Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Heroes Of Fakelore
Stuart Maconie once remarked in the New Musical Express that whereas most records make do with lists of musicians and engineers, Momus records come with dramatis personae. Not only are the songs stuffed with fictional characters, they're also full of references to public figures, living and dead.
So if we were to go through Folktronic looking for characters, what would we find? Which celebrities should my record labels be watching for lawsuits this time? How is the latest dramatis personae shaping up, and how does it break down by occupation?
Okay, I'll tell you.
John Lee Hooker
Sleepy John Estes
Jean Michel Jarre
The Incredible String Band
Cynthia Plaster Caster
Le Duc De Berry
Joan of Arc
But perhaps the most important name checks on the album go out to scientists who attempted to graph madness and map the minds of outsiders:
These three men -- a triumvirate of recording angels -- are my heroes of fakelore.
A Martian Sends A Postcard
When I was writing the lyrics for Folktronic, my forthcoming album of plastic folk, I discovered I was making a record structured by the contrast between folk culture (straw houses, basketwork, knitting, orally transmitted folk tales, Appalachian fiddlers) and electronic culture (the synthesiser, the tape recorder, the computer, the internet). That contrast in itself generated lots of musical and lyrical ideas: the ruination of the musical tradition of Hicksville by a single Jean Michel Jarre concert, the celebration of a folk hero whose gift from God is HTML coding. The opposition of folk and electronics was inherently funny; it also opened up a lot of interesting issues.
But I soon found myself in need of characters who could embody and dramatise that clash of cultures, show a contradiction turning into a co-existence. And so I found myself referencing the heroes of fakelore. Hans Prinzhorn, Alfred Kinsey and Alan Lomax, two psychiatrists and an ethno-musicologist, came to life as characters in the songs.
Hans Prinzhorn is referenced in the Paul Klee song, 'Going For A Walk With A Line'. A psychiatrist, Prinzhorn collected the drawings, paintings and diaries of the mad people in his charge. His influential book 'Artistry Of The Mentally Ill' was published by Julius Springer in Berlin in 1923. When, in 1937, the Nazis mounted the Degenerate Art exhibition, they hung the work of contemporary Modernist artists next to Prinzhorn's 'mad art'.
Alfred Kinsey is a character in 'Psychopathia Sexualis', the tale of a small American town whose one anomaly -- the fact that all its walls are totally transparent -- makes it an ideal place for the famous sex researcher to do his field work. Kinsey was the author of the groundbreaking bestsellers 'Sexual Behavior in the Human Male' (1948) and 'Sexual Behavior in the Human Female' (1953). He was the pioneer in finding out what Americans actually do in bed and with whom (or what).
Alan Lomax is the model for the lead character in 'Tape Recorder Man'. Lomax and his father, John A. Lomax, travelled round the world in the 1930s and 40s with an Edison recorder, collecting folk music for the Library of Congress. They discovered Leadbelly, Son House, Memphis Slim and Muddy Waters. Later they took their hunt for untutored musical expression beyond the US, including even Scotland in their 'Primitive Musics of the World' series.
Voyage To The Lunatic
The human brain is the most complex thing in the known universe. Science can count how many miles it is to Venus, but can't plumb the complexities of sexual fetish. Scientists know a lot about the moon, but not so much about the lunatic. We have a map of the human genotype, but no street plan for the paranoid labyrinth in the brain of a schizophrenic.
But just as computers are now getting smart enough to make organic things, so scientists are getting confident enough to probe the madness and creativity in the brains of children, artists and madmen. While the computer gets more Africa in it, science plucks up courage to cast an eye on everything mixed up, human, crazy, intuitive and inexact.
This is all very interesting, and very good news. We should take a moment to salute the pioneers. They were attacked in their day and some of them are being attacked still. The Nazis attacked Prinzhorn, and a recent biography calls Kinsey a pervert and a fraud.
The Folk Becomes The Fake
My 'recording angels' all had the Midas touch. Whatever they touched had a tendency to turn into gold, bringing about the paradox that their collected subjects seem to simultaneously celebrate and betray their origins in the common clay of humanity.
If you followed the link about Alan Lomax, you'll have read this:
'With the advent of the portable recorder, Lomax could not only record but play back songs moments after history was burned onto tape. Lomax reflected that, 'when you could
play this material back to people, it changed everything for them. They realized that their stuff [and] they were just as good as anybody else.'
It's a fascinating moment, the instant you press the play button and let someone who's never heard his voice and guitar recorded hear them back for the first time. It's not just the mechanical reproduction which is startling, but the artist's self-perception which changes. Most people, on first hearing their voices back off a tape recorder, are surprised or disgusted at how they sound. It seems 'wrong' to them. Perhaps they even feel a certain anxiety, as if it's confirmation that they really are separate and finite beings.
But if an expert is recording you to put you in the Smithsonian Institute Archives, or you're being 'discovered' or 'curated' or put on a pedestal for your autheniticity, your unique outsider perspective, your integrity, then you're suddenly having a social role imposed on you. You may look at yourself in the mirror after that and see someone different. Perhaps, seeing your dark skin through white eyes, you begin to think of yourself as some sort of noble savage. I don't know. But one thing's for sure: being 'collected' by an enlightened curator will tempt you to play your formerly spontaneous self increasingly as a role. That's when the folk begins to become the fake.
Look at 'Buena Vista Social Club'. The film shows a bunch of old men, musicians largely forgotten in their native Cuba, being curated by Wim Wenders and Ry Cooder and encouraged to present themselves to the rest of the world (very successfully) as something authentic, unspoiled, earthy, real, etc. We see the musicians ambling through their native habitat, the glamourously shabby backstreets of Cuba, then we see them being feted in Europe at packed concerts. What we don't see much of is the transition in their status, or in their identities. Which is a pity, because for me that's the most interesting thing the documentary could have dealt with: the transition of authenticity into showbiz.
Whoops! Went To Art School, Damn!
Playing along with the curators, the WASPs who tell you you're an important representative of otherness, has risks. For a start, there's a kind of ridiculous selection process in which powerful curators create a new aristocracy of 'the pure', a cadre of 'real' people called on to display a heraldry which inverts the usual claims to social importance.
If you pretend to the throne of 'realness', remember these basic rules. Instead of flaunting your money, you must flaunt your poverty. Instead of claiming the best education, you must claim the worst. Instead of boasting of a fit, healthy, muscular body, point to disabilities -- better still tack a 'Blind' or a 'Slim' or 'Fat' onto your name.
An artist called Barry Sigel told me: 'I know an artist who's a naive painter -- actually the politically correct term now is 'visionary artist' -- and he tried to get shows with galleries specialising in outsider art, but when they heard he'd gone to art school nobody wanted to know. He only did one term, but it was enough to ruin his chances.'
That's why stressing fake folk rather than authentic folk is more healthy. It's more democratic. Anyone can legitimately claim to be a fake folk artist, whereas to be a real folk artist you have to fall into the inverted snobbery of proving you're poor, proving you're mad, proving you never went to art school. You have to be certified a genuine cretin by a panel of experts.
Showbiz Is Wonderful
Showbiz is wonderful precisely because it's so fake. The fake is actually a more democratic value than the real. Stress on realness leads to inverted snobbism, intellectual anti-intellectualism, the formation of apprenticeships, guild systems, new elites. Fakeness is open to all, and focuses on people's wonderful capacity for self-invention and re-invention. Realness aligns with nationalism, xenophobia, and stress on roots, which all of us have, but none of us feel very close to any more. Realness is about earning status through pain. Fakeness, on the other hand, is mutable, plastic, electronic. It's user-friendly and internet-savvy. You get to be who you want to be by playing. Leave the folk free to be fake! Real people are proud alcoholics on Indian reservations. Fake people are happy campers.
Guitar Mistakes: A Short History
The work of children, outsiders, the poor and the mad is always going to be inherently interesting for better reasons than the patronising mix of nostalgia, sublimated guilt and christian charity that seems to inform some people's attitudes. Outsiders are the bluesky research lab of the straight world. Outsider artists often make much more interesting work than many conformist and mealy-mouthed professional artists. Look at Henry Darger's sexy, crazy, epic writings and drawings about troupes of beleagured hermaphroditic infants. Listen to Harry Partch's handmade microtonal instruments, or consider how Leadbelly and John Lee Hooker influenced guitar playing and record production. Look at how Kinsey's patient explication of people's actual sexual practices in the 40s and 50s paved the way for the arrival, in the 60s, of the 'permissive society'. Or look at how the Prinzhorn Collection now resembles a trailer for the history of twentieth century art.
Folk artists got there way before everybody else. Let's salute the pioneers, the painters, perverts and bluesmen. But let's never forget the shrinks, quacks and recording angels who, braving hisses and disses, first drew them to our attention. Whatever their motives.
I leave you with a thought from an article in today's New York Times about the history of guitars:
'If anybody can play the guitar, then everybody can. And the more people who try it out -- fumbling through misremembered songs, tuning incorrectly, using strange hand positions and generally making mistakes -- the more chances there are for innovation. The guitar is music's equivalent of open-source software; anyone who wants can tweak it for purposes that can be ingenious or merely eccentric, and all that activity can lead to bigger things.'
Several images on this page are screen grabs from a Flash presentation the brilliant Mumbleboy is working on for the song 'Tape Recorder Man'. Watch the Momus website for a link to the completed piece, which will also contain musical additions from bleepy musician E-Rock. Meanwhile I recommend you look at Mumbleboy's other Flash stuff on the Milky Elephant website.
Six songs from the forthcoming Momus album Folktronic are now online in Flash presentations made by another excellent Flash artist, John Robert Howell. Check them out at the Art and Leisure site here.