows? At least Suzi Quatro went down with dignity.”
“SUZI QUATRO HAD NO CHOICE!” shrieked Tatya, toppling the samovar. “Jett’s instincts are not so basely Darwinian. Just because the new LP has steadier production and feels more consistent than the others does not make it a calculated pop move. Certainly, the vocals seem less harsh, and she has chosen not to call people scumbags. But none of this alters the fact that she’s always been pop—the toughass overtones are stylistic conveniences. If the survivor cliché gives her postpunk cachet, she’s entitled.” Sergei fumed.
October 8: Strolling in Borghese Gardens, Olga confided that she has doubted Jett’s usually unerring covers. She doesn’t mind the raw-nerved version of Hendrix’s “You Got Me Floatin’”: Jett’s homage sounds heartfelt and inspired. And if “Fun, Fun, Fun” comes across as workaday, the song’s theme of independence perfectly suits Jett. “But how,” asked Olga, “could she redo ‘Roadrunner’—even with the opening six-count—and change the locale from Boston to New York, a city with a surplus of mythopoesis?” Tuchkov spoke: “We must remember Jett’s most alluring quality—naïveté! She chose the tune solely for its car-and-radio context. That she missed the irony implicit in Richman’s original—Jett sounds unequivocally enchanted by modernity—affirms her uncomplicated, ergo antimodern, nature. Behold a paradox that David Byrne would grovel for! The déclassé take Jett at face value, drinking up the heroic gestures and r&r rhetoric; the intelligentsia embrace her to prove that they have a vulgar side, transforming the arena shit into signifiers of a gestalt that is beneath them. When Jett declaims ‘I’VE COME TO ROCK YOU,’ one contingent cheers, the other is charmed. If she lacked integrity, she’d dump both camps, put on a black widow, and soar into heavy metal Valhalla. It’s comforting she hasn’t changed substantially since Bad Reputation.” We walked home.
October 15: Finally, accord. Tatya admitted that she wished the ideology on Good Music were more sharply defined. She noted how Jett exults in autonomy on “Just Lust,” a swaggering ode to unattached sexuality, and pointed out how “Black Leather” works not as a rap song, but because the rap tradition of self-promotion adapts so well to Jett’s quasi-Byronic vision of herself. “If only,” moaned Tatya, “radicalism meant something more to her than her choice of apparel!”
But Sergei had deferred to Jett’s cult of personality, unabashedly disarmed by the way she sings “I’ll be all right/If I can hear a loud guitar all night.” Tuchkov remarked on the artfully gargantuan beat of bassist Gary Ryan and drummer Lee Crystal (who are listed in an excess of sidemen and are said to be leaving the band). When Olga cautiously averred that CBS has the muscle to broaden Jett’s market, we sighed in resignation. There was no more dissent, so we put on Good Music and sat throbbing in the twilight, relieved that at least one struggle was over. — October 28, 1986
Slowdive: Taking the Delta By Strategy
When Son House or Charley Patton howled out the back-porch blues, the moment was simultaneously an expression of and escape from pain. Few rock musicians nowadays can finesse this dovetail. Most rappers, punks, and grungeists wield music to bore deeper into their rage. The only evidence of Mississippi sublimation I've heard lately is Souvlaki, the second album by Slowdive, English shoegazers who futz up swoon-guitars to sound like synthesizers. What links these driftheads to Depression-era sharecroppers is not a sound, certainly, or even a mood, but an urge for music to embody and transcend emotion. And here the analogy hits a wall because the young Brits, with un-Delta-like technophilia, assume that electrodrizzle and chromium washes are as moving as the human voice.
Why else are Neil Halstead and Rachael Goswell's vocals buried so low, rising through sonic chiffon like crypt cries from the house of Usher? The answer is just another version of a 1969 art-rock cliché: detachment is the cool way to bare your soul. By ‘83, New Order had worked this strategy into a coercive science, with their joy dividends relying heavily on near-fascistic discobeats. In contrast, Slowdive pull out all the Caucasian can't-dance stops: tempos flow like ketchup and there's barely a syncopated note in earshot. While Simon Scott's drums register a low pulse rate, behavioral tip-offs waft about—“I’m just floating,” sighs Halstead half-contentedly, and later, “I see you sinking.”
Sure, some Tribeca couple will probably copulate slow-stroke to this stuff after seeing The Piano a third time. But Souvlaki’s seductions depend on more than rote sensuality. Like perfume ads, the music suggests a world where erotic abandon and elegance are correlatives, yet the album delivers zilch until you're willing to wallow in the surface's faux sophistication. If you want concept, test the tension between hypnotrance and pop formats, courtesy Ol' Man Moonscape himself: Eno is credited with “treatments” on two tracks and suspected on others. Shimmering guitars erect a crystal arcade free of stray ornaments, although every window reveals an absurdly gorgeous tableau. Grandiose effects are misleading; there’s usually a fly in the opulence. On “When the Sun Hits,” you enter a seraglio of sweaty thighs and dusky moans offset by a cooling-unit hum. “Sing” unveils a ruined ballroom with jade floors and Eno in the balcony, hurling styrofoam packing pellets at the specter of Emma Bovary.
Unlike their attention-deficit debut, ‘91’s Just for a Day, Souvlaki charts a steady course through the ice storm. The neatest trick is how thoroughly the record satisfies while remaining utterly dispensable: it’s equivalent to a great rubdown from a masseuse you don’t care about. Comparing the band to Lush and Pale Saints is like weighing the relative merits of Ivana and Marla, although I would aver that beneath the feedback, Slowdive hides a cautious heart. Which brings up the contrived blues connection that, under perfect circumstances, ought to tie this up. Consider: no one can doubt, say, Robert Johnson’s depth of feeling because it’s right there, popping out his throat onto the records. Similarly, when emotions are as preposterously muted as they are in Slowdive, you know something grave must be lurking inside. Yo, no one represses like us blancos, especially when it comes to pesky libidos. So when Goswell, on “Machine Gun,” radars in her vocals like some bored salesgirl behind the nail polish counter of a strip mall on Saturn, who can’t imagine heaps of desire and anguish beneath her chilly, distant soprano?
Of course, there might be nothing there. Souvlaki could merely be a sensitive type’s smooch soundtrack—just what we need, a cadless Avalon—pure as ether, looping without resolution. I tell myself life’s too brief for such confections. Then a song starts, a nymph on Demerol beckons through the mist, and I’m tugged by the caramel undertow. There’s stones in my passway and they glitter like fool’s gold. — March 29, 1994
The Ramones: Battering Acid
The first time never happens again. Or, the first time happens over and over, without reaching the second. Below the roar, truth appears in every three-chord pattern known since bipeds took over. Suffer the little children to gather beneath the Marshalls. The Virgin weeps in Flushing while hope rolls out of Forest Hills. And God, don't let it stop.
Or if it stops, count four and start again. For two decades, the Ramones have stayed faithful, with their much-mocked formal reduction now as identifiable as the Everly Brothers or the Beach Boys. I was stunned when I first saw them: formal reductions emitted a charge in ‘75. So did ferocity, abrupt stops, and a melodicism comparable to Bellini or Donizetti. But the band was targeting teenage America, not the postgrad quasi-aesthetes who invariably showed up. Ramones fandom became an ideological cretin hop, with exhausted rock-never-die slogans headbanging against structural analogies to Franz Kline. By the ‘76 debut LP, they were cult figures; by the ‘77 follow-up, they sounded like elegists.
Commemorating what? I’d say the pure yearning of disgruntled adolescence that remains—even magnifies—when you’ve staggered way past legal age. But instead of reanimating nostalgia, the Ramones still genuinely believe that every 2:41 apocalypse can exceed time, fashion, and disappointing chart positions. Patti settled down, Blondie fell apart, Television needed adjustments, while the Ramones ride out that last wave with a spirit that’s proud, skeptical, juvenile, even profound.
Profundity is the publicity angle of the recent Acid Eaters, with title and packaging oddly suggesting psychedelia as the womb from which punk’s protominimalists sprang. An all-covers album seems redundant for a group that has routinely pureed every garage, surf, and Brit invasion tune they know. Despite the purple hazy concept, over half the new record’s cuts—the most Ramones friendly—are rockers straight up, hold the lysergic. A Creedence readymade like “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” easily turns into a Ramones readymade, Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” locates the matrix of East Coast blitzkrieg style, and Joey’s vocals on “Out of Time” challenge the Stones original with a tenderness that could comfort Chrissie Shrimpton. After a while, though, even the trippy stuff makes sense. Love’s “7 and 7 Is” and Ted Nugent’s “Journey to the Center of the Mind” not only take on muscle but measure the distance between the Ramones and heavy metal, acid rock’s stepchild. Since Marky’s stroke and Johnny’s strum exhilarate rather than overpower, their stripped-down rush for every climax still makes most arena gestures come off like microwaved Wagner.
But the Ramones’ destination was always the arena. Their medium-venue status results from an unsteady relationship to loud-fast protocol. The parody tinging their most hell-bent rampage second-stringed them early on to the more “serious” punks they influenced—like the Sex Pistols and the Clash—and relegates them to a mascot role, underscored by the appearance on The Simpsons. There’s also the New York art-rock association—the lineage goes Ramones-Cramps-Teenage Jesus-Contortions-the abyss—which leaves a deconstructive taint: They’ve snagged a cause or two, opposing the Klan or Nazis, but fervor usually subsumes their political depth. It’s fine to smear the PMRC in the lead cut on ‘92’s tough Mondo Bizarro, but “Censorshit” scores strongest by hookfully ushering Tipper into the company of Judy, Suzy, and Sheena.
Unless gaily frocked go-go pinheads count, social relevance did not intrude onstage at their Roseland set April 1. The sound was undifferentiated and most songs sped perversely—through a sonic blur, I recognized “Rockaway Beach” when it was nearly over. Those longing to throb with the backbeat settled for an anxious wobble that felt at times like a Cajun two-step. Velocity was so crucial that Joey often left the stadium chants to the crowd and slid over his Peter Noone phrasing with a strange mid-Queens melisma. Not a great show, but I imagine most people there, like me, love the band so deeply, so unconditionally, that it didn’t matter. After many tribulation—personnel changes, substance abuse, head surgery, Phil Spector—the Ramones have earned the sentimental accolades they’re getting for Acid Eaters. A career spent revitalizing and disassembling rock ‘n’ roll negates the claim of borough-mates the Shangri-Las that you can never go home any more. The Ramones never left. Long may they roar. — April 12, 1994