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House of Tudor 

A Deadhead's Songcatchers and the best rock band in America

Wednesday, Jul 9 2003
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Last week, if you told me I'd be writing about a member of the Grateful Dead I would have laughed out loud and taken bets. Alas, even one sworn to the anti-Deadhead alliance Hate the Haight (founded in part by real-life offspring of the Summer of Love, i.e., my friends and I) must abandon the satisfying task of ax-grinding to praise the release of Songcatchers, a new book written by drummer Mickey Hart. A longtime field recordist and outspoken champion for the preservation of aural traditions from around the world, Hart offers an unpretentious but thorough look at the evolution of ethnomusicology. He traces the dynamic lineage of songcatching, including Jesse Fewkes, who trapped the fading world of the Passamaquoddy tribe in wax in the 1800s; Frances Densmore, one of the fearless women who took field recording beyond American shores; and Moe Asch, who gave cowboy poets, political folkies, and "ethnic" artists their first commercial record label. These mini biographies are interspersed within the evolution of recording technology, from the early 100-pound wax cylinder phonographs to bootleg file-sharing on Napster, and the history of social politics in show biz, from the World's Fairs where "native" artists were put on display as curiosities to Hart's own billboard-charting recording of the San Quentin Choir. With the help of K.M. Kostyal, editor and author of historical tomes such as the gorgeous Trial by Ice: A Photobiography of Sir Ernest Shackleton, Songcatchers may be viewed as an authoritative work as well as a coffee-table book of great beauty. With sepia-toned screens, grainy black-and-white images, and vibrant montages culled from private collections and the Library of Congress, where Hart spends a great deal of time digitizing the fading media of early archivists, Songcatchers puts flesh on the esoteric world of sound trappers. You can see for yourself the moment when Laura Boulton played back the song of an African tribesman in Tanganyika, and the look of self-satisfaction on both their faces -- proof that, even in the 1930s, music transcended barriers of culture, race, and clothes (or lack thereof); you may peer into the cramped quarters of Bruce and Sheridan Fahnestock, who traveled -- with their mother and wives -- more than 40,000 miles aboard a fishing schooner to capture the traditional music of the South Seas, and marvel at the beauty of the first gamelan troupe they captured on film and tape. While it seems grandiose that more than 30 pages out of 172 are devoted to the later accomplishments of Hart and the Grateful Dead when only 13 are given to John and Alan Lomax (the remarkable father-son team that discovered Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and fairly launched the American folk revival), I must admit the chapter is, as the title suggests, a long, strange trip, and Hart's contributions as a recordist are certainly worthy of note. All in all, my only complaint is that Songcatchers does not come with a CD. Mickey Hart signs his book on Friday, July 11, at A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books (601 Van Ness Ave.) at 7 p.m. Admission is free; call 441-6670.


According to all the press, Electric Six hails from Detroit and boasts an early association with Jack White of the White Stripes, but I don't buy it. Electric Six is too strange, too funny, too perverse, and too danceable to be from America. Berlin I might believe. Maybe Lisbon, Madrid, or Prague, or some other sweaty European enclave where Peaches, Nina Hagen, the Hellacopters, KieTheVez, Turbonegro, and Cex give each other back rubs. Nothing else would explain the peculiar inflections, shameless falsetto, and obvious non sequiturs (English is vocalist Dick Valentine's second language, no?); or the unabashed mix of disco, arena rock, funk, new wave, and garage; or the frightening amount of enthusiasm expressed for topics such as pornographic pictures of your mother, gay sex, "improper" dancing, arson, atomic bombs, and Taco Bell. I could not possibly list all the laugh-out-loud moments captured on Electric Six's debut album, since Fire is, in fact, a non-stop exhibition of rock 'n' roll hilarity -- the disco fascist dominance of "Dance Commander" ("Let's get this party started/ Right, yo/ Let's get this party started/ R-r-r-r-right!"); the arena-rock sing-along dedicated to the pale superiority of a new girlfriend ("She's white, white, white/ She is so white/ I was born to excite her/ She could never be whiter"); the Revolting Cocks-inspired petulance of "Gay Bar" ("I've got something to put in you/ At the gay/ Gay bar/ Gay bar") -- but I will tell you this: The absurdity is ensconced in the best semblance of rock I've heard in years. In fact, I would go so far as to say, Electric Six is the best rock band in America, or wherever they're from; nothing else could make me play air guitar in my underwear as if I were a 15-year-old boy. So when Valentine intones, "You cannot ignore my techno," you'd better believe it. Electric Six performs on Monday, July 7, at Great American Music Hall with Witches opening at 8 p.m. Tickets are $11; call 885-0750.

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Silke Tudor

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