You Better Recognize

It finally dawned on me that Jane’s Addiction spent their entire career making different – and far lesser – versions of Judas Priest’s “Victim of Changes.”

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Some Incredible Thoughts

It is not the thoughts themselves but the subject that is incredible. I speak, of course, of the Hulk. I mentioned earlier that an issue of The Incredible Hulk was my introduction to the medium; because of this, I have a soft spot for the big lug. In the past year, I’ve sort of dipped my toes back into the comic mainstream of superheroes, and had to check out the state of the Hulk. I picked up the Planet Hulk storyline, which had the title character shot into space and landing on a world filled with warlike races and bloodthirsty gladiatorial entertainment. It was Hulk with touches of John Carter and Conan; high fantasy meets space opera meets the Strongest There Is. Mix in a messianic cult who views Hulk as the savior (conveniently, his blood causes plants to sprout from the dry, dusty surface of the planet) and you’ve got everything set up for Hulk to take over the world, bringing peace through force. If you excuse the hackneyed ending that drives the Hulk back to the Marvel Earth and thus the greater comic continuity, it is a fun blast of action well worth a read.

However, I have to say I don’t realy like this current version of the Hulk. He has been portrayed in many ways – and in a couple of skin tones – with his intelligence ranging from bestial to Banner. Currently, he seems as strong as ever and pretty intelligent, but not inhabited by Banner’s mind. It makes the Hulk somewhat boring and generic, just another super strong guy. Originally the Atomic-age Frankenstein monster (with the cunning and intelligence the monster possesses in the novel), the character became more akin to the monster of the Frankenstein movies, with childlike tenderness and his fits of rage coming only due to his persecution. This is the Hulk I grew up with, the Savage Hulk; unbelievably powerful with the mind of a child. This incarnation is hard to write, which I believe is why they’ve tried out so many other versions. “Hulk Smash!” is the cliché we all know because it was so easy to fall back on; Hulk as angry id, unchecked. But the best portrayals of the character also draw on the other aspect of the four-year old mindset that gets kids past that age without being throttled; unfiltered love.

I pointed out the tenderness in the Hulk’s pose on that fateful cover, something Herb Trimpe was able to do where many other artists failed. He was also able to portray a broad range of anger, from annoyed to berserk to furious, vicious determination. His early 70s Hulk is not the drooling beast of Sal Buscema (who I do like, and bought issue after issue of in the early 80s). Just compare these two images, Sal on the left and Herb on the right:

Hulk - Side by Side

One is savage, and regardless of what triggered that reaction (I think it was the Abomination), it is hard to sympathize or identify. The other is annoyed, and like a child is beating on something with an “I don’t wanna!” expression. We’ve all been there and see kids act like that everyday. Especially in grocery stores in the cereal aisle.

In Marvel’s favor, they are now more open then ever to creator’s playing with their character’s outside of the comic continuity. A few years back, one of my favorite artist’s, Sam Kieth (of The Maxx fame) wrote and illustrated an Hulk & Wolverine limited series. His Hulk is outstanding, a childlike being of limited patience and understanding but fierce loyalty and compassion. I’m not going into the story (it would be easy to ruin), but the dialog for the Hulk is spot-on and the art is some of Kieth’s best. I’ll share one panel, where the Hulk’s approach to problem solving is wonderfully in character:

Hulk will…

The way he’s grabbing the tail of the plane is so perfect! I don’t think it is hard for anyone to imagine the next page.

Long story short, I wish that the current Hulk was more like the Hulk of the past and not just the strongest hero in the Marvel Universe. Who said I couldn’t be concise?

Band du Jour

Ian has asked my opinion of the latest critical buzz-band, Vampire Weekend, and instead of just dropping him an email I figure I’d post it here. I’ve given the self-titled debut a few spins; my first impression was pretty much in one ear and out the other. I told Ian that based on that I thought they were innocuous, as they really made no impression for good or bad. The second time around was after reading Ian’s long and measured take; and though I could see the appeal to the demographic he describes, I am far from that target audience and my interest was limited at best.

So I kept listening, open to being grabbed by lyrics, beat, riffs, something. It is a beautifully recorded album, with plenty of discrete space for instruments to sound and ring without running over each other. They’ve also avoided the loudness trap so it is not a tiring listen. Ian rightly latches onto “Campus” as a highlight. It is lyrically interesting, delivered with real gusto; Koenig sells the song, committing fully to make me believe. They drop some of their world music instrumental touchstones and just plow forward towards more conventional indie-pop. I don’t think their Afro-pop touches are insincere or “slumming” as I have read in some reviews. They seem as honestly interested in incorporating the guitar rhythms, beats and vocal harmony styles as their hybrid forebears Paul Simon and Talking Heads. I’m not sure how well they succeed at their goal; the drummer doesn’t seem up to the task just yet, so it is easy to hear the result as affectation as opposed to aspiration. I really, really don’t like the synthesizer that pops up playing chords and crap all over the place. The sound often devolves to bad chordal comping, and a disservice to the songs each and every time it appears. Lose the keys.

Lyrically, Koenig has taken some shots because of his references but Ian rightly paints them as coloring not core. But what I hear is a storyteller much like the young Billy Bragg; overly arch at times, in love with wordplay and aching for significance. I think people forget that Bragg wrote more relationship songs than Communist rants, and what an erudite, yet somehow charming, little twat he could be. I’m not sure Koenig has the ego to be on Bragg’s level (and hopefully he doesn’t spend half his concerts telling lame stories to fluff himself), but the refusal to play down his intelligence and experiences in his lyrics is not a negative.

They remind me somewhat of Bishop Allen, though I liked Bishop Allen’s first album Charm School much, much more than Vampire Weekend. Instead of the heady rush and self-importance of the college experience, Charm School is a post-collegiate look back, with a bit of both longing and head-scratching at those days. Bishop Allen was at that point best appreciated live; the songs revved up into bouncy power pop, becoming edgy, brittle and nervous. Sadly, they have not lived up to that promise, instead becoming more arch and more prone to unnecessary studio flourishes. I understand that live Vampire Weekend have more energy (see this Youtube clip), so maybe that is the proper way to approach them as well.

You may be asking, so what exactly does this mean? What’s he think? I’m of two minds; what they are at this point and what they might become. As of now, I am mystified by their hype; I think they are competent but, “Campus” excepted, a band with little heft or hooks. I was forced to listen for the lyrics because musically I was between bored and annoyed. The album is pretty weak. In the future, I hope they are able to succeed where Bishop Allen failed. If they can capture the energy and spirit of the live show, and combine that with Koenig’s growth as a lyricist, I’ll be interested.

One thing I want to note; they left their best song off the album. Known originally as “Boston” then switched to “Ladies of Cambridge,” you can get it from iTunes as the B-side to the “Mansard Roof” single. It is straightforward indie pop, and is even more forceful and direct than “Campus.” Easily my favorite thing I’ve heard from them, and one that, though it has some strings and other studio flourishes, best captures the energy of the live footage I’ve seen.

Dancing About Architecture

Despite the oft-quoted sentiment expressed above (and despite who may have said it; for I like Zappa and Costello both, and either of their egos were big enough to sell the line), I like reading books about music. Sometimes I like musicological views (The Auditory Reader was a good, if challenging, read), but I am usually drawn to historical tomes like the excellent Please Kill Me.

Though it first came out almost a dozen years ago, I just picked it up and read it last week. I don’t feel bad about waiting (the history of early punk isn’t going to change participants thirty-plus years on), but I’m sure my copy would be well-worn and dog-eared by multiple readings if I’d had it at hand all this time. There are plenty of reviews you can read, so I’m not going into what, who and why; just that it was engrossing, entertaining and disturbing, and wholly, utterly worthwhile. The only part I found less than interesting was the backroom gossip that permeates the book, but I guess it is worthwhile. It seems that “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” was as much an active cliché at a street level as it was at the top, but hearing the same story about the same women with a rotating cast of junkie guitar players gets rather repetitive.

Yet on almost every page there is a wonderful quote or insight into the scene, the music or the people. My absolute favorite – it made me laugh out loud and startle my wife – was from Richard Hell, talking about the Ramones:

All their songs were two minutes long, and I asked them the names of all their songs. They had maybe five or six at the time: “I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement,” “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You,” I Don’t Wanna Be Learned, I Don’t Wanna Be Tamed'” and “I Don’t Wanna” something else.

And Dee Dee said, “We didn’t write a positive song until ‘Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.'”

They were just perfect, you know?

Genius.

Another book is on my radar, and will probably be my next music book purchase; Marc Master’s No Wave. Though I’m not familiar with much of the scene (songs here and there, a few artists like Suicide and Lydia Lunch), I’m looking forward to the writing. Marc played a very important role in my appreciation of music (one of which he probably barely remembers). When I dropped out of college, I got a job at the little indie record store in town. Marc was then the senior employee, a college graduate measuring career possibilities. I was 19, he was in his mid-20s; I knew what I knew and imagined I knew more, while Marc, in all honesty, knew then more then than I do now. He exposed me to Albert Ayler and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, to Billy Childish, the Thinking Fellers and the Boredoms. I know I was often the annoying new kid, but he never got frustrated or lost his patience with my voracious appetite for knowledge. For a year, I was a leach and Marc put up with it with a laugh and a smile. I still have a few issues of his fanzine Crank; the one in my hands is number 2 from Fall 1991, with a Thinking Fellers interview and a review of Sebadoh’s new album III (Marc would be kind enough to take me along to see the band in Norfolk the next Fall). I’ve seen Marc’s name now and again these past few months on reviews at Pitchfork or Paper Thin Walls, and was glad to get his insight into noise bands and experimental music in little bits and pieces. I imagine reading No Wave will be much closer to my memories of long conversations on slow, sweltering Williamsburg summer nights in 1992.

Saturday Morning Shuffle

“Bankrobber” – The Clash (from Clash On Broadway)

I first heard this on The Story of the Clash, a late 80s compilation that I literally wore out on cassette.  I didn’t have a context for it then; I knew fuck-all of dub, and little more about the band (I knew the Combat Rock singles but nothing else).  It still sounds pretty unique, even after years living with it and understanding more of the context and influences that shaped it.  The slightly flat piano (to my ears, an upright; otherwise a very processed grand or baby grand – the reverb is wrong), the muted, reggae chuka guitar, the blurbing, spacey synths.  Not sure if this is from the Sandinista! sessions or pre-dating.  If the later, it is like a dry run for the former’s weird glory.

“Stockholm Syndrome” – Yo La Tengo (Black Sessions live radio boot)

James McNew’s soft falsetto atop Ira Kaplan’s Byrdsian jangle.  Surprisingly, Georgia Hubley is playing too fast at the start; she usually is the anchor that allows Kaplan to untether himself in “Neil Young, guitar hero” fashion.  She gets her beat back by the second verse, and she and McNew lock in for a Kaplan blowout solo in an otherwise workmanlike evocation of the original.  Inessential.

“Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” – The Replacements (from Let It Be)

Did I mention how psyched I am for the reissues in April?  I’m psyched.  This is them recalling their bratty beginnings; a rave-up/meltdown song that is tongue in cheek fun.  Bob Stinson gets one of his last moments to really shine in his anarchic way, before professionalism and major lables (and all that entails) would change the ‘Mats.  Big dumb fun, great chorus – “Rip rip/we’re gonna rip ’em out now” x 4.

“Chitlin Con Carne” – Junior Wells (from Hoodoo Man Blues)

A staple of my record store days.  This album was a safe play, that both owners and staff could agree on (others included Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen and that would pretty much be it).  Lots of memories attached to Junior’s instrumental groove, most of which aren’t so positive.  But the music is so damn great (Buddy Guy’s guitar helps, as always) I still throw this on now and again.  Nostalgia be damned.

“Streetside” – The Obsessed (from The Church Within)

Wino always sounds like Wino; that voice and that guitar playing are singular instruments.  The years have been kind to The Obsessed. Wino’s voice had been strengthened by the years in St. Vitus and was yet to be diminished by the depths of dependency; the recording budget Columbia gave them means the drums are full in resonant bludgeon, the guitar sound sharp, incisive.  Though not my favorite Wino band (I’m partial th Spirit Caravan), The Obsessed crunched and grooved in a way few other stoner doom bands ever have.

That Old-Time Meta-

While listening to the Jack Benny radio show during dinner last night, I asked Krista if she’d ever seen anything written about the metafictional context of the show. She said she hadn’t, and my cursory google search drew a blank. Benny’s show was about the character of “Jack Benny, radio star” (hereafter referred to as Benny2), yet only now and again did he have a “radio show within a radio show” segment. Burns & Allen did a similar thing, though it was only George who was the radio star while Gracie was not a part of the “show within a show”. Conceptually it was old hat (see Hamlet) by the time these performers were doing it; so I’m surprised that, after years of being inundated with post-modern literary deconstruction and black feminist film analysis and rockism and the like, that there isn’t a sub-set of critical theory looking at these very strange radio constructs.

More than just the framework prompted my questions while listening last night. Groucho Marx was a guest on the show, playing himself. This was not a simulacrum like Benny2, it was the Groucho Marx who was then host of Pabst Blue Ribbon Town. He is playing a game of checkers with Benny2, who invites him to accompany him to the studio to be on his fictional show. Groucho agrees (though does not appear in the actual “radio show” segment), with the caveat that Benny2 must be on his show the following week. So now Benny2’s “show within a show” has crossed over with our accepted reality, as Jack Benny did make an appearance on the Pabst show the following week. I haven’t been able to find a free copy of that show to hear, but I’m going to assume he appeared as himself and not as “Jack Benny, radio star.”

No one seems to have noted that this is rather bizarre. I think it is because this happened all the time; George Burns, as “George Burns, radio star” had an episode of his show where he was supposed to sing on Benny’s show. It has been a while since I heard that Burns & Allen episode, but if I recall correctly it wasn’t just Benny’s show but Benny2’s “Show within a show”, because I seem to remember the character of Rochester, Benny2’s valet, appearing as well. So while Groucho mixed a constructed fiction with reality, Burns and Benny mingled their individual fictional constructs. Later, in the fifties, Benny2 borrowed Benny’s real life neighbor Ronald Colman’s Oscar to show Rochester, and appeared as Benny2 on Colman’s short-lived radio program. Of course, one of the big radio stars of the day was a ventriloquist, so maybe it can all be chocked up to lack of fluoridation in the water.

Unrelated to the bigger point, I do want to quote Groucho from last night. When asked what he would like to drink, he answers, “Right now I want Heddy Lamaar, but my sponsor wants me to say Blue Ribbon Beer. I’ll have a man-to-man talk with my sponsor; I’ll talk to him about the Birds and the Beers.” I love Groucho – you know that wasn’t in the script.

You can listen to the show I heard last night at Old Time Radio Fans. I’m laughing and scratching my head all over again.