The Freelance Mentalists.
Some Songs ARE the Universe in Microcosm
Jackie Wilson, "Baby Workout," 1957.
This is a song about dancing to this song. It is a song about banishing fear and about the facts of nature. It is about loving someone who hurts you precisely because
she hurts you. It is a song about putting your hands on your hips and letting your backbone slip. It is everything that is the case, it is what is to be done, it is the universe in microcosm.
Jackie Wilson is God: "Hey you!" he thunders from his lofty throne, right before thirteen ominous trumpet blasts dissipate the fog. It's a holy and righteous summons, and we respond to it AS IF we believed in Him. But it turns out that ol' Niebuhr was right, the Fall is not to be taken literally, and God partakes in that dialectic, stepping forward to reveal Himself as Man: specifically, Sexualized Man: specifically, Proto-Crunk Direction-Shouter: "Get out here on the floor!"
The insistent rhythm begins, iambic to the exxxtreme, the same rhythm with which one is supposed to stimulate the clitoris. And then, just to segue poorly, it's all about Jackie Wilson's many tongues. He sings in so many voices here that it's the whole Babel Tower Fiasco all over again. Didn't He learn anything the first time? Burning it down, he goes operatic right into gully, low-balling to high-siding, he pleads and commands, he is Detroit-hard like the Golden Gloves boxer he was and then code-switches right into Southern-ish smooth slippery soul stylistics.
It's also fundamentally undecipherable. Or, rather, like most Scripture and Prophecy, this is a text onto which the recipient can project anything. It is a ritualistic dance: the background acolytes count off the steps for us, tell us what to do in what order, chanting like the Justified Ancients, while our leader keens above with his multi-lingualistic onslaught: "Move up! Move back! Shuffle to the left! Wobble to the right!" One expects Lil' Jon to show up with a bottle of champagne; one expects Luda to descend from the angry sky on a chariot of gold; one expects so many things.
But this is also a story of thwarted romance, which means we're talking about some other God than old Judeo Christus. She's abusive in some way to our poor heathen god, and it's made him doubt himself just for a second
: "It's plain to see you put a hurtin' on me," what is this some kind of voudou some john the conqueroot laid on my man, our hearts go out to him, because we've all been there, that time when Monique told Stacy to tell us it was over, which was fine because that's the way the game is played in junior high, c'est la guerre, still though doesn't mean we all haven't turned our heads away and listened to the sound of a million billion stars...but then! triumph! in the very next line!: "But it's a natural fact / That I like it like that!" As do we all! "So work out!"
And it is a story about how the band is playing, the Band Is Always Swinging, time marches like apocalyptic horsemen, no reverse in the time continuum, the time is NOW: "Baby, round and round we go / Don't you know? Don't you know? / Round and round we go / Where we stop nobody knows." Truth, delivered in however manner, is truth. And with those jericho horns set on maximum blastosphere and the entire Metropolis
-colored populace chanting "Work, baby, work work," it's a paean to our lives, our beautiful tedious cozy 9-to-5 button-pushing lives, the horror and comfort of which can only be escaped through dancing, working out, working it all out to the demands of our nine-tongued God.
I apologize for the non-participation as of the past couple of months. But love smacked my synapses like a Keith Primeau body check. I'm still in the midst of it (here's to hoping it lasts a long time), but I do have a bit of madness to contribute. Hombres y mujeres, the 10 greatest Mexican-bashing songs in the pop canon:
The Kingston Trio, "Coplas"
There’s really no rationale to this arriba-arriba recording, first performed by folkie pioneers the Kingston Trio in 1959. A Mexican peon asks an American in English and Spanish if he should pick green peppers, warns travelers to "not muddy the waters" since the town drinks from it, and ends with a sleepless groom bemoaning that he spent "the whole night chasing a cat that had come in over the balcony." Yeah, we think they’re referring to a different kind of pussy, también.
Loco lyric: "Ah, so! You are surprised I speak your language/You see, I was educated in your country/At UCRA."
Various artists, "Little LaTin Lupe Lu"
A groovy garage growl covered by groups ranging from Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels to the Kingsmen to even Bruce Springsteen. Locally, the Righteous Brothers went platinum with their 1963 version of it. While "Little Latin Lupe Lu" isn’t inherently offensive--a guy boasts that his Mexican girlfriend is the best dancer around--the Righteous Brothers’ rendition becomes suspect when you consider that the late Bobby Hatfield reputedly never visited his alma mater, Anaheim High School, in his later years because, by then, too many Mexicans--like myself--attended the school.
Loco lyric: "She’s the best for miles around/She’s my pretty little baby/Whoa--little Latin Lupe Lu."
Pat Boone, "Speedy González"
With this 1963 novelty recording, Boone proved that blacks weren’t the only minorities from which he could profit. Here, the King of Honky R&B assumes the identity of an American tourist who "walked alone past some old adobe haciendas" during "a moonlight night in old Mexico." Boone made no reference to the Warner Bros. cartoon star of the same name, but he did reference the mouse’s refried take on life in spinning a yarn about a philandering, lazy, drunken Mexican man and his long-suffering wife.
Loco lyric: "Hey, Rosita, come quick/Down at the cantina, they’re giving green stamps with tequila."
Jay & the Americans, "Come a Little Bit Closer"
Name the Mexican stereotype, this 1964 release lauds it--in the first stanza. Roy Orbison pretender Jay Black praises the American playground that is Tijuana ("In a little café just the other side of the border") and its hoochie-coochie mamas ("She was just sitting there, giving me looks that make my mouth water") while warning virile white bucks of macho men named José. When José challenges Jay to a duel, Jay runs away like George W. Bush from a two-part question. When the spicy señorita coos to Jose that she wants him to come a little bit closer, she confirms what we’ve always known about Mexican women: they’re non-discriminatory whores . . . but nice.
Loco lyric: You mean you want more? Call KRTH-FM 101.1--they spin the track about every pinche hour.
Frito-Lays, "The Frito Bandito Song"
Before there was the Taco Bell Chihuahua, there was the Frito Bandito, a crudely drawn Mexican that was little more than a sombrero, mustache, gold tooth and bandolier. While the image itself enraged many Chicanos during the character’s late-1960s introduction, what was probably more infuriating to them was the Bandito’s trademark song--sung by Mel Blanc in heavily accented English to the tune of the mariachi standard "Cielito Lindo." The Frito-Lay Corp. vowed to use the character forever, but the Bandito mysteriously disappeared after 1971. Perhaps it was because television stations like KNBC-TV Channel 4 refused to run the ads out of disgust?
Loco lyrics: "Ay-yi-yi-yi/I am the Frito Bandito/I love Fritos corn chips/I love them, I do/I love Fritos corn chips/I steel them from you!"
John Wayne, "Mis Raíces Están Aquí"
You remember John Wayne: American icon, expensive airport, hideous bronze statue. Now remember John Wayne, recording star. In 1973, Wayne released America, Why I Love Her, 10 spoken-word paeans to Old Glory and its inhabitants that finds a wheezing Wayne railing against multiculturalism, Vietnam War opponents and feminists. Worst of the selections is "Mis Raíces Están Aquí ("My Roots are Here"), on which Wayne recounts visiting a destitute "viejo caballero" in the Southwest. "For hundreds of years, people with the blood of the Aztecs in their veins have lived and died on that harsh yet beautiful land," Wayne wrote in the accompanying book, "and names like El Paso, Las Cruces, Alamogordo, Santa Fe, Del Rio and Nogales are perpetual monuments to their being there." Wayne strangely doesn’t mention how Mexican-mowing flicks like The Alamo, The Searchers and The Undefeated were his personal monuments to their being there.
Loco lyric: "‘I have nothing for you, señores,’ he said. ‘My hacienda’s empty now/There was a time . . .’ He shook his head and gave a gentle bow."
Cheech and Chong, "Mexican-American"
Before Cheech Marín became a darling of the LULAC crowd, the San Francisco native was a high-out-of-his-gourd comedian reviled by Chicano yak-tivists for cholo depictions of Chicano life in film and sound alongside the equally stoned Tommy Chong. The duo’s blazing achievement remains "Mexican-American," an improvised Cheech tune that Chong rejoins in 1978’s Up in Smoke with the equally self-explanatory "Beaners"—a two-note guitar strangle consisting of the screamed proclamation "Beeeeeaners!"
Loco lyric: "Mexican-Americans don’t like to get up early in the morning, but they have to, so they do it real slow/Mexican-Americans love education, so they go to night school and take Spanish and get a B."
Genesis, "Illegal Alien"
Chirpier than the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, the video for "Illegal Alien"--with members of the prog-rock monsters wearing sombreros and moustaches that makes pasty Phil Collins look like Mexican Revolutionary martyr Emiliano Zapata--was the impetus for white bands to dress like Mexicans for MTV fun à la Weezer. The 1983 song’s repetitive chorus—"It’s a-no fun being an illegal alien"--is the most obviously stupid music observation since Toby Keith’s "I’m a Big Redneck Piece of Shit."
Loco lyric: "Got out of bed, wasn’t feeling too good/With my wallet and my passport, a new pair of shoes/The sun is shining, so I head for the park/With a bottle of tequila and a new pack of cigarettes."
The Doug Anthony All Stars, "Mexican Hitler"
Further proof that Australians should stick to wiping out aborigines. In this case, the misinterpreting musicians were the Doug Anthony All Stars (DAAS), an Australian comedy troupe notorious during the early ’90s for crafting neo-Nazi parodies. While employing hatred as a pedagogical device is exemplary, mixing metaphors isn’t, and the Nazi mass exodus to South America after World War II that "Mexican Hitler" ostensibly attacks soon devolves into the Fourth Reich "eating nachos in the sun" and meeting "a knee-slapping señorita who worked for a peso on Salon Kitty/Big girls love dick-tators, but the ones that do aren’t pretty." Wallabies, take advice from X: when fighting skinheads, don’t become one.
Loco lyric: "When you’re low, where can you go?/Where to?/Mexico!"
Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, "Zoot Suit Riot"
Take the worst race riot in Mexican-American history and gut it of meaning. Out comes "Zoot Suit Riot," blurted by the neo-swing Cherry Poppin’ Daddies during the mid-’90s big-band revival. It starts off promisingly enough, with excerpts of police sirens backing lead singer Steve Perry and an ominous, accurate description of the 1942 mini-war between pachucos and Navy nitwits: "Who’s that whisperin’ in the trees?/It’s two sailors, and they’re on leave/Pipes and chains and swingin’ hands." The Daddies soon leave the social commentary for faux-Gene Krupa cool--that their fan base didn’t give a damn speaks more about the failure of the American education system than any high school exit exam.
Loco lyric: "You got me in a sway/And I want to swing you done/Now you sailors know/Where your women come for love."
Sometimes someone brings something along that manages to confirm everything you thought you knew while teaching you that you really didn't know shit all along. Praise Jah for Steve Barrow, his tireless advocacy, and his vast record collection. He's done this to me maybe half a dozen times or more already.
Barrow, if you don't know, is something like a Bambaataa of reggae, one of Jamaican music's greatest archivists and popularizers. My man is an ancient East London Marxist with a slight hump in his back from carrying around lots of pints and pickets and 45s. His teeth have seen better days. But just give the man a tape recorder and shut up. My overseas phone bills have spiked drastically everytime I've interviewed him, which I've done maybe 4-5 times now, a thing in itself which will, to borrow a phrase, never grow old.
Barrow is the guy behind the 4-CD Encyclopedia Reggaenica called Tougher Than Tough, the indispensible Rough Guide to Reggae
(with Peter Dalton), all the best Trojan reissues, and virtually the entire Blood and Fire discography. He's been threatening to start up a rare dancehall reissue label with a group of Frenchmen, although one wonders if world politics have postponed that promising project. The brilliant new "Tree of Satta" on B+F is, I presume, a product of that (perhaps failed) interest.
Here, though, is something from further left: a prehistory of reggae. Yall know how I feel about prehistories, right?
This one is called Mento Madness, and it does a few things definitively:
1) it documents the rise of the Jamaican record industry in the 1950s through the singles output of a Sephardic Jew immigrant named Stanley Motta;
2) it captures the island sound of Mento, a hybrid played by bands with names like "Lord Fly with Dan Williams & Orchestra" that appealed to tourist and local alike; and
3) it links Mento backward to Jamaican folk songs and forward all the way to dancehall.
Not to mention, it fucking rocks.
To clarify, Mento rocks along gently, and was often confused by stupid North Americans for Trinidadian calypso. (Mento artists often played along, calling themselves things like "the Calypso Clippers", further confusing the few serious-minded types.) Occasionally you hear the chicka-chick guitar that ended up in roots reggae. Tempo-wise and attitude-wise, Mento sounds a lot closer to the exuberance of ska, the next evolution in Jamaican music. But the biggest musical surprise (at least for me) is how close Jamaican Mento rhythmically is to Cuban mambo. Some of these songs have a prominent clave being played along on sticks.
For those looking to tie Mento to folk music, check track 2, "Dry Weather House", set to the melody of the children's song about the stubborn donkey, "Tingalayo". I confess I haven't sat down to figure out the lyrics to that one yet. But I can say that there's lots of songs about bananas, banana markets, mongoose activities, dumb dogs, and dumber donkeys. They are are all great fun.
Now I know I have a reggae 45 of "Healing In The Balmyard", a song by Harold Richardson and the Ticklers that basically advertises the services of the local spirit healer, maybe even by Lee Perry, and there's a version by dem two bad DJ: Clint Eastwood & General Saint. But for those looking to discover the roots of dancehall, just click straight to the first track "Hill & Gully Ride/Mandeville", a medley by Lord Composer & The Silver Seas Hotel Orchestra. "Mandeville"'s cadences will be familiar to fans of T.O.K., whose "Diwali"-driven "Galang Gal" is just the latest version."Hill and Gully Ride" was one of Yellowman's famous hits thirty years later, and ebonics etymologists will no doubt note that this girlwatcher's anthem refers to the "hills" that go on top, while the "gully" and "ride" part, well you know.
The sexual innuendo and cunning patwa linguistics are a lot of the fun. Can you imagine a chart-topper called "She Pon Top" during the early 50s in the U.S.? Maybe? Well can you imagine a chart-topper called "Manassa with the Tight Foot Pants"? Ha.
My favorite song is "Monkey Talk" credited to "Hubert Porter with George Moxey & his Calypso Quintet". In a wonderful piece of island wisdom that seems really relevant to Our Unelected North American Leadership these days, Porter (assuming he's the singer) compares humans to monkeys, and it's the monkeys who are really getting dissed. "Human don't you call my name, human you should be ashamed, human some things that you do no well-thinking monkey would ever do."
Words to live by, and music that will undoubtedly change the way you hear dancehall, reggae, rock steady and ska.
Sometimes The Future Is Now (Maybe)
Lansing-Dreiden - ‘The Incomplete Triangle’ (Kemado Records - 2004)
Lansing-Dreiden are a design collective from Brooklyn (Wait - wait - come back - it’ll be alright, I promise.), and I’ve listened to their recent album ‘The Incomplete Triangle’ at least 50 times since it first graced my doorstep. The only way to do the album justice is to take it track by track, which some people find boring, but as I am incapable of being boring it shouldn’t be a big deal.
1) Metal on a Gun - This is future rock. How do I know, if I’m here now and not here later? Well, lotsa stuff has been called futuristic: Sun Ra, Visage and Patience & Prudence, for example. And they were. But it’s not every song that makes me think of disembodied heads singing in the cocktail lounge of the George W. Bush Memorial Space Station on Mars in the year 2525. “Metal on a Gun” does. The interplay of the voices and guitars as they work off of one another...god, that IS boring. Forget I said that. Pretend I said this instead: “When drum machines go to heaven they get to play this song forever”.
2) The Eternal Lie - This track could be a 70’s-era Golden Earring tune found between “Radar Love” and “Twilight Zone” on that $2.99 greatest-hits cassette you dug out of the bargain bin. It has “Radar Love”’s propulsiveness and the greatest gnarled 5 second guitar solo of the past 20 years. It has been waxed and buffed for space-flight.
3) An Uncut Diamond - More jet propulsion ratatat tat. Moogy swirls of prog nougat stay out of the way of speedy riffs and utter surety of purpose. (The purpose itself doesn’t even matter. It’s the confidence behind the purpose that is so impressive. In music anyway. Sometimes.) I admire the vision that doesn’t blink or wink at me. There are too many homebound arts & crafts projects taped together by all those geniuses making electro/electronic-dance/rock masterpieces in the basement that give me the feeling that any minute, right in the middle of a song, there will be a knock on the door and a shout of: “Dude, mom wants her beatbox back. And oh yeah, she hates you!” Not so, Lansing-Dreiden. As a design collective they take the integrity of the space surrounding their space-rock a lot more seriously than a lot of music collectives I could mention.
4) The Advancing Flags - A pretty, boutique speed metal riff hides the dread of a funhouse synth that is right out of a Goblin-scored chase scene in an Argento Itala-splatter epic. No really, it does. Well, not completely. You can feel the dread a little bit.
5) The Missing Message - Swoon-worthy. Crispy Ambulance-worthy. What was the name of that Death Cab For Cutie side-project again? Exactly. You won’t remember either when you hear this shit. Narcotized echoes of past U.K. artpunk glories perhaps, but beholden to no one. (I have that last line tattooed on my forearm.)
6) A Silent Agreement - And it just gets better. A warm bath of plinky synth gorgeousness. What a mid-80’s issue of Melody Maker would have called: “A lachrymatory crystal sugar cathedral spun from eiderdown filigree.”
7) Laid In Stone - A wonderful dream of a song. If it’s possible, I’d like Lansing-Dreiden to design my dreams in the future. I had one the other night where I was playing football!! I don’t want to play football! I want to fly naked over the trees listening to Alan Parsons and Slowdive coo in my ear.
8) An Effect Of The Night - Even dreamier if that’s possible. Like the death of thought. Like having your hand held by Jiddu Krisnamurti in Ojai, California under the spreading orange trees.
9) Glass Corridor - Perhaps the most derivative track on the album. In the sense that it calls attention to its elders in more obvious ways than the other songs do. Even so, it is electro nu-rock funk that does a great job of evoking the aura of possibility that surounded the original new wave explosion like a black leather glove on a bony white hand.
10) I.C.U. - Depeche pastiche with a dash of Alphaville and New Order for added flavor. Both “Glass Corridor” and “I.C.U.” are practically begging for Trevor Horn and/or DFA remixes. Trevor can have the (night mix) and DFA the (dub version).
11) Disenchanted - Like blancmange, the dessert and the band, only fruitier and richer and a marvel of invention never reached (so far) by indie darlings The Faint (But achieved once before by ahead of their retro times -3 years later and they would have been huge- DMX Krew.).
12) Desert Lights - It all ends on this high of highs. A dance-floor anthem for the raver turned waver and their Cure-besotted parents (it really has been that long, just in case you forgot.) Do you sense the pattern yet of ‘The Incomplete Triangle”? One side is future rock, one side is shimmery shoegazery, and the third side is a trip down memory lane ending at the employee entrance to Chess King. Which is at the back of the store. And reachable only by travelling thru the bowels of the mall. You never know who you’ll meet there. Could be Santa grumbling past on his way to the sleigh or that dick from the corn dog place or that cool guy with the Love & Rockets badge attached to his Record Town vest or maybe even the scrunchi-haired/wayfarer-wearing love of your life. If the triangle is incomplete, dear dreamy boys and girls, it’s only because it’s missing you.
*Special Guest Mentalist: Don Allred*
Author's Warning! The following piece is so corny that it may prove upsetting
to some sensibilities. Think of it as dinner music for people who aren't very
hungry, a car tape for White Castle, a bumper sticker for the blind. With
that in mind, please proceed. (Or not.)(Be cautious, either way.)
Gretchen Wilson: HERE FOR THE PARTY (Sony Nashville)
Gretchen W., 15, of Pocahontas, Illinois, has finally tiptoed through
the Pearly Gates. Now she finds her ancestor, (could he be, [considering that
splaying slide guitar, that pouncing Bo Diddley beat, that banjo, for that
matter] say, Kunta Kinte? No, "a full-blooded Cher-oh-kee," natch) and
a big gold eagle" on a sweet chariot, and go drag-racing across Heaven,
peeling glossses from Michael Martin Murphy's "Geronimo's Cadillac," Dixie
"Sin Wagon," and various ballads about giving a Stranger a ride. (Who's
zoomin' who? Distorted keywords keep luring me through "Chariot's" middle
patch.) Could be a mess, but Young'un never fires all of her guns at once, *the
better to * explode into space.
Gretchen Wilson, 30-ish, of Nashville, Tennessee, seconds that motion,
especially on the title track of her debut album, HERE FOR THE PARTY. She
makes her way down the bar, having worked all week, and now she's got a level mind
to "get some." No, not "get some" daringly cute li'l twists
on the phrase, a
la Toby Keith: no "babies," (she's got one, thank you) nor even "money,"
in sum: (blood sugar rises like background) "SOME." (More guitars? Th-thanks!).
G's no plodder, though. Her first single, "Redneck Woman," is a
and poo rocket up the country charts, in a record-breaking way. Gretchen's
got the knack, even for resistant material. (Exception: "Homewrecker,"
shines & stinks, with worst attempted-recycling of "Sweet Home" riffage
past five minutes at least. Special Presentation at next CMA Awards, you read
it here first). She gets energized, sensitized,in the midst of (the vivrantly
reassuring!) "When I Think About Cheatin'," which could (well) be sold
prevention of disease only, coming from Faith Hill. And "Holding You"
Stepford Wives sub-ABBA, if delivered by Shania-in-decline, but here, I notice
this part of the melody that keeps singing to itself, possibly cos Gretchen just
In "What Happened," her eyes are clear full of tried 'n' True Love's
disappearing possibilities, like she once scoped Heaven. Sounds like she still
knows: "My Mamma would kill me, if I got kicked outta the choir. But you just
gotta race those chariots." You just gotta! Don Allred
Some Songs Don't Suck Like a Leatherneck on a Longneck
"Back in the Saddle," Matraca Berg (included on both Sunday Morning and Saturday Night
and the 1999 re-issue of Lying to the Moon and Other Stories
OVERVIEW: This is the best country song to never be a chart hit. (Highest position: #51, 1998. This is a damned shame and I feel ill.)
SCENARIO: Horny suburban woman breaks out of holistic "dude ranch," falls for cowboy stud, wants to do him.
THE FIVE GREATEST THINGS ABOUT IT, IN REVERSE ORDER:
5. Syncopated acoustic strum be-bopping between left and right speakers to start song, very reminiscent of reggae for about a half a second. It's kind of like Beenie Man's country song "Ain't Gonna Figure It Yet," which is probably really
the best country song to never be a big hit, but we're not talking about that right now, so shut up.
4. It's a song by Matraca Berg, dammit! She has written a whole lot of huge hits for other people ("Strawberry Wine" for Deana Carter, "Faking Love" for Sheppard and Brooks, "Xxxs and Ooos, an American Girl" for Trisha Yearwood, etc.), but her solo career has been marked by a whole trailerload of failure, which just sucks. Berg has all the subtlety of the great Broadway lyricists, and anything by her is worth hearing, unless it's one of the million-ish songs about how great old country women are, in which case it's probably okay to skip "Good Old Girl" or "Back When We Were Beautiful" or that other one I can't remember the name of.
3. And this is a song about sex! The lust is palpable: "We'll dance all night till your belt buckle shines" might just be about actually dancing, but I doubt it; "You walked up like a bowlegged dream" is like Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise
; the image of "a leatherneck suckin' on a longneck" is actually a little too gross-sounding to make the list, but whatever. And that chorus: "I can put you back in the saddle baby / Stand you up tall / I can put you back in the saddle baby / And that ain't all." O my stars.
2. The whole beatnik hootenanny vibe here is adorable, with the Bob Dylan drawl on the verses, the drunken-sounding pause ritardando before the chorus kicks in, the awesome rowdy backing vocals by the million-dollar quartet of Faith Hill, Suzy Bogguss, Patty Loveless, and Martina McBride...it's like Matraca Berg's 57th Dream, half talking blues half closing time at the Spinning Wheel, perfection with a whiskey chaser.
1. The three lines that serve both as a second bridge before the last chorus and a summary paragraph so you can get the whole message/subtext if you haven't been paying attention; also, a way of acknowledging the fact that country's main audience these days is suburban women; also, a neat triplet for those of us who love triplets; also, a nod to the notion that the relationship is transitory, fun not serious, a passing fancy LIKE THE SONG ITSELF; also, the way Matraca sings it is just hottt:
Well I might be in a yuppie funk
You might think I'm a little bit drunk
But all I know is a hunk is a hunk