Young Bill Young here. So many thoughts are spinning in my head, and it’s all because of this little book by Pitchfork editor Mark Richardson, part of the 33 1/3 book series on groundbreaking music albums. After reading this little tome, what can I say? I could write about the joys of reading about a favorite rock album (Zaireeka) or a favorite rock band (The Flaming Lips). I could write about the impact this album (if you can call it an album) has on the ongoing conversation about how music is experienced in our highly technological world. I could write about the seeds of creativity, and how Oklahoma’s own Flaming Lips charted a new path under adverse circumstances. I could write about music as art; music as a catalyst for change and discovery; music as event versus music as solitary entertainment. All of these issues and more are covered in Richardson’s amazing take on this unusual masterpiece of sound.
If you’re not familiar with Zaireeka, let’s start with Richardson’s own words:
“The Flaming Lips‘ 1997 album Zaireeka is one of the most peculiar albums ever recorded, consisting of four CDs meant to be played simultaneously on four CD players.”
You get the picture of how challenging it could be to even experience Zaireeka as it is intended. Not only do you have to find three friends with portable stereos, you also have to sync up each of the eight tracks individually. Richardson continues:
“Zaireeka is the anti-headphone and the anti-mp3. It purposely makes the two biggest developments in end-user music in the last 30 years irrelevant. Zaireeka is not mobile. It is not personal. It is not solitary, cannot be easily controlled, and cannot easily be consumed in small doses. So another way to think of Zaireeka is as a one-off piece of technology that comes in a highly inconvenient dead-end format, which is a rather extraordinary kind of thing for a rock band to make.”
Richardson pays homage to the works’s format by breaking his book up into four sections, with each section having eight “tracks.” The first section explores the idea of Zaireeka, and how its format requires a communal experience (with at least four people) — an idea in direct conflict with the personal soundtracks of the mp3 player generation.
The second section explores the nature of the band known as the Flaming Lips, how the departure of guitarist Ronald Jones provided a spark for musical exploration, leading to the Parking Lot Experiments (where the band provided up to 40 cassette tapes to be played simultaneously in car stereos) and, eventually, Zaireeka. In addition to losing Jones, the other musicians—leader Wayne Coyne, multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, and bassist Michael Ivins—were approaching the end of their Warner Brothers contract. The possibility of being dropped by the label in an album or two only added a fearless quality to the band’s experimentation.
Section three reviews the music, and how it is never the same–the sounds of individual stereos/boomboxes differ, the acoustics of different spaces differ, and synchronization can be a bitch! Beyond the intricacies of format, Richardson finds that Zaireeka represents the best music of the Lips up to that time, first-tier psych rock:
“(The opening song) feels like a foot kicking through a door, opening up another world beyond it. And the ensuing sequence of songs builds that world out beautifully.”
Section four is what follows the release of the album: the critical reception, the band’s boombox experiements at concerts, the Zaireeka listening parties held by Lips fans across the country, and the path to The Soft Bulletin, the subsequent album that would attract a host of new fans to the Lips.
What sticks with me most about this book, though, is Richardson’s own reaction to Zaireeka. Section Four, Track Eight is “One Listener’s Story.” Richardson, a self-identified Gen-Xer, writes about the personal impact of two seminal 1997 artistic works— Zaireeka and David Lynch’s movie Lost Highway. Here are two quotes from the book:
“The experience of listening to Zaireeka was overwhelming, but more than the actual event, it got my mind going. I started to reflect on the artistic possibilities of confusion, and somewhere around that time I came to value experiences that existed outside of understood categories.”
“A movie like Lost Highway seeps into your subconscious, and to appreciate it you have to trust yourself to make sense of pieces that don’t necessarily seem to fit together. Seeing it in 1997, the year I heard Zaireeka, I began to sense that a universe of abstraction previously unavailable to me was starting to make sense.”
And such is the power of art. It is important to note that Coyne’s name for the album is a combination of two words: Zaire (chosen as a symbol of anarchy after he heard a radio report on political instability in that African nation), and Eureka (I have found it!). Amidst the confusion, stress, and disaffection that too often makes up our modern world, there is always great beauty and meaning to be discovered. And that’s why we need art.
Who wants to have a Zaireeka party?
I just got the information on the All-Black Towns tour, sponsored by the Rudisill Branch of the Tulsa City County Library System. It will be June 13th. One of the librarians here and I went on the tour one year, and it was great fun, informational and a real bargain. This year it looks like you get to go into the DC Minner Blues Club (the year I went we just drove by), but we had a nice lunch in Taft and the mayor extended a warm invitation. Also on this year’s tour is Red Bird, Gibson Station, Wybark, Tullahassee, Rentiesville and Summit.
Picture of the late D C Minner at the Dusk til Dawn Blues Festival. Picture copyright Fred Marvel.
There’s a great post by Dave Ruthenberg, Columnist for the Enid NEWS, about Shelby and D C and the Oklahoma Blues.
One thing, if you want to go on the All Black Towns tour you need to hurry to the Rudisill library and get your tickets. The buses fill up very quickly from all the people returning each year. You’ll have fun, meet nice people, learn about African-American history in Oklahoma, eat good food and this year get to go to the Blues Club. What are you waiting for.