Swimming Against the Stream

Indie Rock

Timely Issues

Astrological Clock
The Great Astrological Clock in the Old Town Square of Prague. A great example of late medieval public clock making, complete with bells, calendar, automata figures that move on the hour, horns, and especially the figure of Death as a skeleton with an hourglass draining the sands of time away. All the while tourists gawk like sheep while missing the message of the value of our time on earth.

Well I have been busy on my new YouTube channel The Anadromist with a lot of ideas that I just didn’t have time for here. Especially my thoughts on Time and how to live in it instead of against it. We live in a culture that positively reeks in its hatred of the effects of Time. We want everything to happen now. Instantly without waiting. And the more I have thought about our defective relationship to Time the more central a role I have seen it play it the insane dysfunctions of the 21st Century: the politics, the propaganda, the efficiency of technology, the environment, the waste, the virtual worlds we choose to inhabit, the surrender of our imaginations to the grinding gears of commerce, the imitation worlds we create for tourism, the sense of entitlement, the dullness of work. Not that these things have a simple one answer fits all panacea, rather they are all issues exacerbated by the desire have the convenient instant life, or in other words to live as though Time were an enemy that must be vanquished at all costs.

I started to see our faulty relationship to Time as a problem in the early 90s. I gave a lecture on the subject at Swiss L’Abri in 1993. I have been mulling it over ever since. In many ways this is connected to many of my other ideas about Texture, Beauty, Images and many other subjects. But these thoughts about Time are at the center of my view of the dilemma of life as it is now lived. Feel free to disagree. After you’ve spent time listening to what I have to say.

Now after delaying long enough I’ve decided to get my ideas about Time out there in some form that might be of use to someone else. I have tried to the best of my ability to live by these ideas since I formulated them back in 1993. If you do the math that’s over 25 years of practical outworking. And the one thing I have seen clearly, when you add the effects of Time to life it gets much deeper and richer.

I am not saying that we are allowed to do this at all points. Au contraire. Just in transportation alone it is nearly impossible to live within a human sense of the meaning of time. We are required to move too fast to stay sane. Still one can, for instance, still apply these principles to the planning stages of a journey. To stay longer in places, rather than just passing through. That’s a simple way of incorporating Time into the hustle of the tourism industry. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway there are four video discussions now. And if you are thinking that ideas about Time are probably going to be dreadfully boring, then these talks really are for You. So you can start at the beginning or jump around. The argument builds, but necessarily in a straightforward direction.

(And I’ll keep adding the videos here until the series is finished.)

Well I need to get back to my life in Tbilisi Georgia. Oh and by the way there will soon be a channel on my Georgian life so stick around.

Keep swimming against the stream

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia



Oh yeah…

Hey! People who are contributing to my sites are getting extra content not available online. They are also keeping me alive in Georgia. I must honestly say without the gifts given to me thus far this experiment would have collapsed a while ago. No much keeps me going for a while. So give through PayPal. $10 a month or a one time gift of the equivalent of $50 US. Gets you another 15 hours worth of lectures.

Here’s the Link CLICK ME!!! NOW. Please…

American Gothic #5: American Gothic Music

Now we come to the infant of this breed: American Gothic Music. Compared to fiction, art and even film American Gothic Music is a recent phenomenon indeed, going back at most to the late 60’s, and even then only as a hint in the musical wing of this American Gothic museum, which is still under-construction.

It’s interesting to ask why. Why would the music take such a long time to develop when the literature began in the late 1700’s? One would imagine that with all of the other work that had been done in American Gothic Culture by 1950 that there would have been a serious attempt to construct some sort of decayed variation on the themes in American Music. In classical music only Charles Ives Unanswered Question seems to have any Gothic links, yet that seems somewhat incidental. Certainly there are spooky blues and country tunes just ripe for use in an American Gothic context. Think of Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightnin’ or Hank William’s Ramblin’ Man or especially Tommy Johnson’s strange falsetto in Cool Drink of Water Blues. The context of these songs make them potent compost for the roots of an American Gothic Music, but they are only visions of personal trouble not the broader, sadder, vision of an America in decay. But make no mistake about it these are the roots of the tone of American Gothic Music to come.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – Halloween and Hoodoo

Perhaps we can point to something in Screamin’ Jay Hawkins crazed Fifties sounds: Frenzy or I Put a Spell On You. He started his stage show by emerging from a coffin with a skull scepter and a cape. But this was more Halloween than American Gothic. He certainly is an influence. You can feel Hawkins in Tom Waits’ Eighties oeuvre.

The first real sense of American Gothic probably comes from what would also be considered the first band with real Gothic overtones: The Doors. Although one can indeed hear a Gothic funereal quality in their music, nevertheless most of the Doors references are philosophically European, only tinged by the blues. Nevertheless I think we have to consider their dark epic, The End, a true milestone in American Gothic Music. Lyrically Morrison refers to Greyhound buses, ‘the West is the best’, ‘weird scenes inside the goldmine’ all of which puts us directly in California and the ghost towns and hippie dreams of a golden consciousness. But the biggest shock in the song isn’t the Oedipal violence, rather it is the growing revelation that the singer is the killer and that the listener is the next victim of this Manson-like figure. The message of the song essentially boils down to this: Come to the West and be killed. And this was a huge record in 1967, during the hyped Summer of Love, two years before Manson’s cult followers would slaughter several Californians.

The Doors Second Album: Strange Days – European Goth Knocking on Americas Door

But musically the Doors are rarely American Gothic. They borrow from Modern Jazz, German Cabaret, Indian Ragas and Spanish Flamenco. And, of course, often borrow from the blues. But we will have to look elsewhere for a real American Gothic style.

The first American Gothic album has to go to the man who is seemingly so often first: Bob Dylan. After his motorcycle accident Dylan stepped back from the cultural upheavals partly unleashed by his own work. I have gotten the feeling that he never could quite stare into the heart of those changes. Many of them seemed repellent to him later on. So during the media fabricated Summer of Love Dylan hid out in Woodstock and played a lot of country-flavored songs with The Band. Eventually these recordings would come out in the 1970’s as The Basement Tapes. And one can hear a growing American Gothicism in songs like This Wheel’s on Fire.

1967 Bob Dylan Invents American Gothic Music Without Really Thinking About it: John Wesley Harding

But the real American Gothic Music was what came out next: his most enigmatic album, John Wesley Harding. An odd sort of country music, biblical allusions and a sense of humility haunted the album, which was released without much hullabaloo in December 1967. In a moment of psychedelic excess Dylan released this strange record of autumnally oblique fables: All Along the Watchtower, I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine and the extraordinarily puzzling The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. I think we can call this the first true work in the musical wing of American Gothic.

The Eagles bordered on American Gothic territory with songs like the Hotel California, which has a bit more of a rootsy approach to the music than the Doors. And of course lyrically Hotel California is nearly as fascinating as The End, especially the lines about not having had ‘that spirit here since 1969’. But the Eagles are far too commercial a band to really be considered an American Gothic band.

A mention must be made here of Ry Cooder’s haunted slide guitar sound, especially as heard in his scores for films like Southern Comfort and Paris, Texas. This is not a sound found directly in the blues. Cooder’s specialty was to translate the older slide guitar sound into something much more capable of capturing the desolation of the vast American landscape.

Ry Cooder Distills a Spooky Variant on Slide Guitar from Past Bluesmen

Tom Waits, an Asylum Records stable mate of the Eagles, meanwhile had been known mostly for his songwriting skills and his neo-Beat persona on stage. But evidently something else had been brewing beneath the surface. In 1983 for his first recording on Island Records Waits came out with the LP Swordfishtrombones. This was something quite else with a vengeance. With Waits in a carnival scenario on the cover, complete with midget, the album was a new template for a new kind of music that would take years for anyone to really emulate: This was a fully realized American Gothic album. The sense of musical decay was palpable. The dark carnival pervades the album as well as a sense of undefined queasiness. The music hovers between traveling sideshow and film noir with bits of rural morbidity thrown in for good measure: 16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six. The album occasionally detours towards pop standards and odes to bacon and eggs yet the central impression is of a lizard’s blue belly to the American dream. ‘I’m goin’ to whittle you into kindling’!

Tom Waits Makes His First American Gothic Music: Swordfishtrombones

From here on Waits is never far from the seedy vision of a carnivalesque American nightmare. Albums like Rain Dogs and Bone Machine are drenched in the same sensibility. His carnival barker introduction to The Black Rider is as pure American Gothic as Nightmare Alley or the art of Bernie Wrightson.

Another of the pioneers of American Gothic Music was Australian Nick Cave. After the demise of the rabid Birthday Party, Cave moved into a style all his own. One can hear Jim Morrison and Johnny Rotten in there. But one can also hear the deep blues and chain gang music as well. After songs like Saint Huck showed up on From Her To Eternity Cave then released The First Born Is Dead: Perhaps the least appreciated of his Bad Seeds albums. I find it to be an American Gothic cornerstone. Scarecrows, blind blues singers, Mississippi flood’s and the myth of Elvis Presley all show up in heartfelt and heart burnt songs ranging from Knocking On Joe, Tupelo, The Black Crow King and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Stunning stuff.

Nick Cave’s 1985 American Gothic Masterpiece – The First Born is Dead

And Cave, like Waits, no matter where else he wandered was ever too far from Gothic Americana. Even his novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, was pure American Gothic. That he would align himself with filmmaker John Hillcoat for Australian Gothic film The Proposition and later The Road underscores this.

The 80’s gave birth to another sound that would be instrumental to the growth of American Gothic Music. And that would be Folk Punk. What the Pogues glued together, traditional folk music and punk, has proved to be a rather hardy plant giving birth to bands like The Ukrainians, Gogol Bordello, Devotchka, and more germane to our point American bands like O’Death playing a kind of Country Punk. The fusing of traditional music with a punk spirit has done more than all the Folkies from the 1960’s to propagate the music of the past.

Gordon Gano and the Violent Femmes – Early 80’s Folk Punk

And in this spirit I think the work of Gordon Gano and the Violent Femmes deserve a special citation as well. Much of the current crop of American Gothic bands can be seen as a triangulation between Tom Waits, Gordon Gano and Folk Punk. Gano’s reedy voice and occasional forays into traditional American music played with manic acoustic guitars have been highly influential.

And yes, dear reader, there is indeed a current crop of American Gothic bands. And it is that fact alone that caused me to write this whole American Gothic series. In fact, for those with ears to hear this is the moment for American Gothic Music. No it isn’t flavor du jour at what remains of the pop charts. (Interestingly it does come during a period where Americana is also one of the reigning trends.) But much of the most exciting music of the hour is coming from a decaying vision of America. Artists like the Blind Willies, the Whiskey Folk Ramblers, Nicole Atkins, Liz Tormes, The Born Again Floozies, The Black Heart Procession, Harmonious Wail, Ezra Fuhrman & the Harpoons, the astounding Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas and the great Reverend Glasseye have been making vital music for this lost American time.

I believe it was the bands forming in Denver in the mid-90’s that kicked off this wave (the first wave really) of American Gothic Music. 16 Horsepower and Devotchka were both quite influential. David Eugene Edwards from 16 Horsepower and more recently Woven Hand deserves real recognition here. Like a circuit riding preacher in a storm, his musical talents connect the worlds of antique Western Music, Christian hymns, Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and the early American Gothic Music to the many bands of the present. His use of the unusual instrumentation, following Tom Waits, would become a hallmark of the new American Gothic bands. Listen to any of his versions of American Wheeze. Tubas, harmonicas, accordions, musical saws, trombones, violins and many other instruments not found in standard rock bands permeate the new music.

American Gothic Maestro David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand

While all of these artists are worth a paragraph two stand out and need special attention: Reverend Glasseye and Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas. Glasseye has two albums to his name. His music is located somewhere between a Wild West saloon, a circus tent and a revival meeting. (Ry Cooder’s music for The Long Riders is a worthy antecedent.) His archaic lyrics and jaunty tunes have a demented Shakespearean grandeur to them. Sleep Sweet Countrymen is an American Gothic masterpiece.

Reverend Glasseye From A Photo Taken Back in the Early 21st Century

Jessica Hernandez, from the Detroit area, is fairly obscure as of this writing. But I doubt she will remain that way. A combination of Mexican heritage (Detroit also gave us ? Mark & the Mysterians), a deep dose of Tom Waits and a swooping passionate vocal style, not to mention killer instincts in the dynamic tune department, cause Jessica’s music to pop out in 3-D. Find a recording of her singing Gone in Two Seconds or Moonstruck. She’s so good I hate to think of her getting discovered by the commercial machinery that so loves to suck the life from everything till dead. But I suspect she’s got as much musical integrity as she does talent.

Jessica Hernandez Dishes Out American Gothic Music for the Teens

Curiously not one artist who has ever made American Gothic Music has ever sold their soul for success. I wonder why? It might have something to do with the worldview that has to accompany the style to some degree.

Allow me the indulgence of trying to summarize this American Gothic sensibility… next time.

Byrne Power
Haines, Alaska

(Oh… I thought about connecting this to musical links. But you know your way around. Go listen!)

Diminishing Into the Twee

I am back working at the local radio station. I’ve been out of the music loop for five years, not that I had no idea what was going on; I just wasn’t fully plugged in. I was off investigating the music that actually engaged my attention; like Eastern European folk punk or baroque dance music. (Hint: Jordi Savall – La Folia!) Not to mention less musical interests like puppetry. And so now I’m taking a crash course in the kind of music that is on someone’s radar for the cutting edge in the present moment.

Carsten Hyatt warned me about this. He said things had gotten fairly spineless amongst the endless musical flotsam and jetsam of his generation, in that young twenties college aged world. My rather lackadaisical musical sonar had been guessing something like this. It had seemed back in ’05 that repetition was the order of the day. He told me he’d gotten fairly tired of the general played out music of various Indie microgenres. I tried to make up for it by passing on to him music that had more substance and passion: Sixties Garage Rock, the neglected oeuvre of Holly Beth Vincent and more recently the late great Russian folk punker Yanka Dyagileva. Then I reinserted myself back into radio work a couple of months ago as Music Director with a backlog of hundreds of CD’s in tubs from the last few years to go through. And what he had been saying struck me with the force of a truckload of hogs sideswiping a beer truck.

Or should I say, with the placidity of a marshmallow feather duster.

Twee! It’s just all so twee, so precious, so limp, so fainthearted, emotionally vague and just out and out wishy-washy. I kind of noticed this from a distance when I would hear certain DJs, intelligent people in their mid-twenties, spinning discs.  The music seemed to have no definite emotion, no solid major or minor chords, and lots of smirk, ironic gestures. I chalked it up to the various tastes of the DJs. I went on listening to the Ukrainians, Gogol Bordello, Françoiz Breut, Radúza and the Warsaw Village Band. Astounding stuff was coming through a modified, punkified European sensibility.

The Assembly Line of Pop 'non'-Conformity

And yeah there have been great bands beaming through the American Tower of Internet Babel on occasion: White Stripes was a stand out and now they’re history. The Decemberists aren’t too shabby. In England Imogen Heap has only gone from strength to strength. And, thanks to the likes of Lady Gaga or Die Antwoordt, the dance world seems to be becoming even more artificial and alien, which has it’s own repulsion/fascination as new anti-definitions of humanity are generated like a Twinkies conveyor belt in a post-Britney meltdown world. (Don’t think about that too long.)

Meanwhile the people responsible for being at the cutting edge seem to have disposable plastic forks. As I have sampled album after album, I keep waiting for something to hit me: the Zeitgeist, new forms of rebellion, cries from the heart, good music. Well musically these people can play. Suddenly it’s the 60’s, 70’s. 80’s, 90’s again. A beat might engage me, a nice bass line, the guitar comes in … then comes the vocals. And it’s pretty much over. It all feels so empty to me.

I was debating making a list of the names of the groups I’ve listened to… but why? Why prod folks to waste their time looking for this stuff to see if I’m right in my assessment. Occasionally I’ll hit something that engages me, yesterday it was the Twilight Singers, but even the more popular bands of the day like the Decemberists or the Black Keys have a kind of anemia to them, even at their best.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been listening to Alina Simone or Yanka Dyagileva lately and I get tired of hearing people sing without actual passion after getting a straight injection of the real thing. No wonder Eugene Hutz’ Gogol Bordello is one of the bigger concert draws these days. I don’t agree with the libertine side of his ideas, but I know I could sit down and have a real freewheeling intelligent non-politically correct discussion with him. And he puts his guts out there on the line in his shows. The danger is that he becomes merely a symbol for that sort of thing over time. But so far he’s in no danger of doing so.

A worthy photo of Eugene Hütz pushing the limits by Rafael Sieber.

Meanwhile back in America we have a generation that I believe is afraid to really to think, to believe, to show courage. The history of music in the 20th Century helped bring us to the place. The various musical conflagrations of the last 50 years were truly a kind of war. Music helped to turn peoples perceptions inside out. And in many cultures it is still doing so. The Arabs are discovering rock as one incentive to the new thoughts inspiring pro-Democracy upheavals. Rap music has been adopted by nearly every group that sees itself as oppressed in some manner. But back in the west it all is a burned out zone.

Dissonant and Atonal Classical Music, Modern Jazz, Free Jazz, Rock and Roll, Folk Rock, Psychedelic Rock, Metal, Punk, New Wave, Funk, Rap, Disco, Techno, Electronica, Grunge, Alternative, Goth, Industrial, Noise the list goes on and on: These styles all contain varying degrees of modernist alienation and ironically a cri du coeur against it at the same time.

But after the desperate failure of the Sixties, then later Punk, and the deaths of so many musicians to drugs and despair, culminating in the shattering shotgun blast of Kurt Cobain’s desolation and the commodification of every ounce of rebellious noise imaginable, the reaction in the late 90’s was twofold.

The most obvious late 90’s track was to commercialize the angst of the early part of the decade; see “Alternative”, see Marilyn Manson, who is nothing if not a compendium of underground spite being sold on the largest record company on earth, see Nu-Metal (the style) or Insane Clown Posse (the act).

But the other track is what we call ‘Indie’, which no longer meant something put out independently. Indie became a sort of familial reaction to both commercialization of the early part of the 90’s and reaction to the loud howl of sound and fury signifying nothing much. And so bands in this line turned inward, while retaining certain aspects of the Alternative scene. So bands still played with noise, but now it was washes of spectral sound rather than and all out assault. Some instrumental bands were even dubbed Post-rock: Tortoise is a prime example. The line from Pavement, Guided By Voices, Slint, Neutral Milk Hotel, Palace (Will Oldham), Elliott Smith, Pedro the Lion, Eels, Iron and Wine, Sigur Ros, all vital music, eventually lead to the mood that pervades the music world today. What seemed almost like an elegy for the hopes of the 20th Century has slowly mutated into something that just seems like cowardice and resignation. It has diminished into the twee.

I know that is not the end of the story. But one thing is clear to me. The concept of rock as a force for societal change, for some oft dreamed revolution (Hutz not withstanding),  as a spearhead to a new world is dead and buried. The next wave will have to come from another source. And hopefully without the same cargo of ideas that lead us to this destination.

Byrne Power
Haines, Alaska