Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Daily Dose #33 (06/29/11)

On Rhetorical Devices, Influences, and Making Art "Popular" .


I have promised readers of the DAILY DOSE that at some point, I'd be delving into the nuts and bolts of "How It's Done" or at least "How I Did It". Its time for me to impart not some, but ALL of the knowledge that I've picked up along the way. I value that knowledge highly, and I am very grateful to the people that have crossed my path who took the time to teach it to me, for whatever the reason.

Since I've been a professional musician for most of my time spent on planet earth, alot of that professional knowledge is applicable to that particular field.

I am enjoying a temporary retirement from that field, because recently I discovered that the core concepts and refined processes that I have learned are applicable to other fields as well.

So as far as the music stuff is concerned? It's time to give it away.

Someone decided at some point to stop being proprietary with that knowledge and pass it to me, and now I must do likewise. It's only use to me now is if it inspires someone else to use it, and use it responsibly. That's the recycling system.

This isn't my version of "The Necromonicon", peeps. There are no secrets of the dark arts here. Just a different perspective; one that can be cherry picked to suit your own personal needs and professional agendas.

This particular entry and the subsequent ones to follow may read like "How-To" manuals, but they will kill a couple of my own personal agenda birds with a single throw of the stone:

1. Pass the knowledge on, and contribute to the cosmic recycling system
2. Give gratitude, and the proper credit to the original source of that knowledge.

Hopefully, to those interested in this type of stuff, it will be a "win-win" scenario for all of us.

In Blog #31, ALAN ROWOTH/A TESTIMONY, I hinted at some of the vast wealth of real usuable knowledge that I gained from a seven year hitch as a sideman in a band called "THE WORKS", the brain-child of Ed Hamell AKA "Hamell On Trial".

For those of you unfamiliar with Hamell's oeuvre, I could give you a brief synopsis but ultimately to really get a feel for the depth and breadth of the man as an artist, google him and start doing the homework.

I'm sure that is what he would advise you to do himself.

But to me, twenty three years or so after the fact I can say with absolute certainty that Ed Hamell was the best teacher I ever had. I have had many teachers in this physical life, but I was lucky to be within in earshot of this guy for seven years, and even luckier that he took me under his wing and made me a personal "project".

There is no way I can condense what Ed taught me in a single blog, so he'll be showing up quite a bit in any subsequent blogs concerning the "craft" and the concept of committing yourself to a life in music in a meaningful way.

This blog centers on just one concept of thousands that he made sure with all due diligence to drill into my empty knucklehead over thousands of miles of road trips, mostly in the dark heading westwards home from what seemed an endless seven year stream of booze fueled, inspired rock and roll battles fought in barroom venues and the odd concert stage.

We won more of those battles than we lost, but in the end they could be quantified as Pyrrhic victories on the surface perhaps; but I walked away with a knowledge base and work ethic that has paid huge creative dividends for me, and still do.

As a veteran of "The Works" wars, one thing was certain. It was a Rock and Roll University, and Ed was the head of the curriculum. All you had to do was make sure to send the right signal that you were ready, and he gave all to you, no matter what his personal agenda might have been at the time.

That education was critical in any other professional endeavor I have undertaken since, and I will always owe him a deep debt and expression of gratitude for it.

This is my own way of doing just that.


Let's kick this off with a definition of terms.

rhet·o·ric   /ˈrɛtərɪk/


1. (in writing or speech) the undue use of exaggeration or display; bombast.

2. the art or science of all specialized literary uses of language in prose or verse, including the figures of speech.

3. the study of the effective use of language.

4. the ability to use language effectively.

5. the art of prose in general as opposed to verse.

6. the art of making persuasive speeches; oratory.

7. (in classical oratory) the art of influencing the thought and conduct of an audience.

8. (in older use) a work on rhetoric.

Although all eight points are important when studying the ancient Greek written and oratorical art as defined by Aristotle, for this missive just keep numbers 6 and 7 in the back of your mind as we soldier ahead.

So what is rhetorical comparison?

Simply? A rhetorical comparison connects our feelings about an entity to the entities that we compare it against.

Now take a look at this teaser trailer for "The Meeting", a documentary currently under production of the life and times of Ed Hamell. Pay attention to Ed's machine-gunned rapid-fire voice over at the onset where he references Little Richard, Joan Jett, Gary Glitter, Bob Seeger, Neil Young, Huey Piano Smith and the Clowns, Aerosmith, AC/DC, The Beatles, Chrissie Hynde via Sam Cooke, and then shifting into a broken spaced cadence to hit you over the head with a Contours reference all while you're staring at art cards of three movie style blurbs from the NY Postand The Dallas Morning News; winding up the the blurb of the most import, and thus the most screen time; a quote from David Fricke of RollingStone magazine. All of this happens in about 22 seconds of elapsed time.

After the impressive series of personal testimonies from Henry Rollins, Ani DiFranco and the like and the next blurb that compares him to Bill Hicks, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joe Strummer, Ed in his typical charming and charismatic manner then runs down a litany of some of the greatest records ever made as he compares them to his most recent recorded output softened with self-effacing humble giggling, output evidently still under construction at the time this footage was shot. He's serious, but he's also letting you in on the joke, too.

It's a Rock and Roll knowledge and intellectually based "Velvet Rope" strategy: You get to be part of the club, but only if you have an an awareness of the references and can keep up to some degree.

Its targeted at the niche audience who knows exactly just what he's talking about; "...This is it for me man... this is my "Rumours", this is my "Dark Side of The Moon"...this is my "Appetite for Destruction"...this is my "Back In Black"....I'm not doin' this fuckin' again".

Again, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, Guns and Roses, and AC/DC all in two breaths. All epochal recordings in the history of rock and roll.

Aside from the effective rhetorical and oratorical device of repetition employed ("This is my.."), this teaser trailer is a two minute distillation of a strategy that Ed has been employing since the day I met him back in January 1982.

Context is everything. In the days of big bands, big self contained rolling shows of PA's,Lighting Rigs, Trucks, Road Crews, Bands, and all the expenses incurred in keeping those shows on the road a minimum of five to six days a week, THE WORKS as band and business had a major strike against it when competing with the field.

No cover material. Nada. Zilch. Maybe an ancient chestnut for the encore like Larry William's "Slow Down", or Sam The Sham and the Pharaoh's "Woolly Bully" to put three sets of original material all penned from the creative mind spring of Ed's brain into the proper historical perspective for the audience, but that's it.

THE WORKS could not, and did not, lean on familiarity in the age of cover bands that were cleaning up financially up and down the NYS Thruway. Our sets were not peppered with original material: Our sets were all original.

That in itself was a huge statement to make, and a huge public stance to take at least from the town that we all came from. We weren't "showcasing" in NY for the industry's hoi polloi, leading a double life.

We were a fully functioning organism with an attached culture. Every show was an uphill battle, and at least from the perspective of a guy that actually participated in those battles for almost seven years of his life from THE WORKS stage and bully pulpit, it was a battle willingly taken on.

You could not achieve true greatness without it. Ed knew it, and as previously mentioned, I clearly saw it. He didn't have to twist my arm to join the fight once he got around to asking me.

He had to win every heart and every mind, one at a time. He had to convince everybody along the way, from friends, family, band , crew, the regional intelligentsia; club owners, agents, and press conduit gatekeepers, but most importantly every single fan that he was up to something special, and they could be part of the process and lifestyle just as much as anybody else.

He wasn't in the business of garnering casual fans. To survive, he needed to be in the business of garnering acolytes and true believers. The evangelical fervor of every performance was steeped in one common concept. If you walked through the door and paid your two buck admission, you were going get the "works" according to our catch phrase that appeared in every, ad, mailer, or t-shirt produced at the time: 100%, ALL THE TIME.

He kept that promise to the band and its fans, always. I have never seen Ed "phone it in". Never. Ever.

Somewhere along the way though, that initial agenda point of "100%, All The Time" to achieving greatness transitioned and refined itself into the next catch phrase, "Let's Make History". That's when I got hip to his expert use of rhetoric in mass communications.

This was an actual song and lynch pin of the set that Ed had written comparing himself to The Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison,and various other trail blazers of American History, and an obvious rhetorical association.

During this time, the material, show, and visual presentation was transitioning from a form of R 'N' B based Springsteenian populism to reflect Ed's newly acquired punk sensibility.

The band was a bit slow on the uptick, myself included; but eventually Ed and I were pouring over, dog-earring and trading possesion of Penny Smith's photo-documentary book of The Clash as well as the records. We were always studying the craft and always learning. The cover of "London Calling" is a classic example of rhetorical comparison in the visual arts, a now time honored rock and roll tradition. Ed got the message, and I received through him.

Slicked back sided pompadours, vintage '50's clothing, gritty black and white photo journalism, art cards and every piece of printed material that emanated from the camp were soon to follow and were all extensions of the material he wrote.

Darker, angrier and more confrontational lyric content that framed the band and its followers as "downtrodden" began to emerge. "Rag Picker" and "Grovers and Schallers" are tunes that come immediately to mind. Still populist, but of a different kind.

But the point is that this was a "top down" integration of that simple rhetorical device and every single platform, right down to how we lived our lives (a platform that was clearly on display to our fan base)

That's a blog for another day, but this all culminated in THE WORKS placing a series of ads in the classified section of ROLLINGSTONE magazine, specifically calling out the most respected rock critics of the day by name (Dave Marsh, Griel Marcus, Robert Christgau)declaring ourselves "Greatest Rock and Roll Band in America".

That may seem naive to some. Nobody in history of popular rock and roll of the day had the balls to do something like that. Ed did, and we believed we could back up the boast.

So at worst, I'd call that little maneuver naively brilliant.

It was a classic "Little Richard/ Mohamed Ali/ Stagger Lee Legend" public relations strategy.

"We are THE GREATEST, and FUCK YOU", aimed directly at the little spot between the collective eyes of the taste makers and rock and roll intelligentsia of the day.

Targeted and narrow beamed like a laser. If they read it, they were going to know exactly what that little declarative statement meant; what it signified, how it was designed and from where, and just who THE WORKS were comparing themselves to.

Just like a 30 second Hollywood production pitch, you connect the mixture of references to the entity, and you plant the seed that the entity is equally valid as the success rate of the references to achieve a "greenlight".

Remember: A rhetorical comparison connects our feelings about an entity to the entities that we compare it against

If you can succeed at that, you have won 75% of the battle over owning the collective hearts and minds. The other 25% is achieved through the strength of the material and the show, two entities at the time that all of us felt we had covered in spades.

Its a very small distance to traverse in the mind. All you had to do was to allow your target audience to make the conceptual jump from "I am the equivalent of all things of historical import" to "I am the same as all the references: I AM HISTORY, AND THE LOGICAL CONTINUATION OF IT", through the undeniable power of performance.

Hamell has been honing and refining this rhetorical technique, along with his performance and songwriting abilities ever since. Study the sheer breathtaking volume of HAMELL ON TRIAL's creative output from the release of 1989's "Conviction" to present day, along with the evolution of his show.

He has pursued this strategy with a dogged and detirmined persistence continuously. He's never waivered from the rhetorical strategy; he just got better at it through the years.

Some would argue that the unrelenting implementation of this device is a bit ham-fisted. The norm is to hide influences and shade influences. Nobody wants anybody to know where you're stealing from.

Ed goes in the polar opposite direction, in full transparency. The obvious rebuttal to the critique of a ham-fisted rhetorical approach would be this:

Are they making a documentary of your life? What kind of professional track record in terms of output have you left in your wake, as you pursue your dreams?

Who has a higher probability of being a permanent fixture in the celestial sphere and rock and roll firmament?

You, or him?

That one is easy to answer for most of us.


The last time I talked to Ed, I told him that in my opinion, he was the best practicing songwriter in he United States.

Twenty or more so odd years later, that personal assessment of his abilities hasn't changed.

That's a pretty bold statement for me, admittedly, and not one made lightly... but one I firmly believed that Ed could back up then, and even more strongly still, back up now.

Please bear in mind that as I discuss the finer points of the stewardship of a career in Rock and Roll that I may be aware of, none of it means shit if you can't back it up.

You can have all the frosting you want, but if you are applying it to a shaky cake, the cake will eventually collapse on itself.

Frosting is an integral component of the whole cake experience. This rhetorical device has been, and always will be very effective frosting.

A cake collapse hasn't happened in Hamell's case. He knows his shit, and he's not afraid to tell you and most importantly show you any and every chance he gets. His cake is made of concrete and tungsten steel, sitting on a plate of solid rock.

Try to take a bite out of the cake he's developed, all you'll do is break your own teeth off.

If he doesn't come up with a complete crystallized distillation of The complete recorded Specialty output of Little Richard, Jerry Lee on Sun and Mercury, Elvis on Sun and RCA, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry on Chess and Fats Domino on Imperial /the entire Meet The Beatles through the Abbey Road run / Dark Side Of The Moon / Bridge Over Troubled Water/ Pet Sounds / Are You Experienced?/ Hank Williams Greatest Hits/ Blonde on Blonde / Highway 61 / Rumours / Raw Power / Music From Big Pink / London Calling / Live at The Apollo Vol 2/ After The Goldrush / Sly and The Family Stone's Greatest Hits / Modern Sounds In Country Western Vol I and II /Imagine/ Back in Black / Transformer/ Sign O' The Times / LIVE at Folsom Prison/ In Utero/ Kind Of Blue / Never Mind The Bollocks / Straight Outta Compton/ Born to Run / Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars/ The Joshua Tree/ Led Zeppelin IV / The Beggars Banquet through Exile On Main Street run, plus Some Girls and Tattoo You / It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back/ Thriller and the entire collection of Lenny Bruce records that I'm still waiting for him to return with his next shot across the bow of "recorded output" in the archaic form of a song cycle contained in the silver pits of a compact disc....

He will the next time, and the next time, and the next time.

Until he succeeds or drops dead trying.

Don't believe him for one second when he says at the end of the teaser trailer "I'm not doing this fucking again"

He's "All In", in the Texas Hold 'Em Vernacular. A walking compendium of the unruly caterwauling of rock and roll, Art History, Jungian Psychology and general Historical knowledge plus he's holding couple of additional aces in his hand: The living embodiment of a "Go Big or Go Home" lifestyle and career choice.

Anything less than that type of commitment will consign you to an eventual irrelevancy, as far as history is concerned.

THAT'S Rock and Roll, and if you don't think so, I would advise you as I imagine Ed Hamell would:

Go Fuck Yourself.

"You may shoot for the stars and end up in a back alley behind Pluto, beaten and bloodied, but at least I dare to dream, and that’s better than being Earthbound, mired in the muck of mediocrity.

I judge my forward progress and success by the crushingly epic nature of my failures.

The more epic the crash, the more I’m convinced I must be doing something right"





Jack O said...

First time I saw Hamell was in the 90's and the last time was 5 days ago. He still is as razor-sharp and insanely brilliant as the first time I saw him.

Cathy said...

I remember one time at Capt Joe's - it was snowy as hell and I came home for the weekend. You guys barely made it down. Joe and Gordy were behind the bar, and there were MAYBE 3 other people in the bar besides me. I remember sitting up front, my feet propped up on a chair, center of the floor: "Entertain me." You guys played harder that night than I'd ever seen - it was probably the best show. I asked Ed why, and he said it didnt' matter how many people were there, you always played like it was a sold out crowd. I've always said you and Ed are the most talented musicians I'd ever seen and had the honor of knowing.

I gotta find those tapes...

Anonymous said...

I'd love to hear any old tapes of The Works!

Anonymous said...

Kind of a Fu Manchu thing going on visually for Ed.
He might want to let the grey creep in a little on those brows. All kidding aside, Ed rocks the acoustic guitar like Jerry Lee beat the pianna. intensity and musical truth.

George, get on the keys soloand get out there. You got the fire inside you, don't need the sideshow at all.