How to Beat Oneself Up: Basic Technique


One of the hard parts about putting my opinion out here in a blog is that I have to turn over all my ideas and attitudes and look at them more carefully. I’ve done that, regarding computer security stuff, for around 25 years, and I like to think I’ve dislodged most of the B.S. But, when you start publishing your opinions about art, music, food, F-35s, military glory, and good scent oils to put in soap – it gets harder. Because I’ve suddenly moved into this weird grey zone where I know I’m writing about my opinion but I don’t want to take the attitude: “well this here is my opinion and if you don’t like it, F you.”  Because that’s not how to have an opinion. To have an opinion you have to actually think about why you have that opinion, and then you can decide whether it’s defensible or not.

Sometimes you slam face-first into the realization that you have held an embarrassing opinion. I am sure none of you will be surprised to learn that that happens when you start thinking about your privilege. In case any of you haven’t figured out, I have led a very privileged life, with wonderful parents who nurtured my weird interests, a red carpet path to a good education, and a universe of opportunities in a technical field dominated by ageing white guys like me.

Recorded Elvis' big hit 3 years before Elvis did

Recorded Elvis’ big hit 3 years before Elvis did

But, from an aesthetic perspective, I sometimes don’t catch on to something until it’s way too late. So, I’m going to expose a couple of really embarrassing things about myself that I can’t really fix, but I can acknowledge and publicly thrash myself over.  It all started with me growing up in the 70s and 80s listening to 98 Rock in Baltimore while I worked my summer job building burglar alarms (I was privileged to learn to solder professionally in high school, and – more importantly – had access to a top-notch machine shop and a boss who encouraged me “you can build anything you want with the stuff that’s here, if you can figure out how.”) Me and my co-solderer Tom used to sing along to Zeppelin and Janis Joplin and Steppenwolf. Good times. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized that Mick Jagger, the Animals, and Robert Plant were singing the blues. And Eric Clapton (who apparently has been a bit of a racist jerk) was playing Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters. And Elvis was just a white guy who was doing his impression of James Brown, who actually had more cool in the tip of the shoe on his left foot than Elvis had in his whole body. Then came the 80s and I was listening to Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis’ “Battle Stations”, Michael Jackson, Prince, Talking Heads (which had a lot of caribbean funk) and The Crusaders. I started to slowly realize that rock and roll was a ripoff – or at best an homage – but I hadn’t yet heard the words “cultural appropriation” levied seriously against any of my favorite artists. (I also was a big fan of Andy Warhol!)

So, things I remembered, things I forgot. I slowly slid over toward a kind of drugged out experimental music (Jefferson Airplane and Starship, Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, Bauhaus, Laibach) and the issue of appropriation didn’t really raise its head much. I knew it was there but I was listening to Cab Calloway and Albert Collins, B.B. King (of course!) James Brown, Prince, and Michael.

Now comes the part where I want to throw myself on the floor in an agony of embarrassment. One of my favorite performances by Janis Joplin (a longtime favorite of mine!) was her performance of “Ball and Chain” live in Monterey. She kicked the crap out of that song; I mean, she destroyed it. It was great.

But then came the time I was going to send a link to a friend and I just punched in “Ball and Chain” to youtube and it came up with Big Mama Thornton’s version. I was devastated. I still am, and it’s been a couple years. Ok, a decade.

Let me explain: Janis could kick out some blues; I think that’s probably inherent in being a junkie. Junkies get the blues. But the song “Ball And Chain” is not just ordinary blues. It’s about being a slave. Slaves that ran away had a cannonball on a chain welded around their ankle. The ankle cuff, iron, inflexible, cut, wore, tore at the flesh – it was a constant reminder of the slave’s situation. It’s about the pain of feeling what freedom can be like, and knowing that whenever you reach for it – “something grabs a hold of me… and it felt just like – a ball and chain.” I still think Janis did a great job on “Me and Bobby McGee”; that’s one of my favorite songs, still, but. Uh. Ow. Here, let me throw myself on the floor a couple more times…

Sit down, be quiet, and listen to this. Embedding is disabled by request on youtube, so hold onto your heart because it’s gonna bleed, and listen to the real blues. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-koxMcj84A

Sitting down by my window,
Whoa, whoa, looking at the rain.
Whoa, down by my window, baby,
And all around me,
I said suddenly I felt the rain.
Somethin’ grabbed a hold of me, darling,
Honey, it felt to me, honey like, yeah, a ball and chain.
Oh honey, you know what I mean,
It just hurts me.

This isn’t enough of an apology, but it’s all I can come up with.

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There are several performances of this song by Big Mama, but I’d like to encourage you to start with the one that I linked above. Her intro, her carriage, her seriousness – the Romans had a word for it: gravitas. The gentle, gracious introduction, and the understated passion of Buddy’s orchestra: if it gets better than this, I don’t know if I could take it.

Comments

  1. militantagnostic says

    I was lucky enough to discover this music when I was in High School – I heard Canned Heat on the local top 40 station and that led me to John Lee Hooker. What was then the Alberta Government’s public radio network CKUA had a one hour Blues show called Natural Blues hosted by Holger Peterson. It is still on the air from 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM Mountain time on Saturdays. Holger Peterson also has a blues show on CBC Radio 1 from 9:00 PM to 11:00 PM on Saturdays.

  2. Brian English says

    If I didn’t look at the clip, I would’ve said Stevie Ray Vaughan was playing lead, but like with Janis, he was paying ‘homage’ to Buddy Guy.

  3. says

    “cultural appropriation” is used depressingly often as a club for hitting people you perceive as lacking in sufficient ideological purity, the usual left-wing self-immolation.

    All culture is appropriated. This stuff doesn’t spring, pure and beautiful, from the foreheads of the beautiful native peoples of wherever. We steal it from each other, borrow the bits that we like, carve off the bits that don’t appeal, and mix is in with our other stuff (also, mostly, stolen, but longer ago). To imagine, for instance, that African cultural elements as brought with great reluctance to the Americas are somehow more pure is to deny that Africa is and long has been a living, breathing, continent full of competing cultures and civilizations that loved, hated, warred, visited, inter-married,, and by golly stole cultural elements from one another. And still do.

    Where it goes wrong is when the borrowing is used as a tool of mockery or oppression. Which, to be fair, it sometimes it is.

  4. says

    Andrew Molitor@#3:
    “cultural appropriation” is used depressingly often as a club for hitting people you perceive as lacking in sufficient ideological purity, the usual left-wing self-immolation.

    Well, in this case I don’t think it’s leftie self-immolation that I’m engaging in (especially since I’m not really a leftie…) I genuinely feel bad that I didn’t put the pieces together and hear the words behind the music in Janis’ rendering. And there’s a lot there that I had missed. It doesn’t mean I don’t like Janis anymore, it does mean I see that song a whole lot differently. It’d be like if I discovered that “Stairway to Heaven” was coded white christian dominionist stuff – I’d look at it differently and might not listen to it so enthusiastically anymore. And, yeah, I don’t think Bill Cosby is as funny as I used it.

    All culture is appropriated. This stuff doesn’t spring, pure and beautiful, from the foreheads of the beautiful native peoples of wherever. We steal it from each other, borrow the bits that we like, carve off the bits that don’t appeal, and mix is in with our other stuff

    Yup. As some people say “context is everything” – your culture is your context. And it influences and shapes how you create. So I think it’s appropriate to understand the embedded cultural differences between a black woman singing about a ball and chain, and a junkie doing it. Note, I’m trying to be generous to Janis by saying that she’s a junkie: that embeds some cultural burdens in it, as well. Let’s imagine Johnny Depp did a cover of “ball and chain” – I’d be even less impressed in that cultural context. His burdens (to a lesser degree than Janis’, which killed her) were self-chosen.

    Where it goes wrong is when the borrowing is used as a tool of mockery or oppression.

    Agreed.

  5. says

    Brian English@#2:
    If I didn’t look at the clip, I would’ve said Stevie Ray Vaughan was playing lead

    Yes! I thought the same.

    Unrelated Stevie Ray fact that I discovered quite by accident: the other day I was listening to Bowie’s “cat people” (putting out fire) track, and wondered who did the guitar licks because they were perfectly mated to the rest of the track.

  6. says

    Andrew:

    You not only have such certitude, as John notes, but a healthy helping of colonial arrogance. You do excel at missing the fucking point.

  7. says

    Yeah, I’m pretty certain. “colonial arrogance.” It is to laugh. Your magik words of power intended to activate my white guilt are fruitless, and in no way resemble discourse.

    I defy you to show me a single product of human creative activity that is not substantially derived from antecedents.

  8. Brian English says

    I defy you to show me a single product of human creative activity that is not substantially derived from antecedents

    Can you point to where Caine said anything like that.

  9. John Morales says

    Marcus @5:

    I genuinely feel bad that I didn’t put the pieces together and hear the words behind the music in Janis’ rendering. And there’s a lot there that I had missed. It doesn’t mean I don’t like Janis anymore, it does mean I see that song a whole lot differently.

    So: regarding that song, its significance is properly appreciable when one knows the cultural context.

    Andrew:

    “colonial arrogance.” It is to laugh.

    Marcus wrote “This isn’t enough of an apology, but it’s all I can come up with.”.
    You wrote: “cultural appropriation” is used depressingly often as a club for hitting people you perceive as lacking in sufficient ideological purity, the usual left-wing self-immolation.”

    This post is about Marcus’ acknowledging his earlier privileged cultural ignorance, but you write as if it were a form of cultural cringe. A clarification has been offered by Marcus.

    When you contend all culture is appropriated as a response to that sentiment, you are belittling it.

    To Caine:

    Your magik words of power intended to activate my white guilt are fruitless, and in no way resemble discourse.

    <snicker>

    So meta!

    More bluntly, you’re evaded the import (that Marcus’ point was not about ideological purity or the sacredness of culture, but rather about empathy and comprehension) of Caine’s comment, which is you seem to have missed the point of the post.

    I defy you to show me a single product of human creative activity that is not substantially derived from antecedents.

    Is that addressed to me or to Caine? :)

    You’ve made an universal assertion, and now you defend it (who has disputed it?) by demanding a counter-example from a non-ontologically dependent category. OK.

    (The guilty flee though no-one pursues)

  10. says

    I’m not defending a PhD thesis, I’m making comments on a blog. So stuff your non ontologically dependent category.

    Yeah, I made a universal statement, based on a great deal of experience, and a good understanding of how humans create. How does one prove such a thing? A good start is a search for counter examples. This is true even in the strict world of mathematics, and in the laissez faire world of internet comments it’s still a pretty good idea.

    If I am so wrong, this should be a simple task. I’ll wait.

  11. John Morales says

    Andrew:

    I’m not defending a PhD thesis, I’m making comments on a blog. So stuff your non ontologically dependent category.

    Nobody claimed you were either defending a PhD thesis or not making comments on a blog, so your expostulation is unwarranted.

    (As for my observation being nonsensical, do you dispute that all culture is a product of human creative activity but not all products of human creative activity are culture?)

    Yeah, I made a universal statement, based on a great deal of experience, and a good understanding of how humans create.

    Yet it is paradoxical; if all culture is appropriated, there is not (not can there be) any original culture.
    So… whence the origin of that which has been appropriated?

    (The cosmological argument!)

    How does one prove such a thing? A good start is a search for counter examples.

    Then you should have asked for cultural counter-examples, rather than generic creativity (though you certainly imagine no such can be adduced).

    (A better start might be to consider the logic of your claim, despite your personal experience)

    If I am so wrong, this should be a simple task. I’ll wait.

    It’s not so much that you are wrong, it’s that you’re irrelevant.

    (But your railing against ideological purity is duly noted)

  12. says

    As is your devotion to pedantic logic chopping and nitpicking in order to win internet arguments and enforce ideological purity.

    You are wilfully assuming silly readings of my casual remarks, having detected that I disagree with you. That’s no basis for, well, anything.

    Yes, creative products are a subset of cultural artifacts. I could have spent time making that clear, but I assume I’m talking to people who can make that leap and fill in the work as needed. And so on for the rest of your complaints.

    Of course the process of appropriation or borrowing involves modification and update, of remixing, of recombining parts. What do you think Elvis and Janis did? Again, I assume I am talking to people who can fill in those details on their own. The fact that you choose, wilfully, not to, speaks volumes.

  13. John Morales says

    Andrew:

    What do you think Elvis and Janis did?

    Cover songs.

    PS

    As is your devotion to pedantic logic chopping and nitpicking in order to win internet arguments and enforce ideological purity.

    Fundamental attribution error.

    (Should I be enforcing ideological impurity? Because that would itself be an ideology, no?)

  14. says

    Are you seriously proposing that the only two options are to a) enforce ideological purity, or to b) enforce ideological impurity? Because that is not even silly.

    The hell of it is, we are almost certainly on the same side. I simply have no time for logic chopping and ideological cleansing. That’s the sort of shit that always sinks the left, every god damned time. Wasted time and effort, sitting around whinging about one another and, eventually, shooting one another.

    I have letters to write, phone calls to make, political actions of various sorts to take. I’m not ready to pick up a gun, but my country is in the hands of a maniac, the intelligence community is running more amok than usual, and the good guys, as bloody usual, are snarking off at one another about ontological categories instead of agreeing to disagree until we’ve gotten the fascist heads properly mounted on spikes and then getting on with sharpening the spikes.

    With all due respect to you, Marcus, you’re the one who described this as “beating yourself up” and that makes me kind of sad. It’s one thing to be sad that you missed out so long on a lot of richness and depth in this particular vein of your culture. I get that, and you’re totally right. There is so much out there that is wonderful, it’s a beautiful thing to be sad to have missed out on much of it. But please don’t slide over in to hand wringing about white heroin addicts appropriating songs. Singing one another’s songs isn’t evil, it’s beautiful. It is perhaps the oldest peaceful way we have to find one another.

  15. Brian English says

    The thing is, we can fight battles, and be introspective. In fact, just assuming we’re right, and not being able to justify that, makes us a bit dogmatic. I am on the receiving end of John’s and many others’ thoroughness, and it irks, mainly because it reminds me that I suck at concise, clear expression.

    I took it as Marcus feeling that he’d missed that this tune was not just a junkie’s lament, but something more profound, someone calling back to the pain that their forebears had endured and that cultural subtext, when grasped, made feel he’d been a bit of a naif, or foolish, for not seeing it.

    Of course, not only do I suck at expression, I suck at empathy and understanding others, and as such Marcus probably meant no such thing.

  16. Brian English says

    Scrap the junkie’s lament, more a lament on love, sung with a junkie’s understanding of pain. See what I mean about sucking at expression?

  17. says

    Brian English@#16:
    You caught it right. Growing up on songs like “the needle and the damage done” I interpreted Janis as wailing about her particular ball and chain. But I feel awkward and stupid for making a mistake I feel was shallow and thoughtless.

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