Sunday, July 29, 2012

Cold Blooded Blues

If I could remember the name of the rocker on some VH1 documentary who remarked, “Rock and roll is not supposed to be very good,” I would give it. I don’t, but his argument is sound (pun regretted).

Different types of art serve different purposes. There is a place, in Nietzschean terms, for the Apollonian – rational, ordered, intellectual, refined – and the Dionysian – frenzied, irrational, elemental, and not very good. Most music is a blend of the two, but rock definitely leans heavily to the latter, as much as Mozart does to the former. You can’t get much more Dionysian than a mosh pit. Any rock that is so elegantly produced that it sounds out of place in a biker bar misses the point. It needs rough edges. Ideally it is good, but not too good. Country music and the blues also tend Dionysian, which is one reason the boundaries can blur so much among the three styles. The most emotionally satisfying artists in those genres are the ones who are capable of control, but don’t always exercise it. Janis Joplin had a semi-controlled chaos that worked for her; despite a smoother sound, so did Amy Winehouse.

Yesterday morning,, through whatever digital magic the site uses to concoct its “recommended for you” lists, reminded me of yet another performer about whom I hadn’t thought in a while: Lydia Pense, lead singer for Cold Blood.

As long ago as 1969 a clerk in a local record store (remember those?), who knew I liked Janis Joplin, advised me to try the album Cold Blood by the band of the same name. It was good advice. As it happens, Janis Joplin had been the one to recommend Lydia Pense to music producer Bill Graham. You can hear why. The two sound very much alike, with any advantage on the side of Lydia. There is one very big difference between her and Janis (and Amy), which in part may account for her being lesser known today: Lydia is alive and well and still performing with Cold Blood in 2012.

The group continues to record new material, but the first album is still the one to own, if you buy only one – the first four if you buy only four.

Is there really anything to Nietzsche’s dichotomy? Camille Paglia thinks so. Her 1990 book Sexual Personae is a peculiar blend of erudition and pop culture. It is not an easy book, but it is very much worth the effort, though she might want to consider an update with 21st century pop references. She sees the split as rooted in biology: "The quarrel between Apollo and Dionysus is the quarrel between the higher cortex and the older limbic and reptilian brains." Like Fred, Camille sees art as a bridge between them. She makes a persuasive (if sometimes unpleasant) case.

So, if you’re in a mood to stroll toward the limbic side of the bridge, I recommend giving Lydia a listen on the electronic device of your choice or, better yet, in person. Besides, I’ve always had a special fondness for those who survive the temptations of fame and fortune. “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” (John Derek’s line in Knock on Any Door [1949]) may well improve your odds for lasting fame, assuming there is some underlying talent, too, but it’s not worth it. I much prefer to be surprised by some Ticketmaster offer: “Wow, are they still performing?” I’ve caught some great concerts thanks to such surprises.

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