Tag Archives: addiction

“Alas It Is So, But Thus It Must Be” (Charlie Louvin, 1927-2011)

by Chris Randle


Cancer took Charlie Louvin on Wednesday morning, and this is going to be an awkward eulogy, because my first exposure to his music came later that day. I’d only known the Louvin Brothers as an internet meme: the 1959 LP above is a staple of weirdest/silliest/kitschiest album-cover lists online. Growing up with middle-class comforts and no vestige of religion in downtown Toronto, one of those kids who says they like every genre “except rap and country,” the very notion of Satan’s realness was more absurd than his plywood caricature.

Here’s something the listmakers usually don’t tell you: Ira Louvin designed that cover himself. He and Charlie burnt kerosene-soaked tires in an old rock quarry to set the scene, nearly incinerating themselves in the process. Between the high forehead, cavernous brows and sinister grins, it’s hard not to read perverse excitement in his expression. Ira (on the left, born Loudermilk) was the older brother, the most gifted, the primary songwriter. He had been drawn to the Pentecostal ministry once, and every seedy bar where he and his sibling played country songs must have felt like spiritual torture.

Ira became a violent alcoholic. He smashed numerous mandolins (!) during shows, cheated on all four of his wives and received several bullets in his back from the third after trying to strangle her with a telephone cord. (“If the son of a bitch don’t die, I’ll shoot him again.”) As the brothers’ hot young opener for one ’50s tour sang hymns in admiration backstage, his soused hero called him a “white nigger” playing suspiciously danceable “trash.” Then Ira tried to strangle Elvis Presley. I remember my friend Maggie, a big fan, telling me about the Louvin Brothers in a bar once; describing the eldest’s death via drunk driver while evading his own DUI warrant, she sounded both awed and appalled.

That was in 1965. Charlie Louvin, the relatively mild-mannered half of the group, had already gotten fed up and ended their partnership two years earlier. He led a respectable solo career for a while, but the tunes became less memorable without his demon brother. I don’t mean that in the fatuous sense of romanticized torment – they needed each other for technical reasons. Chained together through so many of their wounded yet pious gospel songs, the Louvins’ trademark tenor harmonies keen past Biblical doctrine to the pain and sorrow it tries to explain. When they sang “that word ‘broadminded’ is spelled S-I-N,” holding the last letter just until it hurts, they were referring to illicit dancing. You would think it was the fall from Eden.

You might also think it’s a little strange for a lifelong nonbeliever to suddenly find this music so affecting (and I’m far from the only one). If an atheist or agnostic listens to two righteous hellions outlining what a miserable sinner he is and hits “repeat,” is it theological masochism? Well, I don’t fuck with Christian fundamentalism,  but it does seem to give certain acolytes a deep understanding of tragedy. Browsing through Louvin joints over the past couple of days, I became particularly obsessed with one of their secular compositions. “When I Stop Dreaming” ends on these lines: “You can teach the flowers to bloom in the snow / You may take a pebble and teach it to grow / You can teach all the raindrops to return to the clouds / But you can’t teach my heart to forget.”

The heartbreak is magnified until it scrapes the edge of irony, like some Appalachian inversion of Stephin Merrit. I wouldn’t be surprised if the siblings intended that effect. Charlie Louvin apparently had a healthy sense of humour himself, leaning towards the macabre, as country often does. In later years he presided over a ramshackle Louvin Brothers Museum, right next to gory photos from Ira’s death scene. He didn’t release any music for 25 years at one point, but the 2003 tribute album Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’ renewed interest in the duo and presaged a series of new recording sessions. I ran out to buy 2008’s Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs LP yesterday. It features his rendition of “Wreck on the Highway,” and the cover is his smiling, avuncular face.

Curious juxtapositions aside, I don’t think Charlie was making light of Ira Louvin’s death. There are recent interviews where a gentle question about his brother reduces him to sobs. His New York Times obituary closes with this quote: “When it comes time for the harmonies to come in, I will move to my left because my brother and I always used to use one microphone. Even today, I will move over to the left to give the harmony room, knowing in my mind that there’s no harmony standing on my right.” Of all my privileges, the most precious one is that I’ve never had to watch a dear soul destroy themselves, before yearning: Get beside me, Satan.

Advertisements

Comments Off on “Alas It Is So, But Thus It Must Be” (Charlie Louvin, 1927-2011)

Filed under chris randle, music

‘I Hate Music’

by Carl Wilson

That was the status update today from my friend Mike out in Portland. Yet all Mike does on Facebook is post clips of great songs. Mike’s life has been devoted to music, at least chief among the many arts to which he’s passionately committed. I read his Chemical Imbalance zine when I was in university and was astonished to learn later we weren’t much different in age; today I read Yeti with the same gratitude for his curatorial, editorial and mixtapetorial skills, his preternatural nose for artistic quality and surprise, also manifest in the pre-war gospel and other reissues he compiles. (More recently we’ve hung out, and he is at least as great a guy as he is a cultural weathervane.)

Whatever prompted Mike today to say he hated music, it resonated with me. I was on the verge of that feeling for most of the past year or two. I was burnt out on sound. I was tired of talking about music, “following” it, “keeping up,” downloading, and most of all ranking and rating. (That last part may not change.) Late last year I hinted at it, but didn’t go all the way, when I said I was losing the patience to listen to albums. My friend Ann Powers responded that she was finding it takes a lot of patience to listen to a whole song! But was that the culture, or just us, longtime pro/semi-pro listeners, hitting our internal walls?

Or maybe this is just a cycle we go through in our love affairs with art forms, especially the forms closest to us. (Rather as we go through cycles of infatuation and disenchantment with the people most intimate to us.) Because now, for no particular reason, it seems to be lifting.

I was at a wedding reception at a rock club last weekend, and the bride happened to be someone who puts on (excellent) shows, so of course she had great bands playing her nuptials: Montreal’s Think About Life, and Toronto’s Bonjay. Both of them sounded better than ever before.

Partly it was the happy occasion. Partly, I think they both had grown since I’d seen them last. But also, those last times, I simply couldn’t bring myself to care. Now I was feeling every moment heightened by rhythm and harmony, transported to places music and I hadn’t visited together for a long while.

There was a soothing cascade of relief: So the temporary separation between me and music wasn’t middle-aged bitterness finally setting in? Thank heaven.

So now I’m curious, perhaps to stave off any relapses: Have you found your affections for your most beloved artforms waning and waxing over time? What do you peg it to, the tides, events in your life, more or less vibrant periods in the form itself? All manner of speculation welcome in the Comments bullpen.

4 Comments

Filed under carl wilson, music

On Computers, Profusely

by Chris Randle

#chardonnayswag

What’s a musician to do, now that “free” is not only a routine fact of cultural consumption but obnoxious tech-guru dogma too? You might try releasing your band’s next album online at a pay-what-thou-wilt price point, although that tactic has a high chance of failure if you’re not already famous. You could license and be sponsored. You should probably include digital download codes with your vinyl, nestling utility inside slabs of aura. Alternatively, you can bid to choke the insatiable maw: giving away so many songs, so much content, so much of yourself that the sheer size of your output attracts notoriety and obsession. The young rapper Lil B has achieved a strange, ultra-specific web renown with that marketing strategy, but he did so out of compulsion, not calculation. He’s one with his medium like James Woods in Videodrome.

I first stumbled across him a year or so ago at Cocaine Blunts, where blogger Noz has become a tireless though clear-sighted booster. In 2006, when he was 15, Lil B’s Berkeley rap group the Pack notched up a minor hit; their album later flopped and their label dropped them. Then the madness began. B, aka Brandon McCartney, created 100+ Myspace pages over a series of months (some of them “secrete,” like the Minus World), each featuring a handful of tracks and freestyles. His Youtube account is constantly updated with sort-of music videos, zero-budget clips he films around Berkeley.

B seems to spend more time tweeting than sleeping, perhaps because the former is a better outlet for his id. His fans, most of them young and fanatical, are encouraged to follow the Based Lifestyle – a philosophy stressing positivity and (relatively) clean living. Not yet an acolyte, I felt like Clement Attlee did about Christianity: “Believe in the ethics. Can’t accept the mumbo jumbo.”

The Based God’s discography already stretches well into the quadruple digits, with its own attendant tropes. He yammers about swag and sex a lot; the latter oscillates between the hilariously surreal (“I’m so wet that a pussy get mad at me”) and the unsettling (gynecological porn-talk rasps over a lo-fi footwork track). One of his maxims is “hoes on my dick cause I look like ________,” filled in with intentional absurdities: Mel Gibson, Aretha Franklin, Jesus.

The peacocking blowjob-related material might obscure how experimental B can be. For each of his stunt samples, like the X-men TV show, there are many more where he raps over New Age loops, ambient synths or Antony and the Johnsons. (He once struck up a Twitter conversation with me about Momus.) On a lot of the trademark “based freestyles” he barely bothers to rap, favouring spoken word, syntactical ad-libs and stream-of-consciousness rambling.

He slips in and out of personae with the same ease. On the infamous “Pretty Bitch,” Lil B goes from profane swagmaster to something far more protean: “I used to be a goon, now I’m a pretty bitch.” (He claims he’s finer than Nicki Minaj, too: debatable.) Elsewhere, the MC describes himself as a princess and “a faggot.” It’s not surprising that he’s been the subject of gay rumours, nor that his demurrals are so unbothered (albeit characteristically weird). Code-switching? Sure, and a genius at it, but that term feels clumsily archaic in this context. Lil B and his friend Soulja Boy are making a radical and overlooked break from the traditional hip-hop project of repping one’s hood. B is very, very Berkeley, of course, but only implicitly; his many selves live on the internet.

It’s easy to stalk someone online, and yet it’s not much harder to explore a new personality. B embodies this. He doesn’t even try to reconcile his contradictions; he gleefully heightens them. That’s one explanation for his rabid fanbase – I know it’s why I’m fascinated by the guy – but aside from the music, the Based Lifestyle also has its perks. As Noz wrote, “I can think of worse things for kids to fall into than a cult dedicated to positivity and aggressive-but-safe sex.”

Creativity, too: just click on a #based hashtag to see the results. There is an entire Tumblr site devoted to “cooking,” the MC’s new dance fad/culinary education program. His mania is viral. A few months ago, when I was talking to a friend and fellow obsessive on Gchat, she suggested that I make a Lil B mix so we could try having sex to it. We both soon realized this was ridiculous, but I think he would still appreciate the sentiment.

My favourite Lil B song is “The Age of Information.” It’s kind of like “Sign O’ the Times” if Prince had been a teenager who smoked weed every single day. Atop a dreamy, watery beat, B stammers out generational anxiety:  “I’m on computers, profusely, searching on the internet for answers (give it to me).” I have a couple of years on him, but I can hardly remember what life was like before the internet. By high school I was already writing myself onto message boards and keeping my status updated, which might be ideal preparation for high school. And yet, I was unnerved to find myself agreeing with the critic Tom Ewing when he argued that “it’s really only a matter of time before some kind of bluetoothy broadcast-what-yr-consuming tool becomes popular.”

Lil B, who knows whereof he mumbles here, is one dubious hippie: “This age of information, all we do is judge…Everything that we watch, all we do is classify people.” The thrill of being fluid and mercurial demands less effort than ever now, but it’s still mortifying when a stranger watches you change.

1 Comment

Filed under chris randle, music