Photo © Amy Cobden
Photo by Brent Dunn
Race, rock and the New Weird America
Part 2 by Kandia Crazy Horse
As NYC avant-noise darling Animal Collective's disc title Here Comes the Indian suggests, like Europeans of yore who came to the New World seeking a violent quickening and rebirth, members of New Weird America have entered a cultural wilderness and adopted outlaw stances in order to vanquish dark-skinned savages and re-emerge from this sonic warfare with their whiteness swept clean as fresh snow (or those bizarre Evian ads with the naked Negress rolling in powder).
To wit, peep Stylus on Here Comes the Indian:
"Both Animal Collective on Indian and Boredoms on Super Ae and Vision Creation Newsun seem concerned with striking a balance between two seemingly opposing strands of modern music: on the one hand, the spontaneity and cathartic pleasure of untutored live playing, and on the other the near-limitless compositional possibilities afforded by electronic manipulation." (emphases added)
And Pitchfork, reviewing Niño Rojo:
"However, where I formerly praised the singer/songwriter for taking me back to a time before MP3s and compulsive music consumption, I now believe that his preferences for surreal list-songs and lazy sing-alongs are simply an excellent counterpoint to these modern extravagances. And counterpoints are reactionary; they never exist alone." (emphasis added)
As well as in conversation with Banhart (while he mused on replicating Neil Young's move from L.A.'s urban jungle to rustic enclave Topanga Canyon, a longtime folk-friendly exurb with a couple of dollops of color like freaky-deaky Cosby Kid Lisa Bonet aka Liliquoi Moon):
"DB: That is what we can maybe take from Tropicálismo, where their anthropophagic attitude towards the world becomes timeless. They were open to all these other cultures and experiences. There's such a sense of humor. I love that they don't call it rock 'n' roll. They call it "Yeah Yeah Yeah." You listen to Os Mutantes and they're making fun of and honoring something that sounds American but it's so Brazilian at the center. It's a reinterpretation of things. It's dealing with all these things that don't have expiration dates." (emphases added)
The New Weird American music is the link between the savage and civilized states. And it's re-birthed a dubious nation where parallels exist between the un-funky tribes of neo-folk, garage rock, extreme noise and Black Metal – which all keep their debts to the Bluenote on the downlow. Peep Tenacious D's ode to the resiliency of "The Metal" from the year's prime white male rockist fantasy about picking with the Devil (since the Axl Vigil continues):
You can't kill the metal
The metal will live on
Punk rock tried to kill the metal
But they failed as they were smited to the ground
New wave tried to kill the metal
But they failed as they were stricken down to the ground
Grunge tried to kill the metal
Hahahahaha they failed as they were thrown to the ground
Metal and these sounds above are the byproduct of these young groups' cultural siege mentality (and I don't even have room to deal with Eminem – suffice it to say, it's been well documented how the white hip-hop loving mass rarely transcends its racial bias; look to the year's lightning rod Duke lacrosse rape case and the prevalence of campus blackface misadventures in the 2000's for evidence). At April's EMP conference in Seattle, Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt was targeted as a whipping boy for this "reactionary hipness," when he cited the greatness of "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah" from Disney's racist musical Song of the South. The act of my colleagues Jessica Hopper and New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones calling Merritt out as racist in the wake of the conference set off a firestorm of Internet debate and rebuttals (chiefly on Slate) querying whether "if a white guy doesn't like black music, does that make him a racist?"
I don't know if it does or not. All I know is that freak-folk may include an Asian or two and not quite white boys like Banhart, but I have yet to see any African artists come to any fame on the set (although, yes, there are Californians who could be fellow travelers with slight tweaking: Ben Harper, Yay Area soul-rock rebel Martin Luther and tha Gawdfatha, Shuggie Otis). Of course, southern iconoclast Cat Power had it both ways in ‘06, straddling simultaneous bandwagons by covering British folk icon Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" and also recording with Al Green's old Memphis soul outfit. Meanwhile, the fervor for freak-folk and its forebears reached back into the vaults in the form of a spate of reissues and box sets from Donovan, the Doors, the Byrds, Tim Buckley, the Band, David Crosby, Gram Parsons, Jackie DeShannon, the Numero Group's much-celebrated Ladies of the Canyon compilation, Vashti Bunyan's and Bert Jansch's well-received U.S. tours and the rediscovery of forgotten artists like Susan Christie (Paint A Lady) and the aforementioned Dalton.
Not that there aren't disturbing trends at the urban end of the pop spectrum. That minstrel-rap should rear its ugly head in the wake of the (problematic) triumph of Three-Six Mafia's Academy Award win for the theme to Hustle and Flow is beyond sad. Of course, there's been novelty rap after a fashion ever since "Rapper's Delight" hit, but this latest, nefarious strain seems to be the yield of Lil Jon's ubiquity in 2005 and the sexist, controversial hit of his associates, the Ying Yang Twins -- "Wait (The Whisper Song)." This year, the trough of dreck was full to overflowing with D4l's "Laffy Taffy," DJ Webstar and Young B's "Chicken Noodle Soup," YouTube "breakout" Ms Peachez' "Fry That Chicken" and, worst of all, Jibbs' "Chain Hang Low," which remixes that old minstrel show mainstay "Zip Coon" (aka "Turkey in the Straw").
Would a Banhart-Nelly collabo on "Turkey in the Straw," remixed by Pharrell, Timbaland and Danger Mouse at Sparklehorse's remote North Cackalack Appalachian cabin represent effective healing of the cultural rift?
And then there's Fantasia, Mary J. and Beyoncé -- don't get me started on these hip-hop soul divas' overweening and self-abnegating platinum blonde ambition. In this year of devastating Atlantic losses, one of the hallowed label's former partners weighed-in loud and clear to my colleague Jody Rosen at Slate:
"To the Editor:
Kudos to Jody Rosen for his article on the current state of pop and R & B singing ["The State of American Singing as Heard on `I-I-I-I-I-I-Idol,' " May 18], especially his take on the gratuitous and confected melisma so much in vogue these days. His references to the truth- and soul-fueled note turns and bendings by Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin were especially perceptive.
Time and again I have found that flagrantly artificial attempts at melisma are either a substitute for real fire and passion or a cover-up for not knowing the melody. I have encountered this frequently in the studio and coined the term "oversouling" to bring the offending performer back to reality. Please, learn the song first, and then sing it from the heart.
Papa Dip Wexler certainly peeped the hole cards of these over-souling succubi from the pit of Hell.
The second-worst culprit in the year's intraracial minstrelsy sweepstakes is Mary J., who had the nerve to whinge at length to the UK music press about the wages of black femininity in the pop marketplace, and then, volte-face, released a CD entitled The Breakthrough upon which she appeared whiter than Michael Jackson with a flaxen Brünhilde ‘do! She should defect to freak-folk where she could go whole hog in a dirndl and clogs. If Banhart and his associates were effectively playing in the dark in 2006, then this was also the year that Beyoncé turned white. Yes, yes, I know she's apparently of Creole extraction, but this didn't begin with the notorious Vanity Fair cover debacle wherein her habitual tan and teasing appearance was tweaked beyond the pale by Photoshop. There was already the L'Oréal contract which remunerates Beyoncé's wearing of a wig supplied by impoverished, exploited Third World women. Unlike Topsy, this blonde-ing process of black female performers (and their audience) didn't jes' grew; go see Dreamgirls this Christmas and limn just how Bouncy's fairy godmother Diana Ross wrote The Rules on it in the 1960's, ‘70's and ‘80's via vampirism of the late Florence "Blondie" Ballard.
Perhaps, like Imitation of Life's Peola/Sarah Jane, Beyoncé and her golden negress sisterhood don't want to be white but want "white opportunities"? (And who doesn't, including assorted freak-folkies?) British biracial singer Corinne Bailey Rae was anointed as the year's transatlantic golden negress du jour, as she put her records on and plied northern soul charm in the ‘Hood, bedroom communities and (fittingly) o'er the airwaves at Urban Outfitters. And neo-soul newcomer Alice Smith's version of "Woodstock" (no relation to the Canuck Songbird's) – in which she was the clever, formerly de-natured spook spying the New Weird American spy – seemed to accomplish this. Yet it's difficult to attribute such cunning to the aforementioned plastic pop divas – primarily because, as black women in the West, they seem to lack self-awareness... or not enough to deliver them from the icy clutches of the western Beauty Myth. No wonder listeners are retreating from their empty come-ons in favor of the sonic succor of such comparatively homespun chanteuses as child-like Joanna Newsom – whose lack of bombast and independence (she's a corporeal angel tethered to a harp, not ringing the alarm) is a soothing balm to white male anxieties (isn't it grand she's seeing the dullard, macho Bill Callahan (aka smog) who's long been a hipster message board target for preying on rock & roll nymphettes?). This is the Age of American Apparel's Similac sexuality, after all. Sorry Justin – no one brought the sexy back in 2006 like Joanna Newsom.
One could claim the purpose of NWA is only to reflect a Californian, western sense of possibility and aging hippie population who made some magnificent "wooden music" and once flew their freak flags high. Yet the music seems to gloss over today's sociopolitical tensions and the cultural assault of hip-hop in favor of retreating into internal, imaginary landscapes and reinvented selves. Melancholia in folksongs about the individual and mythological is the order of this day, rather than the failures of society and race relations. In trying to shore up white ethnic identity, the neo-freaks are donning the raiment of indigenous culture their forefathers wiped out in order to create America and "sampling" the African hybridity caused by European imperialism across the globe. These artists' cakewalk between the masks of performative whiteness and performative savagery enable them to co-exist in a sonic utopia like Joanna Newsom's late year release Ys.
Newsom's cackle-voice may be natural and untrained, yet seems to purposely invoke medieval witch archetypes, the colored, angsty vocalizing of Holiday and Dalton, and above all, the natural expression of a pure, innocent child; this effect made Newsom's debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, such a polarizing release. Even if she sounds akin to Jodie Foster's Nell, Newsom is no wood-sprite nor Appalachian wild child in dire need of rescue from savagery, as her relation to San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom attests. And she's made some welcome strides forward from her first outing, taking pains to inform the press she's just a 21st century girl who even loiters on the Internet. Ys refutes her claims though -- indeed, on Slate, Jody reviewed Ys as the yield of "the startling, anachronistic world of Joanna Newsom." From Bohemian.com (!) to Amazon's user reviews, the exultation in the singer-songwriter's otherworldly, faerie queene personae and the "brave non-commercialism" of Ys abound.
Stylistically and in performance, Ys is good – the elfin harpist definitely improves upon sharing company with southern producer-arranger Van Dyke Parks. But she does herself no favors by featuring allegorical, medieval-style artwork that could've been done by English illustrator Kit Williams (I own a Masquerade first edition to prove it) – and linkage with the druidic and deluge mythos of the legendary Breton city of Ys is too esoteric for the pop marketplace. Of course, the Ys myth's "sampling" of the Atlantis legend so integral to Nazi and classical Greek civilization's creation legends – citing Atlantis as the source of these European nations' cultural matter and superiority – could possibly make Newsom's recording one of the greatest hits of the past three millennia.
Newsom's symphonic rock has cred, though, unlike assorted prog traveling revival shows and your local orchestra's oh-so lucrative foray into Beatles/Doors/Eagles/Queen tributes (someone mash her up with forgotten southern rock glamsters White Witch, who also got jiggy with MySpace this year; now, White Witch was truly transgressive regarding white male hegemony!). That Newsom's cult mash-up of Astral Weeks-as-confessional allegory, Kate Bush, Björk, high lonesome Wilsoniana, traditional Celtic and Appalachian music – as well as all-American rustic imagery worthy of Cooper, Bierstadt, Ansel Adams, John Ford and Marlboro adverts – has thus far been well-received compared to Rufus Wainwright's Want One and Want Two both pickles and amuses me no end.
Newsom's pretension, unlike that of Wainwright -- who adopted fey, medieval poses in his album art and delivered sublime baroque pop under the aegis of Parks well before her -- is acceptable to critics because unrepentant, non-pathological homosexuality remains more of a threat to white male identity than a young girl straddling a harp. Thus, although Newsom and Wainwright are both exquisite faerie queenes, only one's welcome at this pop moment's renaissance fair rebirth of cool. She can channel classical Arcadia, her nigga Banhart can cavort from the Bay to Basel (he was the Deitch special guest in early December) as postmodern Herm of Pan, but my po' ace boon Rufus (although faring better in the wake of the Brokeback zeitgeist), with his latter-day Beau Brummel tendencies, be't not remind armchair arbiters of just what ancient Greece was most famous for.
Since his 1998 outing (literally) with Parks, Wainwright's been cited as the soul of that favorite Greek concept, hubris, while Newsom's not dismissed as a mere revivalist; at Slate, Jody accords her "anachronist" status alongside Tom Waits for creating mini-epics that limn a "shadow world." I purposely preserved the lazy, transparent crit tic of referring to Newsom as "elfin" for it's their most damning Freudian slip. It's frustrating to her, but it's worth remembering the etymology of elf. Per Wikipedia: "An elf is a mythical creature of Germanic mythology/paganism which still survives in northern European folklore. In Norse mythology, they were originally a race of minor gods of nature and fertility. Elves are often pictured as youthful-seeming men and women of great beauty living in forests and other natural places, underground, or in wells and springs. […] After much debate, the consensus is elf, alf and related words derive from the Proto-Indo-European root albh meaning "white", whence also the Latin albus "white", whence Portuguese and English albino" (For shits and giggles, my elvish name is: Ireth Celebrindal). Newsom's a throwback alright, the public outpouring of love for her seeming a cultural boomerang from the dawn of the 2000s' Lord Of The Rings sagas which co-starred Antipodean icon Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, the ultra fantasy fairy queen, and was marred by director Peter Jackson's celluloid preservation of unexamined racism inherited from Tolkien, who was "abducted" by his South African household's native "houseboy" as a baby, taken to the village for show-and-tell, and seems to have never recovered (Hey, J.R.R.T., the black boy looking at the white boy can be a bitch, huh?).
Then again, there's an amusing reggaeton mash-up of Newsom's work -- see Joanna Newsom ft. Tego Calderon – "Bridges and Balloons (P. Neezy reggaeton mix)" -- that sketches possible avenues of escape from this cultural cul-de-sac.
Banhart claims his favorite musician is Tropicálismo pioneer Veloso and that he strives to attain that movement's balance of voracious eclecticism and pop savvy. And he does try to invoke blues, Qawwali, Ali Akbar Khan and Ali Farka Touré (who donned a death mask in '06) – but isn't this just post-colonial, hi-tech Orientalism, the persistent province of bohemians and rich hippies?
Perhaps it's just unconscious racism... but the music seems like reactionary isolationism. In discussing The Believer's 2005 music issue in the East Bay Express, Rob Harvilla questioned the critical interest in freak-folk and related movements, conceding, "it's a niche. An indie-rock niche. Yes, a predominantly white niche. But does that make it inherently evil? Rockist? Racist?" Certainly, the music of Newsom and Banhart is elaborate, personal mythology derived from the sense that the individual counts above the communal for all that Banhart refers to his musical friends as "The Family" -- which makes the work (whatever its purely sonic merit) no different than Star Wars and certainly inherently western, fit for a mass white audience who has voted Tolkien's opus the greatest book(s) of the 20th century in several forums. This great silent majority, thrown into disarray by savage assaults at home and the interminable dreariness of waging war against a defiant Oriental foe abroad, is making itself heard via ecstatic support for freak-folk wherein the self-consciously artsy-craftsy is privileged over the cold, hard yield of mechanical reproduction that is hip-hop (although a chimera, since these groups produce CD's too). What's irritating about the New Weird America is its celebration of the instinctual, whimsical and unconstrained – this seems a belabored attempt to adopt the primitive, naïf cultural production that artists of color are always accused of having... and simultaneously penalized for by the Academy and other agents of museum culture. And there's an unacknowledged privilege in being able to do so, in having the luxury to reject knowing for the cunningly amateurish.
The cultural stasis this luxury provides and resultant new surrealist manifesto established is what interests me in and disappoints about NWA. Its practitioners appear to dabble in techno-pastoral counterculture to explore different ways of presenting their image or to take advantage of looser codes of moral conduct as well as less stringent artistic standards, while more complex, challenging artists like Cee-Lo have long been experimenting in the ways of freaky-deak (with relatively little success until the advent of Gnarls Barkley) and fully embraced the movement's radical politic.
Cee-Lo: the "Closet Freak" came out as a "Superfreak" in 2006. Like LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka in the annals of Beat culture, Cee-Lo's being omitted from the official canonization of insurgent freak-folk history, despite having more cred and creative heft than the majority of the movement's urban and exurban adventurers. Closet Freak: the best of Cee-Lo Green and the Soul Machine (from fall '06) is his first ever hits collection and shows the multiple striking facets of the MC (he even has a day-glo, Alice in Wonderland-rip clip for "Getting Grown," complete with Afro-cherubim singalong, dancing lyrics, hopping Brer Rabbits, daisies and lush pastoral). St. Elsewhere shows that utopianism vs. nihilism, the crisis of the American Negro, begat Gnarls, spurring the dynamic duo toward sonic apotheosis. And this aesthetic and personal struggle -- see brilliant tunes like "The Boogie Monster" and "Transformer" – makes Cee-Lo the incendiary spawn of bronze buckaroo Arthurly, electric gypsy Jimi Hendrix and soul writer Sly Stone.
Sly is typically denounced as a pathetic decadent who didn't survive this moral and creative quandary, and yet his Grammy appearance last winter emphatically proclaimed otherwise for those with wisdom enough to see. In correspondence with me after the telecast, my friend and colleague Greg Tate said of Sly:
"...lovely -- still a badass ain't he? Still putting the poor chillum -- blk white younguns, olduns -- to shame with they faux renegade asses. Who he needs to get with is the Bad Brains -- not just for the Mohawk, but ‘cause they got that funky stuff and that chaos theory."
But 2006 was all about Cee-Lo's momentary defiance of the odds that sidelined black rock's holy trinity, about St. Elsewhere and its ubiquitous hit single "Crazy."
St. Elsewhere is a welcome rarity: the successful side project. Reviews claimed Marvin Gaye would've made a similar recording had he persisted into the digital age. "Crazy" itself should replace "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" as the black national anthem – what truly sentient being of African descent doesn't know the pain and rage of triple-consciousness and having one's genius saddled with limits and stereotypes born of minstrelsy? Certainly, every aspiring black rocker and boho aesthete not just knee-deep in freaky-deak can ken the power of this lyric:
I think you're crazy...
I think you're crazy...
I think you're crazy...
Just like me.
My heroes had the heart to lose their lives out on a limb,
And all I remember is thinkin' I wanna be like them.
Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse of The Grey Album, Danger Doom and Gorillaz' Demon Days fame) -- one of the best indie hip-hop producers in the game besides Madlib and North Cackalack's 9th Wonder -- deploys classic loops and Italian composer Daniele Luppi's string arrangements to build this masterpiece into a 21st century version of Sly's There's a Riot Goin' On. Like that masterpiece, St. Elsewhere is revolutionary, and, without a doubt or reducing the work to a savage parade, the freakiest album of 2006.
Is all of this banana tossing from my mental monkey house in the city named for the African Queen Charlotte just the harvest of bitterness? Nothing but sheer futility since history's written by the victors? If that's the way y'all want it – perhaps: I've been freaky-deak my whole life, and it's never benefited me since my people were in the Tidewater of Tsenacommacah before there was a South (we were the O.G. "naturals" of initial Anglo encounter), before early American novelists like Cooper cleared my Algonquin cousins the "Mohicans" off the frontier stage to make way for the Western myth in which white men must triumph over savagery at all costs. Like Eminem, these NWA artists are no threat for they escape the perils of breathing while black by maintaining fundamental whiteness in the context of going native. That the performance of whiteness should reconstruct blackface tropes digi-Luddite stylee in the early 21st century is fascinating -- what has brought this new downlow strain of nationalism about?
When did being a freak suddenly come in vogue? It's not advantageous to the better philosophers and eccentrics of Hip-Hop Nation, either, as the lack of cross-pollination between the Quannum roster (for instance) and the Family in the Yay Area attests. While I critique hip-hop with a poison pen because I am slightly older than the genre and grew up with it as a revolutionary force, I recognize its capacity as a folk music. Would that there were more MC's who could rival the spoken word of Eugene McDaniels, the long-forgotten folk-jazz bard who's overdue for rediscovery by the younger breed. C-Murder's '06 release, The TRU Story... Continued, was such a disappointment precisely because he had the prime chance to redeem himself post-lockdown and give voice to the seething rage and despair of his New Orleans milieu after Katrina instead of banging as usual. If only he could have made his work echo deed as he violated house arrest to attend a Crescent City premiere of Spike Lee's doc When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in four acts.
Reissued last March, McDaniels' futuristic folk masterpiece, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse, has been the perpetual soundtrack for me in this American life during wartime. Apocrypha has it that when this album first dropped in 1971, King Richard Nixon's vice-president Spiro Agnew rang Atlantic Records to complain about its incendiary lyrics. The Left Rev. McD was way ahead of the boho curve in lambasting - via freaky-deak sonic language - both ‘60's vintage jook savages ("Susan Jane") and Native American genocide ("The Parasite (For Buffy)" dedicated to Cree folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie, who's also curiously absent from the current freak icon roll call). The Family needs to take heed of this vital work and McDaniels' other hippie/folk/funk release, the even more rockcentric Outlaw, since what the world needs now is not fairytale solipsism but fearless social commentary. And even if heads cannot write anything as politically relevant and astute as McDaniels' "Compared To What" (the Family certainly hasn't), that's the edge over which hip-hop needs to venture now.
Or could the Yay Area's finest alt-MCs (perhaps the Coup's Boots Riley, who had a great year on the strength of Pick A Bigger Weapon until the group's recent roadside tragedy) give the nod to some of the music world's great eccentric losses in 2006, like my late acquaintance Rufus Harley, the world's first soul-jazz bagpiper, and Southern rock cult hero Johnny Jenkins, whose cover of the Nawlinze vodun classic "I Walk On Gilded Splinters" featured one of the Skydog's greatest solo performances, trading licks with the iconic Johnny Sandlin. Plus, you know, the demise of Madcap Syd Barrett was sad, but not as much of a blow to psych-rock as the loss of Memphis-born Arthur Lee. Love's Lee also found his pot of aesthetic gold at the end of the rainbow in California, reigning for a time as king of the Sunset Strip. Certainly, his freakishness extended farther than anyone's, being an African American folk-rocker from Crenshaw in love with the Byrds and Stones who wore one combat boot and rose-colored glasses around town and dwelled in a stone castle high up in Laurel Canyon. And Lee's masterpiece, Forever Changes (40 years old in 2007), the greatest psych-folk recording of all time, features one of the best songs exploring the so-called Indian's plight in America: "Live and Let Live."
I'm still waiting for either a) some of these freaks to invoke Arthurly as readily as they do Saint Nick Drake (and no, Calexico's takes on "Alone Again Or" don't count) or b) some real bruhs to bum-rush the New Weird America par-tay.
These freaky folks were obviously not at the local Amphitheatre this summer when Steely Dan came to town singing "Kid Charlemagne," a brilliant critique on the death of hippie, or they'd be heeding this lyric:
All those day-glo freaks who used to paint their face
They've joined the human race, some things will never change
(Son you were mistaken)
You are obsolete
Look at all the white men on the street
To the young heads who don't ken what I'm getting at: this is why we heed the Ol' Skool. The Dan lyrics spit above – now that's dropping science.
Look at all the white men on the street
This is my fundamental issue with the self-proclaimed/styled freaks of Banhart's ilk – they can go home again when the freak-folk renaissance fair leaves town, whereas for hybrid folk like Arthur and me, there is no respite in the West for our problematic dark-skin bodies. James Fenimore Cooper and his cultural heirs cannot allow the real freaks and savages to transcend the prison of their scorned flesh – for where would that leave the whites? For us, being freakish and Other seals our doom, no matter how brilliant, no matter how rich or what reality shows VH1 may greenlight (laughin' at ya, Flav). Although it took the greatest hype man in hip-hop history 20 years to cash-in, the freak-folkies' outlaw-coated whiteness will inevitably enable them to become stars. It'll be interesting to watch how this dynamic plays out in New Weird America's previously cloistered bohemia (as illusory as redskin savages watching from wooded shadows) now that the mainstream and its market forces have come a-knocking.
Forever Changes' power rests on Lee's innate understanding of his place within a white empire founded on regeneration through violence. It's why he composed the album as prelude to suicide, and why forever after his artistic and personal personas were characterized by a menacing imbalance between light and dark, even while his two greatest acolytes, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, rode the freak train to posthumous immortality. As Melvin Van Peebles put it, for authentic American jook savages, "A Birth Certificate Ain't Nothing But a Death Warrant Anyway."
The great American tragedy of Arthur Lee is that his surreality – or hyper-reality, really - - would always be unwelcome in the workaday world, despite the cult success of Forever Changes, because the freaks and savages are never allowed to truly take over the asylum. California's Three Strikes law or not, Lee could never sellout because no one was buying the hyper-literate badass nigger (ask the shade of Fred Hampton Sr., the young Black Panther sophist and potential visionary who was murdered 37 years ago this December in Chi-Town alongside Mark Clark). He bravely sought admittance into the sanctum sanctorum of flower-powered, acid-drenched West Hollywood, the epicenter of rock empire in the late 1960's. And Lee enjoyed a meteoric ascent -- and then a long, dark decline during which, in Sisyphean manner, he paid the wages of sonically replicating Baldwin's "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy." Doubtless, the New Weird America scene will prove as inhospitable to any brilliant young colored aesthete who challenges them in their own day-glo arena – or merely refuses to be conveniently dead like the cherished Billie Holiday who immolated herself on the altar of intransigent ghetto pathology.
This hypothetical freaky-deak, cult nat adventurer won't be me. Like Acid King Arthur, my American Dream is that I want the nation to meet me in the middle on the banks of the Mississippi, to reflect my hybrid reality and re-baptize itself in my dusky, savage image. That's why for me the most important words ever uttered in rock & roll will always remain Arthur Lee's refrain (per Marat and, erm, that crazy ole African Traditional):
"We're all normal and we want our freedom... Alla God's chillun gotta have their freedom!"
Alas, poor Ota, we hardly knew ye.
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