Great Albums- The Kinks’ Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)

The Kinks are, in my opinion, the most criminally underrated band from the 60s.  They weren’t the best, they weren’t most ground-breaking, but the fact that they have such an amazing songbook and that people remember maybe four songs of their whole catalog is a shame.

If I had to guess I’d say the problem for them is that Ray Davies isn’t a dynamic frontman like Jagger, or a great singer like Lennon.  The band isn’t a rock and roll machine like the Who or a kickass gang of pirates like the Rolling Stones.  They don’t have anyone who would be notable on their own, no Ginger Baker type drummer and Dave Davies is no Jimi Hendrix.  They don’t particularly have grit like the Doors or Janis.  They never managed to reinvent the pop song like The Beach Boys or the Beatles.

What could they do?  Well, they could rock about as hard as anyone, when they wanted to, which was not that often, at least in the 60s.  They were funny and irreverent and Ray Davies was a great story-teller.  And they wrote great songs.  Mostly it was Ray writing them, but every now and then Dave would come along with a classic of his own.

That’s really the heart of them for me.  Other than Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, no one wrote so many good songs, that were so good, in so many different ways as the Kinks.

They could caveman proto-punk- You Really Got Me, Til the End of the Day.  They could do funny social satire- Sunny Afternoon, A Well Respected Man, Village Green Preservation Society.  They could do hard rock, either anthemic- Lola or groovy- Powerman.  They could do great, sad songs like Dave Davies’ classic – Strangers. or the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Alcohol.  Or just cute songs- Act Nice And Gentle.  They put together some of the most beautiful ballads ever recorded- Days, Waterloo Sunset.

They experimented with a variety of styles, and probably in a smart move, didn’t do a ton of psychedelic rock (they weren’t very good at when they tried), but were really all over the map.

Perhaps most amazingly, the Kinks did something none of their contemporaries managed to do… record a good song in the 80s:

But I wanted to focus on my personal favorite album by them- Arthur:

Arthur was intended to be a concept album to accompany a television special that never got off the ground.  I don’t know if knowing that makes the album better.  You could just as easily think of it as a series of character studies.  It’s about a family, Arthur being the father.  He’s got some kids:

One of them goes off to war:

And dies:

Part of what I like about this album is how much it’s grown with me over the years.  This was always a terribly sad song about a young man trying to be brave and leaving his mother behind.  Having become a parent it’s just devastating.  It’s amazing to me that a young man could have written a song with such empathy.

Arthur also has a son who is a hectoring leftist of some kind:

And some other kids who are looking for a new life in Australia:

The Kinks did a great job of giving the listener a varied emotional experience.  If the whole album were versions of Some Mother’s Son, it would be a real drag.  If you listen to this on LP, this is the last song on the first side, and if it weren’t for the preceding songs, the long, kind of repetitive jam at the end would seem kind of lame, but it lets my brain unwind.  This is one of the sad things about losing the concept of the LP- you can’t really take the listener on the same sort of journey in 3 minutes.

So Arthur’s kids have all gone away and he’s left at home alone.

Sometimes it’s impossible to know whether Ray Davies is making fun of the character in his song, when there’s also clearly so much love for his subject.  I don’t know if he’s criticizing Arthur for accepting his place in society, or if he’s admiring his finding it.  Sometimes I listen to this song and want to be Arthur.

I shouldn’t say Arthur is alone, his wife is with him

I love this song.  This is a song I used to think was kind of stupid, and again, I wasn’t sure if Ray was mocking Arthur and his wife or not.

It wasn’t until I was poor myself that I understood why poor or working class people place so much value in things.   I grew up in a reformed hippie, middle class household and it was considered in poor taste to want to buy luxury items, or brand name items.  That was just tacky.

But I had a rough time for a while when my son was just a baby and now I get it.  Being poor is hard.  Every day is tough, because if you’re close enough to the edge you never know what’s going to cause you to really get stuck- stuck with recurring bills, and debt you can’t pay off.  It’s scary and demoralizing.  But sometimes just having a little something nice makes it tolerable.  Yeah, maybe it shouldn’t matter if you have a nice hat, like the one Arthur is presumably wearing, because who cares, it’s a hat and you’re still poor.  But sometimes having a nice thing to point to, when everything else sucks, can make you want to go on.

Music can sometimes teach you things like that.

Maybe some day this song will grow on me.  So far it hasn’t yet:

The album ends with a great rocker

This is at heart maybe a sad song, but it always brings a smile to my face.  It’s a song that laughs in the face of pain, sadness and disappointment.

I didn’t cover all the songs on the album.  There are a few more, and they’re worth listening to, if not my favorites.  Like I said before, I’ve enjoyed this album for close to twenty years now, but it’s grown with me in a way that few others have.  It’s taught me lessons that took me years to understand.  It’s helped me put myself in the shoes of people who don’t even exist, but I feel better for having done that.  The best music can do this and this is some of the best.

Things that suck about being in a band: disaster strikes

There’s so much that can go wrong playing a live show that sometimes it’s amazing to me that people try to play them at all.  They range from the moderately inconvenient to stuff that totally stops the show.  I’ve had a good range of them.

I don’t really get nervous very much playing at shows, because truth is, I’ve had about everything go wrong that could.  But I’ll start with the worst.

I wrote about playing a Halloween show in 2004 in Japan.  I thought I had written about the following year, but it looks like I only sort of mentioned it here which was a follow up to here.  Basically, I had played a Halloween show with a couple of bands.  One of the bands was the opener, and the guy who was supposed to play guitar got too drunk and we sounded pretty crappy.

The following year my buddy says, “let’s do another band!”

I say, “sure, who’s going to play guitar?”

“Do you remember _____?”

“Oh yes I do, and no I don’t want to play with him.”

“Aw come on, I’ll make sure he doesn’t get drunk”

Long story short, I agree to play.  We watch him like a hawk, but somehow, some way, he drank something and was PLASTERED.  We start setting up and he can’t find an outlet for his amp.  Which he had been twiddling nobs on for like 5 minutes before realizing it’s not even plugged in.  So I set my guitar down in a very questionable stand and go to reach over to plug his amp in.  In the process, I bump my guitar off the stand.  CRASH.  Broke the headstock right off.

Now I am standing there, with a drunk, barely standing idiot for a guitar player, a broken guitar and worst of all, I’m dressed like an angel with huge wings.  I was mortified.  I almost cried.  Not joking.

But the show had to go on, so I borrowed a guitar and played for about three songs before I gave up because half the songs weren’t ones I could play and sing and the guitar player guy was worse than useless at that point.  That was the worst I’ve had so far, but plenty of other things have gone wrong.  Mostly equipment failures of some sort- guitar comes unplugged, guitar strings break.  Sometimes the drummer’s bass drum will start moving away from the rest of the kit if it’s not properly anchored.  These are all things that are pretty easily remedied.

Sometimes you’re just having an off night and the songs just sound bad.  Sometimes the sound man is terrible and doesn’t mix the band properly.  We once had a sound-man fall asleep and our mics were feeding back in the most painful way.  I don’t even know how it was possible for him to sleep.  But sometimes the band just sucks.  I know people who beat themselves up for mistakes, even on good nights.  Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t do that is part of why I still play music.

Random Thoughts

This is almost post # 250.  250!  I can’t believe I made it past #10.  That being said, I have dropped off a bit.  Things are different- I’ve got more to do these days.  Plus I’m trying to go to the gym. In fact I would be there, but I was like- I practiced last night and I’ve got a show tomorrow night, I should just relax my legs.

So I’m relaxing, trying to get a few songs done.  The band has been busy lately, which is good because we’re trying to save up for some recording, but not so good because we’re not making a ton of money.

Song I like:

They just announced a west coast tour, hope they make it back to San Diego.

These guys are local and they’re great

They do something I think is interesting, but bands should be careful with- little breakdowns in the middle of songs.  I was just reminded of this because I recently saw a band that was trying to do this a lot and it really wasn’t working.  I’ve come to the following conclusions on abruptly throwing in wildly divergent parts in the middle of songs

  1. Audience can’t expect them.  Unless they’ve already heard the song, in which case it can’t be helped.  This means not doing the same one multiple times in a song
  2. They should be fairly short.
  3. Wildly different guitar sounds are something to be careful with.

At least that’s my take.  I’ll have to try something like this to see if it works.

Book Review- Blueprint for Disaster

So I finally got my hands on the computer again!

A couple things:

This article on Washington Post was amazing.  Amazing because of how awful the situation it describes is.  This is local government preying on poor people, Sheriff of Nottingham style.  If you have time for a long read and a need to ruin your day, I highly suggest it.

How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty

There was just so much about it that is insane, from prosecutors that act as judges in adjacent cities, to police issuing tickets for the lamest of infractions, to cities agreeing to share halves of roads so that the bounty of ticket-writing can be split up equitably.  It’s just insane.

But back to what I was going to talk about.  I’ve been researching urban issues for a while now, and a big part of what I’m interested in is housing.  I’m not an ideologue, I came to the issue with an open mind, and having learned quite a bit on it in recent years, I’m not sure that I have any more definite opinions.  But I’m keeping at it.

The book is:

Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing

By D. Bradford Hunt

Shorter- the book blew my mind

The longer:

Having read a bit about public housing lately, I’m largely on the fence about whether or not it’s a good idea.  There are many, many horror stories about “the projects”, but most of them seem to come from a handful of cases, the most notorious, and most horrific, come from the ugly cement monoliths erected by the Chicago Housing Authority.  In fact, another book I read recently, Edward Geotz New Deal Ruins put it this way- “The fact is that public housing came to ruin in Chicago.”  Chicago’s fuck-ups were so catastrophic and so high profile, that they basically soured the nation on the idea at all.

What went wrong?  I’ll spoil it for you.  According to Hunt, everything.  There’s no one culprit here, but the obvious ones make appearances- bureaucratic incompetence, political corruption, union corruption,  racism, ivory-tower social reformers, out-of-their depth administrators, real estate developers, Democrats, Republicans, flagrant spenders, excessive budget cutters, kids running amok, teenagers in gangs… it’s all here.  Even some things I wouldn’t have thought of.

I’m not going to rehash the whole book because you’ll read it if this interests you or not.  But there were a handful of things that really stuck out in my mind.

1) Too many kids.

The author brings up a point I haven’t seen anywhere else, but strikes as pretty important, even if I can’t prove that it’s right or wrong.  The big apartment buildings had way too many kids in them.  The designers wanted to make safe buildings for families, so the majority of the apartments were three to five bedrooms.  If you’ve ever spent time living in apartments this is highly unusual.  Few complexes have more than a handful of three bedrooms and I’ve never seen a private complex where that’s the majority.  Basically, children, and later, teenagers overran these buildings.  Adults were outnumbered and there were simply too many to keep an eye on.  Kids vandalized the buildings, played around in the elevators (sometimes with tragic results) and basically tore the places apart.  And then the gangs started recruiting them as they got older.

2) High rise buildings were a cost-cutting measure.

Apparently it’s cheaper to build vertically then it is to build horizontally (I suspect I knew that, but I can’t remember… huh).  And it didn’t end there.  Some of the cost-cutting involved things like not putting doors on closets and having elevators that didn’t stop at every floor.

3)  Cost-cutting measures came about because HUD set out to prove that government could build housing for less than private builders.

This to me was the most insane thing I read in the whole book, because it makes no sense at all.  Public housing was proposed partly as a means to make housing available for people who were locked out of the private market.   The private market is driven by profit motive- developers build trying to minimize costs, because they can only push so much of their cost onto consumers before consumers refuse to rent/buy.  So it makes sense to try to replicate that.  But that’s only half the issue.  Renting an apartment from a private developer mean not only are you paying for the cost of the building, you’re paying for them to make a profit.  But it’s easy to save renters money by not making a profit, which the government was trying to do.  Saving them money by building for cheaper than the private market (which is already trying to build at the lowest possible price) is hard.

How did HUD expect this to happen?  Realistically, short of doing something totally insane like saying “we got wood for this building for free because we’re the government and we can log National Parks when we feel like it” there’s not really any way of doing this.  Government mostly buys materials and labor on the open market like everyone else.  Labor it usually has to pay more for.

That part of the book drove me nuts.

At any rate, those were some of the big insights I got out of this book.   The author doesn’t appear to believe that public housing can work.  I’m not sure I agree, but I’m not sure I disagree either.  But it’s good reading for anyone who wants to know what not to do.  Or who just wants to gawk at dozens, maybe hundreds, or even thousands, of people behaving badly, stupidly and carelessly with terrible consequences for the poor and vulnerable.

Tijuana and some garage bands

Summer is officially over and so it means I may be back on the internet a bit more.  Only a few more beach days this year.

I hadn’t been to Tijuana for years, but I agreed to accompany a friend there to check out my other friend’s band that were playing at a club just off Revolucion.  Tijuana garage rock night!

I only caught three bands- one was a SoCal Sublime style band.  Not really my cup of tea but whatever.  The next two were garage rock bands.  I’m not going to mention names just in case I end up on a bill with them someday and have to explain myself.

A lot of times going to shows feels like work to me because I’m analyzing what the other bands are doing.  The two garage bands were very similar- both going for the same Thee Oh Sees style garage punk.  One was a three piece, the other a two piece.  Full disclosure- one of my friends is in one of the bands.  Still, a few observations:

I previously mocked what I call The Beatle Strap Length- nipple high guitar playing- but it looks like I am officially old because that’s what the kids are doing.  I can’t say that it’s right or wrong, it’s just different and something I will most likely not adopt.  I first saw it on the Black Lips, but it looks like nearly everyone is doing it now

 

I’ve always maintained that doing a band with only one vocalist is ill-advised.  I’m not saying it can’t be done, just that it’s hard.  Very, very hard.  The two piece had a drummer who could sing and do harmonies.  That is huge.  One of my friends once said that people remembered harmonies most.  I think he may be right.  But even if you just have two people singing the melody, that’s better.  There’s just no reason to have anyone in the band who can’t sing unless they are a drummer or someone with some extraordinary talent.  Or if they plan an instrument that precludes singing, like saxophone. So anyway, I give it to the two-piece for having two singers.

On the subject of vocals I’m going to really go all old man here for a moment.  A lot of bands need to tone down the echo effect.  I know it can sound really cool, but here’s the secret.

Glenn Danzig is singing slowly.  This is the secret.  Some of these bands are shouting through very densely written songs and the words pile on top of each other until it doesn’t sound cool and menacing anymore.  It just sounds like blah blah blah blah yi yi yi yi.

Again, Jay Reatard is singing slowly.  And it’s not overdone.  There’s just enough to give it an evil edge.

To give another example- here’s where he’s overdoing it

Maybe the kids just don’t care that much about vocals.  But after a while it’s just a gimmick and it gets old.

I also give it to the two piece for breaking up their set with slow and fast songs.  I know it’s not just because I’m old.  That’s important to do.

The guitar player in the three piece had a telecaster.  I don’t get why tele’s don’t get more respect as a rock and roll guitar, because they sound awesome.  Since I just now took a break for like a half hour while listening to Guitar Wolf and Thee Michelle Gun Elephant, I’ll use that as a segue- this song has some of my favorite guitar playing ever, and it’s on a tele

That didn’t have much to do with anything.  I feel like I should say more about TJ, but it was mostly uneventful, other than the flying roaches.

Beyonce and the meaning of not wearing pants

I was kind of laughing about this:

Beyonce’s feminist VMA message prompts some eye rolls

What does it really mean to be a feminist in Hollywood these days?

Others chimed in with opinions such as “an excellent night for women not wearing pants,”

(my emphasis)

OK, so Beyonce did a pretty epic performance at the VMA’s- 15 minutes, most of her album.  And she did so without pants and flashed FEMINIST across the screen at one point.

I didn’t really see a problem.  Feminism includes the idea that women should be allowed to wear what they want and not get judged on it.  But then I remembered this Kathleen Hanna interview from a while back:

CNN: What do you make of singers like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Ke$ha who are seemingly touching on themes of gay empowerment in their music, but for some reason it doesn’t quite resonate?

Hanna: I mean, is it really that different when it’s a skinny white woman in a bathing suit singing these things? None of these women ever wear pants, first of all. Second of all, just because you’re wearing a goofy hat doesn’t make it performance art.

(again, my emphasis)

PANTS!  WHAT ARE THE POLITICS OF WEARING OR NOT WEARING PANTS?

I don’t know.  I think this pants thing is silly, and Kathleen Hanna came off as an angry old person in that interview.

On the subject of pants, I will firmly state that I do not consider pants (or lack thereof) to be a reason to discriminate against someone or not listen to their opinion.  Provided they wear something that covers their genitals.

Some awesome people not wearing pants:

Wait, who was that last one?  Kathleen Hanna.  With no pants on.  In her defense, I’m sure I can find photos of her wearing pants back then.

For the record, I have never appeared at a show in anything that looked like underwear or a swimsuit, and the world is probably a better place for it.  But I don’t want to rule it out either.  Keeping my options open.  Just in case.

White Flight

So this isn’t really a political blog but I’m not going to pretend I haven’t been watching what’s going on in Ferguson.  And as usual, I get into arguments in comment sections about various facts of the case.  It’s pretty stupid actually, but sometimes I get bored.  Oh well, we all have hobbies we’re not proud of.  I’m not going to drag those arguments over to my own blog, but I did want to talk about one subject I keep seeing mentioned, in a mostly incorrect way, because it’s interesting to me- white flight.

My mom tells a story of moving into a part of Los Angeles that was predominately white.  My grandfather was an engineer and could afford an upper-middle class life.  He bought a house and they moved in.  I forget what part of LA it was.  I also don’t know if they were the first Mexicans in their neighborhood.  But whites saw Mexicans and Cubans moving in and quickly moved out of that neighborhood.

Well, apparently some black Angelenos got word that it was a safe neighborhood to move into (because moving into all white neighborhoods back then was a dangerous proposition).  So they started moving in.  AND THEN THE LATINOS STARTED MOVING OUT.  They were like “oh no, black people moving in.”

It’s a story about how silly people are, and how even people who are victims of bigotry can turn around and victimize others.  According to my mom, my grandmother didn’t care, and they stayed, at least for a while.

My mom also went to a school that the LA district bused black kids into.  According to my mom, the district wanted to make a good impression, so they bused in only the best students- star scholars and athletes.

I bring this up because it illustrates something that people trying to defend white flight as not racist but instead as a pragmatic decision tend to ignore.  The people moving into a white neighborhood are literally the most capable people moving out of ghetto neighborhoods.  If a white neighborhood can’t accept those people, it cannot accept anyone of color, because at the beginning of white flight, black and brown people were almost universally confined to areas of the city that were ghettos.  There was no where else they would have been coming from, except maybe from out of state.

I recently read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.  If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do.  It’s a beautiful but tremendously sad book.  But one of the points it makes is that the people emigrating from the south were the most capable, the most educated and some of the hardest working.  How would it be otherwise?  Getting up and moving cross country to get a job isn’t easy, especially if you’re poor.  And there were few opportunities for them to make something of themselves in the South at that time.  The north was getting the best of the best.

And the same applies to people moving into white neighborhoods.  They saved up the money to buy that house, clearly they’re responsible people.

The other thing I see is people claiming that white people were moving out of the ghetto.  This is nonsense.  White people had their own ghettos in the 50s and 60s, and black people weren’t trying to move into them.  Why would they be?  That makes no sense.

The shocking thing to me about white flight was how fast it would happen sometimes.  Real estate agents had a method they’d call blockbusting.  First the agent would convince a seller on a block to sell to a black family, usually in secret so other neighbors wouldn’t have a chance to weigh in.  Then when the neighbors find out and sell off their houses en masse, the agent would buy up the devalued properties at a huge discount, then sell them back to black families, who had few other options for housing, at a huge markup.  It was quite a racket they had going.

White people mostly weren’t escaping bad neighborhoods.  They were escaping good neighborhoods that they didn’t want to share with blacks.  Only those few who didn’t have the means to move out in the initial rush could properly be said to be fleeing ghettos. The majority moved out long before cities hit bottom in the 70s and 80s.

Of course, collapse in property values helps no one, especially the city and schools that rely on them for tax revenues.  I’m not super knowledgeable about this, so I’m going to leave it right here.