I made a fool of myself over ethnomusicology

Posted: March 28, 2012 in music
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Merriam-Webster defines ethnomusicology as “the study of music in a sociocultural context.” To pry into the social and cultural context of a musician’s life, students of ethnomusicology require a laboratory of specialized electronic equipment. This is why most ethnomusicologists are employees of the Department of Homeland Security. Notable ethnomusicologists to date include Charlemagne, Miley Cyrus, John Carter of Mars, the Dewey who invented decimals, the Dewey who beat Truman, the Dewey who beat the Spanish, Milli (but not, as is usually assumed, Vanilli), and Laurel Sercombe.

Here at Run-DMSteve we proudly support the sciences, however intrusive, which is why I am devoting today’s post to my sociocultural field notes on a peculiar tribe of male pop stars. Like me, they are known around the world by one name. Who are they and how did they get so mono? Let’s check the record.

Fear not, I burned all my notebooks (what good are notebooks?) after interviewing Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute.

Real name: Wladziu Valentino Liberace
Country of origin: USA
Superpowers: Piano, costumes
Gemstone: All of them

Mr. Showmanship loved the simple things: a solid-gold candelabra, a fur-lined cape studded with diamonds, a piano built to look like a Cadillac. He gave Barbra Streisand an early boost, which is bad, but he also served as an inspiration to Elton John, which is worse. For decades you never knew when this smiling terror was going to pop up on TV and race across the keys like the Pony Express.

But if you pay attention to Liberace’s music rather than the cheap theatrics, you’ll find that the man could flat out play. He usually played inoffensive crap (“You Made Me Love You,” “Somewhere My Love,” “Born Free”), but when he turned to the classics, particularly Chopin, you got a glimpse of the little boy who was hailed as a piano prodigy.

While I’m not going to buy the Liberace boxed set (if such a thing existed, it would be too heavy to lift), I must conclude that Liberace was better than his reputation. He was certainly a lot more honest than his tuxedo-wearing, piano-playing contemporaries Ferrante & Teicher, who peddled a lite-beer version of classical music as if it were the real thing.

Verdict: When I was a kid, every grandmother I knew loved Liberace. That’s not a bad epitaph. Reluctant thumbs up.

Real name: Donovan Philips Leitch
Country of origin: Scotland
Superpowers: Voice, beads, scarves, bells
Gemstone: A pyramid

If Donovan had been a one-hit wonder and if “Season of the Witch” had been his one hit, I would revere his name. The song is a pioneering, mind-blowing merger of folk, psychedelia, and the blues. If you’re looking for the place where metal began, “Season of the Witch” is an excellent candidate.

Unfortunately, Donovan was not a one-hit wonder. Amid the hippie bell-bottom antics and the odes to Atlantis and the girl he named for a shrub, we had to contend with “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” which was also the theme from a 1960s perfume commercial, and “Mellow Yellow,” which was a rip-off of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”

However, I must admit that there are two reasons besides “Season of the Witch” to listen to Donovan:

1)      “Sunshine Superman” is somewhat funky. There are bongos in there somewhere. True, Donovan sings about women having “little minds,” but that fits right in with today’s War on Women.

2)      “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is one of the funniest songs ever recorded. It sounds like a parody of the entire Psychedelic Sixties. It’s closest musical kin is Tommy James & The Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover” – you could easily trade vocals.

Verdict: Donovan couldn’t rock if he was strapped into a rocking chair that was sliding downhill on an avalanche of ball bearings, but “Donovan” is a great name. And then there’s “Season of the Witch.” Embarrassed thumbs up.

Real name: Yiànnis Hrysomàllis
Country of origin: Greece
Superpowers: Classified
Gemstone: Moon rock

In 1988 I went to work at a newspaper where one of our senior writers was in lust with Yanni. Roger didn’t care about Yanni’s music. He didn’t even know if Yanni played an instrument. When a Yanni record came in for review, Roger threw away the LP and kept the album cover (like the Joe Morton character in The Brother From Another Planet). He was particularly taken with Chameleon Days, on the cover of which our prodigiously mustached hero, dressed in synthetic fibers, is hugging a white rock.

Then Yanni took up with Dynasty actress Linda Evans. Roger was disgusted. “I’m throwing him out of the nest,” he told me after he banished all images of Yanni from the office.

Verdict: I tried listening to Chameleon Days. The cover really is the best part. Thumbs down, if not broken.

Real name: Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner
Country of origin: England
Superpower: Unknown
Gemstone: Pb (atomic number 82)

In the late 1960s the Red Sox had a relief ace named Lee Stange. The press nicknamed him “The Stinger.” Once, during a rain delay, while the Red Sox radio announcers were stalling for time by reading their fan mail, they had to reassure an aggrieved lady that they were not calling her favorite pitcher “The Stinker.”

This brings us to Sting and his best-known album: …Nothing Like the Sun (1987). I’m listening to this thing from Sting as I type and it sounds like his old band, The Police, with a dash of Paul Simon, but with nowhere near the quality of either. All is calm on most of this record, as if the speakers only go to 4. The easy-listening hit for old people was “Be Still My Beating Heart.” The bright, bouncy hit for young people was “We’ll Be Together.” The song you fell asleep to was “They Dance Alone.” The thing from Sting that for me didn’t swing was his cover of “Little Wing.” The album I should’ve listened to was Simon’s Graceland (1986).

Verdict: If you’re going to call yourself Sting, you’d better sting something. Otherwise people might think they’re hearing the wrong word. Also, never pose nude in the desert. Even Morrissey never tried that. Two thumbs down.

Real name: As befits a titan, he has two: Bek David Campbell and Beck Hansen
Country of origin: USA
Superpower: Can remember every song he’s ever heard
Gemstone: Vinyl

I’ve written about Beck before. If I have any gods, two of them are Beck and John Updike. And what do you know – my favorite Updike character is Henry Bech. Is this a coincidence, or further proof that Oswald did not act alone? Neither – it simply proves that gods are not infallible. As a stage name, “Beck” is a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me. Besides confusing him with Updike’s monumentally lazy character, the name Beck makes me think of chickens, Glenn Beck, Jeff Beck, Jeff Beck’s album Beck-Ola, and bending it like Beck(ham).

Bek/Beck had the right idea – a solid Anglo-Saxon syllable that begins and ends with a strong consonant. It’s just the wrong syllable. One of his other names, “Hansen,” would’ve been an improvement, plus it might’ve stopped the three-brother teen menace that appeared later in the ’90s.

Verdict: Two thumbs up for his music, two down for his name.

Real name: Marshall Bruce Mathers III
Country of origin: USA
Superpower: Surviving his childhood, teenhood, young adulthood, and his upcoming middle-agehood
Gemstone: Empty can of Red Bull

Eminem and I come from different historical eras. His first job was rapping. My first job was working 15 years on the Erie Canal. If I liked his music, he’d be in trouble. But I can appreciate him for his sneaky vocabulary, his ability to rap out a song while arguing with his back-up rappers about his raps, and the humor in his first full-length, The Slim Shady LP (1999).

My problem with Eminem is that I can’t take the Minnie Mouse quality of his voice. The man sounds as if he’s resting between tanks of helium, which is ironic for the star of the mega-gritty 8 Mile. There may be a rapper out there for me, but Eminem isn’t the guy. Nice name, though.

Verdict: The only thing I can think of that would be worse than an Eminem concert would be a Beach Boys concert. Two thumbs making gangsta gestures. Yo bring it on down.

Real name: Steve
Country of origin: Massachusetts
Superpower: Can be wicked annoying
Gemstone: Bauxite

(All ethnomusicology research needs a control group. The control group for this study is Run-DMSteve. To guarantee our objectivity, I’m turning over this section to my dog, Storm Small.)

Steve has had a difficult time holding onto a nickname. I’m not counting the stuff his parents still call him.

When he worked at a restaurant in Harvard Square in the late ’70s, where he washed dishes and had a psychedelic experience at midnight in front of the griddle, they called him “Animal” and “Jaws” because he ate everything that wasn’t bacon. But he let his comrades down when they entered him in a muffin-eating contest and he couldn’t even break into double digits.

“Wolverine” stuck for about 2 minutes before Special D changed it to “Tangerine.”

Accused of Lurking dubbed him “Blue Pencil” for his skills as an editor who fights crime, but that name only works when Steve is actually employed.

In the late 1990s, Shawn, another co-worker, suggested “Run-DMSteve.” Though Shawn was employing a technique called “satire,” the nickname Run-DMSteve has turned out to be a winner in the electrifying world of blogging. Someone from Japan looked at this blog last week, and someone from Finland dropped by last month. Not bad for a guy who used to go to concerts in what he termed his “tough guy” sweater.

Verdict: Job or not, he keeps those kibbles coming. Four paws up!

  1. Jerry Kaufman says:

    New female single-name singer: Kimbra. She’s the “featured” singer on Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” She has an EP out, and full-length release later this year. Also, judging from the video for “Somebody,” she looks good both with and without body paint.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      Thanks for the tip. I’ll keep Kimbra in mind when I get to the female single-name singers.

      I wish I looked half that good in paint, but I know from the last time I painted the house that I don’t.

  2. Run-DMSteve says:

    I forgot Prince and Usher! I can understand forgetting Usher, but Prince?? I’ll make it up to him!

  3. Jerry Kaufman says:

    My favorite Donovan song is, in fact “Quibbles.” (It’s on his little-known EP “Dreams of a torrential downpour.”)

    No, I made that up.

    On the other hand “Yellow is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair” really is my favorite, and it is just a little mellow. It’s from his pre-Top Ten period.

    I still remember a movie critic in one of the Cleveland newspapers reviewing _Don’t Look Back_, that D.A. Pennebaker cinema verite doc about Dylan’s tour in the UK in the early-ish 1960s. Donovan pays Dylan a visit and signs one of his songs. The critic compared Donovan quote favorably to Dylan and wondered why Dylan couldn’t sing or write songs more like Donovan. It was to laugh.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      You made that up?? You big dummy, I wanted to hear it!

      “Yellow Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair” isn’t bad, but it’s not in the same league with The Smothers Brothers’ “Black Is the Color (of My Love’s True Hair).”

      That’s very funny about the state of movie criticism in Cleveland circa 1967. If I’m lucky, someone in 2057 will write about whatever dorklike thing I’m writing in 2012.

  4. MisterSeaside says:

    I have no quibbles with Donovan. Lawrence Welk was gay??

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      I’d better stop spreading rumors. Welk’s Wikipedia entry makes no mention of homosexuality. When I was a teenager with hair down to my belt, my grandma always wanted me to cut my hair “like the beautiful boys on Lawrence Welk.” I must’ve assumed those beautiful boys were on the program for a reason, but obviously I was just being a world-weary, know-it-all teenager….Once when I was 5 or 6, Grandma Bella was assigned to babysit me on a Sunday night, and we had a lengthy, loud argument over what we were going to watch, Lawrence Welk or Walt Disney. We actually stood in front of the TV clicking the channel dial back and forth until she remembered she was twice my size and 10 times my age and made me go to bed, where I was tortured for an hour by the sounds of a-Bobby and a-Sissy and their salute to Gershwin. And don’t forget the commercials for Geritol. Thus it’s difficult for me to objectively assess Lawrence Welk. But not Donovan. I can’t help noting that even people who claim to have no quibbles with Donovan can’t stop using the words “quibble” and “Donovan” in the same sentence.

  5. Number 9 says:

    I too have quibbles about your stance on Donovan, and I too have been to the Liberace Museum (now gone). The Liberace Museum was the best sociocultural context I ever saw, and I speak as someone who’s been to the Cavern Club (well, the one they built next door to the old one after it got torn down). The ladies who kept the place going either didn’t know he was gay or had transcended their horror. I still have a postcard from there – I’ll send it to you one of these days.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      You see? Everyone has quibbles about Donovan, even people who like Donovan. That’s all part of his innate Donovanism. How I envy you your visit to the Liberace Museum!! I’ll bet they had the most awesome gift shop in the history of gift shops. I would be honored to own a Liberace postcard. You’re too generous. No, you’re not too generous. Send it to me!…My Grandma Bella never figured out that Liberace was gay. Or Lawrence Welk. I’m not sure she would’ve known what “gay” was. She loved them both! She loved Nixon, too, but he’s the one who broke her heart.

  6. mikener says:

    I’m certain that Run-DMSteve is not in need of ethnomusical requests, however if your benefactors require a larger sample set in validating their research investment, may you consider casting your mono moniker net over the likes of Prince, Moby, Seal, Bono, or a historical Elvis, unless of course these sources have been previously drained. Perhaps a gender comparison might present a more well rounded disposition. Singular designations de l’ feminine might include Bjork, Enya, Jewel, Sade, Pink, Fergie, or the archival Cher.

    Great job nonetheless. I look forward to The Notorious S.M.A.L.L. spinoff special.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      Thank you. I will always take requests. I’ve written more than one post based on ideas from my loyal readers (all three of ’em). As for your list of mono men, Prince deserves his own study. I’ve already written about Moby (also Santana). Seal doesn’t interest me, but maybe I haven’t heard enough — all I know by Seal is what I’ve heard on tribute CDs. Bono doesn’t count because he’s in a band, as opposed to, say, Morrissey, who should get back in one. I’m not much of an Elvis fan, but I suppose he was just a tiny bit influential in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, so I should probably mention him sooner or later.

      The women are too numerous a group! Besides the ones you mention, there are also Madonna, Beyonce, Selena, Ke$ha, Rihanna, Melanie, Charo, Ashanti, Shakira, and God knows who else. There’s probably a Wikipedia list.

      The Mono Men were an ’80s band from Bellingham, Wash. They were originally The Roof Dogs, but their record label wanted a better name. What was the matter with Roof Dogs?? Stupid record company.

      • mikener says:

        Hum, WordPress and Gravitar indicated to me that none of my gobbledegook was going through. So, I must apologize to Mr.DMSteve for not keeping my eye on the prize. Being a fan of Brazilian soccer, I got totally swept up in your frame of the single name celeb, completely losing focus on all your excellent music reviewing (except, maybe, a few quibbles @ Donovan). Of course I don’t want you to delve into Bono, Elvis, Enya and the like. I want you to delve into what you like. However, if you happen to have any insight into why some famous people think one name is good enough, well, I’d like to here it.
        Write On!
        Michael Eichner (sorry, I don’t know where the ‘mikener’ thing came from, either)

      • Run-DMSteve says:

        You have nothing to apologize for, except making me think about Enya. And I really do take ideas from my readers. In fact I steal them wherever I can.

        I believe that celebrities aspire to one name because it’s a form of immortality. Moses is probably the culprit here. We can thank him for delivering the Ten Commandments, but look who he inspired! Elvis, yes, but Sting, too!

  7. Tttwitchy says:

    One time I spent a weekend in Vegas by myself, just to get away from my crazy life. I wound up at the Liberace Museum. It was amazing. Even more amazing is that when I called for a taxi to come take me to my hotel, my taxi driver was a dwarf. He had all these special pedal extensions so he could drive a car. Turns out he was a very angry dwarf. He complained about the city of Vegas for the entire trip. It was all very Lynchesque.
    Isn’t Sting’s best-known album “Dream of the Blue Turtles?” however, you are dead-on concerning Beck and EnimenMnM. Peace.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      Your experience at the Liberace Museum deserves its own blog. Thanks for writing about it! I’d love to go to that museum just for the postcards in the gift shop.

      As for Sting (I just knew the first commenter would mention him), it was Death of the Blue Turtles, not Dream. Poor blue turtles! Trapped on a pretentious non-jazz jazz record with Sting. Be. Still. My. Beating. Heart.

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