"Since the First World War Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull; and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation."

Norman Mailer
"The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every people, and different in each. When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China--why then it will be spring."

"This new history of yours," said McPhee, "is a wee bit lacking in documents."

C.S. Lewis

Synchronicities this week

  • June 24 Midsummer/St. John’s Day
  • June 24, 1947 The first flying saucers are sighted over Mount Rainier by pilot Ken Arnold.
  • June 24, 1542 St. John of the Cross, Spanish Carmelite mystic and poet, is born.
  • June 24, 1938 500 ton meteorite lands near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.
  • June 24, 1717 First Free Masons' grand lodge founded in London.
  • June 24, 1374 A sudden outbreak of St. John's Dance causes people in the streets of Aachen, Germany, to experience hallucinations and begin to jump and twitch uncontrollably until they collapse from exhaustion.
  • June 24, 1314 Battle of Bannockburn; Scotland regains independence from England.
  • June 24, 843 Vikings destroy Nantes.
  • June 23 Midsummer’s Eve
  • June 23, 1972 Nixon & Haldeman agree to use CIA to cover up Watergate.
  • June 23, 1942 Germany's latest fighter, a Focke-Wulf FW190 is captured intact when it mistakenly lands at RAF Pembrey in Wales.
  • June 23, 1888 Frederick Douglass is 1st African-American nominated for president.
  • June 23, 1848 Workers’ insurrection in Paris.
  • June 23, 1713 The French residents of Acadia are given one year to declare allegiance to Britain or leave Nova Scotia, Canada. They choose the latter, migrate to Louisiana, and become Cajuns.
  • June 21 Summer Solstice (11:28 a.m.).
  • June 21, 1964 Three civil rights workers-Michael H. Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James E. Chaney-are kidnapped and murdered by the Klan in Mississippi .
  • June 21, 1948 The 33 1/3 RPM LP record is introduced by Columbia Records.
  • June 21, 1944 Ray Davies of the Kinks born in London.
  • June 21, 1916 Mexican troops beat US expeditionary force under Gen Pershing.
  • June 21, 1877 The Molly Maguires, ten Irish immigrant labor activists, are hanged in Pennsylvania prisons.
  • June 20, 1947 Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, gangster, the “man who invented Las Vegas,” shot dead in Beverly Hills, Cal.
  • June 20, 1909 Errol Flynn, greatest of the swashbucklers, born in Hobart, Tasmania.
  • June 20, 1944 Congress charters Central Intelligence Agency.
  • June 20, 1943 Detroit race riot kills 35.
  • June 20, 1893 - Lizzie Borden acquitted in murder of parents in New Bedford Mass.
  • June 20, 1871 Ku Klux Klan trials began in federal court in Oxford Miss.
  • June 20, 1837 Queen Victoria at 18 ascends British throne ; rules for 63 years ending in 1901.
  • June 20, 1756 146 British soldiers imprisoned in the "Black Hole of Calcutta." Most die.
  • June 20, 1631 The Irish village of Baltimore is attacked by Algerian pirates.
  • June 20, 1214 The University of Oxford receives its charter.
  • June 20, 451 Germans & Romans beat Attila the Hun at Catalarinische Fields.

Friday, February 27, 2009

You Don't Want to Tell Your Children You Missed Scott Miller pt. 2

Well, Game Theory put out a series of brilliant albums on Enigma, outstanding among them Real Nighttime, The Big Shot Chronicles and Lolita Nation. And then there was their farewell to the label and the album that was supposed to break them (I mean that in the good sense)--Two Steps from the Middle Ages. Two Steps has everything people want in a rock and roll record. Melodies to break your heart, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ingenious hooks, tunes and insouciant energy, great big colorful guitars with sharply pointed tasteful solos smartly set just where they do the most good, just like on Revolver; heady lyrics just cryptic enough to allow you to identify from wherever you're at without closing off interpretation; intellectual firepower harnessed to raw power, a composer intimate enough with classic pop song conventions to write his way into and out of, around and over them. By any standards one of the handful of albums of the decade, able to stand tall in the company of the Replacements and REM.

Well, break them it did, in the bad sense. A half a dozen albums that they knew damn well were as good and accessible as anything on the marketplace, even the rather restricted market of college/indie radio, that ended as detritus washed up against the seawall of popular acceptance. The failure of Two Steps was too much for Scott and the band, for whom this was their last album. But Scott was back in a year or two with The Loud Family. And he did something remarkable. After the disillusion of Game Theory, he put together a debut for the Loud Family that was a bookend to Two Steps. For any other pop artist Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things would have been a greatest hits album--instead it's merely more testimony to the fecundity of Scott's songwriter's imagination and craft. Since then, Scott revitalizes various version of the Loud Family whenever he's got enough songs stored up, and even releases albums on various micro-labels, but he has made the devastating decision that even his degree of talent doesn't guarantee even a significant cult following, and that his music is now just a hobby. He now has a family with kids and an online column where he answers questions from Game Theory/Loud Family fans about almost anything with his formidable intelligence and his always humane instinct. Read it.

It's an instructive American story, not a little tragic, that you could have an artist possessed of every tool and talent for enormous influence and popularity, who through a few bad breaks (some undoubdtedly self inflicted but what rocker hasn't absorbed self inflicted wounds?) falls even below the Velvet Undergound's status (You know, "Not many people bought their records, but everyone who did went out and formed a band.")

Here's where you can buy Scott Miller Records:

Game Theory
Real Nightime
Big Shot Chronicles
Lolita Nation
Two Steps from the Middle Ages

Loud Family
Plants and Birds and Rock and Things

Alot of these are rarities and are priced accordingly, which is to say beyond most people's budget (an encouraging development for Scott, at least). But used copies of Two Steps and Plants and Birds can be had for reasonable prices. For the rest, I suggest a thorough search of online used cd services, going through interlibrary loan at your public library, or contacting the Loud Family Website.

But by all means make some effort. You'll be doing yourself a favor, opening up a source of delight and pleasure and stimulation that you'll listen to for years. And when your kids are playing all their Scott Miller-influenced music, you can establish your cred as the hippest mom or dad around.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

You Don't Want to Tell Your Children You Missed Scott Miller

It's a rather tired critical commonplace to say that a
band is "shamefully underrated" or "shamefully ignored," or some other words to the effect that there is a wide gulf between the critic's estimation of the band, and the general, music-buying public's. It's been said so often now that it doesn't carry much weight. But if it's shameful you want, I'll give you shameful. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Scott Miller, one of the great rock and roll talents of our epoch, and a man who could never quit his day job.

Back in the 80s at UC-Davis, Scott, a native Californian, drew together a band that he called Game Theory, with a peripatetic lineup, though each version stayed together long enough to learn Scott's groove. Game Theory began to attract an audience of college kids and local skaters. They were beginning to hear something ecstatic crackling through cheap amps. It was the sound of a kid who'd been working out in his head (and on his guitar) since early childhood how the Beatles made magic with two guitars, bass and drums, thought he saw the answer in Alex Chilton and Big Star, and absorbed a lot of sophisticated songwriting and production tips from Todd Rundgren and Bryan Ferry. There were other things you cold hear, too, hints of bright pacific sand and surf and a cloud of Jefferson Airplane fog-bound San Francisco melancholy.

It was always too easy for music biz folks and music geeks, hung up on categories as they often are, to associate Game Theory with power pop, or "quirky pop," or New Wave. But paying closer attention, you heard and felt that Scott Miller and Game Theory were the Platonic ideal of power pop. Having fully interiorized the lessons of the 60's, he was free, deliciously free to explore zones of lofty, stratospheric melody, tossing off heartbreaking melodies, finger-popping hooks with manic prolificity. As for the power part of the equation, Game Theory were always a rock and roll band first--the melodies and hooks a sweet counterpoint to the tense, compressed frenzy of the band's rave-ups. As a lead guitarist, Scott was always a combination of balls and invention. (His break on "Jimmy Still Comes Around" with The Loud Family, a later Scott aggregation, sounds like what Pete Townsend might be doing if he'd just turned twenty.) Game Theory got signed to a record label, put out a string of records to good critical notices, and started building a little national cult, a promise of bigger things in those heady days of college radio.

Part 2 Tomorrow

More presidential wisdom for the new president

"Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital."

Lincoln's Annual Message to Congress, 1861

For an astute summation of what Lincoln really stood for, read "How Would Lincoln Vote?" by Michael Lind.

New online music magazine

The Bluegrassspecial.com is a new online music magazine edited by David McGee, a former editor at Rolling Stone and Managing Editor of Spin Magazine. The Bluegrass Special.com covers Americana, world music, blues and gospel, and a healthy dose of rock and roll. In the latest issue, I have a review of The Bairns, the new album by Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, who are being hailed in Britain as the biggest thing in British folk-rock since Richard Thompson. Here's how it begins:

"Bob Dylan once said something about how the only true death you can feel in music was in folk music. Particularly, I'd guess he was thinking about the body of song that came down off the southeastern American mountains, the Appalachian tradition that forms the core of the American folk tradition. Where that death came from was the northern border counties of England and southern Scotland, a region that has some of the grimmest history of any place in Europe. It was the cockpit of the centuries-long, savage back and forth struggle between England and Scotland, regularly burned over by brutal scorched earth warfare and in between ravaged by institutionalized raiding between the Border clans. The peasants who had taken the brunt of this for generations took their first chance when the New World opened up, and fled to the American back country, bringing the strain of darkness and harsh fatalism to the mood of the Appalachian culture.

Now we're hearing from two sisters and their friends who haven't fled, but rather have dug deep into the darkness and occasional buried golden beauty of their culture, and ingeniously molded it into something new and challenging..."

For the rest of it, go here...

Coming Up

Secrets of Egypt

Obama's job, from TR

Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics, is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.

A new picture of British witchcraft and witch trials

The trend in modern witchcraft studies has been to picture the "confessions" of accused witches as mostly obtained under duress, including torture, with the details supplied by inquisitors eager to confirm their own notions of witchcraft taken from "learned" treatises on demonology.

Recently, some historians have urged that we take the narratives of the accused more seriously. They suggest that the stories contain genuine folkloric traditions of the British rural poor--not about selling one's soul to the Devil, but about certain men and women, known as "cunning folk" , who gain powers of healing and divination by their relations with ancestral spirits of the British countryside, usually desribed as fairies or spirits of the dead.

In "Cunning Folk And Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions In Early Modern British Witchcraft And Magic," historian Emma Wilby studies the witchcraft confessions carefully and locates a consistent thread of folk belief and practice beneath the diabolical veneer applied by the interrogators. She then takes these beliefs and, using a comparative anthropological approach, compares them with shamanic tradition and practices from Siberia and North American Indians, and finds many points of apparent similarity.

In the end she suggests that a popular tradition of native shamanism persisted among the British peasantry since pre-historic times (she asserts that many parts of rural Britain were only thinly Christianized up until the dawn of the modern era). She sugggests that this tradition was the mysticism of the illiterate, comparable to the contemplative visions of the more elite, learned and celebrated narratives of recognized, orthodox Christian mystics and saints.

A fascinating, frequently mind-blowing book, whose ultimate message is that people will always tend to find their own source of mystical experience, even when they are barred from the orthodox channels of the elite milieu they canot hope to enter.