Monday, December 17, 2007

Jimi and Larry, a response by Andy Biscontini

In response to Stanley Jason Zappa's posts I Don't Know, You Tell Me and Of What Use Is The Real Thing? :

To look for our generation's Lawrence Welk and Jimi Hendrix is to inquire into the state, location, and acknowledgment of the human soul in contemporary Western culture.

I'm not speaking of soul in the religious sense, but in the basic sense of the "anima", that force of being which may or may not animate us beyond the energy generated by basic human metabolism.

When Welk refers to the Beatles and the Monkees (we'll forgive him the association of a band-turned-media-phenomenon with a media-constructed-band) and says he's "thrown open the gates of the zoo," implying that not only were the popular bands of the day named after animals but comprised of them, and lampoons the fashions of the "counter-culture" while demonstrating that his band could play "that music" too, he was valiantly sticking up for himself and his audience, who surely felt ridiculed, lampooned, and threatened by the younger generation's open spirituality.

A cynic might argue that Welk was a couple of years ahead of the music industry in stripping off the trappings of sixties cool to reveal the safe, clean, well-pressed suit underneath, and I would probably agree with them.

It's significant that Welk made Polka his milieu. In its pure form, Polka is ecstatic and cathartic dance music in which the collective energy of a large group of humans is channeled through wind and reed instruments into elaborate scales and rhythms intended to drive complicated and demanding dance moves designed for couples.

And although Welk made his name by rendering Polka tepid, sexless, mid-tempo and to my mind boring, I would never go so far as to speculate that he and his cohorts didn't have a soul under their frilly costumes and well-coifed hair. I didn't know them personally.

What I will speculate on is that they believed in handling the soul in a particular way.

For Welk and his ilk, popular culture was a common ground, free of excitement, arousal, and emotions which might be unpleasant, unsettling, or unseemly. He was a warm and engaging host who, perhaps, took the signature highly structured Western approach to spirituality a bit too far.

And then there's Jimi.

In much the same way that a Polka band channels energy and tones through trombones and accordions, Jimi Hendrix channels it through electricity and magnets.

He is the Nikolai Tesla to Lawrence Welk's Thomas Edison.

And while Hendrix's feedback and dissonance puts off some audiences, few would write his music off as "just noise." Hendrix's music often subjugates structure to sound, and he freely bends the constraints of the songs he plays to inspiration, but even when he's on his knees or slamming his guitar into his stack, the guy is there. His self is present and he's in control. He manages to single-handedly wield and conduct an amount of energy equal to or greater than a dancehall full of Vodka-fueled Slavs blasting away on trumpets.

And what happens?

In the clip from Royal Albert Hall, the audience, coming from a repressive Western background, goes nuts and decide they have to smash themselves against his stack.

Possibly the most culturally compelling image in the video (even more so than the crotch-shot), is the moment at the end, when Jimi's seen in the wings, shaking his head in disappointment. These people can't control themselves, he seems to be saying, and I'm gonna get blamed.

Which is exactly what the Welk crowd feared.

Which, perhaps, is why ecstatic ritual evolved from individual channeling of spirit into carefully choreographed group pageantry.

Does Hendrix represent a de-evolution or an evolution of ecstatic ritual?

Ultimately, I believe the latter, but I'm neither a theologian nor a sociologist.

So where does that leave us today?

Interestingly, Balkan brass bands have fallen into vogue over the last several years, inspired by the popularity among young cognoscenti of the films of Emir Kusturica, and embodied at its most dangerous and ecstatic by Eugene Hutz and his band Gogol Bordello, and at its most scrubbed and safe by the kid from the band Beirut.

While I don't doubt the authenticity of Eugene's energy or talent as a performer, and the kid from Beirut writes good pop songs, the "Gypsy Punk" movement is neither Lawrence Welk nor Jimi Hendrix but somewhere in-between. Modern, white consumers of media are looking for the 'soul' in 'their' music.

It is here worth mentioning that this musical genre has gained an audience and a popularity (possibly fleeting if not already fled) with a minimum of traditional media exposure.

Which brings me to my opinion that our Lawrence Welk is both culturally pervasive and invisible. He is in the standards and practices office at Viacom/Paramount. He haunts the offices of Clear Channel. He books bands for the Vans Warped Tour.

He is in the hearts of fashionistas who snap cell-phone pictures of the coolest kids on their way to high school and have their looks in Old Navy before the end of first period.

He is on the head of every douchebag with a faux-hawk wearing a polo shirt.

He has entered the mainframe of our cultural consciousness in a way that Tim Leary could only trip about.

And where is our Jimi Hendrix?

If he hadn't died, would he still be on the radio?

Will the ghost of Lawrence Welk ever allow him back into the mainstream? Is the mainstream any more equipped to handle him?

I'm convinced he's still around, in the heart of everyone who still has the guts to do something new rather than embody some branded lifestyle they've been culturally programmed to aspire to.

And the Sly and Stevie clips you picked represent perhaps the best examples this culture has to offer of the marriage of virtuosity, cultural accessibility, and soul.

What the fuck happened?

copyright, © 2007 Andy Biscontini

Andy Biscontini's film EVERY DOG'S DAY is available here. It's even on sale for the holidays, so what are you waiting for?