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2015-02-24 20:27

Ancient history, no but really though

The universe is currently 13 billion or so years old, and it gained most of that age in the last 100 years or so. And even human history has gone from the Bible being the oldest possible thing to a fairly recent thing compared to Sumerian clay tablets, never mind the rapidly receding ages of cave paintings.

The latter development really got kickstarted with the deciphering of hieroglyphics, and that was about 200 years ago; cave paintings only became old more recently than that.

Before that, apart from the chosen few who studied Hebrew, ancient civilisation in the West meant Greece and Rome in, by today's standards, not very ancient periods. And however much we learn about Hittites and Sumerians, Greece and Rome remain part of the mental furniture of the civilised person in a way that their predecessors stubbornly don't.

Needless to say, we for one regret this.

But lately we have been engaging in an Epic Not-Quite Flame War on a guitar forum in which persons - fellow guitarists! - are busily holding that pop music these days is just superficial nonsense with half-baked lyrics set to a pounding beat that is only acceptable to an ignorant public that hasn't learned to appreciate the sophistication of the golden age of the Rolling Stones. And we're not even kidding, that's really what they're arguing.

So, leaving aside the fact that the Stones in particular were warming over Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf while being younger, prettier, Britisher and (very especially) whiter, and that "I can't get no satisfaction but I try and I try and I try and I try" might not actually be the very pinnacle of clevertastic (not that there's anything wrong with that, but, you know arguendo), one might profitably quarrel with a denunciation of pop-as-showbusiness in which Elvis never wore sequins, Sinatra was never brylcreamed, and Tin Pan Alley never furnished forgettable pop ditties by the yard to forgettable pop mediocrities.

And further back, there are some fine songs from Victorian music hall, and also some absolute stinkers ("Daddy wouldn't buy me a bow wow" would place high if we were making a list), and yet there was this one moment in the 1960s were everyone decided that if you listened to enough Buffalo Springfield it could prevent Julius Caesar from genociding seven shades of fuck out of Vietnam or stop the carpet-bombing of Gaul or whatever the hell it was, and is wasn't true then and it isn't true now and believeing it is STILL a prerequisite for taking part in a discussion of popular culture.

But at least Marcus Aurelius wrote his own songs, eh?

2015-02-15 19:23

Anniversaries all the way down

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Grateful Dead, as well as the twentieth anniversary of their dissolution on the occasion of the premature death of their lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia.

It's also the 25th anniversay of their triple live album Without a net, which was our first exposure to the band. It felt pretty transgressive as a young rocker raised on punk ideology, and it took me a while to see the transcendence hidden behind the outwardly mundane barroom rocking. (It doesn't help that none of them could apparently sing for toffee.)

But lately we came back to their catalogue via Spotify, and it turns out that Garcia really was a great musician - he manages to use a jazz-derived method to improvise remarkably interesting melodies over remarkably mundane chord progressions, at (even his detractors would admit) remarkable length. The rest of the band have their strengths too, but then so do the other six(6) of Louis Armstrong's Hot Seven; it is still a Garcia-centric experience.

No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead by Peter Richardson does, meanwhile, more or less what it says it will do. It is most interesting on the setting up of the original 50s beatnik scene in San Fransisco, and gets generally less interesting as it goes along citing endless reviews that hail them as boring crusty irrelevances, although I was impressed by the way he managed to lower my opinion of Ronald Reagan several times in the course of the story, starting from what was after all a pretty low baseline.

The most interesting thing about them in the eighties and early nineties is that they were in fact still growing their fanbase, and were consistently one of the biggest grossing live acts in the USA, effortlessly selling out an apparently endless string of stadium shows. And that while resolutely avoiding any trace of show business - they didn't dress up, they barely spoke to the audience; they just turned up, played until they were done and then left. (And they never did learn to sing in tune, and no one ever seemed to mind.)

I could have done with a smidgen more biography (Garcia in particular changes wives fairly often off stage) and quite a lot more musicology, but this isn't that kind of book, and it isn't a bad book on its own terms.

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