Everett True

Why Artists Should Stick To Art

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Cartoonist Gilbert Shelton and musician/insane drawer of monsters Savage Pencil have the best approach out of any of the 10 artists present. They don’t give a fuck for reputations. They just appreciate the moment for what it is, and move straight on. They understand there’s no such entity as classic, just moments in time and mood swings. Their CDs are suitably eclectic and inspired–Shelton’s particularly.

Shelton’s CD is a real find. A self-confessed lover of the piano, he has little time for rock ‘n’ roll. (A trifle odd, perhaps, for the creator of the archetypal hippie comic.) Instead, he chooses to pepper his selections with a healthy smattering of humor and boogie-woogie. Don’t get me wrong: I hate “wacky” music as much as the next white-boy ex-indie fan. It’s just that humor–like love, like politics, like bad rhyming couplets–is a vital part of all pop music, of all culture. An extremely vital part. Plus, most of the songs on Honky Soul, Race Music, Hard Bop & Anachronic Jazz deal in black humor–and it’s always the darkest humor which is the funniest, the truest. Remember, it’s only the winners who don’t need their humor. As Shelton says in his sleeve-notes: “I wanted to present a lot of historical facts about these songs and the musicians, but my research turned up so many tragic stories that I decided to forget the history and just present the music.”

Hence, genius ’50s social commentator and Harvard math professor Tom Lehrer sits easily next to the Coasters’ sassy “Shopping for Clothes.” Ray Charles’ Louis Jordan rip “It Should’ve Been Me” nestles up cozily to Cat Mother’s dope eulogy “Marijuana Cigarette” and the Clovers’ rockin’ “Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash.” Not a beat is lost, nor a trick missed, though I can do without the final few tracks of hardcore Mingus-style be-bop (see note about over-veneration again: jazz cats are the worst when it comes to praising their favorites). Fuck it, though. This is one cool comp.

Pencil suffers too much from self-absorption and the need to include no less than five tracks penned by himself. (Hey! It’s a “concept” album! Featuring a tooled-up, fucked-down character called Dead Duck!) Still, anyone who includes brilliant, dead, English loony comedian Vivian Stanshell next to the Beach Boys’ morbid “‘Til I Die”; next to two songs by Sun Ra; and one by genius late ’60s English pastiche act the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (the truly chilling “Slush”); gets brownie points in my book. There again, Pencil is a bona fide English music critic, as well as being the creator of some truly engaging, engorged monster cartoons–so one would expect him to know his shit. His collection is equaled only by Crumb’s, Shelton’s, and Bagge’s in its love, packaging (great fucking colors!), and attention to detail, though it’s a shame no one at EMI thought to hire a copy editor.

One final thought, then. Good ideas on paper rarely work in practice.

Don’t get me wrong. These collections are excellently packaged–a wealth of biographical and artistic detail spills forth about each of the 10 artists in question. It’s just that most haven’t bothered to think through their choices. They’ve either been unjustifiably lazy (Thompson, Banks), overtly pretentious (see particularly Clive Barker), or too tied to a particular time or state of mind (Crumb, Banks, Bagge). Sometimes, it isn’t the compilers’ fault: after all, they are tied to the vagaries of EMI’s licensing system.

At least with Bagge and Crumb, however, there is a real coherency about their choices–and great booklets to boot. Likewise, Shelton and Pencil. And ultimately, one suspects that the real selling point of these CDs will lie not in the artists’ musical tastes (or lack thereof), but in their chosen craft.

Ironic, really.

The EMI U.K. Songbook Series is available by mail order via Fantagraphic Books. Call 524-1967 or 1-800-657-1100 to place your order NOW!

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