Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Grunge 1: Cobain Fever

I’ve been immersed lately, listening and looking back over some aspects of “Grunge,” Seattle-centered originally, and mostly gone now. Why the interest? Well...

I gave up on trying to embrace and absorb all the subdivisions of Pop Music about 15 years ago. Up till then I had made it a matter of personal pride to familiarize myself with every kind of music made and, as best I could, to follow on records any further developments or significant changes. So I learned, meaning read about and listened to, and heard enough to appreciate--to admire if not to love--a wide-horizons world of music ranging freely…

1) From Liszt to Elvis, Piaf to Punk, influential Dylans to distinct and independent Dials (record labels, that is)--and as one earthshaking example the album cover to
London Calling by the Clash, and the brilliant dual-ing discs within, arising from the Punk-ash heap of Art Rock pulverized, immediately acclaimed the perfect throwdown of the era.

2) From Hamza's el oud to a din handily loud, and Vancouver’s Heart to Hotlanta’s Soul: the label might read Modern or Motown, Manchester or Madagascar, but no matter which or where, if the sound was Deep South Soul--Candi Staton and Percy Sledge, Ann Peebles and Penn/Oldham, James Carr and James Govan--then I was snared, grinnin’ like the possum that escaped a 'gator, happily enrapt in Loo’zana swamp moss and Mis’sippi sweat, at the dark end of some dimly-lit street!

3) From grandiose old Operas to the Grand Ol’ Opry, and the New Lost City Ramblers to the New Wave: the Blues had a baby named Rock ’n’ Roll--a happy toddler till its loutish cousins Pub Rock and Punk clashed and pistoled and jammed, down at their local, and emerged clutching a frank ‘n’ stein, passport-and-pisspot contraption called New Wave; though neither low-tide nor tsunami, synth sine-curve nor whosit’s power-chords, horrid hairstyle nor torpid farewell to Rock, the New Wave at its best gave us Graham Parker and the Rumour, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Nick Lowe and his songs of smart-aleck irony, maybe even Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and--grassy as hay sues--John Hiatt and the Goners (the
group’s halcyon years when slidemaster Sonny Landreth was the Gonerest of all).

4) From mbira thumb piano to Monk, Thelonius (any), and Gustav Mahler (conducted by Walter, B.) to Gregg Allman (guitared by brother D.)--Mahler’s clarion-splendor Symphonies 1 and 2 and the impossibly beautiful, heaven-sent and heart-rending, elegiac song-cycle, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), might serve to sum up all that we know of Life and Music, of Love and, finally, of Death.

You see, I love Music (or did), almost any kind, for the imaginative fancies it awakens in me, and even the florid over-fancy writing that’s sometimes unleashed (see above). At 70, I’m too jaded to be much bothered by purple prose or yellow
journalism, Repugnant-red tricks or almost-blue heartache. What changed for me in the mid-Nineties and still gnaws at me today was my ability or willingness to go on listening to all kinds of Music. The few categories had splintered into, say, three-score-and-ten, niches and spin-offs and beat-counts and coded understandings. My ears and my brain were just too tired. I had to take leave of that cacophony of sounds.

But beyond my own disquiet there were these other signs... Rock’s foundations were crumbling. Jazz had retreated into its own past. Country was all hats and no cattle-calls. Reggae seemed to have lost the Rasta spirit and settled for Babylonian flesh. Classical went on its way, dwindling and obscure. World Musics were too much with us--lately gotten, too soon spent,
traditions wasted.

Worst of all, Black Music had lost its Soul, its Gospel-derived, Love-become-love emotions, the heaven-waking, house-wrecking harmonies, and the melismatic bending and stretching of notes. The new replacements were a bad joke. Hip-hop at first meant “tagging” and lyrics either comic-ironic or stalwart and socially aware, and those early 12” singles (mostly on Tommy Boy, I think) at least demanded that you (break)dance.

Then came the K-rap. Crude street talk; whores and guns and jive-ass rhymes; no one but thieves, pimps, and crackheads need apply. And the ensuing world takeover, by angry (and phoney angry) Black males named Li’l Wayne and Biggy Smalls, Tupac and Get Back, Remake and Dead Fake, depressed me then--the better few diminished by the many--and still depress me now.

I vowed to focus only on the Music, the several musics, old or new, from then till now, that matter to me most: acoustic Jazz, British Isles Folk, Roots/Americana, so-called Conscious Reggae, any Deep Soul that survived, and a few other narrowed categories. In so doing, I managed to live amid
flannel Seattle but ignore the years of Grunge.

Oh, not completely; I’d hear the odd song on a car radio or blasting from a boombox (or whatever communications gadget was hot at the time). Without paying attention, I thought I had the Grunge sound sussed out: Northwest Garage Rock meets Punk meets Thrash Metal; the shy reclusiveness of Jimi Hendrix combined with the quiet subtlety of the Ramones (as if!). “Doctoring” an old joke: take two letters from Punk, and four from Garage, and call me in the morning.

I knew some band names--Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and wasn’t there a group (or
was it a solo act?) called TAD? (I admit it, I just didn't care what attitude differentials separated Sub Pop, say, from the pushy success of major labels.) And then there was that trio with the tall, tall bass player and the moody, sharp-tongued blond guy singing...

* * * * *
Part 2 brings an actual visit from his Kurtness. In the meantime there's hot turkey and family traditions that need tending.


Steve Provizer said...

I hope you had a fine Thanksgiving with you and yours.

You deserve a lot of credit for trying to follow popular music trends even into the 90's. I stopped long before that and watched passively as each new hybrid genre crashed like waves against an increasingly distant shore. [block that metaphor].

Working with teenagers, I was forced into the company of various ilks of current music. The only one that got my increasing respect was, believe it or not, Metal.

IWitnessEd said...

Tappy Hurkey write-bac katcha. You have hit upon another lacuna in my listening. Does Metal still mean a la Led? or has there been some sort of (r)evolution worth discussing? if you are willing, please supply some context and names of any derivative groups somebody reading this might recognize. Thanks much, Ed

Steve Provizer said...

There are umpteen subtle variations-Doom, Death, Gothic, Screamo...I'm not gonna be a great source of what's worth trying, because songs would come and go in the background without my necessarily knowing who was playing. I know you got your Motley Crue, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, Pentagram, Van Halen, etc., but I'd guess your safest bet would be Metallica.

The management is not responsible for untoward events involving jazz forays into Metal.

IWitnessEd said...

Nertz. Even us bofs have heard of, or herd scumtiousnesses by, those motley crudes. I was hoping for unspoiled still-bottom-rungers with names like Gasmask, Wartzog, Eat Schlits and Dive, GreenWitch Mean (aka Wiccaed), Brasswipe, etc. So the taloned search resumes.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed a lot of music is just re-recording older songs, keep your ears open Ed there are some interesting sounds/mixing of sounds out far as original music with actual guitar players country seems to be the new rock...personally I listen to christian music which runs the spectrum of style...Kim has always been up on upcoming music...maybe she could give you some direction if you care to listen to current. love always Peg
p.s. Happy Thanksgiving

David said...

A decade or two ago, I was dissipating a lunch break by browsing a bookstore (remember those?) Happened to pick up a copy of "Guitar Player" or some such and glanced at survey of guitar players picking their favorite riffs. The Metallica guy's examples were all taken from Thelonius Monk. You never know.
More recently, I asked a young person, "what's the difference between electronica and dub-step?" She said that the former is sort of "bing, bing, bing, bing" and the latter more "wump, wump, wump, wump." That cleared it up for me.
BTW, Ed, it doesn't matter what I think about your musical, cultural, political, or literary opinions. I read your blog for the poetry.

IWitnessEd said...

Greets. The poetry? I am flabbergasted and honored and unnerved to learn someone actually reads the stuff. Big thanks, from not quite the Big Island, but from the last gasp of a brief getaway, with more to come to-Maui, or the next day, or... Soon come. Mahalo!