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Pushin' Too Hard: Frank Kogan, Part 3

By Scott Woods

disco tex wants to dance wit' choo


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hüsker du's free lünch
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Scott:  Explain your metaphor 'free lunch'?

Frank:  'Free lunch' actually went hand in hand with 'context of abundance'... Actually, that whole essay, Why Music Sucks #5, my Disco Tex essay--basically, a lot of it comes from [Richard] Meltzer again. I don't think he used the phrase 'context of abundance,' but in the intro to the reissue of Aesthetics of Rock, he said something like there was this abundant supply, it was everywhere, and he was probably talking about approximately 1965. And basically all he was saying was there was a lot of music then he liked and then 20 years later there wasn't a lot of music there that he liked, but so what? There was a lot of music there that someone else liked, and I was trying to--what was it that made it work, why did 1965 really work for me? Actually, 1965 was absolutely the worst year of my life and I wasn't listening to the radio then, but, in my imagination--the 1965 that I've reinvented in my imagination--why did the music seem to work then? And what I meant by context of abundance was that, here you were hearing this amazing song, but it was no real big deal because you could just turn around and find another amazing song--or it might not even be an amazing song.

I think what I used in that essay--and of course, this wasn't 1965, this was ten years later--Disco Tex, in the middle of the song, starts yelling, "Olé!" for who knows what reason. And for me it was like, well, he could just do it and it was no big deal, it was something he could throw off, just like you could throw off fireworks. And I was saying he could do that because he was in disco. Whereas, say an alternative rock band was saying "Olé!" or something like that, it'd be, "Wow! Aren't they so cool and obnoxious?! They can say 'Olé!' in the middle of a song!" So in a sense it becomes really precious, in the punk rock context in which I lived. Whereas Disco Tex & the Sex-O-Lettes could get away with it. So context of abundance just sort of means you can get away with it because there's a lot going on, and it doesn't have to be a big deal. When a genre is healthy, there's a lot going on that's no big deal. Which doesn't mean there shouldn't be something going on that is a big deal, but it just meant that in addition to whatever the big deal is, there's a lot of little deals everywhere going all over the place.

Free lunch is the second thing. For me free lunch is something--and it's important that it's something you like--that comes along that isn't part of what's sort of obviously or officially going on in the song. Music's great for free lunches because everyone can be focussing on the singer and someone can be doodling away somewhere else or something like that, and the reason I use the metaphor free lunch is, of course, there's the old saying, "There's no such thing as a free lunch," and I'm saying--yes there is! It isn't necessarily something that you're not paying attention to, but it's something that wasn't on the menu; it came along as an extra bonus item that you weren't expecting... The fact that Michael Jackson's lyrics were so violent and paranoid was a free lunch because it just sort of had nothing to do with the package or anything anybody ever said about him. So in brief, that's what a free lunch is.

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Scott:  Okay, I may have this kind of backwards, but supposing Hüsker Dü were to say "Olé!" in a song, wouldn't in some sense that be--you were using that reference as a context of abundance thing--but wouldn't that be more of a free lunch than Disco Tex, because it would just be something so out of the ordinary, so unexpected from Hüsker Dü?

Frank:  Yeah, I mean, Disco Tex's "Olé!" wasn't a free lunch, he was making party music, so "Olé!" was like one of the hors d'oeuvres. [laughs]

Scott:  How can there be room in Disco Tex for a free lunch? Or can there be if everything's already going on?

Frank:  I don't know if there is, and there doesn't have to be, I'm thinking more of the world that produced Disco Tex. What I was calling the free lunch in Disco Tex was something that I provided, which was the fact that I actually got a real emotional hit from the background singers that had nothing to do with party music, because somehow I flashed on them as being the kind of girls the New York Dolls sang about; and they had a sound, in a sense they sounded like the way the New York Dolls dressed. So in a way I projected some kind of desperate Sex-O-Lette energy on to them. Which I was willing to count as a free lunch--something I projected on to the music--why not? And I guess the thing about Hüsker Dü is, it might be good if they went "Olé!"

Scott:  It'd certainly be kind of strange.

Frank:  Depending on how they did it. And in a sense, maybe since they played so loud with such muscularity, maybe they could really pull off a lot more; too bad their music wasn't more cluttered, I think there's a real missed opportunity there. But I don't think it would be a free lunch, so I use the counter-example: it'd be a sore thumb. Which means it wouldn't just be, "oh that wasn't on the menu"--though indeed it wasn't on the menu--but there'd be a way in which it would just kind of jab you in the face, to mix my metaphors. And so it would become almost like, oh, here's the song where they say "Olé!", that you almost trip over. It might be good, it might be effective musically, a sore thumb can be good, or if you trip over something it can be good, but it wasn't something that you could just kind of...

Scott:  Get away with?

Frank:  Well not just get away with, 'cause if it works effectively musically then you've gotten away with it, but it isn't something that you could just kind of slurp up as the extra little bonus. And I guess my thing is, you know, I don't want to make rules about what I would think would be good music and what isn't, because then in ten seconds I could find a song that doesn't obey them. I think my feeling much more was that it wasn't Hüsker Dü's fault, if something like that stuck out like a sore thumb, and it might even be good if they did something that stuck out like a sore thumb, it might be really effective, but overall the fact that something like that would stick out like a sore thumb if anyone in the genre did it meant it wasn't a healthy genre, even if some of the groups were actually using the limitations of the genre very well for their own little powerful statements. I hope there's someone reading this who will be able to come up with a great counter-argument to everything I'm saying--that'd be fun.

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i wanna dance wit' choo: frank's big discovery
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Scott:  When and how did you discover disco?

Frank:  Slowly. I wasn't really listening to the radio in the '70s very much. I may have even read about it before I heard much of it. You know, there was a lot of shippity-shippity stuff that was on the radio, maybe not disco as such--disco's such a big mess--but it's really kind of hard to say... Somewhere along the lines I'd obviously heard a bunch of it 'cause I definitely heard Disco Tex & the Sex-O-Lettes and that really hit me, and I wrote in Why Music Sucks about that. It was just really kind of trashy and in your face, but at the same time I heard something--which I may well have projected, but that's fine--in the intensely energetic background singing I heard something really kind of desperate and yearning, which sort of reminded me of what the Dolls were singing about. But here were kind of actual girls. Though who knows, maybe they were transvestites too [laughs]--could've been, in the disco world. But there's a sense in which David Johansen never really-- you know, he dressed like the girl but he didn't sing like the desperate little girl. For my sentimental emotional thing that wants to hear the desperate girls, I was hearing that in disco. So Disco Tex and the Sex-o-Lettes were there early, and obviously I heard a lot of KC & the Sunshine Band, stuff like that. But I was basically pretty late to really really pay attention to it. After I went back to college, graduated, then went back to New York, and was working in this ice cream store, we were playing the radio all the time, and that's where I got Kraftwerk and Donna Summer, back to back, and that really reached me.

Scott:  Kraftwerk, eh?

Frank:  Yeah, it's funny because I don't really listen to Kraftwerk but I listen to Donna Summer a lot. But "Trans-Europe Express," which I guess by then was an oldie, and "I Feel Love" were on--it was kind of this weird, outer space, cold, but sex-drenched world. It was just like there was an environment there that was coming through this really little radio.

Scott:  And you actually tried to bring a bit of a disco aesthetic into your own music.

Frank:  Well, I claimed I did in my liner notes [laughs]--I would have trouble hearing it. If I were to listen to that tape--"Oh yeah, there's some disco!"

Scott:  Although "Hero of Fear" sounds like a counterpart to Spoonie Gee, with just the bass line--it's kind of cool.

Frank:  Yeah. When hip hop came along--even though it was a different group of people than the ones that were going to discos--at that time it was still willing to be influenced by disco musically.

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Scott:  A lot of bands were even mentioning disco in the lyrics. And they had disco beats and stuff.

Frank:  Yeah, I mean the first big hit was a Chic beat. That doesn't exactly tell you how I got into disco, but it just came along as--basically as punk got worse. As punk turned into alternative rock, disco more and more was the stronger music. Maybe, in a sense, I didn't need the punk message as much anymore. I invented it for myself as a teenager, and then it was really great to hear it affirmed on the outside; there was something cool about the fact that the Sex Pistols--they weren't really big in America--but that it wasn't just me and a few other people I knew, that there was something in the air that was reflecting me back in the larger world. But once I got that, maybe I didn't need it anymore and I started to realize what punk had lost, what alternative rock doesn't really have, which is basically the rock and roll, you know, both silly and sexy beat, the all-embracing silliness, grab-anything, and--maybe sexy beat is sort of a cliché. But there's definitely just a regular old go to the bar, put your dime or quarter or dollar in the jukebox, and there's something visceral right there, something bouncing with life... then the jukebox gets turned off and the alternative rock band gets up to play and that thing is suddenly lost because the alternative rock band doesn't have it. But the thing is, disco did have it, whatever the 'it' is.

Scott:  Do you hear 'it' in anything today, in non--or not even non-disco: do you hear it in anything?

Frank:  Umm, good question. Not really, not the rock and roll thing. I mean, I hear a lot of good music. I think Mexican banda music is really a hoot, and also really powerful, there's a lot going on. But that's a different kind of thing; it isn't rock and roll, it's something else. But it is kind of walking to the jukebox, and you've got the big, bouncing beat coming back out at you. Mary Gaitskill said something really smart to me once because we were talking about, I think it was salsa, and salsa is really powerful when I listen to it, and there's some times when I've kind of explored it, but I never really really really threw myself into listening to it, and Mary said, "Well yeah, there's something about salsa that just isn't angry enough." And the thing is, rock and roll did have that anger; banda doesn't have that anger, so it's not rock and roll.

Scott:  Does disco?

Frank:  I think disco does--in some parts of it. It's more closer to the territory anyway. I'd be hard-pressed putting my finger on why I think so, but I feel just a lot closer to disco than I feel to salsa or banda.

Scott:  Do you feel closer to punk than you do to disco?

Frank:  Definitely I do, there's no question--hard rock and punk is my music. I reviewed Spoonie Gee as if he were making punk rock, just said erase Mick Jagger and put Spoonie Gee in his place--and it works! My #1 song this year was "Gold Dust Woman" by Holé, and that's the sort of stuff I've been listening to, basically, for the last 33 years.


On to Part 4 of Frank Kogan