Sunday, August 30, 2009

In Our Nation's Capital: 17.76 Songs That Make Me Proud to be an American

Pere Ubu - "Non-Alignment Pact"
A blast of ear-splitting synth noise followed by a bastardized Chuck Berry riff. Then a guy who sounds like a throatier Donald Duck starts bleating. That guy, David Thomas, has since said that rock-and-roll is America's folk music, and he would rather have an album of John Cougar Mellencamp outtakes on a desert island than a Smiths record....even though he now lives in "self-imposed-exile" in London.

They Might Be Giants - "James K. Polk"
Easily described as the synthesis of 80's Elvis Costello and Schoolhouse Rock, They Might Be Giants make music to supplement the cute yet intelligent, dorky jokes you make to girls. One of their more "history lesson" songs, (for more, see "Meet James Ensor," "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too") you get a fairly thorough assessment of our 11th president, "the Napoleon of the Stump." American mythology done right.

Van Dyke Parks - "FDR in Trinidad" (but basically anything in the man's catalog counts)
A 70s tribute to our longest-serving president with a calypso feel, this should have been a radio hit. Parks often out-Randy Newman's Randy Newman in his unapologetic embrace of all things American (and the culture of our surrounding islands), historical ephemera and folk literacy.

Velvet Underground - "What Goes On"
"They were wild like the USA
A mystery band in a New York way
Rock and roll, but not like the rest
And to me, America at it's best
How in the world were they making that sound?
Velvet Underground." - Jonathan Richman, "Velvet Underground." Speaking of him...

Modern Lovers - "Roadrunner"
Don't know about now, although he hasn't gone ex-pat, but the first ten years or so of Jonathan Richman's career involved a torrid love affair with the USA. Boiling down "Sister Ray" from three chords to two, Richman glorifies the radio, convenience stores, highways and rock and roll in three minutes. Still relevant today.

Roky Erickson - "I Pledge Allegiance," "Unforced Peace," "When You Get Delighted"
Roky Erickson's solo career more or less began with his quick descent into schizophrenia. Contrasting with the ornate complexity of his former group The 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson's solo work is often American folk of all varieties (soul, hillbilly, bar band rock) laid barren and twisted. Take for instance, the former tune, a haunted reading of the Pledge of Allegiance over block chords, recorded from within a Texas mental hospital. Or "Unforced Peace," a folk-punk post-hippie scrawl written while Erickson was assuming an "Abraham Lincoln" persona, often appearing as the former president live onstage. "When You Get Delighted" takes that G chord-drone that continues to nauseate with so many "alternative" tunes to this day, but subverts the traditional American love tune into a bizarre amalgamation that evokes an eternal open road: "Never broken hearted/Our love starts before it started/Everything you do is in the category of love and love is all you do."

Sly & The Family Stone - "Let Me Have It All"
I'm not going to bother trying to discuss the many sociopolitical songs this guy put out - we all know they're great, they've been discussed ad nauseum, and in general, I haven't uploaded those albums to my iTunes yet. But here's a Sunny Sunday tune if I've ever heard one, about an other who has "turned into a prayer," embracing simplicity, love and spontaneity in a constant groove. "You set up a barrier/Don't you know I'd marry ya/Let me have it all." There's something we can all tap into. (Plus it synthesizes rock and funk and soul and all that good stuff.)

Moondog - "Why Spend a Dark Night"
How's this for upward mobility? New York City street freak/performer becomes well-respected modern classical composer and legend, with essential records released by Prestige and Columbia. His music, a combination of 100% tonal Bachisms and Native American rhythms. Part folk song, part foot-stomping chant, part American classical, all brilliant.

Randy Newman - "Political Science"
Just because I dissed him to glorify his longtime friend doesn't mean I'm not an avid Randy fan. Most of his songs that mention our grand country typically make us feel slightly guilty about being American - "Sail Away," "Rednecks," and the humorously titled "Sigmund Freud's Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America." But can a guy that peppers almost every song with New Orleans motifs and slip note piano really be accused of being unpatriotic? This tune, done with tongue pressed firmly in cheek as a satirical look at the American condition, is practically proto-Bush Doctrine today: "We give them money/but are they grateful?/No, they're spiteful/and they're hateful/They don't respect us/so let's surprise them/Let's drop the big one/and pulverize 'em." I still don't understand why people hate irony.

George Jones - "White Lightning"
There's nothing more quintessentially American than making a catchy song about poisonously strong bootleg liquor and dodging the police. Nothing.

Holy Modal Rounders - "Mr. Spaceman," "Bound to Lose"
The Holy Modal Rounders borrowed, stole and bastardized every folk music motif ever (mainly from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music) and then made them funny and catchy unlike their relatively vanilla peers. You can sing these songs all day long wearing a stars and stripes shirt and you don't even have to be stoned to feel like it. God Bless.

The Crystals - "He's A Rebel"
We are a nation instinctively in love with rebels - after all, didn't rebels found the USA in the first place? Nowhere is this better expressed than this, my personal favorite Phil Spector production ("Be My Baby" is great too, but this is the first one I fell for). "Just because he doesn't do what everybody else does/That's no reason why I can't give him all my love." I got chills typing that. Just vague enough to be universal.

The Ramones - "I Want You Around"
Essentially a Phil Spector group devoid of good looks, an orchestra, "talent," and, End of the Century notwithstanding, Phil Spector, The Ramones are one of those many groups credited with "inventing punk." (I'd rather Americans get the glory than those fucking limeys....) But this song isn't particularly punk, just the most noncommital of love songs - and ergot, one of the most affecting. Haiku brevity lyrics repeat again and again over three or four chords.

The Stooges - "Louie, Louie" (from Metallic KO)
Really, one could choose any song the Stooges had actually written for this list that doesn't appear on The Weirdness, but this way I'm killing two birds with one stone. Best part comes after the band has ended the song, a farewell rap from Iggy to a hostile crowd, quite possibly his last completely unpretentious artistic statement: "Thank you very much to whoever threw this glass bottle at my head. You nearly killed me but you missed again."

John Fahey - "America"
This guy punched out Michael Antonioni, director of Blow Up and Zabriskie Point, for saying he hated the United States. After Antonioni paid him thousands to produce a piece of music that went, understandably, largely unused in the final cut of Zabriskie. Again, his whole discography makes the cut.

Note: Neil Young is NOT an American. Despite him invoking our fair nation in song and story, with titles such as "American Stars and Bars," "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World," and "Let's Roll," he still retains Canadian citizenship. I am therefore unproud of him and his discography, even though I smell a deathbed conversion in his future. Wannabe.