The Complicatist : Serengeti, Del Shannon, Lana Del Rey
Learning survival tactics from Brian Dennehy
by Gordon Campbell
Hip hop doesn’t push out narrative boundaries as much as it could. Think about it. How many stories and different characters could hip hop lyrics potentially explore? Yet we get the same old gangsta scenarios, the same bombast and bling. There have been exceptions, like De La Soul’s debut album, or Aceyalone’s A Book of Human Language in the mid 1990s. Over the last few years, a few art rappers – Open Mike Eagle, Nocando and Serengeti – have also gone down avenues that mainstream hip hop tends to leave unexplored.
Serengeti first came to my notice through one of his key associates. In the mid 2000s, an introspectively bearded white guy from Chicago called Owen Ashworth made a series of excellent albums as Casiotone For The Painfully Alone. Under that name, he played a couple of great gigs in New Zealand in mid 2006, shows that featured Dudley Benson as the opening act. Anyone who went along will remember Ashworth’s fearsome version of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.”
Ashworth retired the Casiotone name in 2010 and now performs as Advance Base. Under that name, he released an engaging album earlier this year called The Shut-In’s Prayer. While fuller bodied, the music is recognisably related to the Casiotione days. The new material is still driven by simple keyboard arrangements, and the same mixture of rueful memory and sad sack humour crops up in the lyrics.
You could call it a loser’s diary, but that wouldn’t do justice to his attention to character detail and tonal coherence. Last year – and here’s the real point of the story – Ashworth also provided beats for an album called Family and Friends by Serengeti, who shares Ashworth’s deadpan sense of comic timing. Serengeti has been wildly prolific over the past ten years, but the grainy, sample-centric production on Family and Friends reminded me a lot of what Prince Paul did so long ago for De La Soul. We’re talking old, old school here.
For starters though, here are two tracks by Owen Ashworth. First, Casiotone’s crushingly sad “ Creedence” from 2008, and then the “Summer Music” track from Advance Base’s new album. Though the new track is melodically richer, it tells an almost identical story. For such a nice guy, Ashworth seems to strike out terribly with the ladies.
Serengeti is a black guy called David Cohn. (He’s the son of Sonny Cohn, who played trumpet for many years with Count Basie’s band.) If you stripped away all the assertiveness from hip hop then you’d be left with Serengeti’s stories of love gone west and jobs gone south. Much of this is conveyed through a fictitious 48 year old alter ego – a white guy with a huge moustache called “Kenny Dennis.” Years ago, Chuck Berry described white teenage life perfectly, even though it must have seemed like life on a distant planet. Well, Serengeti’s take on white suburban life on his song “Dennehy” is just as pitch-and-detail perfect :
Play softball with the guys, wife made curly fries
Drink about four O’Doul’s, grounded out, two pop flies
In the Buick down Western, stop and get some more brats
On sale: chicken, Italian sausages, and orange pop
This week, fishing trip, gotta get some new flies
Wife packed turkey subs, Jays chips, and peach pies
Watch a little Dennehy, pull out the Laserdisc
Sniper 1, 2, and 3, Berenger makes great flicks
And on into the chorus :
Favorite actor : Dennehy, favorite drink : O’Doul’s
Bears ! Hawks ! Sox ! Bulls !
By the time you get to Kenny/Serengeti’s state of mind at song’s end, “Dennehy” has turned into a chant of genuine anxiety. So it goes. We all use brand preferences and cultural landmarks to organize our lives in just the same way Kenny does :
Play a little poker, spend time with the wife
Take her out to Bennigan’s, see if they cook chops right
Go out and get a Laserdisc, projection screen TV
Portillo’s Italian beef and a movie starring Tommy B
Back in the damn Buick, cut on WCKG
Caught a song by Glenn Frey and an interview with Dennehy
So I’m driving down Western Ave, think I’m gonna stop at Zayre’s
Got a splittin fricking headache, so I popped a couple Bayers
So I’m back in the damn Buick, think I need an oil check
The baddest of George Thorogood smokes stones on my deck
Read the sport section, Bears and their old line
Trying to find a decent Fiero with a For Sale sign
Cut on WCKG, Huey Lewis and the News
The heart of rock & roll is still beatin, DA-DO-DOOM BEARS !!
And driving on into the void …
Favorite actor Farina…brats, chops, dogs, they’re done
Bears, Hawks, Sox, Bulls
Bulls, Bulls, Bulls, Bulls
If Serengeti was merely a joke rapper – a solo version say, of Das Racist – the Kenny songs wouldn’t be anywhere near as good. But they’re more than the joke. After releasing the Kenny Dennis EP earlier this year, Cohn explained his commitment to Kenny this way :
Yeah I mean I been depressed for a long time…and just the thought of that guy Kenny as like, man if everything could be this simple, you know? Like, this guy has just total confidence in himself. He doesn’t live his work. He does his work, but he doesn’t have any qualms about his work because there’s no other big pipe dreams. He has his friends come over for cookouts…and I always dreamed of being that dude who had friends comin’ over — “Oh let’s see what Dave’s up to. Hey Dave, you want to come outside and play some football? We got all the guys, we got some steaks.” Aww, you got the steaks? And you know, you cook ‘em out back, you just have a really good time. I’ve always been like…a very insular and a loner type of dude. But always wanted to be that type of fella. That character was sort of me sort of trying to write that into my own existence.
Spin magazine : So how did you come up with the character?
“Dennehy” was the first song. It was just a matter of workin’ on those trucks for such a long time. And, you know, spanning the whole city as far as like every different neighborhood, droppin’ off beer in like the hoods to the nice parts to downtown places… Every day just a lot of traveling throughout the city, seeing a lot characters and people… I had a girlfriend who passed away… and I was in her basement and watchin’ the Little League World Series, and that’s when they ask the kids who your favorite actors were. And it just clicked to me like, man, what if somebody’s favorite actor was Brian Dennehy ? Like right there I knew his name was Kenny Dennis and I knew his wife’s name was Jueles. And Kenny had a job repairing telephone booths. And at the time they still had the telephone booths, so it was perfect ’cause now there’s no telephone booths so I can really write them into the future.
After the Family and Friends album came out 2011, Serengeti released the C.A.R. album a few months ago. For starters, here’s “Dennehy” from a few years ago, and also “ Geti Life” – which is from the C.A.R. album. It unfolds as a dialogue between Serengeti and his producer, Yoni Wolf.
A couple of years ago, Cohn moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. This LA Weekly story by Jeff Weiss (of the really good hip hop site Passion of The Weiss) sums up the current state of things. Life continues to be a struggle.
As in….his girlfriend of a decade was killed in a car accident, substance-abuse addictions remain prevalent among family members, there are ongoing debts, and a serious bout of pneumonia left him temporarily incapacitated, and still scarred by a couple of minor strokes that have interfered with his spatial orientation. On the upside, Cohn is not short of projects. He just released a track with Sufjan Stevens, and working on a full length collaboration with Owen Ashworth.
More examples : the “California” track plays with the notion of the Golden State as a place of eternal renewal while “The Whip” is an extended biography-in-song of a (fictional) extreme martial arts fighter called Gary “The Whip” Worsh, recounted by Cohn over an Ashworth/Casiotone keyboard line. Plus, I have a soft spot for more recent tracks like “Flutes” and “Cold”
Open Mike Eagle described Cohn to Jeff Weiss in these terms :
Serengeti explores the medium’s potential as art. Not in the self-indulgent or abstract-for-the-sake-of sense, but in the sense of a real person exploring the range of their experiences, emotional and otherwise….Serengeti is vulnerable, and it makes his work valuable in a way that economics or popularity can’t define.”
And as I say, once you get tuned in, there’s ten years of stuff to check out.
Del Shannon, remembered…
The AV Club recently ran an insightful tribute to Del Shannon and his one-of-a-kind hit “Runaway.” The AV story not only name-checks the guy ( Max Crook) who played the banshee instrumental break in the middle of the song, but also mentions how he built his “Musitron” keyboard with spare parts from TV sets and household appliances in order to create a kind of clavioline, which – according to the AV Club – was a forerunner of the analog synthesizer.
“Runaway” still sounds like a desperate howl in the night, and Shannon was evidently a tortured soul. For my money, his most haunting song was the last thing he ever did – which was the demo for a track called “ Songwriter.” In the context of Shannon’s suicide, it is pretty harrowing.
This has been a really weird year for Lana Del Rey. The singer (real name : Elizabeth Grant) began 2012 with the lavishly promoted launch of her Born To Die album, which feasted off the buzz created by her universally praised single “ Video Games.” At the worst possible marketing moment however, Del Rey gave a universally scorned performance on Saturday Night Live that made her into the icon-flaunting, myth-peddling target of every hipster-hater on the planet. By late February, Del Rey’s career seemed to have been irretrievably trashed.
Except…it wasn’t over yet. Del Rey did the only thing she could do and kept on going. For me, the turning point was her live BBC rendition of Kasabian’s single “Goodbye Kiss.” The band liked her version, too. By August, a comeback of sorts had kicked in. Jaguar announced that Del Rey would endorse and unveil their new F-Type at the Paris Motor Show. According to Jaguar’s ‘global brand director’ the car company chose Del Rey as the new face of luxury motoring because of her “unique blend of authenticity and modernity.” That could be the first time the words “Lana Del Rey” and ‘authenticity’ had ever appeared together in the same sentence.
At the end of 2012 Del Rey is now back almost exactly where she was a year ago, with a universally praised single called “Ride.” She has also released her own David Lynchian cover of the spooky old lounge favourite “Blue Velvet” (Typically, her rendition began life as an adjunct to an H&M advertising campaign, and ended up as a ten minute dance mix by Sweden’s Hans-Peter Lindstrom.) Has very much changed for Del Rey in the interim? Not really. She’s still like a kitchen blender of every cultural myth and name tag in sight – a ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ is how she describes herself – and she’s still singing with the same affectless sex doll distance. I’d love to know what she really thinks about how she went from next big thing to cultural punching bag and back to neo-goddess again all within ithe space of 12 months flat. It probably felt a bit like this lyric from “ Ride” –
I’m tired of feeling like I’m fuckin crazy
I’m tired of driving ’till I see stars in my eyes
I look up to hear myself saying,
Baby, too much I strive,
I just ride
BTW, note at 1.15 on the “Ride” video, the film theory joke that her marquee starring role has been in an “Alan Smithee fiasco.” You bet.