You Won’t Have Nixon to Kick around any More
Welcome, friends, to yet another Dr Frank Weakly Reader, featuring the Week in Dr Frank plus a little extra.
In this one, I’ve got some further thoughts on songwriting conceits related to obsolete or little-known references, stepping off from the song “Checkers Speech,” which was this week’s Song for Odin. These may be found below in the MTX-O-RAMA section.
Also, I’ve continued to blather on a bit about internet mobbing and recreational outrage, stepping off from this week’s story about Northwestern University’s student newspaper and the series of pile-ons within pile-ons and backlashes against backlashes that it prompted. That may be found below in the IN THE NEWS section.
And that’ll do it for the step-offs.
And now, on to the weak that was.
These are coming up! Last I heard Philly and NYC each have about 50 tickets left. If you come, we will rock and roll you.
— Friday December 6: MTX with the Queers and the Capitalist Kids, at Three Links, 2704 Elm St, Dallas, TX, 75226. Get tix here.
— Saturday December 7: MTX with the Queers and the Capitalist Kids, at the Barracuda, 611 East 7th Street, Austin, TX 78701. Tix here.
— Mtx forever: just a quick note here to say that disc 1 has been recut and the metal parts for it have been re-manufactured. (For the details on why this had to happen see “‘Danny Partridge Got Busted’ Got Busted” and the follow-up here.) So we’re back on track unless something else weird comes up, for release sometime in March-April, that ballpark. More details coming soon I promise.
— Our man Klode: percipient readers may well have discerned the distinctive hand of Klode Maloon here:
At any rate, here’s Shards vol 1 — currently available from Sounds Rad in second pressing split turquoise / white colored vinyl. It’s better than Bambi.
— Song for Odin: this week it was “Checkers Speech” live at Gilman Street, Berkeley, May 1995.
The “minor secrets” concern the quest for novel approaches to the love song and the unlikelihood of doing a successful one centered around Richard Nixon. It is highly unlikely, yet it did in fact occur — maybe it was just beginner’s luck, in the sense that I’d never tried one before (though of course I did “do” Hilter.*)
The comments, however, indicate that many people who love the song had no idea of this grand, semi-ironic Nixonian schema. I suppose that means they just took the obscurities as given, as some weird esoteric language that just pops up to color the actual topic of the song, which is break-up bitterness and… resignation, so to speak.
And it’s pretty interesting that being wholly innocent of Nixon and his tropes is no barrier to “getting” the song. I mean, I’m not surprised. It is of course quite right: the song is about the topic referred to by the references and not the references themselves. I think the song gets across just fine on its own terms, whether you take note of them or not. And that’s the mark of a successful song, surely, one that makes it against the odds.
But I would maintain that without the underlying conceptual structure it wouldn’t have worked as a song, even if the references are totally disregarded by the listener. You need something of a structure, a plan, even it it’s only for your own use while putting things together. Then, if it works, the esoteric references can play the role of spice, or indeed “minor secrets”, interesting to follow up on but not necessarily necessary to follow up on.
I’ve written before about songs with “dead” references, songs whose conceits seemed clever and useful at the time but have subsequently faded from general awareness and “relevance.” (e.g. “Ask Beth,” “Alternative Is Here to Stay,” “Hello Kitty Menendez”… there may well have been others I’ve mentioned in this category that I’m not recalling at the moment.) I’d never thought to put “Checkers Speech” in that category till now. I grew up on Nixon, hating Nixon and the terrible party he exemplified like all good, obedient Bay Areans. A vague awareness of Nixonian tropes is all you’d need to apprehend the basic conceit and grasp the jokes, but even that vague awareness isn’t something you can count on now. And from what I gather, even that’s not necessary.
And the interesting question is, to the degree that such songs do still “work” despite the dead references: could they have been written without them, that is, without the conceit above which the song has apparently managed to rise. In the case of me and “Checkers Speech,” definitely not. On the other hand, concerning the song’s survivability, it’s also a good thing I didn’t over-do it, lightly grazing the matter of the conceit rather than bearing down on it heavily and over-specifically as I might well have done. Sticking to a conceit while giving the song room to breathe at the same time is not at all an easy thing to do, and there’s certainly a lesson there.
One final thought on this: what about something like “Danny Partridge”? By any measure, the subject of the song (Danny Bonaduce, the character he played, and his in-the-news-at-the-time fall from grace) is remote from our time and you might think it would require at least as much of a gloss as “Checkers Speech” judging just from that. But that is not a matter that has ever come up. I imagine it’s because it’s pretty straightforward what it’s about without any trickiness or meta-ness (though there is an oblique sub-topic of the bathos of growing up, but that’s not particularly subtle.) Or “Love American Style”: if people don’t know about Nixon, maybe they don’t know about this TV show as well. But I guess that one, like “Checkers Speech,” doesn’t rely on its referent and is not actually “about” the referent; yet also like “Checker’s Speech” it couldn’t possibly have been written without it.
I think this casts an interesting light on obsolescence, which as an obsolescent man out standing in his increasingly obsolescent field I find rather interesting.
- in re: “Hilter”: I spelled it that way, in reference, sort of, to the Monty Python sketch in the blurb description of last week’s Weakly Reader kind of jokingly, the conceit of the joke being that the actual, correctly-spelled name might cause the various platforms to hide or bury the link. (They do this sort of thing.) In fact, though, it may have worked despite being a joke. Last week’s Weakly Reader got around twice the clicks that they usually do. (Which isn’t all that much, but it’s all I have to go on: they don’t seem to have suppressed it more than usual at any rate.)
I suppose that’s yet another case of a mostly-dead reference “working” regardless of whether or not it is gotten. So, “Hilter” it is I guess.
— Dumb Little Band — another one from Rain / Amplified Apathy (it’s instagram video):
— …and your Friday morning “Will You Still Love Me When I Don’t Love You” from everyone’s favorite ukuleleist Ukelele Hiro.
That’s a twitter video. As this is not on YouTube, I can’t add it to my YouTube covers playlistobviously, but if you’d like to hear other such covers found on the internet you can follow that link and find some.
THE DR FRANK OF MYTH AND LEGEND
— Odin / Woden: speaking of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon religion, sort of, here’s quite an interesting disquisition on YouTube about the problems in equating Norse and Saxon gods and their respective religious traditions.
Though it hardly bears on my cutesy little Song for Odin for Wodnesdæg conceit, this is quite correct. We know hardly anything about pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon religious traditions and practice, while there’s quite a lot of documentation of the content of Old Norse mythological traditions and the religious matter that presumably underlie them. All that can be said is that each had a common ancestor in the old Germanic culture out of which each grew, and that many of the names (with, one must assume, at least some of their cultural referents) are cognate as you’d expect. A lot can happen to such cognates and the cultural practices associated with them over the course of many centuries of separate development in different localities. That’s how such vastly different traditions developed out of the Indo-European culture to begin with.
I say it “hardly bears” on my Song for Odin thing, but I have been challenged on it by pedants a couple of times. To which I say, it’s Wednesday, innit? Just pick a god, any god, and listen to the songs. However, it is a topic that interests me greatly, and I’m glad I stumbled on this guy’s YouTube channel — he knows his stuff and presents it well, and he speaks Old English like a champ.
— Mainly the trousers: domestic scene.
— What I’m asking you is, how much is it worth to you?”: the true story of how we ran our van off the road in a blizzard in North Carolina during the 2004 Yesterday Rules tour.
— Dr Frank Tube: this week’s begging for YouTube subscribers got the most takers so far. Begging works, so undignified as it is I suppose I’ll keep doing it now and then. The more subscribers you have, the better. That is my understanding. Here is the link to it again.
OTHER PEOPLE’S MUSIC
— Good morning world: Alice Cooper — “The Ballad of Dwight Fry”:
…and the mechanical Didacus of Alcalá (video):
—… and finally:
IN THE NEWS
— The vagaries of the nested pile-on: I note an item that bears on this internet mob dynamic I’ve been muttering about lately. It’s that incident at the Northwestern University and its Journalism school, in which the editors of the Daily Northwestern, under pressure of what appears to be the usual sort of take-no-prisoners harassment, apologized abjectly for their coverage of a campus protest that was deemed to be insufficiently deferential to the aims and sentiments of the activists involved. This was, of course, ridiculous and outrageous, and not a good look for a journalism school, and it prompted a wave of denunciation from journalists and “journalist adjacent” twitter against the very same student editors. This in turn prompted yet another wave of outrage against the journalist-y people for “punching down” on the kids, prompting some of them, in a chastened spirit, to delete their tweets and apologize for joining the pile-on and to pledge to be more judicious in the future.
Well, this sort of thing could go on forever, couldn’t it, back and forth, outrage lashing against outrage and pile-on subsuming pile-on in infinite regression— forever, or at least to the end of the school year. Everyone bullying everybody else in retaliation for bullying each other. The only winning move is not to play.
I’m all for the idea of being more judicious about these matters, though I very much doubt the resolve will hold. But the criticism from the journalists et al. was certainly warranted. And it was largely offered, from what I can tell, in good faith and out of genuine concern for the future of journalism as a profession if such ideas about how it should be conducted should become the norm. (The idea being that graduates of elite J-schools are the ones who will take hold of the reins of the New York Times, et al., when everybody who works there now has died or retired.) I haven’t seen evidence that this particular sub “pile-on,” within the nested series of pile-ons, turned particularly destructive as pile-ons go, but it was a bit of a pile-on, and from what I can tell very few who were piling on seem to have been aware that there was a pile-on going on. They were just saying what they felt, as I did over the breakfast table when I read about it, except they were broadcasting it to their “followers” and all the followers of their followers’ followers, and so on, and so on. Most of them probably put their phones away after a single retweet and didn’t think about it much while the replication process continued without their further participation and without anyone’s malign guidance.
This really is a weird machine. Real people are involved on both / all sides, but the process could be (and maybe sometimes actually is) completely handled by robots.
I think this points to a big reason why this problem of mass denunciation, public shaming, call-out culture, and “cancel culture” (and as you may have gathered I do think it is a problem) has no simple solution. Such mobs can form even without any bad actors consciously deciding to join them, qua mob. Sometimes it is indeed just a matter of individuals expressing their opinions. Most may be quite unaware that they are atoms in a threatening cloud. Regardless of this lack of ill intent, though, the mob, once formed, can be just as destructive, and it certainly feels that way to its targets. Of course, in addition, there often are bad actors in the mix, trying to spark mass outrage incidents where they judge it to serve their interests, and agitating to manipulate and direct the destruction at their preferred targets.
I have long had a personal policy against joining any protest or demonstration for precisely this reason: you never know where its leaders will take it, still less where it might go on its own, and you risk finding yourself inadvertently a part of a mass action you don’t agree with and want no part of.
You can’t, and shouldn’t, discourage people from simply expressing opinions, obviously. One might hope that some would think twice before joining so eagerly in on pile-ons on some poor schmuck just for the fun of it, but it would be very hard to eliminate the latter without a great risk of sweeping up the former. I’d say maybe keep it to the breakfast table and think twice before you “publish,” but that’s not the way this world of ours works. If we were to develop an ethos based on erring toward the most charitable reading of any given sliver of rhetoric and a default assumption that everything is likely more complicated than the first glance at 280 characters of it might indicate… well we’re not likely to develop that. That’s not how this world works either.
So I remain rather concerned about the, for want of a better word, “normalizing” of online recreational gang outrage and collective moral denunciation. It has a long, quite terrible history in its meatspace form; and it is one of the main problems liberal principles (like tolerance) were developed to address. Once upon a time the dangers of this sort of behavior were more clearly perceived in our society. (I didn’t have much of an education, but I did read The Ox-Bow Incident in school, and it stayed with me: do kids still read that these days?) I see it developing into a kind of cultural institution — which can be very difficult to dislodge — and I recoil. It is playing out on a platform that might as well have been designed to stimulate all our worst proclivities and to nudge its participants into becoming their worst selves. But maybe worst of all, it can happen without our consent or conscious participation.
Despite all this hand-wringing about it, though, I really don’t have any prescription other than a couple of clichés: try to be as kind to one another as you can. Plus: least said soonest mended. And there’s no future in that. I firmly believe these to be a good idea, a great idea in fact, but mobs won’t want to hear it, not now, nor ever, especially when they don’t even know they’re being mobs.
And that’ll about wrap it up for this week’s Weakly Reader. But for those who’ve made it this far down the page, here’s a picture of what appears to be a rather nice mid-’70s Gibson SG:
See you next week.