wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: October, 2015


Until tonight I’d never actually seen a Britney Spears video.

I read John Seabrook’s The Song Machine this week and was struck by the account of Britney Spears’s insistence, early on, that what she most wanted to do was dance — she was a popcult punchline by the time I realized she existed, so I had no idea she was basically a naïve Southern kid before the world (and the songwriters) so consequentially misconstrued the words ‘hit me baby one more time.’ I’ve always known she was a middling singer at best, but what I didn’t realize, since I’d never seen her perform on video, was the seeming effortlessness of her dance routines. The videos for ‘…Baby One More Time’ and ‘Oops…I Did It Again’ are adorable.

And surprisingly: they’re beautiful.

This girl with long prom-queen hair beams a gajillion-watt smile while just kind of floating across the dance floor — she’s working hard, everyone in the video is, but since everyone’s equally obviously having a great time, and the star of the show is totally in her element, it projects a fantasy of a young woman’s power that’s not primarily sexual, though obviously not chaste either — she’s just radiating easy charm. The Catholic schoolgirl schtick (her idea!) actually seems like innocent dress-up, the ludicrous vinyl sci-fi jumpsuit thing is a Halloween costume; and she didn’t wear either of them for anyone but herself.

That’s what comes across in those videos. I can’t believe what I’ve just seen. All of a sudden I kind of…liked her.

Unfortunately, I also watched the video for ‘Toxic.’ Again, it was my first viewing.

She doesn’t get to dance in the video at all. She just poses, titillates some sweaty middle-aged men, offers some contractually obligated panty-shot fanservice, and is turned into a prop for a banal sexual fantasy.

The video for ‘Toxic’ is heartbreaking. How did she end up in a straitjacket? There’s your answer: the girl who insisted on doing gymnastics in her big debut video was reduced to flashing her underwear for…well, for your math teacher, probably. Or for you. Certainly not for herself.

The Song Machine is nauseating, by the way. An interesting book, if you’re not already up on the material, which I wasn’t, and wish I weren’t.


Ambient/psych/prog lately listened to.

Auburn Lull, Alone I Admire

There’s a certain kind of dreamlike synthambient music that comes close to my ideal: gently cresting instrumentals, lightly ‘psychedelic’ in character, made by people who obviously care about music at the same level of detail I do. The trouble with this Platonic me-music is that it’s all unbelievably boring shit. Douglas Adams gave us the Somebody Else’s Problem field: an object wrapped in an SEP can only be seen in passing, out of the corner of the eye, by accident; looked at directly, it seems to vanish, still physically there but impossible for the human mind to care about. This, then, is perfect writing music, miraculously achieving an informational density of absolute zero. Pair with Explosions in the Sky if you need a soundtrack to the iPhone videos of your suicide pact.

Antonius Rex, Zora

Hilariously portentous giallo-prog, heavy on the pipe organ and occult nonsense. Magnificent cover art. If you believe the bandleader, the music is 40 years old; others claim certain aspects of the music were technically impossible until a decade later. I’m curious but don’t much care — either way, this is clever, skillful, carnivalesque prog that generates a rich paracosm over a little more than a half-hour.

Beggar’s Opera, Act One

Scottish rock-classical fusion (i.e. ‘prog’) with one track named ‘Passacaglia,’ so you know they’re not just fucking around. The third minute of ‘Poet and Peasant’ has me thinking Trey Anastasio knows this album. Ludicrous-for-rock chops, irresistible momentum, and of course the whole thing’s unintentionally silly like Yes, though without Yes’s lyricism; I’m not sure I remember a single melody from this album. Try and imagine anyone in rock playing music of this complexity today, when Grizzly Bear is considered ‘difficult,’ and then give respect. Oh by the way: ‘Passacaglia”s balls drop after a couple of minutes, cowbell happens, and the whole thing is charmingly unconvincing, like some wannabe-loverman’s first time in the sack. This is what you get when folks stay behind to build cities where the frontier had so recently been. The frontier keeps moving. The city becomes its own world.

Rejected epigraphs for the 33-1/3 book.

First, from the brave scholar Couliano, assassinated while working at his university:

For every individual thinks part of a tradition and therefore is thought by it; and in the process the individual obtains the cognitive self-assuredness that what is thought is experienced, and whatever is experienced also has an effect on what is thought. This complex process of interaction among human minds allows us to perceive in beliefs that many of us still share obscure roots going back to the Palaeolithic age and perhaps even beyond, toward the dawn of Homo sapiens. Otherworldly journeys seem to belong to this class of beliefs in that they are among the most tenacious traditions of humankind. (I.P. Couliano, Out of This World, pg 11)

I don’t know that I seriously considered that one, honestly, but it’s here in my epigraphs file. The next one got rejected because I’d already used it in the Fall 97 book:

A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = technique of ecstasy. (Mircea Eliade)

The idea of ‘techniques of ecstasy’ — replicable, fine-tuned approaches to ecstasy as a problem space rather than a vague poetic/mystical aspiration — has been a powerful one for me these last few years. I’m no engineer, but I went to engineering school, and have always felt an intuitive affinity for an idea of beauty that I learned at MIT: elegant solutions as expressions of high creativity, of truth (i.e. beauty). When I need to explain something about writing and creativity, I often reach for ‘technical’ metaphors (classes on algorithm design/analysis and differential equations were particularly rich with metaphoric resources); I think of psychology as topology and understand magic in terms of attractors in a field. I utter the phrase ‘premature optimization’ at least three times a week.

And so Eliade’s gorgeous formulation makes perfect sense to me — and made sense for the book, since Phish’s ‘resort to a dialectical algebra’ (Kierkegaard via Milch, meaning basically ‘turning to logic when pure emotional expression seems daunting’; i.e. ‘playing complicated music in order to scaffold a freefloating improvisation of such simple beauty…) has always been a technique for approaching (creating) something ineffable together. But the Milch quote captured the idea nearly as well, I thought, and the quote from Phil Hine was needed to drive home the point that the topic of the book is, at least to me, funny stuff.

So Eliade ended up on the cutting room floor.

33-1/3 outtakes: Average White Band.

(I wrote this back in September 2014 — in the middle of the first draft — to help me find my way in to the chapter on ‘whiteness,’ which @mikehamad told me might be something of a third rail for the book but which I’d committed to early enough in my mind that I couldn’t imagine the book without it. –wgh.)

Ch4: Average White Band: freewrite

phish come up in the megachurch era, pre-internet renaissance of regional culture when tech of media reproduction enabled any local weirdo to put out hundreds of copies of his rant/mixtape/sermon — High Weirdness, of course.

High Weirdness by Mail comes out in 1988. another country inside this one, and its communications capability is increasing along with everyone else’s, so the kooks can talk to one another — and to the norms — with utter ease. it was before the rise of full-time online life, ubiquitous connectivity, but after email and usenet and easy access to xerox machines made zine culture and peer-to-peer mechanical reproduction accessible to the mainstream. rise of an interesting disaffected strain in the culture.

stang was very much chronicling the world phish came from — that oddball realm where Nancy could be making avant tape collages and trey could be writing rock operas about multibeasts and though there’s no context for it now, there was one at the time — weirdos who found one another in a weird place. goddard college doesn’t really exist anymore, does it?

Remain in Light comes out in late 1980, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in 1981. part of a moment. tribal/machinic. proto-cyberpunk. Blade Runner in 1982. Neuromancer and Ghostbusters in 1984. The cassette Walkman hit the US in 1980. MTV debuts in 1981 with ‘video killed the radio star.’

virtuosic (‘progressive’) music of the 70s + SF/weirdo culture of the 70s/80s + collagist fragmentation of early 80s (early MTV era, proto-cyberpunk) + strange east-coast take on bay area psychedelia, tinged w/british ironic experimentation — crimson/soft machine/genesis are more forerunners for phish’s overall vibe than the dead, in some way, though phish’s musical language draws a lot on various ‘americanas’

but look, this is very much a white subcultural mix. the black folks who pop up in phish’s history are exceptions — michael ray, p-funk(!), jah roy (late-80s), marshall allen (on SttA)…and of course secondhand influences like the Meters, James Brown, Sly Stone, Funkadelic again, Sun Ra (improv/composition mix w/a Weird vibe)…

initiatory rites — there’s deep suspicion on each side of the black/white cultural divide about the two (broadly, ill-defined) groups’ esoteric codes. ‘black codes from the underground’ and all that. exoteric mixing and sharing is fine, it’s expected, but wanting to preserve esoteric cultural strains is understandable and a little dangerous/complicated…


the children here are feral and wise to unnameable impulses, which doesn’t faze the hunters

the city vaults across the mountains on angelbone struts and within its borders the living light makes loneliness impossible, which doesn’t faze the hunters

every guitar is always tuned, which doesn’t faze the hunters

a single penstroke in the right light beneath the proper sign is said to be able to capture three lifetimes’ worth of pain and portend three lifetimes’ worth of joy, and wasteful writing is seen as a form of malign madness, which doesn’t faze the hunters

no food is prepared more than an hour in advance and the war stops every night for dinnertime, which doesn’t faze the hunters

high in the clock tower overlooking the greyest quarters of the steel city there are bird-men with no voices of their own, no wings, only the memory of flight which the wise among them know can’t possibly be theirs, must be an imposition, a punishment, and they should never have entered service to dangerous men and the sound of the clock hourly beating like a great iron heart is ruinous but they never ever leave, which doesn’t faze the hunters

Two flicks.

Burn After Reading

I remember intensely disliking The Man Who Wasn’t There despite it arriving during my ‘finally watching films as “art”‘ phase in college, when I had lots of time for joyless experiments in tone and genre-play. Burn After Reading runs closer to Fargo in tone — a gang of more or less well-meaning idiots surrounds the sainted Frances McDormand, who just wants to get out of the shenanigans with her dignity intact — but though pleasant, it’s still joyless. The pervasive melancholy of the Coens’ films curdles here into misanthropy (it doesn’t always), and the bleakness is only deepened by the form of the piece, which ends by simply cutting away from the action to a couple of spooks saying ‘Well, that was a load of incomprehensible bullshit, wasn’t it.’ Which it was. Clooney and Pitt do their familiar genial self-ironizing (they should play Butch and Sundance), Malkovich is perfect as a cuckolded spy-turned-memoirist, Tilda Swinton nearly passes for a human being, McDormand gives the greatest reaction to an out-of-place sex toy in the history of cinema, and none of it matters for even a second. Still, second-rate Coens is still worth your time; they’re as consistent as Joss Whedon, and they don’t have to waste their energy on Marvel movies.

Jurassic World

The original film is one of the great action/adventure movies, and the original book is a chilling reminder of Crichton’s domestication of cosmic horror — in this telling, nonlinear dynamics and the red teeth/claws of nature function as antihuman immune agents. The sequels have all been bad, even Crichton’s own Lost World, but I’d heard Jurassic World was a return to form. It’s not. The whole point of Spielberg’s film was the mass production of sensawunda, which Jurassic World utterly lacks. But wait: can’t we forgive that, since the story’s on-the-nose message is that our jadedness about visual entertainment has robbed us of our capacity for wonder? No we can’t. The verisimilitude of the original is pissed away here for the usual international-movie-audience reasons of corporate greed and no amount of lampshade hanging can make up for it. The action is ludicrous, the effects are humdrum (the hopelessly overwrought Godzilla did this big-dino stuff better; but then so did the original Park!), and the dialogue is embarrassing. Several human beings do appear in the film, played by decent actors doing a decent job; but since you’re not a child, you won’t care. Jurassic World is currently the third-biggest motion picture of all time. Skip it and watch the witty, perfectly paced original instead — or better yet, read the book, whose (anti)climaxes and coda still have the power to horrify.

Recent psych listening.

Rikki Ililonga, Soweto

‘All the women they call me / the population maker / the men they call me / the marriage breaker / the mothers call me / the statutory raper / the fathers call me / the cherry breaker’

Imagine that lyric sung in the most sweet-natured little tenor voice imaginable, seemingly without lust, over an inexpressibly warm three-chord guitar/synth groove that’s somewhere between the stony austerity of 70s Afrofunk and the weird psych/soul/R&B monology of Shuggie Otis. Imagine reading this on the album cover:

‘P.S. This record should be played at speaker shattering volume. Especially if you’re doing the deep shaft horizontal mambo. Have fun! –Rikki”

Imagine this naked carnality on an album whose cover art depicts the popular Zambian musician Ililonga behind bars in honour of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, whose centerpiece is a multipart political statement that opens with a choir singing hymns and climaxes with a series of explosions under the lyrics ‘I–am going–to blow–your mind.’

I confess that on early listens I was frustrated by the repetitive guitar figures and seemingly rhythmically clumsy singing of the opening track, but I’ve decided (for my own purposes, provisionally) that it stands in relation to familiar American funk the way (e.g.) the equally thin-voiced Shuggie’s Inspiration Information does: as a thoughtful one-man-band’s hermetically fluent reconception. I don’t know Zambian funk from Adam, but it’s impossible for me to imagine that this bizarre amalgam of wallflower sex/politics grooves is typical. Of anything, really. I’m not prepared for the world to be this good.

White Rainbow, Sky Drips Drifts

Every musical autodidact is thrilled by the possibilities inherent in looping, and this continuous 67-minute loop of overdubbed guitars, synths, (synth?) voices, and whatever else is exactly the kind of thing we’d all do if we had the afternoon free. It’s Frippertronics, basically, with updated -tronics. And it’s boring at first, as Frippertronic experiments not played by Robert Fripp tend without exception to be…until suddenly it’s not, and a dare-I-say ‘tribal’ voice/percussion groove washes away the seemingly endless guitar syncopations, making room for a massive symphonic climax to the third track. At times it sounds a bit like a psychedelic alt-universe take on the Lion King soundtrack, which should be awful — I felt awful typing it — but surrendering to the work means allowing one improvisatory monologist’s conception to play out over the length of an album, which is both a healthy activity in itself (submission to radical consciousness-alternation through the benign offices of artists) and in this case yields specific rewards, viz., your periodic reminder that in an infinite universe there is no such thing as ‘scale’ and the lifetime of all matter can be squeezed into, lemmesee here, was it 67 minutes? Honestly it flew by.

Gila, Free Electric Sound

Gila is a little bit like Can, but with a less compelling drummer and a stronger Floyd fixation. The fact that ‘Kollektivität’ kicks off by seeming to tease ‘Pinball Wizard’ is the most ‘interesting’ thing about the album, which isn’t much; and they don’t play it anyway. The fact that the last four tracks form a 20-minute medley which ends with the inevitable drum circle doesn’t put me off, though Christ knows it should, because by then I’ve already checked out.

For some reason I feel the strong urge to turn this into a rant about how I don’t care about Can and I’m annoyed that you do. But today I will not do that.

Alcatraz, Vampire State Building

‘Hey Ozzy, how you been?’ ‘Been alright.’ ‘Listen mate, I’ve got this idea, yeah?’ ‘Yeah?’ ‘Let’s go full-on fucking jazz/rock fusion.’ ‘Yeah alright.’ ‘Right. I’ll get the flute.’ ‘Groovy.’