Thursday, September 7, 2023

Right now, right now...

Richard Goldstein—Village Voice's "secret service man"—on the MC5 in 1968

In 1967 pop critic Richard Goldstein, in what might charitably be called a minority opinion, laid into the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. A longtime Beatles fan, he was bummed out by the record's grandiosity ("Like an over-attended child, this album is spoiled") and disappointed that the Beatles had disconnected themselves from everyday, gritty reality. "Nothing is real [in Pepper], and nothing to get hung about," he wrote in his New York Times review. "Too bad; I have a sweet tooth for reality. I like my art drenched in it, and even from fantasy, I expect authenticity," adding, "What I worship about the Beatles is their forging of rock into what is real. It made them artists; it made us fans; and it made me think like a critic when I turned on my radio." A year later in the Village Voice, hungry for a dose of real-world spectacle, Goldstein tuned in to the dangerous MC5.

I'm always eager to read on-the-ground, in-the-moment accounts of bands and artists whose presences were urgently felt. Goldstein begins "Kick Out The Jams" with a journalistic establishing shot. "Detroit may have gone for Humphrey, but it’s Nixon country—," he writes,

a vast, gray flatbed gone dour with the resignation of an industrial spa. The streets are straight, the houses frame, and the people—well, the best one can say is that they form a city of rank and file. It’s hard to guess whether the giant tire which hovers over the airport expressway is someone’s idea of an L.A. joke, or an authentic religious symbol. At very least, that plaster imitation of a rubber wheel is the totem of Detroit.

Half of Motor City natives with a pulse might have taken offense at the "rank and file" jab, and Humphrey supporters may have gotten their collective hackles up, but Goldstein does effectively dramatize the simmering cultural conditions of the teetering city. He was writing as an East Coaster, careful to avoid sentimentalizing the Midwest and yet open to its mythic charms, both the warm and the burned-out varieties. He'd dug the MC5's brave appearance at Lincoln Park in Chicago during the '68 Democratic convention, "a special kind of commitment bordering on joy," and the fact that the band members and hangers-on commune in a house in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a college town where it's presumably easier to organize rabble-rousing ("around the taking of exams") than it is in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. "For one thing, it's spacious, and for another, there are plenty of townies to offer tea and sympathy to a resident freak." Goldstein objectively reports: "The floors are clean, the stereo system is in good condition, and the dope facilities are excellent."

He offers a brief history of the band, highlighting, among their charms, their championing of "spasm rock" against the prevailing gentleness. "It’s been a lean time for raunch," Goldstein observes sympathetically, "what with the jazz-folk-raga blend in vogue. You couldn’t picture the MC 5 [sic] playing before an audience of 20,000 stoned love children—not with the fire and brimstone in their sound. No wonder they hate all ornate music, as well as the light and flower cosmology that goes with it. The whole hip circus is what kept them down." Goldstein then links the band's mammoth guitar riffs with the power they project, and assume, en route to a kind of strange observation: "Dissecting their music into riffs and fills, you sense an immense void in the area I can only call literacy."
We have been conditioned to accept experimentation in the guise of primitive music. The primacy of the recording studio, coupled with an abundance of stereo home equipment, has resulted in a compartmentalization of the rock experience. Today’s solos—even when they are improvised—sound diagrammed, as though the ebb and flow of energy were being fed through channels.
I'm not sure I understand here what Goldstein means by "literacy," maybe an over-intellectualization of rock and roll? That the MC5 are rendered toothless under too much analysis? I dig his take on the "compartmentalization of the rock experience" and the studious approach to guitar solos, both of which Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith sought to destroy. 

Goldstein was in Detroit on assignment and on a mission. He was there for the recording of the MC5's soon-to-be-legendary live debut album Kick Out The Jams at the Grande Ballroom in October, there to witness "[a]ll the tumult onstage ... compressed onto those everpresent spools of tape." He keenly recognized that there was "something symbolic in the subservience of this [mobile recording] studio" in that "it represents an astute recognition that the MC 5—if they are to matter at all—must matter live. All the mixing and mastering in Christendom won't improve their sound as much as an audience shrieking whenever the lead singer commands: 'Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!'"

In Goldstein's eyes the MC5 is "definitely a kid’s group" in that "far from the random ecstasy of a California freak-out, theirs is a highly directed release of energy. These are the children of insurgency; no wonder they expect their culture to coerce." He adds,
To watch them standing under the strobes, hands raised in youth-salute, is to understand how pop art can serve as a political mirror, refracting through slogan and myth. Undeniably, there is fascism in the the ecstasy they provide. Not just because they make to kill the foreigners (in this case, adults), but because they suggest the terrible relationship between right and might which is at the core of all art.
Goldstein concludes his piece with a glimpse of the MC5's post-Grande home life, where there's "music and dope and spaghetti cooking in the kitchen. Girls scurry about, brewing tea, changing records, making conversation." A neighbor arrives with two pumpkins as a gift. "And the group sits around an immense dining room table, rubbing their bellies and pounding their forks. They put my head into Huns. Warriors. The conqueror race."
I tell Wayne his music is very violent, because that’s all I can think of to describe fifteen minutes of sheer volume punctuated by the stab of a strobe light. He gives a soft, certain smile, and answers: “Well, that's rock 'n' roll."

"A good snapshot stops a moment from running away." That's Eudora Welty, relaying both truth and fiction. Time always slips from our grasp and goes galloping ahead. More than half a century later, Goldstein's takes on the MC5's rock and roll urgency and sonic voltage are still vivid, if naive. The depiction of the girls lounging around the commune like submissive figures from a Playboy cartoon date the piece, of course, though that's not all Goldstein's fault, and the immersive reporting is of-the-era in that it served the band's public manifesto, the revolutionary aims of which now seem quaint.

Kick Out The Jams
was released in February 1969, and the following few years would find the spasm rockers devolve into unhappy chaos, at times embracing their guru John Sinclair and The White Panthers' agenda, at times recoiling from it all in embarrassment, at times firing on all cylinders onstage, at times limping out a sapped version of themselves. The band's excellent dope facilities only got more excellent, and later Kramer and bassist Michael Davis would be candid about the harrowing depths to which their drug abuse and alcoholism brought them. The band never made it big commercially, and brutal diminishing returns hastened their early death. 

What Goldstein wanted in and from Sgt. Pepper's was more reality. He closed his review of that album by arguing that "We still need the Beatles, not as cloistered composer, but as companions," adding, "And they still need us, to teach them how to be real again." Goldstein found companions of a sort in the scruffy, beery, stoned-out, politically righteous MC5, guys he felt he could figuratively hang with from afar, a community that he saw forged, movingly, at the packed Grande, in the communal shrieks in response to Tyner and "spiritual advisor" J.C. Crawford's exhortations. That reality felt awfully real. The decades following have suggested that some of the reality that the Five were promoting was rifle-toting political posturing rather than daily, lived-in existence. "I only wanted to be in a rock and roll band," Davis confessed in his memoir, I Brought Down the MC5: "This crusade to forge a new world seemed ludicrous, a Quixotic lunge at an imaginary adversary."

In short, things got far too real for all concerned in ways that Goldstein might've predicted. As a fading snapshot taken at the onset of earnestness and idealism before stubborn, everyday life takes over, "Kick Out The Jams" is an evocative, valuable piece of writing. The celebratory night before the morning of reckoning.


Incidentally, Wayne Kramer was twenty when "Kick Out The Jams" ran in the Voice, singer Rob Tyner twenty-four. In 1970 Goldstein gathered the piece in Goldstein's Greatest Hits: A Book Mostly About Rock 'N' Roll, his first book, the back cover of which features this gently-dated gem of a biography note:

Well, that's rock 'n' roll.

Photo of The MC5 by Leni Sinclair (Getty Images); photo of Goldstein via Richard Goldstein

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Melting like an ice cream bar

Why Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk To Fuck" is a perfect rock and roll song

Searching for "perfection" in rock and roll is a fool's errand, a contradiction in terms. Among the qualities of the greatest rock and roll is its threat to collapse in the next measure, the half-real fear that the instruments might leap from the players' hands and run amok, finally held together by a band or an artist by some combination of nerve, skill, and luck, a magic trick unveiled nightly on stages large and small. I could try and argue here about "the perfection in imperfection," but I'd bore myself and you. Instead, consider Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk To Fuck," a 1981 single that ranks as among the most perfect of rock and roll songs because it embodies, in under three minutes, just about every overheated fear that the first generations of rock and rollers raised in their shocked listeners. 

I can't remember precisely when or where I first heard the song. (Certainly not on the radio. I was out of range of WMUC, the station at University Maryland, where I'd have a show a few years later, if one or more of their DJs had the nerve to play it.) I bought the import 12" on Cherry Red Records on a whim, I think at Yesterday and Today Records in Rockville, Maryland, shortly after it was released. (I picked up the "Kill The Poor" single around this time, too.) I both really wanted to hear and was afraid to hear the song, and like so much punk rock, everything about the record both scared and thrilled me: the band's name, the audacity of the song title, the odd, striking graphics on the sleeve, the almost audible sound of a door opening into a room I wasn't supposed to enter but felt dragged into, where kids looked a lot different than the preps at my high school.

By 1981 I was drinking. A year away from having drivers' licenses, my buddies and I would hang out at the Country Boy market on Georgia Avenue in Wheaton, working up the nerve to ask someone to buy us beer, which we'd hurry into the woods near Good Counsel High School as the football game played in the distance and we got fucked up in the nearness. We'd drink in the woods behind Kemp Mill Park, hysterically losing track of what was the Cutty Sark and what was the Cragmont orange-soda chaser. (My head hurts writing this.) Once I wrapped my ten-speed bike around a tree on Arcola Avenue less than a mile from my house, discovered by my older brother who was sent out by my worried mom to find me. So I knew already both the irresistible temptations and the queasy dangers of drinking, one of the reasons the title "Too Drunk To Fuck" felt familiar yet also something I wanted to keep at arm's length.

The infamy of "Too Drunk To Fuck" hovers over the song as an eternal cloud. Fantastically, the Cherry Red 12" I bought hit #36 on the U.K. singles chart (listed therein, decorously and mysteriously, and lamely, as "To Drunk To"). As I recall the head-lifting experience of listening to the song as a teeanger, privately, in the security of my family's suburban home, so do many others. "When I first heard Dead Kennedys’ 'Too Drunk to Fuck,' I thought, 'This is great! Someone using the F-word in a song'," wrote Rusty Pistachio in the foreword to Rich Balling's Revolution on Canvas, Volume 1: Poetry from the Indie Music Scene.

I remember slam dancing around my government-subsidized apartment punching holes in the walls. It was the next best thing to saying, “fuck you” to your boss, your teachers, hell, even to your parents. At the time I didn’t even know the complete meaning of the song, I was hooked on the fact that the catchy chorus kept repeating the word fuck (it wasn’t your average pop radio love song). On closer inspection, I became more aware of the sarcasm and irony in the lyrics. It was a frat boy chant denouncing stereotypical frat boy behavior. I had a Punk Rock epiphany.

"Too Drunk To Fuck" is fairly secure in the pantheon of those filthy songs you were warned about, a tradition stretching back to the 1950s. In Reagan America many were rolling their eyes at the notion of such gate-keeping, but authoritative censoring, from your parents or from your Congressperson, feels fairly embedded in the human condition, and the song became ammo in the hands of teens. In his 2003 novel Two To Go Nick Earls describes the song's transgressive glamour at a high school where the conservative administration feels school dances "were a privilege, not a right." "Imagine trying to raise a rights argument at school," the narrator glumly remarks. "The right not to be tracked by searchlight when outside at school dances, for instance."

Try it and you’d be told what you were always told.... And the next [dance] would always be hanging on a thread, waiting for “one person to spoil it for everyone.” That was something that happened often at school. I think we lost the privilege of inviting St. Margaret’s girls for a while, because one person had spoiled it for everyone by getting the DJ to play the Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk to Fuck” when parents were turning up to take their daughters home.

It was referred to at the following school assembly as “that song” and, no, it wasn’t anything to laugh about. We were told that, too.

My relationship with the song was mostly private. I wasn't a punk, and didn't court the scene; as I've written about before I was a self-described poor-man's Mod with little interest in what I felt was the strident politicizing and wretched anti-cheer of punk. But I bought "Too Drunk To Fuck" and "Kill The Poor" driven by an urge to peer into the maelstrom of a world I wasn't at all comfortable in but which I intuitively felt might teach me a thing or two. Anyway I needn't have worried about the dark pull of "Too Drunk To Fuck"; it was—is—a blast. East Bay Ray's opening guitar riff gives the impression of a downed power line, throwing off a shower of sparks. You should keep your distance, but you can't, or you won't. Bassist Klaus Flouride and drummer D. H. Peligro approach the scene warily, before leaping in, Flouride doubling Ray's metallic leads and Peligro anchoring things from falling over. 

But the singer's already sixteen beers in as the song starts, so this'll be over quickly; Jello Biafra sounds like a demented afternoon cartoon character, which only exaggerates the foolishness. He's rolling down the stairs, to which the super-charged riffs are a comic soundtrack, joking about shooting out truck tires with someone's gun—it's that kind of party. But the story's main attraction is upstairs, in bed, and it ain't happening. He's a mess, he can't get it up, she's bawling "like the baby in Eraserhead." She blows him, but things gp downhill fast (his gentle suggestion to her: "Take out your fuckin' retainer, put it in your purse"). Disaster. The only saving grace is that he'll never see her again, and wouldn't remember her if he did.

The band's performance is electrifying, wire-tight. Among the hilarious East Bay Ray-led sonic touches in this comic opera are a riffing, sixteen-bar bridge that gives the impression of the singer trying to heroically rally against all odds, a key modulation later, just before he wearily admits "I'm about to drop," and the repeated, mock-dramatic chord ascension near the the song's close (at the line, "It's all I need right now, oh, baby") dramatically disclosing that the singer's now got...diarrhea. The song ends infamously with the graphic sounds of someone puking all over the floor. The Genius lyrics site politely describes this moment of audio vérité as "Ooh, gah!"

"Well, 'Too Drunk to Fuck'…how political is that?" winked East Bay Ray in Billboard a few years back. "They weren’t all political—you’ve got to keep some humor."


All of which is to say that "Too Drunk To Fuck" is perfect—it's funny, fun, scary, gross, shocking, mean, generous, bitchy, cartoonish, sarcastic, satiric, and nervy, and it rocks like hell, borrowing from Link Wray/surf/garage riffology of the '60s, graphic and jaded decadence of the '70s, and heavy-lidded irony of the '80's, amping and speeding it all up. 

Photo of Jello Biafra, April 1981 via Michael Grecco Productions Inc. MGP, Inc.