Friday, June 17, 2005

Alex Chilton: Like Flies on Sherbert

I’m gonna avoid the temptation of turning this blog into a dialogue with Eric – though talking with him’s always a pleasure – but I’ve got to at least respond to his own response to the talk about “next things,” or, What Comes After the Post-Avant? Eric:

You see, since I'm just a reader, and a teacher, I don't have to worry about What Comes Next. I tuned out of this debate around the time of the Barnard conference on "Where Lyric and Language Meet," and I haven't seen any need to tune in since. Debates about poetics are about as interesting to me as arguments over sausage recipes and competing meat-grinders, folks. I'm hungry, and if you won't git to the skillet and dish up some poems, there's them that will.

But E, as teacher, as (last time I checked) an academic, isn’t it precisely your business to think about these issues of literary trends and literary movements? Or at least it’s as much your business as it is that of the poets themselves, who post-Romantic tradition tells us are supposed to be busy writing poems in whatever way makes sense to them. The fact that Bob and Josh and other accredited poets, including, in a big way, Ron S. with his dozens of books (and I suppose including me in a small way), are willing to give so much thought to the topography of the field probably says something about the unsettled state of the field itself, and perhaps says something about how much more theory we’ve gotten around to reading than the poets our age would have done 20 years ago. But that’s no excuse for you to simply bow out of the whole thang, claiming to be no more than a rather demanding consumer: “I dunno what Applebee’s coming up with for the Fall menu, but I hope it’s better than this time around…” You could at least comment on the relative prevalence of blackened fish dishes over last year’s offerings.

To Norman, in re/ your comment on the last post: yes, I do think the LangPots were indeed “that” oppositional, tho perhaps only for a far shorter historical moment than some of them think – maybe only thru the 70s, in fact. But that’s one that needs a long think and write. I love Ron’s rhetorical twist in today’s post, where he argues that rather than LangPo being marginal to the academy, the academy itself has been marginal to American poetry. Dang, that seems right on.

I’ve just gotten back in touch, thru a hazard of Google, with one of the most influential people in my life: one Edd Hurt (y’all too can Google him – he turned out to be a rather widely published music journalist of the intelligent sort), who 20-odd years ago, when I was a geeky (read: even more geeky than now) high school kid listening to all those prog-rock outfits that Peter was listening to (but not Triumph), made me – forced me – to listen to Big Star, the Box Tops, and Tav Falco’s Panther Burns: in short, real Memphis music made by real Memphis musicians.

I electronically stumbled upon Edd after a late-night listen to one of the really great “awful” albums of the 1970s, Alex Chilton’s Like Flies on Sherbert. The Rockhound CD guide – a required bathroom accessory – notes that “With the possible exception of Rod Stewart, no artist has betrayed his talent so completely as Alex Chilton.” (And without even getting rich…) Well, that’s arguable, tho a lot of Chilton’s late 70s output makes pretty ragged listening. Chilton was the blue-eyed soul singer of the Box Tops (remember “My baby she wrote me a letter”?), and one of the leaders of Big Star, the purveyors of the most luminous, pure but twisted pop music of the early 70s. (If all you know of Big Star is Cheap Trick’s version of “On the Street” over the credits of That Seventies Show, you owe it to yourself to run out and buy their first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City.) During the latter days of Big Star, Chilton descended into the sort of drink & drugs abyss that seemed to be standard MO for seventies rockers. He eventually pulled himself out, and has put out a string of always listenable, sometimes sublime R&B-influenced pop albums over the past two decades. He’s bigger in Europe than over here (heard that one before?).

Like Flies on Sherbert is according to some accounts the nadir of Chilton’s career. (Rockhound: “the best showcase of Chilton’s disintegration, a drunken spree…”) Au contraire, mon chien – I find this record perversely brilliant, a lavishly talented musician with all of his inhibitions bleared over by various substances, bouncing around the studio with a bunch of musicians who seem either a) just as stoned as he is, or b) taking advantage of Chilton’s baked (half-baked?) condition in order to put weird twists on the pop-R&B-country material. The album begins with the sloppiest version of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” (!) ever recorded, with Chilton missing his vocal entry cue at least once: but the groove the drummer, bass, and piano player fall into, and the wild obliquity of Chilton’s guitar solos make it also the hottest version of the song ever committed to vinyl. Jim Dickinson, the producer, adds incredibly incongruous Roxy-era Enoesque synthesizer bleeps to a handful of straightforward pop tunes, to which Chilton responds with guitar solos that seem to have been lifted from the early Sonic Youth catalogue. There’s one of Chilton’s semi-patented “I won’t touch those sexual politics with a ten-foot pole” songs, this one about a Catholic school girl (“Hey! Little Child”), a Roy Orbison song, and even an Ernest Tubb chestnut, “Waltz Across Texas” – all of them performed with grand instrumental expertise, exhuberance, and absolute disregard for precision. Not one to miss, if you have a taste for this sort of stuff.

Makes me wonder what the poetic equivalent might be – maybe Barry MacSweeney’s last works? Allen Ginsberg in the late 60s?


E. M. Selinger said...

My, my... I DO seem to have touched a nerve here!

Let's press that Applebee's analogy a little though, old friend. As a poetry reader, I can eat everything on Applebee's current menu; but I can also order anything I want from their menus of twenty years ago (I'm still catching up on the New American Poetry), or two hundred years ago (maybe some Keats? I never did read "The Fall of Hyperion"), or two thousand years ago (Horace, anyone?). I can dine across the street at the new hummos-and-pita joint (Ronny Someck), or that old Korean spot I've always driven past. I can head downtown and find out what the poets--excuse me, chefs--are doing in Ghana these days. Heck, even if I want to stick with contemporary American poetry--I mean, Applebee's--I have not one, but a fistful of menus to choose from. ("I'll have the quenelles aux quietude, with a side of poemmes frites.")

As for my increasingly dubious credentials as a restaurant critic--er, academic--, I take your point. But that's not the toque I wear over at Say Something Wonderful. (A cop out, but I have lunches to pack. More anon.)

"Children by the millions..."

Anonymous said...

in all fairness lets not forget that most of the guitar work you hear on "like flies..." can be attributed to sid selvidge and lee baker! two memphis legends.


dynabert said...

LFOS is indeed a masterpiece of sorts if definitely a twisted one. It regurgitates all sorts of Americana via the Stones – minus the Jagger posturing – making for an almost-punk take on the tradition. But these are not Londoners or New Yorkers looking down at the hicks: this is the dry wit of the American south. Irony without self-regard, not bereft of affection for its object but devoid of sentimentality, never overstaying its welcome so that even the 15-track CD reissue seems too short, veering across styles without sounding patchy. The songs are damaged with loving intent and never lose sight of that magical beat. No matter how drunk or high you are, this is music you can dance to – if only by tapping a finger inside your head.