23 August 2021

Three Poems by Glen Armstrong

Antonyms for “Red Light”



I’ve been to the lowlands

and gotten high on paint fumes.


I’ve been part of a crew

that was part of the solution


and a part of one 

that was part of the problem.


A red light appears.

It’s so beautiful that it stops


traffic in the streets.

It reminds me that I’ve seen ice 


in a glass change colors

while my children studied the imprints


that their feet made

in wet sand.


I’ve been the hammer and the nail

and the owner of a hardware store,


straightening the sample

swatches of paint.






Chronic Town #2



Unexpected hands.

I make excuses.


I listen to jazz.

And try to ignite a flag.


The children make X-Men.

From paper and yearn.


For longer yarn.

Though they have no formal training.


In yearning.

Or making.



I am losing my grip.






from The Collected Poems of Jet Screamer





Go deeper into the eep.

            Feel the hinges of your jaw

            pull back as if performing

            the Buddha’s secret smile.


Breathe in.

            Breathe out.

                        Ready lips


            for the divine’s invisible,

            perfectly curved ass.


The puh is not a stutter

            but a kiss.


You still can’t discern 

            the song’s secret meaning?


            Imagine the vastness of space.

            Turn your mouth into a boomerang.





A silver rocket divides the reddened sky.





She wrote that I was stupid

            in the manner of a birthday cake.


            Sexual like a congenital stutter. 


            As American as a half-eaten sandwich.


            A reminder that “culture,

            like all modern phenomena, 


            turns mean,

            eats its young, 


            then canonizes 

            any youth who manage an escape.”


I was an annoying buzz 

            near the decorative arts.


            The death of content.


            Irony for dummies.





They still ask about Judy

            as if I ever understood

            that white-haired tigress.


They still ask to see the scars.


Even at my age, they still want to see

            me back on stage

            staring down the darkness

            beyond the spotlight,


            each sequin like a photonegative

            of bone marrow.


I seriously don’t remember

            which of the Way-Outs

            introduced me to the needle,


            which of the four winds ripped


            through my topcoat

            to nest between my fingers.


I signal the bartender 

            to make it a double.


Such is my distrust of the voice

            that made me famous.


I’ll never be able to tell

            my biographers

            all I’ve lost

            through the goalposts 


            of that ancient gesture 

            for victory.





A young couple dances

            to “Eep Opp Ork.”


It’s as miraculous 

            that they found this old tune

            on the jukebox


            as it is that they found

            true love, however fleeting.


Ice whiskey whiskey,

            says the bartender.


Come fly with me.

            Come watch the trumpeter swan.


            Leave Earth and constellate,

                        says the young man dancing. 


Whiskey whiskey whiskey,

            says the young woman 

            in his arms.


On another planet

            a purple monk beats a drum 

              to keep the angel of death





Glen Armstrong

20 August 2021

Isolation Tracks: High lifve my life like there’s…Nooooo Two-Morrooooow! by Lard Alec

The isolation track is not, judging by my research, a stable ontological category. Even if we climb down the ladder of abstraction a rung or two to the “vocals only” subcategory, there’s still some ambiguity (regarding, specifically, what the word only means). Take this “vocals only” version of Boston’s “More than a Feeling,” which includes some backing vocals, the occasional guitar lick, and lots of clapping. I admit, it would be a shame to shed these bedraggled, surviving elements just for the sake of acapella purity: the guitar, in particular, seems like an ancillary vocalization, and the clapping just rules*.

YouTube doesn’t always know what these are either; the top search result** for “isolation track” is a video of 12-year-old Australian guitar-child prodigy, Taj Farrant, playing tremolo-heavy House-of-Blues-style jam-sesh whatnot (popular with his peers, I’m sure) against a backing track. Skillful and spirited, he looks like he was kidnapped by the ghost of dearly departed bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughn, with his skinny dreads and black flat-brim hat. Evidently, he signed a recording deal after “appear[ances] on Australia’s Got [at least some] Talent and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” His is likely some of the only blues that Ellen has ever heard***. I wish him well, but this is not what I’m looking for.

Mark Merrell’s 471-video playlist of “isolated musical tracks,” however, is just the ticket****. It is an embarrassment of riches. Take Bon Jovi, for example. You’ve probably heard his “Livin’ on a Prayer” many, many times***** but likely have no idea how completely insane his vocal scaling is until you can savor it in the pristine clearing of a voice-only recording. When Jon Bon really lets loose, it’s spill-your-drink alarming. The comment subfields are full of wonder at his erstwhile analogue feats and morning over his shot voice, which was evidently ground to a mediocre pulp by this kind ostentation. 

The “Enter Sandman” vocal track, like the Boston one lauded above, features dashes of complementary instrumentation—muted backup vocals, occasional (hilarious) guitar****** flourishes, and some kind of rhythmic tisking.  The funniest part is when even the haphazard accompaniments freeze for twenty seconds or so and then the spoken prayer (“Now I Lay Me down to Sleep”), which alternates, with some overlap, the voice of a young boy and Hetfield’s own malicious-to-bored recitation, begins. It sounds as shockingly out of place here as it does not in the standard version. In any case, the prayer is soon blasted offstage by Hetfield’s hammy, sultry/menacing metal lullaby, “Hush little baby...,” that is fundamentally confused in its appeals. Is he being mean, comforting, seductive? Kind of all and none, maybe. Would you be able to glean this corny weirdness amidst all the fuzzy distortion of the complete track? Possibly, but it’s much clearer and dumber here.

The gold standard “vocals only” track is Van Halen’s “Runnin’ with the Devil.” Here’s how it starts: 

     David Lee Roth: “Hooo!...Oh-Agwaragharr Ye-es! [fingers snapping] Yeah-he-yam-ee-yam! Hhhowhhyyjahhheh!...................High lifve my life like there’s…Nooooo Two-Morrooooow!”

And it keeps getting better from there. 

David Lee Roth was in his early 20s when he recorded this song, but his voice is that of a much older man, oscillating between conspiratorial smokiness and train whistle key changes. His swagger is robust, to the point of lunacy, combining weirdly un-rock elements, like the Vegas stage show, with a poor unconflicted white man’s version of Little Richard. All of this was, originally, set against the amphetamine spider-strumming of Eddie Van Halen’s lewd and zany lead guitar and the band’s harmonic backup vocals. Freed from all the early pop metal apparatus, however, Roth comes off as the wildest kind of interloper, a madman in a sequined suit, trailed by a dancing chorus, howling out fifteen minutes of hallucinatory cocktail tunes before Wayne Newton takes the stage. And yet, we remember, he was a hard-rock icon, at the cultural epicenter of a decade of grandiose front men and foolish guitars. 

What’s the worst iso track I’ve ever heard? Hard to say. The acapella version of Nickelback’s “Photograph” is tough to beat. The vocals are doused with equal parts sincerity and strain—it is the tone, I imagine, of a guy proposing marriage while trying to push through a dam of a constipation. The voice-only recording of Five Finger Death Punch’s “Over and Under” is up there. The guitar-only cut of Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” highlights the worst part of the worst of all average songs and so freights a special, dreary horror. Nu Metal and turn of the century alt rock are both reliably nauseating, so it’s no surprise these genres would make for the very worst iso tracks. 

The thing is, though, even when I settle in for some hate-listens, it’s not long before delight takes the wheel. Isos reward the listener’s patience in unexpected ways. Songs with long instrumental intros, especially, lull you into complacency or even task-specific amnesia. Then a voice erupts, out of the void, and knocks you backward, like an exploding cigar, with a mixture of shock and joy. 

Isos defamiliarize inescapable radio mainstays and our favorite hits alike by showing us the surprising but unnoticed nature of their component parts. You might not even know that your favorite singer really can’t sing or that a seemingly unassuming bassline is the deranged doodling of a largely unnoticed but resentful background vandal longing to break free until you hear those things on their own. I could not think or type while listening to the, little did I know, busybody nonsense of John Paul Jones’ bassline to Led Zepplin’s “Ramble On,” a song that in its entirety sounds like a bland summer vacation anthem for 15-year-olds.  But when the rest is stripped away, what remains is a motor-fingered bouncy house of sound that treats your eardrums like a speedbag. Who knew*******?

The Internet’s not all bad. Back when I was growing up, if you didn’t know the lyrics to a song, you had to guess, or find someone who actually knew (some people have an ear for this stuff; I never did). Even if you owned the C.D., they didn’t all come with liner notes, and chances are you were thinking of a song you didn’t own, something you heard eight times a day on MTV. Same thing with movies. It took a village to find out, like, who the EPA guy was in Ghostbusters. You had to ask around, find someone who owned it********, or hope it was somewhere in your friend’s dad’s copy of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. The Internet is narrowly perfect for stuff like that, looking up song lyrics and movie credits, and a few other things, isolation track videos being one of them. They feature that auspicious blend of celebration and critique, through light-touch creative sampling, that’s ideal for glancing semi-personal, semi-public encounters on social-media platforms. They’re roughhewn and at times indifferent to generic parameters, which only increases their populist charm. 

I know well-meaning normal people sometimes make these just because they think the acapella version is cool or beautiful, but that’s not what I’m interested in at all. Instead, I love how the original corporate architecture of a top-40 tune is wobbled by the isolation process and how the music that’s colonized us finally sounds new after years and years of sounding anything but.


 *Especially since it conjures images of recording session clapping takes, and one wonders, of course, how long this went on. Did the Boston guys nail it in just one shot? Did Brad Delp keep screwing it up by losing the beat? Do session players handle the clapping detail?
 **Algorithmically tuned for “Relevance.”
 ***Some facile Internet research shows that she had at least one other early adolescent blues guitarist, Toby Lee, on her show as well.
 ****And it contains much of what I’ll praise in ensuing paragraphs.
 *****Just the other night, I heard my mother-in-law’s neighbor clatter home from the bar, singing it brokenly when she heard it on the radio, which, incidentally, she leaves on for hours at a time when she’s not home, presumably for the sake of her lonely dog.
 ******The guitar work here seems like it was written specifically for all their teenage fans who would badly cover it, in that it is indistinguishable from bad cover music itself.
 *******Musicians, probably.
 ********I only had Ghostbusters II.

09 August 2021

If All the Garbage Were Gone by Lard Alec

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents, who are moving to a smaller house in the fall and are, consequently, in the midst of an extended purgative frenzy. My mother is the brains of the operation and an eminently capable and disciplined person. She has a vision and ethos that prevents her from ever accruing the third-rate clutter that rivers hopelessly through my house as of this (and any conceivable future) writing. She returns borrowed items and discards useless ones as often as she can. She is no slave to nostalgia. And yet she finds herself living in a sort of rained-out yard sale, on the verge of a grand indiscriminate liquidation, wondering how throwing stuff away became a full-time, if temporary, job.

What she presents to me is not a practical or moral template; I, lacking her virtues, can scarcely hope to emulate her example, and so her struggles are all the more disquieting. Still, she will prevail eventually, paring her domestic inventory down to the nunish fundamentals in a way I never could. What her predicament offers me instead is a complex figure for the mind—I find myself in a state of perpetual rummaging, plagued by clutter and inefficiency, tempted, at times, to see richness in the mess, though I mostly see it for what it is: mazes of junk that are almost impossible to navigate or shed.

And what is this junk exactly? Memories, most of them bad or dumb. The bulk of them fall into three shitty categories: 1) embarrassing and/or pointedly disappointing experiences 2) scenes from trashy movies 3) snatches of old and profoundly tacky songs. Most of my writing here deals with #3, and this work is both exegetical and archeological—I hope it can help me sort and organize the crapola of my inner life, even if I can’t, much as I’d like to, throw it all away.

In my exhumations, I try to remind myself that category #3 memories didn’t really happen to me but were imposed upon real (though meagre) life events. The MTV videos and jingly commercials I watched are not memories, in and of themselves, and yet they are what I remember, more, in many cases, than my own life. What they obscure is how little I was doing back then, how little I lived. To come to terms with this Kozinskian passivity, I must sort out where I start and where the stupid music ends.

Hamlet had Yorick’s skull; I have Chevy’s “Like a Rock” commercials, scored by the blue-collar rocker and yawn-shaped-like-a-man Bob Seger. I cannot say that Seger’s soulful, full-length adult contemporary “mock-rock”* classic “Like a Rock” has had an important place in my life, since I doubt I’d ever listened to it in its entirety until “researching**” this piece. But what surges and snarls through me at unpredictable times and with variable and sometimes shocking intensity, like Rust Cohle’s flashbacks from his days as a drug-guzzling, deep-cover biker narc, is the tightly edited miniature from Chevy’s iconic if luridly bland ad campaign from the 90s and aughts***. In these ads, Seger’s vocals are cut, copied, and crowded together, telling the viewer how to feel about Chevy trucks, America, and themselves.  The condensed format means you get a lot of money-shot blues yowling; it is like being electrocuted by America’s most boring man.

I cannot summarize the campaign and retain any sense of coherence, so I will offer a couple of general remarks about the breadth and evolution of these commercials before concentrating on the inaugural ad. 1) The trucks got much bigger and more expensive over time 2) so did the blowhard American (often male) Chevy owner, for whom luxury pickups became something of a cul-de-sac status symbol rather than the working stiff’s**** vital and necessary engine of labor. I suspect there was a bit of a demographic shift, rather than just a personal transformation, in Chevy owners during the life of the campaign, but whatever: Seger was fine for either demographic since his vanilla, star-spangled affirmations were and are almost metaphysically inoffensive*****.

But Seger’s voice, despite the musical insipidity that frames it, is a bit of a roller coaster, full of scratchy swoops and stomach drops. Even now, years after being shocked to attention by these commercials and this godforsaken song, I still howl-copy it myself, almost involuntarily, as I sludge around the house. The only lyric I know for sure, when away from the computer, is the title and chorus; the rest I fill in with analogous screech-blues noises: “Like a rock…I was standin’ on a gate! / Like a rock…I was with a dog named Nate!” It will never leave me. And despite my sloppy, performative sarcasm, corporate amber waves of grain imagery always haunt my ululations.

The inaugural “Like a Rock” ad aired in 1991 though it has post-911 feel, with its generic if insecure weave of soft-filtered patriotic chores and scenes. The first thing we see is a flag being raised solemnly in the rainy foreground, by a couple of somber schlubs, with a Silverado parked inconspicuously down screen to the right. Then we see some guys tossing tools and shit into a truck bed from the POV of the truck bed itself (duck!). Then a truck speeds through some blurry wheat. Next, fishermen in yellow slickers toss lobster traps into a huge, inadvisable mound on the bed, Beverly Hillbillies style. After that, a dually bounds through fields of mud, careening wildly to the left, perhaps in a life-ending skid—thanks to some tasteful editing, we never discover its fate. The 30 second ad is maybe half over at this point. Eventually there are images of welding sparks, snow, disaster relief, and a screen full of financial fine print.

All the while, Seger sing-proclaims his metaphorical imperturbability: “I was strong as I could be / LIKE A ROCK / nothing ever got to me,” as the bourbon-voiced narrator touts Chevy’s sales and customer polling numbers. The relationship between these two elements, hymn and sermon, is jarring. In a flash, the church service to the American male self-image is interrupted with a pawing sales pitch for a creek-fording truck that, thanks to magic of advertising, now seems like it should either be priceless or free by birthright. It always felt weird to go back to the Mets game after that.

Two things amused me about these ads when I first saw them: 1) Seger’s weird avidity, and 2) the almost non-genre dinosaur sound of the song itself that, I swore, NO ONE could actually like, though, apparently, most people did. I listened to hard rock and metal, and Seger just seemed like some obsolete but emphatic dud with bad taste, singing songs for flag-hoisting old farts with lots of useless, hard-earned money.

Seger wasn’t alone in praising the straight****** and narrow. Mid-80s radio-friendly white rock had a pretty inflexible sense of rock tradition and an ars poetical streak to boot. Huey Lewis’s “The Heart of Rock’ n’ Roll,” for example, is a kind of ad for itself and its “Hip to Be Square” normie aesthetics:
     When they play their music, ooh that modern music
     They like it with a lot of style
     But it's still that same old back beat rhythm
     That really really drives 'em wild.
“Modern music” here could be anything from new wave to dance pop to hair metal. What Lewis wants is “that…back beat rhythm” that very little girls can dance to with their uncles at the family barbecue. Even the comparatively hard-driving acts that Lewis eschews resorted to rock songs about rock, I should point out, having, perhaps like Lewis and Seger themselves, not a whole lot else to say. AC/DC released “Rock n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” and “For Those about to Rock…” just a few years after the group had written the definitive rock meta-analysis “It’s a Long Way to the Top If You Want to Rock n’ Roll.” The first two songs pose as defiant, but probably derived from a simple lack of imagination. Seger himself had “Rock n’ Roll Never Forgets” and “That Old Time Rock n’ Roll,” which are, true to form, simultaneously spirited and sonically inert. Like Lewis, Seger pines for (and embodies) a no frills “back beat” driven rock fundamentalism, which is aesthetically reactionary if not quite politically so, heavy on the enormous alto saxophone and light on electronic hullabaloo. I thought it was hilarious that he would devote himself so religiously to such a vast repertoire of anti-modern snoozers. What’s worse is that he built a kind of puritan rock work ethic around it******* that he eventually sold to a major auto company that was selling much the same thing********.

The “Like a Rock” ads feature masculinity without sexual charisma and rock n’ roll without cool. They were tailor made for a repressive conservative ideal of yore, not our current ecstatically deranged one. The ads sell manly prowess and sentimental workaholism—this isn’t the aesthetic for psychos who blast their vertical exhaust stacks at cycling libs or fly Three Percenter flags as they speed toward Sam’s Club at six desultory gallons per mile. Seger describes himself is a political centrist, which means, in terms of commercial appeal, he ought to be dull enough for everybody, but that kind of big-tent banality won’t cut it anymore.

Nonetheless, he’s a legend in my mind, a kind of musical poltergeist who violently but tepidly spooks me at odd moments. While I’m almost glad he’s in their yowling, I do wish less of my soul was comprised of obsolete shlock like this or the Freedom Rock commercials—though I wonder, in all honesty, what I would replace it with. And the answer is…nothing, I guess, because if all the garbage were gone, I wouldn’t even be here myself.


 **And which I listened to at 1.5 times speed, unable to bear the full six minutes of this horseshit.
 ***There was also a belated, zombie ad released in 2013.
 ****Food for thought: Davide Mastracci has recently suggested banning all non-industrial pickup truck sales in light of their enormous carbon footprint: It’s Time To Ban The Sale Of Pickup Trucks (readpassage.com).
 *****Our era, on the other hand, is predicated on either giving or taking offense.
 ******In “Like a Rock” he praises his younger self for “standing arrow-straight.”
 *******Imagine rock but without the fun.
 ********While profiting off of monthly interest payments.