LMGM’s “Lost: Choirboy” & El Jefe’s “Muñoz & La Mission: A Sermon. . .” (in memoriam José Esteban Muñoz)
Come, let us sing of great men. Well, just one man, not men—and masculine gender is not essential for our purposes. Come to think of it, his greatness isn’t nearly as important as his fierceness, his queer significance, his brown sensibility. But we’re still committed to singing—or at least to music—well, to sound and noise, in any case. José Esteban Muñoz often wrote about queer scenes where music and sound were central to participants’ world-making activities. His archives buzzed with the sounds of West Coast punk, vogue-ball house, cruisy toilets, genderqueer burlesque, and salsa echoing down the barrio streets. And so, for this Round Circle of Resonance, we at La Mission are here to make some noise about a badass thinker who deeply impacted the way we dance/sing/talk/write/sweat about dance music, identity, and politics.
And this is just the beginning of our cacophonous, four-part response to Muñoz’s intellectual holler. The first installment, written by La Mission’s resident essayist / deranged propagandist LMGM (Luis-Manuel Garcia) provides a brief introduction to our collective, some reflections on Muñoz’s relevance to our activities, and a frame for the next three missives from our fellow cultists. It is backed with a rousing sermon-cum-manifesto from our charismatic cult-leader/prophet, El Jefe (Pablo Roman-Alcalá). In the coming weeks, our Naked Mennonite/randy dramaturge (Mandie O’Connell) will prepare and film a urinary performance piece; and our saucy Choir Boy/Linguist (Johannes Brandis) will compose a dirge to our dearly departed José (August 9, 1967- December, 4, 2013).
LMGM a.k.a. Luis-Manuel Garcia
Lost: Choirboy (in memoriam José Esteban Muñoz)
Named after San Francisco’s Latino barrio, La Mission is a satirical utopian doomsday cult, a music label, a queer situationist art-gang, a magazine, and a group of dancers with a very dirty sense of humor. We release music on vinyl, publish DIY ‘zines, and make performance art, aiming to re-politicize genres of dance music that have been important to queer people of color. La Mission’s identity is perhaps best summed up by cult-leader El Jefe’s manifesto-sermon, “The Sermon for the Steps of the Ziggurat in our Hearts,” published in our first La Mission magazine:
La Mission is a Community. La Mission is a Collective. La Mission is a Cult. La Mission is a Situationist Art Gang. La Mission is a Anarcho-Syndicalist terror cell. La Mission is a Family. La Mission is You. La Mission is Us. La Mission is gonna strip you butt nekkid, gonna check all your body cavities, gonna give you a shower, gonna give you a goodie bag, gonna give you a clean sheet and a towel. You at home with us now children, you understand me? You home with us now.
La Mission was first formed in 2012, in a small café in the Neukölln district of Berlin. The collective initially began with just three of us—Pablo Roman-Alcalá, Mandie O’Connell and Luis-Manuel Garcia—but like any good charismatic doomsday cult, it quickly expanded to include a broad network of lovers and collaborators, led by a core of four instigators (Johannes Brandis joined us later in the year). After a fundraising run in the fall of 2012 (witness our surrealist fundraising video here), we held our first two performances in the winter and spring of 2013, which involved experimental performance art pieces held in unusual spaces. The performances incorporated music and text from our vinyl EPs and their corresponding ‘zines, which were released at around the same time. These multi-channel productions were also conceptually coherent, with (kunst/WORK)001 introducing La Mission’s “mission” and (kunst/WORK)002 focusing on the relevance of utopianism to dance music. After a “quiet spell” where we released an out-of-series vinyl record of “lost remixes,” 2014 has been dedicated to preparing the next volume in the series (due in February 2015), which examines the depredations of capitalism, forced austerity, and false scarcity on music.
La Mission has no idols, but we do have influences—and José Esteban Muñoz is foremost among them. We share with Muñoz a focus on queer nightlife-worlds, a non-classical take on utopianism, a commitment to intellectual interventions outside of academic channels, and a certain brassy tone of voice. His revival of Ernst Bloch’s notion of a utopia based in real-life struggles was crucial in helping us reconcile revolutionary politics with dancefloor utopianism; or, put differently, Muñoz helped us find the critical politics latent in the queer, brown, sweaty gatherings that form the core of our scene of commitment. As “EDM” continues to blow up into a primarily white, hetero, cis, mainstream phenomenon, his insights have helped us maintain clarity and critical focus.
From the outset, we have also been profoundly influenced by Muñoz’s lifelong theorizations of brownness, affect, and (dis)identification. Since three of our four core members are Latina/os in varying states of stripped identity, we have been especially interested in Muñoz’s notion of the “brown commons,” as he was developing the concept in the last years of his life. In promotional texts that circulated ahead of his speaking engagements on the topic, he described brownness as “an expansive sense of the world, a feeling and being in common that surpasses the limits of the individual and the subject.” Notably, he understands brownness and the brown commons as being shaped not only by suffering and struggle, but also by thriving, providing a pool of resources for a better, more vibrant kind of life.
The significance for La Mission’s project in dance music culture should be clear already, but we also take great inspiration in how Muñoz developed an expansive view of brownness and the brown commons, using Latina/o experience as an entry-point for “a vaster consideration of the ways in which people and things suffer and experience harm under the duress of local and global forces that attempt to diminish their vitality and degrade their value.” We here at La Mission are committed to exploring brownness for its potentials for lateral solidarities among people of color, who may have diverse cultural backgrounds but nonetheless share post-migrant experiences of struggle, devaluation, displacement, and inauthenticity. In fact, Muñoz’s work was a direct inspiration for the “Brown Corner” in our La Mission ‘zine (a parody of the “ladies’ corner” and “kid’s corner” of American mid-century lifestyle magazines). Published bilingually and featuring post-migrant authors, the Brown Corner reflects on aspects of brownness, as both specific to their contexts and generalizable to a wider “commons” of brown experience. In the process, we hope to highlight shared feelings, narratives, and resources for brown survival in a world of white supremacy.
Singing into the Horizon
Brother Muñoz, what are we supposed to do with the vinyl records, the zines, the performance videos we had been accumulating for you? We’re trying to sing our way into a queer utopian horizon, and we had been counting on your voice. We know you’re not coming back. As a radical lefty utopian doomsday cult, we’re not so invested in the afterlife, anyway. But it still sucks for us and everyone else you left behind, left in the “here and now” that we struggle to turn into something less suffocating. The party was just getting started, dammit. Besides, we had such a kickass choirboy outfit picked out for you.
LUIS-MANUEL GARCIA aka “LMGM”: LMGM/Luis-ManuelLMGM/Luis-Manuel is a Canadian of Peruvian-Colombian origins, currently an Assistant Professor in Popular Music at the University of Groningen (NL), after migrating between Toronto, Berlin, Chicago, and Paris. He has managed to turn his love of electronic dance music into a PhD in Ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago, and into post-doctoral fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the Freie Universität Berlin. On the side, he writes about food and dances every chance he gets.
Muñoz & La Mission: A Sermon for the Imagined Sanctuary We Built Together
Welcome. La Mission is a family. A family of chosen comrades, chosen brethren, chosen hermanos, chosen сестры, chosen lovers, chosen students, chosen teachers, and chosen arms. Arms, linked and brandished through common thought, common feeling, common goals. It is with a heavy heart that we find ourselves here, remembering one of our family who (though never officially an acolyte or collaborator) was one who contributed to the ecstasy that we have felt and will feel for many years. José Esteban Muñoz was said to be a believer. Ernst Bloch and the New Revolutionary Epoch. Our utopias were described and imagined and realized and experienced. Rise up, my brown brethren, and let us celebrate Brother Muñoz’s legacy!
The words and deeds of this fellow freedom-fighter, who infiltrated the bourgeois güero academy and infected it with a polylateral program for de- and reprogramming, has been our parallel and our inspiration. Colleague and comrade. A representative of our struggle. Not quite a patron saint—that honor we’ve reserved for communarde Louise Michel—but no less a visionary. As queers, as minorities stripped of identity, as angry and happy children in revolt for something better, we must all learn from each other as equals.
Brother Muñoz made utopia political again and located that utopianism in performance. La Mission’s performances bring forth utopias from our queer future through fleeting mindfuck happenings in the present. Through the work of Sister O’Connell and her band of terrorizing miscreants, we present a non-narrative and non-paternalistic path towards redemption, one of our own making. Can I get a “Fuck, yeah!”?
Brother Muñoz loved music and dancing and life-worlds connected by the beat and said, “Take Ecstasy with Me.” He revealed to us the connections between collective dancing and feeling utopian. In his spirit, La Mission’s music strives to bring forth utopia through that ever-lasting beat. Through disassociation and reassociation, through transcendental repetition, and through getting the fuck down! Can I get a “Fuck, yeah!”?
Brother Muñoz believed in learning and critical thinking. Analysis and the great revolutionary trek through the jungle of our critically thinking minds. La Mission’s tracts enact utopia through a constant vomiting out of our recently digested learnings into the baby-bird mouths of those who read them. The brother was also a hilarious motherfucker, and from this we realize that it is not through the shrill screams of egoism disguised as activism that we will prevail. It is through the joy of laughter combined with thought that we will win our bread. Can I get a “Fuck, yeah!”?
Brother Muñoz loved fucking. La Mission’s fucking creates utopias through the ecstatic act in and of itself. If you aint fucking to make yourself a Temporary Autonomous Zone of happiness, then you aint doing it right. Can I get a copulatory “Fuck, yeah!”?
It is not all loss, though. The ideas live on. Caminamos juntos. On the dancefloor. In the reclaimed Torre David skyscraper and the Taller Tupac Amaru collective; in the informal classrooms and the sweaty bedrooms. Our hearts must burst after sagging, our heads must fill after hanging low, and our linked arms will raise! Oh honey, please don’t give your heart to a world system based on exploitation of the luckless, give your heart to US!
All images courtesy of La Mission
PABLO ROMAN-ALCALA: Yo. I am Pablo aka “Beaner” aka “Skirtchaser” aka “El Frijolero” etc. I am an internationally working musician and dj who has enjoyed a modicum of success, but who doesn’t like what has happened to the musical landscape vis-a-vis “conservatism” in respect to both Money and Art. I mean the relationship of the two, okay? It sucks. And I want to change it.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:
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“New Wave Saved My Life*”-Wanda Alarcon
From the first time Phillip C. McGraw, Ph.D.—better known as “Dr. Phil”—appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1998, dropping lines like, “My dad used to say, boy, don’t let yer alligator mouth overload yer hummin’ bird ass,” I was hooked. That accent! That no-nonsense, Southern sauce! From what fount of otherworldly knowledge did Phil drink? An insecure teen, gnawing and thrashing my way through high school’s convoluted social milieu (not to mention the murky waters of multiraciality), Dr. Phil’s frank, accented approach to life’s difficulties appeared as a god-send. It didn’t matter much what Dr. Phil was actually saying or whether his words when strung together formed logical thoughts, it was more the way he said things that affected me so. His deep, sing-songy lilt—preachy and avuncular—brought to mind a grandpappy smoking a pipe, whose wisdom was drawn from a hard day’s farmin’, not a god-forsaken textbook.
With Oprah’s endorsement, the Cult of Phil grew fast and strong. Dr. Phil became a national figure–the corporate media’s version of a public intellectual and my own personal hero. His daytime talk show provided him with a regular platform from which to dispense more of that golden, “Texan-dipped” advice, as The New York Times put it. Selling over 2 million copies, his 2003 classic Self Matters began the onslaught of McGraw-family oeuvre, including several by his wife, Robin, and son, Jay–the face of Phil’s teen self-help brand. Not just a sage, Dr. Phil’s commitment to the McGraw family brand let us know he walked the walk. As evidenced by Dr. Phil’s opening credits, which feature behind-the-scenes glimpses of Mr. and Mrs. McGraw canoodling and his smiley next of kin, this family was for real. They loved and laughed together while cross-promoting each other’s book projects. Teenage Me wondered, did white people get better than this?
Today, Dr. Phil’s star, and my admiration for him, have faded significantly, but one thing remains the same. Ever since I can remember, my older sister and I have communicated almost exclusively via over-the-top, celebrity impersonations and Dr. Phil became a particular mainstay; even now, we religiously observe the maintenance of the Phil “voice.” Pre-Phil, I can recall my sister addressing me in a raspy, befuddled tone startlingly akin to the Keanu Reeves of yesteryear. Not soon after Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure became a permanent piece of our home VHS library, Reeves’ trademark method of delivering lines amidst staggered, nonsensical pauses became an obsessive, sisterly tick. “Dude, shut the door when you pee” she might say, staring blankly at me and cocking her head abruptly to the side.
The use of certain impersonations shifted with the ebb and flow of popular culture’s somewhat predictable tide, depending on whose video was “TRL’s” most requested or whose face most frequently graced the cover of TV Guide. I rehearsed George Herbert Walker Bush’s famous “thousand points of light” campaign ad in front of the stained glass mirror adjacent to the family room television; after that, it was all about Phil Hartman’s witty and endearing impersonation of Bill Clinton.
It went on that way until Dr. Phil’s shit blew up, and everything became solidified–as if, finally, my sister and I had found our one true voice. With age, I came to understand that Phil wasn’t the prophetic genius I’d hoped he was and that our compulsive Phil-talk was an oddity, to say the least. I began to wonder why, even as adults, we continued to embarrass ourselves in public and take such pains to text each other in mock-“Texan” (thank goodness for smart phones’ “add word” function).
It’s actually quite common for people to adopt alternate voices or speech patterns. Take, for example, child-directed speech (“babytalk”) or pet-directed speech. Both are customized forms of vocal communication or “prosodic modification,” which, while differing dramatically from normative adult speech in their intonation and grammatical structure, are considered customary forms of address. In fact, cross-linguistic studies show that babytalk and pet-directed speech are common across other European languages, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. As such, parents and pet owners can rest well knowing that prosodic modification of the child and dog varieties are nearly universal human ticks. Unfortunately, research into child- and pet-directed speech didn’t provide much insight into the unique phenomenon of “Phil-talk.” I had hoped to find other accounts in the literature, a history of similar episodes that might lift the shroud of tomfoolery, explain it away as all too common or evidence of psychological disorder x, y or z, something treatable with an esoteric name.
While at this point in my life Phil-talk is more or less an asinine charade, it continues to function as a key component of our familiar vernacular. Interestingly, when re-visiting the many impersonations that have come to define our adolescent years (the Keanu years, the Bush Sr. years, the Phil years), one thing becomes clear: all the voices we’ve adopted have been those of white, male, cultural standard-bearers (Ironically, Keanu Reeves also happens to be Hapa, though I never knew as much. His breakout role as “Ted” helped to popularize the “California dude” archetype). Additionally, I should note, that at no time did any female impersonations enter my repertoire. If you’re going to gain a voice, better make it a male one, no? The racial and gender dissonance that Phil-talk begets drives the urge to perform it.
From an early age, my mother would tell me tales of her sacrifice—how hard she worked when she came to this country and how difficult life could be in 1960s post-war South Korea—all in a voice with barely a shred of mispronunciation or foreign intonation. My father, a second-generation Swiss-Italian American, scrupulously corrected her syntactical missteps and any other vocal nuances that sounded un-American. It was important to my mother to succeed as an American, and most importantly, that her children succeed too. The pressure I felt to make her content was borderline unbearable. When I started doing the voices, it made my mother happy. She sometimes tried joining in, attempting to mimic key Phil phrases like, “You have gawt to get reee-al,” but to no avail. “You do it better than me,” she’d say, “…my accent.”
When I was young, people looked at me and asked, “what are you?” OR “where are you from?” “America,” I would say. “I’m an American.” These questions were provoked by the racial ambiguity of my mixed-race heritage–the hint of Asianness that marked me as something else. I could not change the shape of my eyes, the contour of my cheeks or the fact that my mother was Korean. But, I could try my hardest to act and sound like an American. Phil-talk became a way to obscure the Asianness, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I did, in fact, belong.
Rather than being merely a childhood performance of celebrity impersonations, I have come to think these various chapters were actually an attempt to perform sonic whiteness. Whether it was Keanu’s California dude cadence, George Bush Senior’s waspy nasality, or Phil’s prolonged Texan twang, I tried to perform in what Aja Martinez defines as “white voice” in her article “‘The American Way': Resisting the Empire of Force and Color-Blind Racism” (593). She talks about Latino/a students using a “white voice” at school because they equate it with the voice of higher education, but I am really using it here as an explicit racial performance. As a a half Korean, half Euro-American teen girl (now woman) who decides to very literally adopt the voice of a White, 50-something, Texan, TV psychologist, “white voice” was the name of the game, and people loved it–especially my Korean immigrant mother.
For Asian Americans in particular, a people whose national belonging has been culturally questioned and legally denied, accents substantiate and make audible what the eye sees as un-American. In Shilpa Dave’s recently published Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film, she explores accents as they relate to cultural citizenship, national belonging and “the allocation of power.” Someone with an accent is “designated as an outsider to the dominant culture,” writes Dave. In contradistinction to “foreign” sounding accents, Southern accents are a classic symbol of American cultural belonging, like apple pie for the ears.
Would Phil’s wisdom sound as powerful or palatable without the accent? His appeal stems not only from his sometimes entertaining “Phil-isms” (e.g. “You can’t hide the sunrise from a rooster”), but from all that he and his voice signify. A white, male doctor giving advice on TV is hardly noteworthy, but Phil’s recognizably Southern accent separates him from the pack and softens the blow of his often severe advice.Phil’s accent (and his ringing endorsement from Oprah, long a trendsetter for the white middle class) have a way of diminishing racial and class barriers and cleverly marketing his advice as “good ol’ common sense” that everyone can get behind. Though Southern African American vernacular is often represented, negatively, as “improper” or evidence of inferior educational attainment, a White doctor using many of the same linguistic nuances is considered “charming” and “folksy.” One of the reasons people listen(ed) to Phil is because he’s a good, moustachioed Southern doctor that’s gunna tell it to ya straight, ya’ll. This kind of cultural capital is hard to manufacture. This, I figured wrongly, was what I stood to gain, not considering for a moment all that might be lost.
Constantly searching for ways to be seen, heard, and accepted within an American system of racial binarism that privileges whiteness, denigrates blackness, and locates yellowness somewhere in a No Man’s Land of racial categorization, sound’s flexibility has always seemed to me like a means to belonging. Furthermore, as a multiracial, Korean/White woman, even no man’s land can seem out of reach. As Michael Omi notes in the Introduction to The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed-Heritage Asian Americans, within the historical and political context of the United States, (the “one-drop rule,” eugenic fears of racial intermixing, anti-miscegenation laws, etc.) multiracial identities have consistently been “contained, disregarded, [and] denied.” Multiraciality disorients and confuses insofar as it can discredit entrenched signifiers which make race perceptible to the eye and ear.
Previously on Sounding Out!, I discussed my identification with Nas and the rap world as both a move towards color and the formation of an authentic, multiracial self. A move in the opposite direction, experimenting with “white voice,” functions as another attempt to navigate America’s system of racial identification, albeit in a much more problematic vein. After years of Phil-talk and vocal impersonations of the white male variety, I am finally putting a stop to the charade. However earnest (or subconscious) an attempt to belong, the loss of time spent mimicking Phil represents an era of racial silencing that is somewhat difficult to stomach. Despite the amusement it has brought to friends and family, I am putting the voice to rest in service of getting real.
Featured image: “Dr. Phil” by Flickr user House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Christie Zwahlen is the Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, where she has worked for four years to develop, expand and promote community engagement opportunities for students, faculty and staff. Previously, Christie worked for two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA, designing Service-Learning courses in conjunction with faculty at Thiel College and as the Coordinator of the Bridging the Digital Divide Program at Binghamton University. Christie earned her Master’s Degree in English and a Graduate Certificate in Asian & Asian American Studies from Binghamton University in 2009. She is currently enrolled in the English PhD program at Binghamton University.
Welcome back to Start a Band, our two-part series on Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, focusing on what the band’s sonic provocations mean for sound studies today. Last week, we heard from Jake Smith, who introduced us to a way of thinking about the Velvets that emphasized the “haptic” qualities that emerge so often while listening to them. Following that idea, Smith took us on a kind of journey from the skin to the musculature and the viscera through a deep analysis of key songs in their catalog — “This is your body on the Velvet Underground.”
This week, we’re delighted to welcome to Sounding Out! a writer whose work we’ve been eager to feature for a long while — Tim Anderson, Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University. Tim has written extensively on popular music and sound, and is currently a leader of the Sound Studies Scholarly Interest Group at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, one of the scholarly groups associated with the SO! Thursday stream. It’s such a pleasure to present this sensitive and personal account of the Velvet Underground — and of learning to listen.
Reports of Lou Reed’s death came on a Sunday. Even though he was 71, it was still a shock. To many present-day friends and colleagues Reed’s Velvet Underground are a band that they understand are important, but just don’t get. In the case of an artist like Lou Reed, an artist who never had a top ten charting single and only two gold albums, you could see their point.
Still, I obsessed. Rattled from my travels in Washington, DC, I called my wife and we talked about his music for about an hour or so, after which I took a long walk to the Washington Mall. It was a sunny fall day, October 27, 2013, and I walked past the Smithsonian with its prominent memorials, such a clean space for so much past, some of which the nation has buried and some of which we don’t even bother to think about. The deceased have always done the most important work in our nation’s capital.
The day after, I really don’t remember doing much. I took a train home, read everything I could online about Reed, and thought a lot about his records. The ones I liked —New York and The Blue Mask—the ones I learned to like —it took me years to enjoy Transformer—and the ones I loved —The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light, White Heat, The Velvet Underground and VU. Those four records, more than any records I can remember, altered me, many of my friends in my teens and in college, and almost every rock musician I admired in the 1980s. Velvet Underground records were simply foundational. Writing about Reed’s death, rock critic Greg Kot summed up the Velvet’s influence by claiming that they were “as influential as The Beatles” and if you named “just about any left-of-centre band or artist since the ‘70s”, some of whom like R.E.M., U2 and Talking Heads “became mainstream giants”all of them would “acknowledge a deep debt to the Velvet Underground.”
This influence is the reason that the collective mourning of such a marginally popular figure swelled to such a crescendo. However, to paraphrase the words of one of Reed’s most storied rivals, Lester Bangs, on the death of John Lennon, this was not the mourning of a person. Most of us never met Lou Reed. Instead, we were mourning ourselves. To lose Lou Reed was tantamount to losing the author of a proverbial urtext of a kind of secret rock language that has been passed down since the late 1960s on how to be cool. It was a language of composed of style, gestures, and reactions. It was one that was filled with a fun that was not of the obligatory “hey-dude-let’s-party!” party. The Velvet’s overdriven guitars repeatedly underscored that teenage kicks included other aesthetic pleasures such as contemplation and melancholy. Most importantly, the Velvet Underground offered a language of listening passed down from one rock underground to another.
Because pop fans of all stripes must learn how to be a fan, learning how and what to listen to is a taste-defining social exercise. Simon Frith once explained that, for him, “one aspect of learning how to be a rock fan in the 1960s was, in fact, learning to prefer [original records made by black artists of the 1950s] to covers [made by white artists of the same era]. And this was, as I recall, something that had to be learned [by Frith]: nearly all the records I had bought in the late 1950s had been the cover versions” (Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, 1996). In my case, learning to listen also meant learning what to listen to while listening to The Velvet Underground, a process involving peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews.
As a young rock fan who began first collecting cassettes —that’s right, cassettes —this process would begin through an obsession with R.E.M.’s Murmur, a cryptic, odd inscrutable cassette with no lyrics, a black and white picture and layers of reverb. The copy I found had been severely discounted in a ma and pa record store in Globe, Arizona. In Summer 1983 I read a rave review in a copy of Rolling Stone and at 14 had purchased a cassette unlike anything I had ever heard; I wasn’t sure I enjoyed it. Why did so many reviewers seem to fall over themselves about this record? To solve this puzzle, it meant learning how to listen to music invested in tone rather than ostentatious chops. It meant paying attention to drones rather than solos. It meant following those features to Velvet Underground records after peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews made a point that Murmur reminded them a bit of VU records.
Murmur was also the first record I ever purchased that embraced what Jacob Smith so wonderfully identifies as a distinctive trait of all Velvet Underground records. For Smith, these pop records are part of a genealogy that “stress evocative timbres, idiosyncratic voices, and signature sounds over structural or lyrical complexity.” The distillation of this pop ethos onto record was one of the reasons that so many musicians whose abilities may have been limited but whose tastes tended toward the poetic found The Velvets so influential. As Jonathan Richman explained, “I didn’t start singing or playing till I was 15 and heard the Velvet Underground. They made an atmosphere, and I knew that I could make one too!” (Quoted in Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, 61). Indeed, Smith notes that the deceptive complexity of VU Records “can be found more on the level of timbre than in musical structure or instrumentation” and “lyrics often encourage a blurring of listening and touching”; his post actually reads like many of the conversations and reviews surrounding R.E.M.’s debut LP. The same could also be said of records released by other 1980s and 90s artists such as The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, Opal, Mazzy Star, Radiohead, The Dream Syndicate, Galaxie 500, The Rain Parade, Green on Red, New Order, Joy Division, The Feelies, Spacemen 3, Sonic Youth, The Pretenders, The Sisters of Mercy, Ministry, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and The Violent Femmes, to name but a few who drew water from the Velvet Underground well. Bands sonically inspired by the Velvets often providing feedback before solos, drummed without cymbals, and portrayed dark themes sung in monotones that sounded sophisticated and obscure.
However, actually hearing a Velvet Underground record in 1983 and 1984 was a significant problem for newer fans, as their MGM catalog was out of print. Many understood these records to be effectively buried by label president Mike Curb’s infamous axing of the act from MGM along with seventeen others who allegedly promoted and exploited “hard drugs through music” (Tiegel, Eliot “Mgm Busts 18 Rock Groups.” Billboard, November 7 1970, 1, 70). As Lou Reed himself once noted, “it’s depressing when you’re still around and your albums are out of print.” I have often wondered if this was one of the reasons that The Velvets catalogue would have such a profound effect on so many of us. Sure, I had found a copy of Loaded, the band’s fourth official release, but its bright tones had none of the subversive menace that so many reviewers alluded to when speaking of the Velvets. Even in a mountain town in Arizona, I had a better chance of finding used copies of The Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood or Blues for Allah than I did The Velvet Underground and Nico. In other cities, in other record stores, when I did find those records they were used and prices started at $15 and up. They were records I simply could not afford to listen to.
All that changed after 1985, when every MGM Velvet Underground record would appear in my life for less than $25. Bill Levenson’s efforts as Polygram’s then A&R manager to reissue the buried and lost MGM catalog on Verve provided me and every other young person who had only “heard of The Velvet Underground” the chance to finally to listen to all of these records at once. Indeed, the moment of the catalogue’s reissue was simply a sonic flood, one where sounds filled in gaps that had been cut deeply by conversations, descriptions and my own imagination. Writing at the time about these reissues and the unveiling of a lost album’s worth of material that would be titled V.U., David Fricke argued that “rock historians and fans alike owe Bill Levenson, the executive producer of V.U., a debt of thanks for resurrecting these tracks and for giving the band’s first three LPs the proper reissue they’ve long deserved. At $5.98 list price, The Velvet Underground and Nico,White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground are essential purchases —certainly essential listening for any study of Seventies and Eighties punk evolution. As for V.U., the Great Lost Velvet Underground Album is no longer lost. It is simply great” (Fricke, David. “The Velvet Underground – V.U.” Rolling Stone, March 14 1985).
Is it too much to suggest a that the pent up desire to hear a secret history sparked by The Velvet Underground’s reissues created the 80s/90s iteration of “alternative rock”? Perhaps, but history is filled with desires asserted, accepted and denied. Indeed, most of those aforementioned 80s alternative acts I came into contact with had been performing and recording and releasing records years before 1985. However, there is no doubt that the VU reissues turned a number of ears predisposed to hearing in a certain way onto new ways of listening to the Velvets concentrated doses of moody darkness, modes that earlier Velvet Underground fans simply had little access to.
Ignoring the impact of the sonic flood of VU material that fell upon my ears during this period turns away from a specific history of listening that, while personally unique, was an opportunity available to so many of my contemporaries. Indeed, if sounds have histories because their traces persist, then listening must have histories guided partially by testimonial. To hear these histories we might ask ourselves to remember how, why, and with whom did we listen, and to trade in this information. If we did so, we might better understand how we learned to listen: especially what to listen to and why it was important. And, without these testimonials of our pasts as listeners, we just may lose sound’s crucial other half.
Featured Image: “Velvet Underground Yellow Label Mono” by Flickr user Simon MurphyThe Velvet Underground – Yellow label mono
Tim J. Anderson is an Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University where studies the multiple cultural and material practices that make music popular. He has published numerous book chapters, refereed journal articles, and two monographs: Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) and Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy: Problems and Practices for an Emerging Service Industry (Routledge, 2014). His latest research project focuses on recordings, musicians, listeners and the public sphere. His website is timjanderson.weebly.com and he can be contacted at email@example.com.