Friday, May 18, 2007

Happy B-Day Erik Satie + The Betty Mabry Davis Reissues

Happy Birthday (May 17) to "The Velvet Gentleman"






How could I forget the birthday of one of my favorite composers, the playfully iconoclastic Erik Satie? His 1917 ballet Parade, a collaboration with Picasso, used ambient sounds such as pistol shots, and typewriters. His Gymnopédies No. 1, 2, & 3 (circa 1887), have been used in contemporary times to sell all matter of consumer goods, nevertheless he was a anti-romantic radical during the Romantic period (approx. 1815-1910) of the Common Practice Period of classical music, and was an important influence on John Cage, Malcolm McLauren, Claude Debussy, and DJ Spooky, as well as a few contemporary punk and noise groups.

From [::ErnestHardy | Blood Beats Vol. 1::] comes the news that Seattle-based indie label Light in The Attic Records and Productions will be reissuing Betty (Mabry) Davis' first two albums, the eponymous Betty Davis (1973) and They Say I'm Different (1974). Yes, I'm a freak for dirty(as in fat bass & "dirty rice" guitars)-rock-funk and I'll be snatching these two titles up tout de suite, no lie. Davis (who went from Mabry to Davis with a short-lived marriage to Miles Davis) was notoriously independent and wrote and arranged most of her own music as well as writing for other groups such as the Commodores. According to Jeff Chang's interview with Davis for a recent SFGate article, she also walked away from a Motown contract when they wouldn't allow her to keep her publishing rights. Davis' image, music, and vocal stylings were self-possessed, and self-consciously sexual which could alternately seduce and frighten, or as one fan said of her music, "It terrified me and turned me on at the same time." After a finding a better home with Chris Blackwell's Island Records and releasing Nasty Gal (1975; the first album of hers I ever heard), but still not finding an audience--Davis was seriously ahead of her time--she dropped out of the music business and pretty much disappeared. Check out the Davis cuts "Anti-Love Song" and "He Was A Big Freak."

Previously I likened Davis to a "sexual tigress," but felt the need to edit that after thinking about Vivien Goldman's chapter on Betty Davis, "Blues for Betty Davis: The Betty Davis Lacuna," in rock writer Kandia Crazy Horse's edited volume, Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock N Roll. Goldman notes the way in which Davis was independent but also positioned in a similar animalistic guise as Ike Turner tapped into when he remade Anna Mae Bullock into Tina Turner based on a jungle woman character. As I recall Goldman makes parallels to photographer Jean-Paul Goude's assemblage of Grace Jones and an episode where Jones fled down a flight of stairs tearily protesting that Goude just wanted to make her into an animal. With the sub-human, sexualized rendering of African American women such a prominent representation in the U.S., which thanks to globalization has gone international, it's hard not to be ambivalent about Davis' performance persona. At the same time I have great appreciation for her unapologetic expression and her artistic integrity--she was ahead of her time and unwilling to compromise her either her sound or her ownership rights. Since disappearing from the recording industry Davis has become something of a recluse; she's been difficult to trace and gives few interviews. She seems to have become a different more soft-spoken person. I do wonder what she feels about her former self, does she still think of herself as an artist, what is her relationship to music, does she still hum parts in her head as she did when a child?

9 Comments:

At 11:15 PM, Blogger John K said...

Satie is also one of my favorites. The poet Tan Lin has attempted to translate one of his dicta, music as furniture, to the genre of poetry in several different works. Cyrus Cassells also uses some of his piano compositions as organizing principles for his first book, The Mud Actor. I also love right-winger Roger Shattuck's book about Satie, Jarry, and others of that epoch, The Banquet Years. Satie seems to get a tiny shrift in terms of respect, it strikes me, from the classical musical community, though he's a great inspiration to so many artists across fields.

 
At 11:21 PM, Blogger John K said...

You know, after reading your great write-up of Davis, I remember her now, and also being a bit bemused by the similarity in names of by-then aging actress and Betty Davis the singer/performer. What a heads up--thank you!

 
At 11:58 PM, Blogger audiologo said...

John,
Thanks for the feedback about Satie. I'll have to check out the literature you mentioned. Yes, the Betty Davis-Bette Davis connection. Various negotiations of sexuality, femininity, race, and creative authority, in two quite different bettys.

 
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