It’s almost Friday, and so…
A few days ago Blackmailers Don’t Shoot posted videos of The Misfits and Circle Jerks, which made me want to post a punk video. To be topical, I’m going to make it “do They Owe Us a Living?” by the British band Crass. The song should be an anthem for Obama voters:
I think it’s ironic that whoever made the video put a poster of “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help” in it.
I thought that was a quote from a Reagan speech, but as it turned out, Ronaldus Maximus didn’t come up with that expression. His language was “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help””; the saying itself is folklore.
Still, I don’t think the anarchists are thinking it through. Who is going to guarantee that “they” owe “us” a living if not the government?
The Velvet Underground was one side project of Any Warhol that lasted longer than 15 minutes. In the late 60’s they might had seemed no different from other hangers-ons at The Factory, a small-time band, by the standards of the time, but a decade and half later, when miscellaneous queens and junkies proved to be only as interesting as Andy wanted them to be, they were firmly established as contenders for most influential band in rock-n-roll history, inspiring punk, noise and glam. As Brian Eno once said, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
Lou Reed keeps generation X bohemians keep going well into their 40’s. That they are not going to be the next Beatles was pretty obvious long time ago, but they are still holding out hope that they might turn out to be the next Velvet Underground. How wrong they are!
As DH likes to say, the underground music scene today is dominated by idiot savants who, despite having very little formal training and despite not being particularly bright, benefit from an occasional burst of inspiration. They might think that rock-n-roll is easy because somebody like Reed made it simple and dirty. But Reed had a jazz background and honors degree from Syracuse University, so he had the tools to do minimalism right.
He was a quintessential tortured artist, literally so. As a teenager Reed had to undergo electroshock therapy for fooling around with men. It’s often said that Reed was bisexual, but the proprietor of this blog strongly suspects that while female bisexuality is very common, men are either gay or straight. Although it’s possible that, in his usual fashion, Reed only wanted to be provocative, he himself stated that he invented his bisexual personae for marketing purposes. He came out as a straight man in 1978, shortly before AIDS made headlines across the world.
None of it justifies giving ETC to minors. It’s fair to say that some of the early battles of culture wars made imprints on Lou Reed’s gray matter… after which the musician himself did considerable damage to his mind and body. He lived the life he sang about in his song. Lou Reed went on rhapsodize the seediest corners of pre-Guiliani New York (the New York poised to return in case anyone gets nostalgic), in the meantime composing some of the most soul-wrenching and melodic songs of love and loss. Fellow Mexifornians will appreciate the Spanish subtitles:
Lou Reed was pretty much a commie, but he did nevertheless inspired the Czech youth of the Cold War era. Why some Western bands made it big in Eastern Europe is anyone’s guess. A few relatively unknown Western offerings were promoted by socialist states with the goal of providing the Eastern Block youth with an opportunity to let some steam out. Others penetrated the Iron Curtain purely by chance — a smuggled LP copied to reel that went viral. Expatriates broadcasted popular music (from London, most notably) both reflecting the charts and responding to our tastes, which, by the mid-80’s, tended to be on the metal side. We knew established rock-n-rollers, like the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, of course, but all in all our knowledge of Western music was pretty random.
I was aware of Velvet Underground in my teens, but I don’t recall hearing the music until I immigrated. I’m not entirely sure how the Czechs got to be into this cult New York band. I know they were popularized by the Czech band The Plastic People of The Universe, along with Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. Captain Beefheart to this day remains an inside baseball kind of performer, so why were the Czechs cool enough to know him forty years ago? Velvet Underground were big in Czechoslovakia after the failed Prague Spring of 1968, at the time they were playing in small clubs in the US. Did The Plastic People find themselves in possession of one of these 10,000 records?
Velvet Underground helped the Czech dissidents keep their spirits high in the years between the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the later event named after you guess what band. The first Czech president and a well-known playwright Vaclav Havel spoke of the liberating power of rock-n-roll — it contained the message of personal freedom. The political transformation of Eastern Europe was possible, in part, because so many Eastern European bohemians looked at Western bohemian degenerates with awe. I wouldn’t hold my breath in re Middle Eastern degenerates like Bin Laden following the suit.
Lou Reed passed away last week, at the age of 71, and, I think, he himself was surprised just how long he lasted. He lived long enough to see his musical legacy grow, to see his music change the world (or at least a corner of the world), drag queens become boring, Andy Warhol become the highest-selling artist of the year. In a particularly surreal episode, on Havel’s insistence, Bill Clinton invited the old perv to the White House in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal. Havel and Reed instantly struck a friendship, and there was no political fallout for Clinton. Lou Reed became the establishment.
I’m pretty sure Reed didn’t too terribly mind being invited to various red carpet events, and he certainly savored any opportunity to irritate the press. But while he was pretty comfortable being part of the establishment, I’m not sure why we need establishment figures like Lou Reed. When putting together a song list for our wedding, we briefly entertained including “Perfect Day”. We had to X it out eventually because, after being featured in “Trainspotting”, it was all but impossible the song from heroin. We played no Velvet Underground. It is, however, a great song:
UPDATE: The best obituary to date by Robert Dean Lurie
The come hither portrait of Dzhokar Tsarnaev gracing the latest cover of The Rolling Stone made me think of their first Nirvana cover.
Back then I thought that the band wanted to have its cake and eat it too: to be commercially successful while currying favors with the people who resent success. Now I see that Cobain was practically clairvoyant. Not because his running around and incessantly talking of suicide somehow foreshadowed his own death, but because, gosh, Rolling Stone does suck. Then and now (and always) they are creating controversies out of thin air.
What does the younger Tsarnaev has to do with music? He’s not a performer; he wasn’t an underground cult figure prior to the Boston massacre. After the bombing, sure, he did develop a following of “girls” in polyester rompers. The irony of it is, he probably listens to some kind of Eurotrash — or Mideast themed Eurotrash — the kind of music that’s supposed to be an instant turn off to his groupies… if he wasn’t a murderous cult figure, that is.
Gorod(City) was one of my favorite Russian underground songs. It’s simple, serene and mysterious, and I fell in love with it when I first heard it, in my early teens. That version was performed by a group called Aquarium, and most Russians still attribute the authorship to the lead singer Boris Grebenshchikov (nicknamed BG). I don’t think he still claims it, but at some point he probably did.
Appropriately enough, Gorod’s origin is shrouded by mystery. In the late 80s a girlfriend of mine told me that BG stole it from some singer songwriter, altering the lyrics. She said that the original version used quotes from the Bible which BG bastardized. I knew about the accusations of plagiarism when I was getting married, fifteen years later, but I loved the song so much, I chose the Aquarim version of the song for the father-daughter dance. I didn’t know where to find the original, plus, plagiarism or not, I loved BG’s execution, which always took me back to my teens — it’s very Soviet Union in the 80s.
Zeev Heizel did a thorough investigation of the origin of the song, and concluded that the melody was created by an amateur Russian lute player Vladimir Vavilov in the late 1960s, and that it was inspired by Italian Renaissance composer Francesco da Milano. Poet Anri Volohonsky wrote the lyrics in 1972, and Aquarium recorded their hit in the 80s.
English translation of the Aquarium version is following:
Under the blue sky
Is a city of gold
With translucent gates
And a bright star
And in that city is a garden
Of grass and flowers
Animals of unseen beauty
One is a lion with a mane of fire
Another is an ox with stupendous eyes
With them is the golden celestial eagle
Whose look of light is unforgettable
But in the blue sky
Shines a star
She is yours oh my angel
She is yours forever
One who loves is beloved
One who shines is a saint
Let the star lead you
To the miraculous garden
To meet the lion with a mane of fire
And the ox with stupendous eyes
With them is the golden celestial eagle
Whose look of light is unforgettable
Ever since my bff told me that the lyrics were based on Biblical verses, I thought that the song was about Jerusalem. And maybe the text was based on the scriptures, only in the original version the city was not “under”, but “over” the blue sky, the heavenly Jerusalem. Anyhow, I think it’s appropriate to celebrate Passover with the Hebrew version of Gorod, with a very thick Russian accent, performed by Zeev Heizel:
Happy Passover and happy Easter to my Christian friends.
Americans might have given him a ticker-tape parade, and he was a rock star the world over, but I suspect Van Cliburn was best loved in Russia. High-minded Russians love classical music, and they all (absolutely every single one of them!) fell in love with Cliburn in 1958 when the musician won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. The iron curtain lifted a bit, and a refined Texan with a wild head of hair wowed the country with his masterful execution of Russian Romantic composers. The way his fingertips touched the piano, one would believe that he spent his formative years committing to memory Pushkin’s and Yesenin’s verses and playing in the snow besides birch trees. Vanya Cliburn!
And please note, Cliburn was not a creation of any kind of centralized system designed to nurture virtuoso musicians. He was just a guy who loved music and who came from a family that loved music. The Soviets, on the other hand, scouted out talented children. Turns out, classical music can strive in the culture of individualism.
If Cliburn’s performance showed the nation that America had a soul, American Exhibition in Sokolniki Park, Moscow the following year offered something different. Two million Russians attended the installation that featured the wonders of the day-to-day capitalist existence. Had Americans with their Coca-Cola and dishwashers lost track of what’s important in life? After Van Cliburn there was no way to convincingly argue that the United States were too materialistic.
Van Cliburn’s entry in the Tchaikovsky competition was one of the iconic moments of Khrushchev’s Thaw of the 1950-60’s, a period of relative freedom following the death of Stalin. My parents’ generation that came of age during the Thaw absolutely idolized the pianist.
Van Cliburn passed away yesterday at the age of 78. Please enjoy the recording of his extraordinary performance in Moscow, one of the few hopeful moments in Soviet history: