Thursday, March 31, 2011

March Madness: Part 2

"Unusual behavior tends to produce estrangement in others which tends to further the unusual behavior; thus, the estrangement [is heightened] in self-stoking cycles until some sort of climax is reached." - Robert M. Pirsig

6) Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys) "Sloop John B"

Good clean fun is ephemeral.  Even well-coiffed former quarterbacks that form seminal pop groups with their brothers can dabble in drugs and insanity. At one time the very archetype of the innocuous "boy-next-door", Wilson didn't only dabble in rock-star insanity, he helped re-write the book. Otherworldly vocal harmonies celebrating the nascent Southern California surf culture made his group instantly popular in the early Sixties, but by the mid-Sixties this musical savants' taste for the party had grown to epic proportions.  Like most addled leaders, he was reportedly an unyielding tyrant in the studio - it took him thirty-five years to fully realize and release Smile.  Wilson fell into inexorable depressive states, didn't wander too far from an expansive bedroom for years at a time, and was diagnosed with acute mental illness.  (Nota bene: I couldn't help but include the Beach Boys early take on the traditional "Sloop John B", with its prescient refrain - "This is the worst trip I've ever been on.")

7) Daniel Johnston "Impossible Love"

Another offering from the mad jewel of Texas, this quirky Austin singer-songwriter has been making off-kilter bedroom-rock tapes since the early Eighties.  Almost improbably, Johnston has slowly settled into his own beloved niche in the pantheon of music history while struggling with manic depression, bi-polarity, and what Nick Cave would basely christen the "No P*ssy Blues".  His introspective lyrics about everyday absurdities are delivered with an unparalleled childlike earnestness.  Innovative in a completely non-predisposed manner, it is worth delving into his rich catalog.  And if his minimalist Casio + guitar instrumentation doesn't suit you, there is a long line of musicians (Beck, Wilco, Sparklehorse, the Flaming Lips, etc.) that have reverently covered his tunes.

8) Lee "Scratch" Perry - "Dread Lion"

News flash: The godfather of dub reggae is also plumb crazy.  At a time when most Jamaican musicians fell neatly into two camps (thoughtfully withdrawn, philosophical Rastafarians or brash, boisterous dancehall "toasters"), Perry was a singularly strange and original personality that redefined the island's music in the Seventies. A sound production pioneer, Perry laid sheets of echoing overdubs and ominous chants over the top of traditional roots songs, effectively creating a new hybrid of organic/electronic music.  He also ingested copious amounts of cannabis and booze, referred to himself as "Pipecock Jackxon", and publicly participated in idiosyncratic activities such as fervently worshiping bananas and eating money.  The apotheosis of his eccentricity was reached when Perry apparently burned down his own studio (The Black Ark) in a psychotic rage.

Following a common trend in rock-star insanity, Perry has decidedly settled down in his twilight years.  He is still marvelously weird during interviews however.

9) Ian Dury - "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll"

The ebullient Ian Dury was never insane by any means, but the "English Punk-Poet Laureate" crafted a truly original and moving existence out of very humble origins.  Afflicted by polio at an early age, Dury spent much of his working-class childhood being ostracized for his awkward gait and frail countenance.  Luckily for the rest of humanity, he spent his adulthood fusing disparate styles of music (funk, pub rock, minimalist disco, etc.) with irreverently brilliant lyrical poetry spat out in a rich and often unintelligible Cockney accent.

"Spasticus Autisticus" is his unabashedly forthright ode to those that society has deemed mentally and physically disabled:
"So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin,
And thank the Creator you're not in the state I'm in,
So long have I been languishing on the shelf,
I must give all proceedings to myself."
Originally wrote as a sardonic response to the U.N.'s decision to designate 1981 as the "International Year of Disabled Persons", the BBC didn't accept Dury's uncompromising look at disabilities and refused air-play.

While a widely recognized and respected iconoclast in the UK, Dury never received a good deal of fame outside of the fair isle.  Was his subject matter too parochial for Americans or maybe his anti-aesthete sensibility turned us off?  Nonetheless, Dury was a superbly odd character that deserves to be lionized for his contributions.

10) Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band - "Moonlight in Vermont"

When the statement "A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast 'n bulbous, got me?" is posed during the introduction to "Pachuco Cadaver" (from the seminal Trout Mask Replica), one can't help but to sub-consciously answer "No, Captain. I don't get you."  Abstract, abrasive, and immensely gifted, Don Van Vliet emerged from the LSD-drenched California scrubland  and forever changed avant-garde music.  Rolling with our theme, he was supposedly a punch-drunk dictator in the studio that once kept a group of musicians under lock-and-key for eight months while recording an album.

Trying to describe Beefheart's thought-provoking music is futile, but here's my attempt for Trout Mask Replica:

Irascible revivalist-blues laden with proto-punk ferocity, deftly organized musical chaos, and stream-of-conscious bark-shouts. Basically, it is inaccessible to the majority of people on Earth who cherish melody and tonality in their music. But for those who like impossibly heady and cryptic songwriting coupled with angry instruments... 

Van Vliet consciously sought an existence out of the spotlight for many years until his passing just months ago.  His vast influence on contemporary music can never be understated and he was a bit of a kook, so he takes the final spot on this humble list.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far. Check out March Madness: Part 1 if you're interested in more strange fellows.  Also, thanks to the world wide web for providing all of the media.

1 comment:

Isis said...


It's very ironic that you would write about Genius and Insanity, as tonight I went and saw Larry Harvey - the Illustrious Founder of Burning Man - speak at the ex-Federal Reserve in SF (now called the "Bentley Reserve" and owned by rich 50ish Burners who graciously allow BM Events there, very elegant)

First, I wanted to say both you and Nellie -- wow, you're both amazing writers, perhaps you were lovers in a past life? Keats and Shelley? Romeo and Juliet? Cheech and Chong are still alive, so I know you weren't them.

Insanity - which I have personally experienced, and that's *No Joke* -- is so deep and difficult to explain ... like people laughing in the waves, and tossing around a little ball, "oh-what-fun!".... then suddenly being sucked under water into the abyss of the unknown, almost drowning until either fate or a fresh wave or a good friend pulls you out.

Then you sit on the beach again, lost in your own thoughts, looking at the people, and just Wonder.

Listening to Larry Harvey was REALLY GREAT. I wish you both had been there. There were "BM Representatives" from all over the world !!

He stressed SO MUCH that the conflict he had about BM is that he never wanted to be The Leader.

There were 6 who formed the Original Board (chosen by and including himself). At one point about 7 years ago, they were sued over "Intellectual Property" rights and internal fighting amongst all of them - employees included -- became so intense they went to Therapy.

On the Last Day of Therapy (10 or so sessions), Larry got on his hands and knees and crawled around, barking like a Dog.

He said, "There was dead silence. (pause) And after that, we all got along."

Food for thought ......... Genius/Insanity.

Love to you Both.