too much typing—since 2003


via terra negativa

A few days ago, the fabulous Drink at Work site had a brief entry about Jeffrey Lewis, along with a link to a WFMU recording of his "History of Punk on the Lower East Side," a nine-minute talking-blues-with-song-quotations history of - well, guess. Anyway: brilliant, clever, etc., and it starts with Harry Smith...which I'd never really thought of before, but it makes a lot of sense, at least if the impulse behind punk was for the songs to reflect the lives of the people who live and sing them.

Which, of course, makes punk itself rather a form of folk music. Along the way, Lewis quotes the Fugs' "Nothing," one of the most transcendant moments in popular music of the last fifty years. What do I mean? Well, it starts off as seemingly a mere parody of the old Irish "Potatoes" song - a bit of a joke (although already a bit more, given how grim the Potato Famine was) and then turns into a (still funny) freewheeling negation of just about everything...and somehow, through that thoroughgoing but laughing nihilism, transmutes itself into a wildly, cosmically affirmative embrace. Cuz, you know, caring enough to reject things is also affirming at the least their existence, and your own.

Along the way, the Fugs mention that same Harry Smith, in homage to the song's folk bona fides, and Smith's all-encompassing sense of folk (famously called "the old, weird America") is one that might embrace punk rock - and some of its more musically wayward offspring ("wayward" in not sounding like the soundfile next to "punk rock" in the online dictionary). In that category, I'd include Negativland, whose monkeywrenching in the mediasphere takes the raw materials of that experience and transforms them via their chaotic bricolage of mediated detritus into what might as well be called postmodern folk music (and I'm sure I'm not the first to do so). It's the equivalent of tales handed down by farmers and itinerant musicians, and forms the culture of our lives in the same way agriculture, love songs, religious balladry, and tales of derring-do might have done in the old days. Again, as if to endorse this notion, when Negativland includes music (as conventionally defined) on their recordings, they often fall back on folk-like structures and sounds (like the "Nesbitt's Lime Soda" song, or "The Man with No Fingers" or whatever it's actually called: I am lazy tonight). Here, for example, is "Happy Hero" from their Dispepsi release, whose content seemed designed to say to the cola company, you want brandname market saturation? here's your brandname saturation! Our eponymous hero is dressed in a cowboy hat from the props department for this occasion (just like the ones mandated by law to appear on the head of all Nashville "country" singers), and he sings a song that might be read as a sad tale of a man whose dreams and imaginations come too true. Sorta like the old saying, "battle not monsters lest ye become a monster." Of course, if the actual goal of Negativland's advertising par(anoia)ody isn't necessarily to be indistinguishable from advertising itself, advertisers know that the best lie looks exactly like the truth, at least with that glaringly bright light they're shining, and those deep shadows from over here where everyone's watching the runaway bride toss breadcrumbs into the audience at the circus while naked emperors slip out the back door onto abandoned Downing Street, unmemo'd and shaded by black umbrellas.

The Fugs "Nothing"
Negativland "Happy Hero"

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