Conversations With Dirk Stratton

Dirk wrote:

By the way, RockGeekChic is a fab website (I love the Born to Run parody photo!). I never could find where Cristy explained how the Stones turned Pet Sounds into the second greatest album in history. Where is it?

I don't agree with your remixing of the White Album. Tidying up a glorious mess takes away some of the glory.

I do agree with you about Bob Dylan. Everything you said, plus the fucker can't play harmonica to save his fucking life. I don't know what's worse: his voice or his harmonica playing. Or that ridiculous scraggly beard he pretended to grow.

And I'm glad Cristy convinced you of Nirvana's greatness. She's one smart woman, let me tell you.

> Dirk,
> It was Rolling Stone magazine that at first panned Pet Sounds and then,
> probably based on something Paul McCartney said, decided it was the #2
> record ever. This hypocrisy can be tracked in the various editions of the
> Rolling Stone Record Guide. Comparing the entries for specific albums for
> various years you can see how fickle and lame RS reviewers are. AC/DC & Devo
> are two other examples of bands that were panned until they became succesful,
> and then Rolling Stone rushed in to lick their boots. Cristy has become a
> bit of an expert on unmasking their fradulence and her expose will be one
> of the most important documents on our site. But now she's proofing Steal
> Stuff From Work
and a bunch of
> other projects...

> --William

I thought "Exile on Main Street" was the 2nd best album of all time. Followed by some Bob Dylan thing. At least that's my memory of that anniversary issue of many years ago, when RS began to generate Top 100 lists as though they'd finally discovered that their destiny was to become the People magazine of rock. 100 Best Guitarists! 100 Best Album Covers! 100 Best Liner Note Thank You Lists! I'd like to have had access to the pharmaceuticals that allowed them to convince themselves to nominate "Pet Sounds" as the #2 record ever: that's some powerful shit. That record barely rises to the level of: "It blows, man."

But all right: I eagerly await Cristy's awesome expose.

By the way, I was seriously astounded by both of your personal rock 'n' roll databases. That Six Degrees of King Crimson piece demonstrated some encyclopedic chops that left me gape-mouthed.


> Careful, Dirk. You could make some nerdy enemies. I'm kind of on the fence
> with Pet Sounds. It's pretty good. But we know so many people who think
> the Beach Boys are Beethoven it makes me nuts. THEY'RE THE FUCKING BEACH
> BOYS, MAN. They sing about girls, cars, and surfing. They themselves don't
> even claim to be musical geniuses. Great harmonies though. Being eight
> wouldn't have been the same without them.

Well, those nerdy enemies best be prepared to do full contact dweeb battle with an old fart who proudly wears a fanny pack on the other side of his fanny, dad blame it!

Yeah, and the Beatles just wanted to hold my hand, too, but then . . . but then they got over that phase and moved on. The Beach Boys hit their peak with "Good Vibrations" which is a studio triumph more than anything, but never really put away their surf boards. Which is cool, but as you say, not a genius move or anything.

The thing is, for me, the same Rolling Stone that crowned "Pet Sounds" #2, made "Sgt. Pepper" #1, if I remember correctly. Now, "Pepper" is a great album, for sure, gosh and golly gee whiz, but the best Beatles album? I'd take a remixed-by-RockGeekChic "White Album" over "Sgt. Pepper" (note the abbreviation: that's how to eliminate concerns on how to spell sgt.). And definitely an unremixed "White Album." But mostly I'd take "Abbey Road."

But then, I don't have the database prowess of the RockGeeks, and I'm not always right. But if those nerds want a piece of me, I'm ready, man, and my Tai Chi training manual is on order and should be here any day now.


> Dirk, tell your Nirvana story! It'll be like hearing about your first kiss. -- William

The Nirvana story is definitely more interesting than the first kiss story.

When I said I remembered exactly when I first encountered Nirvana's music, that wasn't strictly true given that I can't confirm the precise date. It was summer, summer of '94, I think, but it could have been the summer of '93. But it was summer, and summer in Seattle is about as good as summer can get. Not too hot, not at all humid, light out until 9:30 or so, nearly perfect. Dina and I had been invited to dinner by two friends of ours from the UW MFA program: Martha and Lang. Martha (Silano) and Lang (I've forgotten his last name) were dating at the time, maybe even shacking up, but one of them, Martha, I think, was housesitting for a yuppie couple, and I'm sure Lang was spending a lot of time helping out with the housesitting duties.

All four of us were poor, recently-graduated-and-already-unemployed MFA grads, I remember thinking how cool this house was, the kind of place I'd like to own someday. Not that big, but funky, with a lofty-like second floor, a cool patio/back porch/deck thing that looked out over a narrow backyard that stretched for some distance and was loaded with greenery, almost a little jungle in the middle of the city. I think the house was on Capitol Hill, but I can't be certain. It was, though, a trendy house in a trendy neighborhood: way out of anybody's price range then, completely ridiculous now, no doubt. I can't recall what the owners of the house did for a living, whether they were Microsoft millionaires or what, but whatever they did most of the time, at least one of them was also an artist of sorts. Throughout the house were all these modified Altoid boxes: little Cornell-like assemblages that had photos pasted on the inside and outside, or little plastic figurines and other found objects: I wanted to steal all of them. The one I remember in particular had been scraped clean of all it's red and white Altoid paint, just leaving the stark silver of the steel on the outside. Small nails had been pushed thru the sides so that when you opened the box you saw the points threatening a small red heart that was wrapped in barbed wire. Beyond cool. And the variety of ways used to modify these Altoid boxes was astounding: a fascinating project that warmed the cockles of my Marcel Duchamp-idolizing heart (Assisted Ready-Mades, don't you know). (You can find pictures of modified-Altoid assemblages on the web, but none of them strike me as good as the ones I vaguely remember from that night long ago.) I've always wanted to do something similar, and I even considered copying the Altoid idea, but I'd prefer to come up with something I haven't seen before.

So, great weather, great house, grilled steaks, I think, plus lots of good wine (some lifted from the owners stash), and a little weed for dessert, all in all a fabulous faux-bohemian event, that culminated with us cranking up the owners magnificent stereo system.  [--A sidenote of further clarification: I'd been living in Seattle, by then, for at least 4 years, maybe 5, and I was not unaware of Nirvana. You know my reading habits: any and all print is fair game. I was a regular consumer of the newspaper, and the two alternative rags then prominent, and at least one of my MFA buddies was a real music nut, so I'd heard of the band and I even knew the story behind the title of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but I'd never been exposed to the music. I took the bus everywhere, so didn't listen to the radio in the car. I didn't own a Walkman. The radios in the homes of the two women I was involved with in Seattle were perpetually tuned to NPR, and their musical tastes ran to female vocalists, Indigo Girls, and . . . shit . . . I can't think of any of their names, Natalie Merchant-types, Tracy Chapman, geez this is embarrassing, well, you get the idea. I hadn't owned a stereo in years, and most of my music I still had packed away in a box somewhere was already taking on the taint of being "classic."--] So, there we all were in the living room, and someone, Lang, I presume, put on this CD and cranked the volume: the familiar chords that begin "Teen Spirit" started, followed by Dave Grohl's pounding drum intro and then everything goes full blast and I am just transfixed: Wow, who is this? I wonder. So I ask, and Lang looks at me incredulously as if I were someone asking how electric lights worked. "It's Nirvana. Nevermind," with a dismissive tone that definitely carried the subtext, "Sheesh, who invited grampa to the party?" This is Nirvana, I thought? Wow, who would have guessed. My "problem" was that what I knew about the band included a lot of references to punk rock. And what I knew about punk rock (other than what I'd read, of course) was a band I'd heard in Maine when I worked at the local college gin joint. This was in '83 or '84, so during a time when punk was still, if not quite ascendent, at least semi-relevant. The best part of the band was its name: Zero Mentality. It played mostly original songs, at least that was what I assumed. Very much a Ramones kind of thing: extremely short songs that all sounded the same: mind-meltingly loud, with the lead singer shrieking unintelligibly until his larynx began bleeding. I appreciated the energy with which ZM approached their "craft," but the limitations of their approach to music definitely limited my interest, and colored my expectations of what punk was all about for years. {Interesting side note: the lead singer of ZM was a grad student at U of Maine and one of those painfully serious types who I'm sure could have written a dissertation on punk rock's ineffable ontological explorations of the human condition corrupted by capitalism and corporate rock blah blah blah. He later had a brief fling with a gay roommate of mine. My roommate was the classic effete homosexual who adored Broadway musicals (a Stephen Sondheim freak) and drank sherry while mooning over Shelley (a great guy, don't get me wrong, just very precious). Johnny Rotten, meet Percy. And even stranger: my friend John O'Grady--the guy who wrote "Grave Goods" that includes a fictionalized me in the final essay--claimed that after a night in which we both seriously overindulged in pot brownies, he went back to his office, which was where he was living at the time, and tried to go to sleep; instead, he had an out-of-body experience and his astral self floated over to the graduate dorm where he hovered near the ceiling and watched the ZM lead singer and my roommate getting it on, which seriously grossed him out. What lends credibility to his report is that he told me what he had seen before my roommate admitted his affair. Such stuff was always happening to John: once, during another pot brownie episode, he claimed to be communing with an ancient Irish saint who had decided to drop by. No one else could see the saint, of course, but John was clearly seeing something, "He's right over there. Can't you see the robes?" As Andrea has said, on more than one occasion, "You know some weird people."}

Back to the living room, and back to Nirvana: I realize now, that Nirvana's grunge is different from classic punk, but at the time all I could think was, Man, this is cool. The songs last longer than a 30-second spot for Budweiser, there's some detectable melody, and I can even understand some of the words. Plus, in the spirit of American Bandstand, it's got a good beat; I could dance to it. Which I think I did. When the album finished, I immediately replayed it. Two times, at least, I think, which annoyed Lang, as I recall. A revelation is the best way I can describe it. Soon thereafter, I went out and bought every Nirvana CD I could find, only two or three at the time. I'm not sure whether In Utero was out yet; if not, as soon as it appeared, I bought it. For awhile, I listened to nothing but Nirvana, and for a short while In Utero became one of my "desert-island discs," eclipsing even "Nevermind" in my pantheon. I'm not sure that would be true today. One last interesting confluence: Nancy's brother John, the sculptor I hung out with and wrote haiku for, was the manager for a condo building on Queen Anne. One of the owner/founders of SubPop lived in that building, Jonathan (?) Poneman, I think. John also liked Nirvana and would listen to them obsessively while working on his sculptures. He said Poneman was a cool, laid-back kind of guy who remained relatively unaffected even after he made a buttload of cash when "Nevermind's" sales entered the stratosphere (Google tells me that thru 2007 it has sold 26 million copies.)

Thus endeth my Nirvana first time tale.

> PS Why did so many punk bands of the late 70s have the letter X in their
> name? Generation X, Human Sexual Response, X-ray Spex, Sex Pistols,
> Homosexuals, Ultravox, Siouxse, XTC, Kleenex, and, well, X?
> (Essay question)
> Yours in scholarship -- William

First, I must reiterate my complete lack of any discernible qualifications to answer this question, though I overstated my ignorance in a previous email. Since I actually own "Never Mind the Bollocks" (or did before the huge CD purge during my impoverished last months in Cincinnati) and have seen some movie about the Sex Pistols (a documentary? "Sid and Nancy"? both?) I probably have heard more than a half-dozen punk songs by the bands above. But not by much. I've heard of all the bands you list, but again, haven't heard their music, or if I have, didn't know it and wouldn't be able to attach song to band. (Terminology query: here you call them punk bands; in a later email you label them new wave: isn't there a serious difference between the two? I've always found the proliferation of music genre names fascinating: the scads of different kinds of "metal" music, for instance: heavy, death, punk, etc. etc.--plus all the combinations critics devise: grindcore-hillbilly-synth-pop-emo-thrash-bluegrass-swing music as if sung by Billy Holiday during her Broadway show-tune phase.)

Anyway, here are my speculations concerning the letter 'X'--

1. Pound said poets are the "antennae of the race" which echoes Shelley's claim that poets are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world," and since the "acknowledged" poets of our times are lyricists (as opposed to the steadily and increasingly marginalized poets of the silent page) it follows that all these bands were doing was what Pound and Shelley expected poets to do: anticipate and shape the future. Somehow these bands "foresaw" the boom in X-treme marketing, the lust Madison Avenue would have to slap an 'X' on any and every product they could to demonstrate just how "with it" such products were. Punx (and let's face it, shouldn't this spelling be the accepted orthography?) just got there first.

2. In a similar vein, and as is blatantly clear from several of the names: it wasn't 'X' as much as it was 'Sex'--and we all know that "sex sells." Even those bands who didn't explicitly refer to sex, or allude to it like XTC or X (a mystery novel I read recently had a cop say about an Ecstasy-taking murder victim: "Where's there's X, there's lots of sex."), can't avoid the link to sex because of the rhyme and the movie rating that means sex sex sex, even when it doesn't. So, the same reason companies drape lovely women over their products, even when there's no real connection, explains why 'X' appears in these bands' names: X = Sex and Sex = Marketplace success.

3. Just as sex is one the more primal human activities, X is the most primal letter of the alphabet. Even illiterates recognize it and are asked to use it as their signature. Punk bands made their three-chord ignorance a badge of honor: they were musical illiterates, barely able to "sign" their songs, as it were. So, of course, they would have an X in their name: it identified them for what they were: raw, unfinished, unlettered primitives who had thrown off the flashy polish of civilization to tap into the naked treasure available to only those who knew that X marks the spot.

4. An X is a cross. A cross is used to crucify. Punx felt crucified by middle class consumer culture and, in turn, wanted to crucify the complacent blubbery slobs that irked them so on a cross of violent incoherent noise. These nails hurt, they screamed. Here, let me stab them through your eardrums you fat leech. Take that you corporate bloat. And that and that and that and that you sodding hypocrites. (Just ignore #2 that suggests we want marketplace success: we don't really--well, enough to buy beer, maybe.)

5. Similarly, to cross out something is to negate. Punk was all about negating. Stripping things down, ripping things away, wiping things out. Punx walked into the voting booth and put their X in the space reserved for "None of the above." Then tore up the ballot.

I will eXpect my Rock Geek Emeritus Upgrade via return mail.


> Dirk, these are excellent points. But as an addendum, I want to add that
> X is the default variable, the signifer whose signified is unknown. Like the
> amateur musicians the early underground punk bands comprised, and the
> initial ambivalence toward recognition the movement implied. X is unknown,
> possibly also unimportant, unappreciated, unloved, unrich, unfamous, and
> unfabulous.



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