Friday, November 30, 2007

Kickin' Ass

Sewer Zombies (Psychotic Motor Punk)
Track: They Died with their Willie Nelson T-Shirts On (Subversive, 1985)

There’s something insanely, psychotically thrilling about bike wrecks - especially if you happen to survive one, I guess.

One time I was on the back of Sean’s Kawasaki GPZ burning up Pacific Coast Highway. We were totally fucken' ripped after partying all night with some Irish girls in Torrance. We struggled to stay awake as the sun rose over the Santa Monica Mountains.

Taking a hairpin curve outside Malibu we hit a patch of oil and felt the bike slide from under us. Sparks ignited as the tailpipe scraped the highway.

As we were going down I knew I was gonna die, but strangely enough I couldn’t help thinking about the red-head I'd spent that night with and the small baggie of grass I had stashed in my back pocket.

Time seemed to stand still as we skidded along PCH, parts of the motorcycle scattering in our wake.

But then a miracle happened. Operating on pure intuition, Sean somehow managed to pull us out of the skid.

We coasted to a rest area near Zuma Beach. As we dismounted we were laughing our asses off. We knew we’d almost bought it.

When we got home we rolled a joint and played Sonic Youth's In the Kingdom #19: “Screeching along the guard rail, scraping paint and throwing sparks like sheets of pure terror/Suddenly all is quiet there in the sunlight on the highway.”

There’s a million great rock ‘n’ roll songs about road accidents: Leader of the Pack by The Shangri-las, Come Back, Jonee by Devo, Always Crashing in the Same Car by Bowie, Airbag by Radiohead.

My personal favorite is the fantastic noise orgy They Died With Their Willie Nelson T-Shirts On by Sewer Zombies. It describes a gang of down home boys hell-bent on destruction as they haul ass to the next saloon.

You can smell it all: the exhaust, the flaming tires, the grease. Pedal to the floor, firing up 400 horsepower of pure NOIZE, these Florida thrash maniacs go out in an heroic blaze of glory.

Like the day Sean and I almost crapped out on Pacific Coast Highway, it's a deliciously edgy experience.

LISTEN to Sewer Zombies here

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Lay Off!

Britney Spears (Pop)
iPod Choice: Get Naked (I Got a Plan) / Piece of Me (2007)

Why is someone always knockin’ Britney?

I mean, I know the MTV Awards thing was a total embarrassment. But the disloyal creeps bitchin' about her looking out of shape should turn in their fan club cards right now.

After all, look what she’s been thru: divorce, drugs, rehab, child custody, misdemeanor hit-and-run. And there's always some sleazeball with a flashgun hidin' out in the bushes.

I mean, can you imagine? I’d go off the rails too if half the western world wanted a piece of me.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, now all these jerky critics are dissin’ her new elpee Blackout, bitchin’ about "studio trickery", an’ voice effects makin' her sound like a "Britney Bot". One BIG FAT STUPID UGLY DORK even said, "If a blow-up sex doll could sing, this is what she'd sound like."


That’s why Britney’s voice is sliced and diced to shit, pitchshifted and manipulated so one minute she sounds like a guy, then a dalek or a chipmunk. It's state-of-the-art dance-pop with a m-e-s-s-a-g-e.

Jeez. Dontcha geddit?

Like, Piece of Me is totally about life in the public eye and losing your identity in the celebrity shark tank.

Or maybe that kinda social commentary is too sophisticated for those poopy-skin peabrains to understand.

And what about Get Naked (I Got a Plan). That’s gotta be the scariest, most delicious slice of pop sex imaginable. The woozy synth lines that creep you out. The unrelenting beat which feels like it could implode at any moment. Pure genius.

And on top of that, you get the hot sound of Miss American Dream purring: “What I gotta do to make you want my body?/If I get on top, you're gonna lose your mind.”
Oooh yeaaah…

So leave Britney alone, you morons.

I mean it!

The Music Instinct

Oliver Sachs
Book: Musicophilia (2007)

Orthopedic surgeon Tony Cicoria was struck by lightning 13 years ago. Following his accident, an amazing transformation took place. Where previously he had displayed precious little interest in music, Cicoria became obsessed with at first hearing, playing then composing an "absolute torrent" of Chopinesque piano etudes.

Do we all, like Cicoria, have a hidden musical talent? In his new book,
Musicophilia, neurologist Oliver Sachs explores the range of human responses to music and suggests we might possess a music instinct.

Existing as a central force in all cultures,
it’s undeniable that music has incredible power. Like language it expresses abstract concepts and evokes powerful emotions, lying so deep in human nature that it must surely be considered innate. Clearly there is an intimate relationship between cognitive systems, the auditory and the emotional. All humans respond to musical patterns, and Functional Brain Imagery shows 20 or 30 cognitive networks respond to pitch, rhythm, timbre and so on.

Our musical systems are so robust that even after brain damage causes us to lose language, we continue to recognize and reproduce familiar music. The music instinct continues to live on among patients with advanced dementia, amnesia, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. C
hildren with Williams Syndrome often possess prodigious musical ability and have an overdeveloped frontal cortex, as do people with perfect pitch.

As to whether everyone can develop the music instinct, the absolute lack of musical ability - amusia - is rare, and we all seemingly have a certain musical potential. More than seventy members of the Bach family composed music, and many of us can remember a time when everyone learned a musical instrument.

So which came first, music or language? Hard to say, but it could be that hearing the sounds of nature – wind, animals, birds – encouraged communal musical instincts among humans. And there could conceivably be an evolutionary purpose for music, such as communal bonding during rituals and attracting a mate, as any self-respecting music fan or rock god can testify.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Cry From the Electric Heart

Burial (Dubstep)
LP: Untrue (Hyperdub, 2007)

The city at 4 AM. An eerie calm before the mad parade. Footsteps echo, each hollow tap an icy epiphany.

Streets pulse with hazy, phazy life. An old woman shuffles by, glances nervously. Do I know you?

I'm jolted upward on a mad rush of adrenalin, floating above the choking trees, the barking dogs, the sirens. So much pain, yet such beauty. Far off, an airplane is captured in a sunrise. Below, the city is a web of sleepy elation.

Everything’s true and untrue, each moment perfectly reflected in the next. All existence fuses into one blinding flash of clarity - a cry from the electric heart.

I see it all. The compassion. The oneness. The love.

Something touches me cold and warm, the blood pulsing in my veins as heart opens to the sky.

I’ve seen the light now. And it burns like heaven.

Friday, November 9, 2007


Are MP3 Blogs (like this one) Killing Music?

In posting mp3s on my blog am I ripping off artists or contributing to the death of musicians and record labels? Is my intention – to communicate a love of music – a naïve pipe dream?

I agree it is unethical not to pay for music. Musicians might not have the divine right to be millionaires but they certainly deserve the chance to make a decent living.

Having said that, I’ll come clean and admit I have done my share of illegal downloading. This has mainly enabled me to check out new tunes - like I did on the radio as a teenager - and satisfy my insatiable lust for music.

By way of sickening self-justification: it’s also true that I have spent a small fortune on music in thirty-plus years of fandom. And I’m not only talking about LPs, singles, cassettes, CDs and downloads. Then there are the innumerable concerts, t-shirts, posters, books and movies.

Studies suggest that downloading music leads to increases in CD sales, and artists now commonly offer free downloads as an incentive, though arguably only the largest bands and labels can afford to give music away for free, like the recent Radiohead release.

It’s more important I think to pay for music from independent bands and labels, since they are the first ones likely to go to the wall due to unscrupulous downloading. I played in an independent working band for ten years and never made a penny. In fact, like most musicians I lost money.

Free downloads can cheapen the value of music. With gigabytes of unappreciated songs accumulating on their hard drives, listeners become indifferent to their music collections. By contrast, if you have paid for a tune - as a friend of mine rightfully points out - you have more of a vested interest in the music and are more likely to spend time engaging with it.

There’s a huge conflict here between art and commerce. In other areas one doesn’t necessarily have to spend money to enjoy culture. Art galleries are often free and you don’t even have to pay for books, you can simply borrow them from your local library.

Perhaps the whole notion of music being inextricably connected with market capitalism has run its course, and musicians now need to explore more creative ways to finance themselves.

I doubt people visit music blogs in order to get free music. Rather it's to read opinions and get suggestions. I remain conflicted about this whole issue, but unless I hear objections from the artists concerned, I’ll keep posting songs on this blog. I’ll also continue to purchase music on CD and online while staying tuned for further developments in this debate.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

I’m a Believer

Josquin Des Prez/The Hilliard Ensemble (Sacred)
LP: Motets et Chansons (EMI, 1984)

It’s Sunday morning and I’m enjoying one of my favorite CDs - a Hilliard Ensemble recording of some enchanting motets written by Josquin Des Prez (c. 1450 - 1521), the master of High Renaissance polyphonic vocal music.

Known as the greatest composer of his age, Josquin's mastery of technique and expression was universally imitated and admired. Figures as diverse as the Renaissance courtier Castiglione and church reformer Martin Luther sang his praises.

Writing in a period of unquestioning belief in the literal truths of Christianity, Josquin's art is a reminder of a time when religion ruled peoples’ lives and the church was the principle sponsor of the arts. Soothing yet mysterious, ecstatic yet restrained, his music invokes a joy almost too deep to behold.

But you do not have to be a Christian to experience the profound mystery at the heart of Josquin‘s music. If the purpose of religion is to unite us with some essential part of our nature - the Latin religio means ‘to bind or connect’ - this suggests that there is a religious impulse informing all musical creation.

Just as the great religious works should be read as poetry rather than prose, the power and meaning of sacred music is to be found in the metaphorical, beyond words, beyond even language itself. Literalism here is the enemy of understanding.

Perhaps Brahms was mistaken when he condemned, “young composers who are atheists,” asserting that “they are doomed to speedy oblivion, because they are utterly lacking in inspiration. Their works are purely cerebral.”

On the contrary. The materialist who rejects supernatural phenomena in favor of a naturalistic view of life is neither denied religious experience nor prevented from engaging with 'religious' music. You do not have to be a Christian to be enraptured by a medieval mass, nor do you have to follow Islam to be thrilled by qawalli. Both are capable of alerting believer and non-believer alike to the mystery of creation.

Though I’m an atheist, Christmas wouldn’t be quite the same without the poetic hymns and carols so beloved of my childhood, and there’s nothing like the sound of church bells ringing on a Sunday morning to start me waxing nostalgic. John Lennon’s first solo album - the one on which he proclaims, "I don't believe in Jesus" - famously opens with the sound of bells which he identified as a throwback to his boyhood.

No matter that science has made a housecleaning of faith. When it comes to sacred music, I'm a believer. Despite the advances of technology, there remains a mystery to life which is approached in the very act of creation. And whether it’s Des Prez, Debussy, or Doo Wop, music – and art in general – will remain one of the essential means by which we engage in that exploration.