Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Everything Old Is New Again, Dept.
Here's what I love. Culture as a virus.
So, "Dat's de Way to Spell 'Chicken'" was written in 1902 by Sidney Perrin, a very successful African-American composer of what used to be called "coon songs."
Yes, in the ragtime/pre-WWI days, a hugely popular subgenre of American music was the coon song. Which, as you might guess, portrayed African-American life in the United States in unflattering caricature. Sort of like rap, in that white people loved it, black people performed it (although there were a number of white performers) and it contributed to ensuing decades of validated bigotry ("Yo, they call each other 'nigger' all the time, man!"). The only difference being that, in those unenlightened days, though "nigger," "darky" and "coon" were liberally thrown around, they didn't have quite as many brand names to flaunt and "bitches" and "hoes" had entirely different meanings.
Anyhoo. So, this song, which plays on the stereotypical love of African-Americans for the yardbird, features the following chorus in dialect:
C, dat's de way to begin,
H, dat's de next letter in,
I, dat am de third,
C, dat's to season the word,
K, dat's a filling in,
E, I'm near the end,
Dat's de way to spell chicken
So, we have an image of the African-American that is of an early-20th-century piece with razors, loaded dice and watermelon three meals a day.
Fast forward a hundred years, and we have this little bit of primary school theater.
Culture is a virus. It mutates and finds new hosts. Who will be singing the chicken song on our first extraterrestrial colonies?
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
For Your Life, Dept.
So, your sobsister caught this today, the one day the film was screened in Milk Chocolate City ("limited engagement," indeed). Oddly enough, at the local "art film" theater rather than the multiplex four blocks away.
The audience comprised mostly men old enough to have seen the band in its heyday, although women in singles and in pairs were scattered around the theater. Those younger than 40 were thin on the ground, but they were properly reverential.
Here's a question: How can you sit through a two-hour Led Zeppelin concert film and not even bob your head? I don't mean the vigorous air drums that the girl with fuchsia hair was playing in the third row, right. Just, you know, some recognition that powerfully rhythmic music is being performed in front of you. Is it the distance created by the medium of film? Are they observers rather than participants? Yet, these same people applauded each number at its conclusion, so the fourth wall had been breached.
(Related but irrelevant: I remember reading a Moon Mullins comic strip in the New York Daily News around the time of Nixon's trip to China. Strip regulars Emmy and Lord Plushbottom are discussing it. And the final exchange was, to the best of my recollection: "He's gone to look for a chink in the Great Wall." "Well, that might be the problem." Them wuz the days.)
At any rate, they raged, raged against the dying of the light, alright, essaying their setlist with a ferocity that simmered at the start and flared a third of the way in.
They crushed "Kashmir," the song that drew the loudest applause of the night in the theater. "In My Time of Dying" and "Nobody's Fault but Mine," their sideways tributes to the country blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson are glorious. "No Quarter" is the spooky Tolkienesque tale I always imagined illustrated by Frank Frazetta. And a premiere of sorts: the first live performance of sobsister fave "For Your Life."
Truth be told, I would've been ecstatic with a show comprising only deep cuts. "Stairway to Heaven" and "Whole Lotta Love" and "Dazed and Confused" were fine, but lacked the fire of the other material, perhaps from overuse or, as singer Robert Plant put it, because they're the songs one has to do.
In this vein, for all the love I have for this band, I can see why Plant didn't and doesn't want to re-form the band on more than a one-off basis. They compete with their younger selves every time they play. Plant was 32 when the band broke up after drummer John Bonham's death. He was 20 when it formed. Does he still want to sing those songs in the same way? (Apparently not, given the projects on which he's embarked in the past five years: albums with Alison Krauss and with the Band of Joy that tap deep into acoustic Americana.) And I think he recognizes that people coming to a Led Zeppelin show want to hear "Stairway to Heaven" like on the record, not some reimagined version à la Dylan. His desire to avoid that treadmill for his remaining productive years is understandable.
I had the pleasure and good fortune of seeing the band on what turned out to be their final U.S. tour. June of 1977 at the Garden. Three friends and I had "won" the right to buy floor seats (rear right) in the mail-in lottery that was conducted. They were like unto gods on the stage, assisted by a sound system that must've been audible across the Hudson. So, 35 years later, Circle of Life! But, much as I love them, I don't need to see them live again.
I will revisit this concert on DVD, though, because, you know, they brought it.
As the walls of NYC once read, Zep Rules, OK?