Real Life Rock Top 10 (7/23/02)

1. Tommy Lasorda on Ted Williams (San Francisco Chronicle, July 6)
“He had a great pair of eyes. They say he could watch a 78 record go around and tell you what’s on the label.” Normal people can’t do it with a 45.

2. Jill Olson, My Best Yesterday (Innerstate)
The jingle-jangle of the Searchers in the guitars, their “Needles and Pins” bite in this young woman’s voice, a warmth and a feel for loss that the Searchers never got around to–and a sense of place that makes Olson, who sings far less convincingly in the San Francisco country band Red Meat, at once familiar and someone you haven’t yet met. “I hope these pop tunes remind you of the sounds that might have blasted from the radio of a brand-new 1966 Ford Ranchero,” Olson says, “way back before you were born.” Or perhaps before she was.

3. Subway commercial for Dijon Horseradish Melt (Fox Sports Net, July 13)
One “Jim” (“a Dennis Miller-type of guy who tells it like it is,” says Subway publicist Les Winograd) pulls up to a burger joint in a car full of buddies. He’s about 40, tall, well-exercised: “Turkey breast, ham, bacon, melted cheese, Dijon horseradish sauce,” he says in the drive-through, exuding an aura of Supermanship all out of proportion to the situation. “That’s, like, not on our menu,” says the young, pudgy, confused person taking orders. “It’s not only not on your menu,” Jim says, “it’s not on your radar screen!” “Do we have a radar screen?” the clerk asks a supervisor as Jim peels out. “Think I made that burger kid cry?” Jim says to his pals, all of them now ensconced in a Subway with the new Select specials in front of them.

It seems plain that, finally, George W. Bush is making himself felt in culture. The commercial takes Bush’s sense of entitlement–which derives from his lifelong insulation from anything most people eat, talk about, want or fear, and which is acted out by treating whatever does not conform to his insulation as an irritant–and makes it into a story that tries to be ordinary. But the story as the commercial tells it is too cruel, its dramatization of the class divisions Bush has made into law too apparent. The man smugly laughing over embarrassing a kid is precisely Bush in Paris attempting to embarrass a French-speaking American reporter for having the temerity to demonstrate that he knew something Bush didn’t. (Real Americans don’t speak French.) Even someone responsible for putting this talisman on the air may have flinched at the thing once it was out there in the world at large, functioning as public discourse, as politics–the last time I saw the spot, the final punchline had been dropped.

4. Counting Crows, Hard Candy (Geffen)
After the tied-in-knots This Desert Life, a return to form: songs about endless free time, a fortune under the couch cushions not to mention in the bank, nothing to do and nowhere to go. Played with all hearts on sleeves. With angst. ANGST. ANGST. And it works: It describes a real terrain where people without endless free time or too much money to count actually live. Even if Adam Duritz’s hair has reached the point where it looks ready to fly away with him.

5. and 6. Phil Collins, Shirley Bassey, Bryan Adams, Queen, Annie Lennox, Cliff Richard, Elton John, Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Tom Jones, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Ozzy Osbourne, et al., Party at the Palace: The Queen’s Jubilee Concert, Buckingham Palace (Virgin) and Furry Lewis, Bukka White and Friends, Party! At Home–Recorded in Memphis in 1968 (Arcola)
Aside from Tom Jones’ “You Can Leave Your Hat On”–a Randy Newman ode to fetishism for which I somehow doubt the queen was present, done in full Mars Attacks! mode–the package is as worthy of all the performers joining hands onstage at the end of the concert to commit mass suicide as you might expect. I was looking forward to the conceptually irresistible set-up of comparing Party to the similarly titled release by blues singers who had the advantage of being already dead. But then I did the honest thing and listened to it.

7. Bill Moody, Looking for Chet Baker: An Evan Horne Mystery (Walker)
Moody’s idea of adding a brooding intensity to his jazz detective is having him say “Don’t go there” over and over–or having him tell us that to catch a very special moment he “punched the air and said Yes!”

8. Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?: The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music (Simon & Schuster)
It’s shocking, but aside from John Atkins’ obscurely published 1973 The Carter Family, this is the first book about a trio that from the 1920s through the ’30s made what remains as profound and influential a body of American song as can be found anywhere. It’s also shocking that even though it is more than 400 pages long, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? is not a serious book. Zwonitzer, who makes documentaries for NPR (Joe DiMaggio, Mount Rushmore), acknowledges his dependence on interviews by Hirshberg (author of undistinguished books on Elvis Presley and the Beatles), on 1960s interviews by folklorists Ed Kahn and Mike Seeger, on research by the scholar Charles Wolfe, and more. But not a quotation or a fact in the book is sourced, which makes it worthless for anyone who might want to pursue routes Zwonitzer might be opening up. Even the many photos are undated. There is no bibliography or discography.

As writing, the book is cute when it isn’t tone-deaf. Hardly a page goes by without Zwonitzer attempting to convince a reader that, as a Northerner, he’s down-home with the Carter Family’s Virginia mountains, juicing the narrative with countless versions of “mighty fine,” “pretty fair” or “flat out.” “When the crop was good–and, tell the truth, even when it wasn’t so good–there was always corn to spare for liquor,” he says in his rangy voice. Oh, those hillbillies!–always going around saying things like “tell the truth.” As for the music, Zwonitzer has no sense of how to get a song into prose. Other people will have to tell whoever might want to know why the Carter Family needs a book, not that the Carter Family has ever ceased to do it.

9. and 10. “Reimagining July 4,” New York Times (July 4) and “Dissent: The American Way,” San Francisco Chronicle (July 4)
The contrast between these two unsigned editorials could not have been more complete. The Times writer spoke of the “breathtaking” renewal of “the principles behind” the country, adding that, “As principles go, they are generous to a fault”–whatever that means. The writer went on to speak of the difficulty of “feeling one’s freedom” (“a little like trying to feel the rotation of the earth”), while finding the notoriously resistant idea of freedom itself not at all difficult to define: “Freedom is the ability to choose whom and what you will become according to your own lights.” How very New Age or, rather, Republican: It’s up to you, you’re on your own, and there is no such thing as society, let alone politics. Freedom certainly has nothing to do with citizens attempting to determine the nature and purpose of their community, their common predicament, their more perfect union.

The great historical struggle to create that union was the subject of the Chronicle’s broadside, which one can hardly imagine running in any other major daily in the country. It pulled no punches. “Ever since Sept. 11,” the writer began, “President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have tried to quash dissent by questioning the patriotism of people who seek to protect our civil rights and liberties.” The writer went on to trace the history of our best-known patriotic traditions, rituals, sayings and songs, from the Pledge of Allegiance to the motto on the Statue of Liberty to “America the Beautiful,” noting that the latter was written in 1883 by Katherine Lee Bates, a feminist professor of English at Wellesley who lived “for decades” with “her life partner Katherine Coman, an economist and social historian. It’s unlikely that those who sing the stirring words ‘and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea’ know that a progressive lesbian who agitated for a more democratic America authored these words.” In other words, the writer was saying, the story of the country is a continuing story, and it starts again when you lift your eyes from the paper.

Katharine Lee Bates, composer of "America the Beautiful," 1883

Katharine Lee Bates, composer of “America the Beautiful,” 1883


Salon, July 23, 2002


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