On Toxic Masculinity and California Dreaming

A while back, I put up a post, which has now become an essay in the California Dreaming book, about how the white musicians in the book had built their careers because of an infrastructure that was there because of black musicians — they were, even if not racist themselves (and most weren’t) the beneficiaries of structural racism.

There’s also a structural sexism that I have to deal with, and that is rather more difficult.

I have tried, in these essays, to accentuate as much as possible the roles of women in the story, but it’s hard to escape the fact that women were marginalised, horribly, by the system, and by the people in the system. There simply aren’t that many records by women that fit into the story.

But I’ve been thinking more and more about why that is, and about how the LA music scene was about the fetishisation of a particular male, control-freak, idea of “genius”. An idea of the creative man as special that makes everyone else the tool of the boy genius.

This toxic masculinity seems to have caused two reactions among these “geniuses”. Some of them either died or came close to death young, from trying to numb their own emotional pain with drink or drugs.

The others… well, there’s a reason why Charles Manson was part of the LA music scene.

Kim Fowley – rapist
Jack Nitzsche – broke into an ex-girlfriend’s house and sexually assaulted her
Phil Spector – murdered a woman
John Phillips – abused his daughter
Jim Gordon – murdered his mother
Roy Estrada – in prison for child molestation

Most of these were peripheral figures in the story I’m telling, but there’s a definite continuum between at one end the license that was given to a Brian Wilson (to choose one of the figures from this story who is as close to blameless as it gets), through the control-freakery of a Zappa, to the violent misogyny of the men named above. If you get used to treating other people as tools rather than people, and if you’re in a culture where women aren’t highly regarded *anyway*… well, bad things will happen.

Now the problem is that all the things I mention above happened *after* the events I’m writing about. I have tried as best I can in the essays for the book (including the ones that haven’t gone on the blog but will be in the print and ebook versions) to emphasise that however good the music that resulted, the toxic behaviour of, say, Captain Beefheart, was utterly abhorrent.

But have I stressed enough that the culture of the music scene in LA as a whole was toxic? The focus of the book is on the music — and almost every track I talk about in it is one I consider truly great — but by focusing so much on the men who made it am I guilty of emphasising their manpain over the people who that culture hurt? But on the other hand, many of the people I’ve been writing about are, as individuals, largely blameless.

It’s not my purpose in the book to judge people — the book’s about the art. But it’s also about the artists’ lives, and the way they affected the art. I’m not sure that there’s a right answer to this, but, much as with the other piece I mentioned at the start of this, I know that just ignoring the issue certainly isn’t the right answer.

I’ll probably put something very like this into the book, as part of a foreword or endnote, but if anyone has any suggestions as to how I can deal with that better, please say…

California Dreaming: Sharleena

The Mothers of Invention had disbanded. Well…sort of.

Frank Zappa had brought the band to an end, tired of losing money paying the salaries of a large band. The final straw came at a show in 1969 when the Mothers were on the same bill as Duke Ellington, and Zappa saw Ellington backstage begging his agent for a ten dollar advance. Zappa had been losing a great deal of money, and seeing a musical legend having to grovel for ten dollars brought this into sharp focus. He wasn’t going to be paying the salary of a ten-piece band any more — he was going to try to make money, not lose it. So the Mothers split, and Zappa recorded a solo album, with Ian Underwood from the Mothers, a few of the best session musicians in LA, and Captain Beefheart guesting on one song. That album, Hot Rats, became Zappa’s biggest commercial hit, reaching the top ten in the UK.

And then, as soon as most of the members had found other work — Art Tripp joining the Magic Band; Jimmy Carl Black, Bunk Gardner, and Buzz Gardner forming a hard rock band, Geronimo Black, with Tjay Cantrelli of Love; and Lowell George and Roy Estrada forming a new band, Little Feat — Zappa started putting together a new lineup of Mothers.

Other than Zappa himself, Ian Underwood was the only continuing member (although Don Preston would later rejoin the band, temporarily replacing George Duke), but Zappa wanted to have a “rock and roll band” and so kept the Mothers’ name.

The reason he wanted to have a rock band is that he had a new idea for making his music more commercial, while still allowing him to make the kind of satirical comments he wanted — the band were going to satirise the pop music scene, singing about the lifestyle of bands on the road, groupies, casual sex, and other aspects of the culture that was growing up around rock.

But to do that, Zappa needed some genuine pop stars in his band — someone who could easily be recognised as a genuine teen idol, and who would also have the comic skills to sell the comedy routines that were going to be part of the new stage shows.

He chose Micky Dolenz.

Dolenz was asked to join the band in 1969, as Zappa knew that the Monkees TV show had come to an end. Unfortunately, Dolenz would have had to quit the Monkees, and while the band were winding down, he didn’t have the money to buy himself out of his contractual obligations, and so he had to turn Zappa down.

Meanwhile, the Turtles had split, and Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan were at a loose end. They’d been offered roles in the LA production of Hair, but decided that it would be the death of their careers. Kaylan had also been offered the role of lead vocalist in a new band formed by two songwriters he knew, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, but Steely Dan didn’t want Mark Volman, and the two came as a package deal.

So when Volman and Kaylan met Zappa backstage at a one-off reunion of the original Mothers, they were eager to join his new group. That eagerness was not necessarily shared by Zappa’s new rhythm section, Aynsley Dunbar and Jeff Simmons, who thought of themselves as serious blues-rock musicians, not pop performers or comedians, but Volman and Kaylan soon won them round with their musicianship.

Volman and Kaylan were both technically excellent singers who had trained in sight-reading, they were genuine pop stars, and the fact that they were fat and so didn’t have the normal glamorous pop star looks was an advantage, as was their stage rapport. It also no doubt helped that Kaylan’s cousin was Herb Cohen, Zappa’s manager and co-owner of his label.

The first fruit of this new band was Chunga’s Revenge, released as a Zappa solo album, but definitely the work of the new Mothers, with Volman and Kaylan (under their new stage names The Phlorescent Leech (later shortened to Flo) and Eddie) singing on the six songs with vocals (there were also four instrumentals). The songs were mostly either jokes about sex, about the music business, or both.

Sharleena is typical of the new Zappa. Lyrically it’s a love song so banal that it parodies love songs, while still being able to be taken seriously should any buyer wish to do so. But musically, its a showcase for the vocal skills of Volman and Kaylan, who have at least four distinct vocal styles in the song. It starts with a parody of their falsetto harmonies, deliberately abrasive and dissonant, before going into a smooth, “serious” version of the same style, a lush, resonant, two-part falsetto harmony.

The two also then create a “Frankenzappa” voice, singing in unison with Zappa on the main verses in a lower register, so that the lead vocal sounds like a single composite voice, while they also add extra harmonies. And at the end, Kaylan takes on yet another vocal persona, this time a stronger, rockier, voice, belting the lyrics out.

Zappa had traded woodwinds and tuned percussion for pop vocals, wah-wah guitar, and a blues-rock rhythm section. The 1970s would show whether that was a sound decision, either artistically or commercially, but here we leave him, and his new Mothers.


Composer: Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa (guitar, vocals), Howard Kaylan (vocals), Mark Volman (vocals), Ian Underwood (saxophone, piano), George Duke (organ), Jeff Simmons (bass, vocals), Aynsley Dunbar (drums)

Original release:
Chunga’s Revenge, Frank Zappa, Bizarre/Reprise MS 2030

Currently available on: Chunga’s Revenge, UMC CD

Linkblogging For 24/7/15

Apologies for having a couple of days off from blogging — I was at a funeral on Wednesday and that left me so drained I ended up going to bed at 6:30PM yesterday. I have two blog posts 90% done each — a Batpost, which will go up as soon as I get up in the morning, and a Caldream post, which will be up on Sunday — so if I can get some writing done tomorrow I’ll actually have a backlog. But for now, links.

How Democracy Works, by Andrew Rilstone

Peter Watts on the networked-cyborg-rat-brains paper

Another of Jack Graham’s pieces of Doctor Who fanfic featuring a female Doctor

Animals that might go extinct if no-one eats them

Tim O’Neill does Go Set A Watchman as Ayn Rand

And Why you don’t need two-factor authentication

#harkive liveblogging

Harkive are once again collecting a day’s worth of information about what people are listening to, and how. Over the course of today, they’re collecting blog posts, social media posts, and so on, to get a snapshot of how people listen to music.

I’ll update this post every hour or two until I go to bed tonight.

Today, I got up at 8, and so far listened to:
Mount Vernon and Fairway: The Beach Boys
The last half of a Michael Nesmith live bootleg I’d been listening to last night.
And three tracks I’d downloaded from MP3 blogs of old blues and country records: Pony Time by Don Covay, John Henry by Frances Faye, and Look Out Mabel by GL Crockett.
I’m going to listen to Rambling Rose by Ted Taylor and Wondering by Little Junior Parker before showering and heading off to work, where I’ll be listening to CDs rather than MP3s.
Next update approx 11AM.

Update 10:24AM — on the bus, I listened to about ha;f of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Stew, a collection of incidental music and songs from a production of the play, on my MP3 player (yes, I still use one of those, not a smartphone).

Currently at work, listening to the 2013 mono reissue of Safe as Milk by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band on CD (laptop CD drive and headphones).

Update 11:04 — now listening to Place Vendome by the Modern Jazz Quartet and the Swingle Singers, a combination of jazz versions of Bach and Purcell pieces and John Lewis compositions with a baroque feel.

Update 11:53 — listening to Headquarters by the Monkees

Update 13:09 — went for lunch 12:30, back now. Annoying radio that I can’t tell what it is playing across the room. When I start music playing again now, will have to find delicate balance of loud enough to drown out the noise from the radio, but quiet enough not to hurt my ears. This means going for music that’s not got a wide dynamic range (because otherwise the quiet music will be drowned out by radio) and also doesn’t have many super-high frequencies (so no more vibraphone music). At the same time it can’t be too compressed/brickwalled…

13:59 put on disc one of The Lumpy Money Project/Object by Frank Zappa — 1960s mono mixes of Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only In It For The Money

15:28 put on Pretty Songs and Ugly Stories by Ann Magnusson

16:48 put on Coltrane Plays The Blues by John Coltrane

17:31 The Complete ABC Recordings 1959-61, disc 3, by Ray Charles

Left work 18:45. Home 19:24. Started playing MP3s — two Louis Gottschalk pieces followed by American Recorddings by Johnny Cash. I have two MP3 playlists I listen to in alphabetical order by album — one I was listening to this morning, of everything I haven’t heard in a year, and a shorter one which recently looped, of everything I haven’t listened to in seven months and that my wife (who’s home now and wasn’t this morning) can tolerate.

20:21 Anthology 1966-72 by the Move (4CD set, so this’ll be playing for a while)

21L54 Headache, so early night.

Linkblogging For 18/7/15

I’ll have this week’s podcasts done tomorrow, along with a Batpost, but tonight I’m working on the Where Are They Now? bit of California Dreaming, so you get links.

First, on that Tim Farron interview, I don’t think it’s my place to talk, but to boost the voices of LGBT people. Here’s what a few of my LGBT friends had to say last night

How one man poisoned a city’s water supply and saved millions of lives

How Clarence Thomas’ judicial opinions stem from his old radical black nationalism

A mathematical argument against “evidence-based” policy — “Put differently, knowing how effective a treatment is, does not tell us how effective any policy is, which is intended to administer that treatment in practice” “This result is peculiar, for it implies that policies such as imposing cigarette taxes cannot be informed by knowing the extent to which smoking causes cancer”

Why I support pretty much every strike

Why is there dark matter?

A look at the online services for Commodore 64s that eventually became AOL

Tom Ewing on 70s children’s comics at the dawn of Thatcherism

Slate Star Codex on why CBT may be getting less effective (standard SSC comments warning applies)

Andrew Rilstone on whether Jesus was married 1,2,3,4

The risks of mandating backdoors in encryption

Software sucks, and no-one cares

Nick Barlow explains the real splits in the Lib Dems, and why journalists always get it wrong.

Can Quantum Computing Reveal The True Meaning Behind Quantum Mechanics?