Scribes Sounding Off: Obsessions

Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music author Deborah R. Vargas is Associate Professor in the Department of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She helped host a roundtable at the 2012 EMP Pop Conference for “Feminist and Queer Studies of Race in Sound.” That interactive panel focused on “how the material landscape of the city and the metaphorical imaginary of the urban mediate, reflect, and shape sonic geographies of race and racial formation.” She has effectively put that engagement into the research, interviews, and overviews of her first book, subtitled The Limits of La Onda.

A specialist in vocalist oral histories, including many for the Smithsonian Institution Latino Music Oral History Project, Vargas incorporates her studies and these in-depth conversations with ethnographic fieldwork, to deeply analyze the identities of artists and music milieus in Texan (and other-American), Chicano, and Tejano communities. The book is surprising in both what it reveals about our assumptions regarding gender roles and public sexuality in the performance of popular music in these cultures. This is rooted in the tenacious, troubled, yet triumphant lives of female accordion players Ventura Alonza and Eva Ybarra; featuring great writing on Eva Garza’s estimable crossover career (her fandom was enormous througout Mexico in the mid-20th century); and within more-recent pop icon Selena’s skills at miscegenating many musics from other culture’s immigrant sources.

“Sound Marks Place,” begins the text as mission statement, with narrative voyages along the “Chicano Wave,” and ending with “Giving Us The Brown Sound.” This arrival is at a keen theory of musical dissonance, not unlike many of the culturally entwined elevations already in your own music collection. Dissonant Divas is high quality feminist academic scribing, worth it alone for turning the unfamiliar on to the bold, bawdy boleros of Chado Silva, but has much else to offer as well.

Growing up through the 80s, it seemed remarkable that the daily comic strip Zippy the Pinhead was in the newspapers at all, as it was obviously a rage against the impulsivity of consumerism and the gaudy distractions of daily conformity. But there it was, being produced against the Means Of Production, a parasite actually thankful for the sick existence of its host, which kept its scorching creativity alive and laughing like the ayslum-bound.

1960s-spawned and renowned underground cartoonist Bill Griffith could entertain as much as he could witheringly describe our addictions and delusions, and had soaked up enough appreciation for weirdness in an era that had given us Zappa and Crumb, Beefheart and Warhol, John Waters and eventually a few years later DEVO. He started crafting his fussy, farcical, and often Id-untamed comics in 1969, doing ecstatically satirical work for the seminal alt-weeklies in New York, and then moving out to San Francisco to float characters like Mr. The Toad around various presses. He started the Golden Era of Comics-mocking Young Lust, contributed to excellent anthology Arcade, and continued without losing relevancy through the avant energies of RAW, Weirdo, and in the once-huge National Lampoon. He is one of the few original alternative comics artists whose work is probably known by several generations, just from its visuals and the caustically cosmic slapstick of its subject matter. While not up there with the exquisite overflow of Crumb, he holds his own with other urban masters of malicious mirth as Derf and Daniel Clowes. In punk terms, if Akron, Ohio 1976 was a comic book, it’d be one by Bill Griffith.

Bill Griffith: Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003, a luxurious and generous Fantagraphics big book collection of his non-Zippy work, is required reading for those who may have missed his parodies and punk rock operas in the past, or want them all bound together. It’s also for those like me who were never really that much into Zippy in the first place. This is a rock-on-the-page world where Alfred Jarry (author of Pere Ubu) mashes up in reality with the gauche surrealism of Liberace; and wacko mainstream fixations on sex ooze into counter-culture parody at ranches, in different dimensions, in garbage pails of spilled-seed promises. Call it post-psychedelic, for those of us more turned off by the heat of planned-obsolescent society than tuned in to empty rebellion.

The FAQ series of books are excellent for diving into the details about recording and performing for the kinds of mainstream acts which inspire feral levels of fandom. Similar to the dizzyingly close focus of 33 1/3’s on specific albums, these books relish all the inside jokes and rare tracks laid down and background stories about ubiquitous long-players by long-time players; but are more expansive in attacking full careers of artists like The Doors, U2, Beatles, etc. The latest one, Bruce Springsteen FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Boss, touches on the twists and turns in Springsteen’s career (you know why things went wrong and how that all went into the songs) yet is more interested in giving someone like me a chance to fantasize about the original track listings of epics that got changed 40 times before the discs got finally mastered.

The working-class New Jersey started his “job” playing “ShopRite openings and school dances around his hometown of Freehold.” His garage rock fantasies were made real in Steel Mill during now-desolate Asbury Park’s Upstage days, keeping him from the mundane life and encouraging him to take control as a singer-songwriter willing to tap into the poetry of Dylan and the verve of Gene Vincent. Eventually, the kid once stuck in a trash can by a nun was on the covers of Time and Newsweek, his horrible battles with label and manager set aside for some sleek rocking in the otherwise pompous 70s mainstream.

The best aspect of this, yet another book on “The Boss,” is the focus on the period in the late 70s when he was sort of our Joe Strummer; he’d stopped writing ten minute circus life songs and Van Morrison knock offs, and was cranking out oodles of punchy, Midwest-friendly power pop anthems and Raymond Carver-like short story songs. From the buffet of soulful, pop music history-loving experimentation that went into Darkness on the Edge of Town and all its roads not followed (captured greatly on The Promise double CD from a couple years ago), to the widescreen dreams of its follow up, that’s a big chunk of this book’s best revelations. This makes this FAQ a great place in which to step into The River (get it?), as well as both a sweet way to remix old fans’ focus, extending the riffs of the most vivacious period of He and the E Street Band.

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