For several years now, my record collection—thousands of vinyl LPs—has been stored away in my mother's garage. My tiny journalist's-income abode doesn't have room to fit all those boxes of great old records, and I miss them. Badly. I'm ashamed to admit that at this point I no longer even own a functioning turntable, so these treasures sit; collect dust and mildew; and become a rich harvest for mice, silverfish and lord knows what other sort of cardboard-eating vermin nesting in that garage. If I were smart, I'd sell the collection on eBay and net a fortune in the process before it goes completely to seed, but I can't bring myself to part with it. It's somehow comforting just knowing those records are still there for me if I really need them. Anal-retentive, Freud (or maybe it was Erickson) called it.
The other day, I pored through a couple of boxes of those records and was struck by the schizo nature of the catalog. The Damned, the Dickies and the Buzzcocks existed side by side with Seals & Crofts, Gordon Lightfoot, and Jim Croce in a box labeled "'70s." I got all wibbly and frustrated because I couldn't even take the records home and listen to them. Having no recourse, I did what any self-respecting music-lover would have done under the circumstances: I went home, signed on to Napster, and stole a shitload o' music files. Among the crop: "Neat Neat Neat" by the Damned, "Summer Breeze" by Seals & Crofts, "What Do I Get?" by the Buzzcocks, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot, "Eve of Destruction" by the Dickies and "Time In a Bottle" by Jim Croce.
I love all these tunes equally, to make it convenient for everyone to claim I'm a tasteless shithead.
I listened to those songs back-to-back—hostile snarls, chain saw guitars and sentiments of arrested adolescence followed by sweet, gentle vocal harmonies and poignant lyrics about love, grief and beauty. I loved hearing these songs again, and they all had a similar effect on me—they elicited emotions. Disparate emotions, perhaps, but the pure, magical honesty of the music was the common thread. Laugh if you must, but the Damned have more in common with Seals & Crofts than either does with, say, Limp Bizkit; Seals & Crofts have more in common with the Damned than with, say, Jewel.
Once, there was a time when new bands did not emerge on the scene as pre-manufactured manifestations of corporate monoculture. No one told the Damned that if they employed Eddie Cochran bass lines, repetitive and oppressively distorted guitar tones, and tuneless vocals with amusing lyrics of teen alienation, they'd have the formula to help foment a musical revolution. It just happened that way. They were genuinely alienated and fucked-up products of the rigid British class system. No one told Seals & Crofts that if they dressed like Amish peasants and sang gentle, simple songs about life, love and nature, they might have big-assed hit records. They were what they were: devout adherents to the Baha'i faith. And so when I listen to the Damned, I feel their wrath because it's not a pose. It's as real as a soccer riot—I want to drink whiskey, smash the bottle and vandalize something. When I listen to Seals & Crofts, I can feel the harmony of nature and the better angels of humanity still alive in the world, as corny as that sounds. Although they occupied different places on the musical spectrum, both acts' recordings retain the power to inspire and make you feel something. Anything.
Music has been with us as long as we've occupied the planet. It's only been in the past 80 years or so—since the advent of recording technology—that music had anything much to do with commerce. Before Edison's machine, all music was folk music. It was created, performed and passed down from generation to generation as a means of communication and recycling tradition but mostly for the pure enjoyment of both the musician and listener. No one was considering record sales, media exposure, pop stardom or what would be deemed fashionable by the masses when they sang a tune. A blind man could tell a stranger's story just from listening to his music—often right down to what region of what state they grew up in. It would be as readily apparent from listening to Charley Patton that he was an African-American from the Mississippi delta as it would be that Bill Monroe was an Appalachian hillbilly, from hearing his own high, lonesome vocal style.
Somewhere along the line, music and culture were eaten alive by corporations, like sharks feeding on seal pups. The blood of this attack has stained and distorted our nation's musical heritage beyond recognition. By the end of the 20th century, the musical holocaust was complete. There is no longer any room for individuality—not only in the music itself, but also in the way that that music is recorded and presented and in such basic modes of expression as dress and manner of speech. Ergo, you're no longer allowed to be an Eminem without acting like a fucking creep and wearing the corporate-dictated uniform anointed by MTV. Without these accouterments, an "artist" will not be signed by a label with the power to get music before the public. For all his posed rebelliousness, Eminem is every bit as much an indentured servant to his record label as Muddy Waters was to the Stovall Plantation—they both owe their souls to the company store.
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The true maverick isn't dead; it's just that you'll almost surely never get to hear him or her sing. By the very nature of their circumstance, a contemporary mainstream pop star (whether they label themselves "alternative" or not) is a person willing and eager to conciliate, be molded and sell himself as something he or she is told to be rather than what they truly are. Giants such as Patton, Waters, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and John Coltrane would not be able to get a major record deal today. Their refusal to compromise their music—so essential to their genius—would have consigned them to tiny labels; all would have died in obscurity.
The next time you think you're too punk for Seals & Crofts or too mellow to deal with the Damned, give them a try anyway. You might be surprised to find yourself appreciating something you never thought you'd understand: reality and honesty of a type the corporate labels will no longer allow you to experience, as they preside Ayatollah-like over what you're allowed to hear, view, read, wear, think and even how you speak. Dewd.
For a nicely schizo sampling of pre-corporate-holocaust acts performing live in OC this week, catch first-line punks THE DICKIES on Friday night at the soon-to-be-toast Foothill and DIONNE WARWICK at the Cerritos Center on Friday and Saturday nights. Aggressive, shitty rock & roll and lightweight pop fluff both have pleasures to offer the open-minded.
THE DICKIES WITH THE ADZ AND THE STREETWALKIN' CHEETAHS PERFORM AT THE FOOTHILL, 1922 CHERRY AVE., SIGNAL HILL, (562) 494-5196. FRI., 9 P.M. $12. 18+; DIONNE WARWICK PERFORMS WITH NEIL SEDAKA AT THE CERRITOS CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS, 12700 CENTER COURT DR., CERRITOS, (562) 916-8510. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M. $50-$65.