All posts by Stephen Macaulay

Musical Maturity?

Bill Flanagan really must have some juice. Encomia on his novel A&R are provided by Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, Peter Buck, and Tom Petty. Someone more cynical than I might say that this constitutes a large portion of the literate throng among the rock community. I’m not saying that.

Flanagan, according to the dust jacket, is senior vp and editorial director of VH1. Evidently, he knows intimately about the business he is telling a tale about. And make no mistake: It is a business.

A&R could be turned into a movie (of the week) in short order, a roman a’ clef always makes for the who-is-it? fascination.. There is the requisite number of interlocking and tangential narrative threads as it follows Jim Cantone, A&R man who, in order to get some bigger coin, leaves behind a smaller label to move to the modestly named WorldWide Music, where his belief in himself—and his music—is sorely tested. There is the head of WorldWide, “Wild Bill” DeGaul, who has done everything with everybody as he has created his musical empire. Musicians Lily Rope and Jerusalem. . . .Sex. Drugs. Travel. Rock and roll. And, oh yes, financial machinations.

OK. So it’s a potboiler.

But Flanagan raises an interesting point. A financial guy takes control of the company and does a reorg of the WorldWide staff. And he says, “I think we have to address the reality that pop music now is R&B. That’s not good or bad, it’s just the truth. . . .I listen to what’s getting played on Top Forty radio, it’s pretty clear that rock and roll is no longer the center of the universe. Rock and pop are moving away from each other. . . Why should pop be a subdivision of rock?”

He goes on to say, “Rock and roll doesn’t have to carry the bottom line anymore.” (Remember: we’re talking business here.) “It doesn’t have to pay for everything else. Let hip-hop take that financial burden and you let rock flourish as an art form. It’s a mature style now, like jazz.”

So I ask all of you: Is this correct? Is pop R&B? Is rock mature? Does it matter?

Bangs’ Life vs. His Art

Back in the 1930s, a group that mainly consisted of poets created a practice known as “New Criticism” The method, based on close reading, basically said that a given work of art is the thing that must be analyzed as it is. That is, instead of bringing anything to the work, the work, literally, stood on its own. The background of the writing—personal, social, political—was largely determined to be irrelevant. It was, the New Critics maintained, a matter of simply assessing what was produced. Period.

I have generally thought that the New Critics were often missing too much by not taking the context of the creation into account. After all, the point of view of the artist—be s/he a writer, painter, filmmaker, musician—has a lot to do with what is created. By leaving biographical knowledge out, there is the potential of missing important aspects of the work.

But having just read Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Jim DeRogatis (Broadway Books; $15.95), I’m sort of feeling more sympathetic to the New Critics. There is Bangs’s work. There is Bangs’s life. And to the degree that the former is often exhilarating, the latter is disturbing.

Bangs’s father, who apparently didn’t spend a consistent amount of time with his family (being drawn away, apparently, by the lure of booze), died in a house fire when Lester was nine. Lester’s mother was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which had a strong influence on her world view (and beyond) [and I am confident that Jeff can provide a Paul Schrader reset in this regard]. Lester didn’t take well to that weltanschauung. He rebelled. As a teenager in El Cajon, California (recently the site of a high school shooting incident), Lester worked to become a rock writer, which he did in 1969, in Rolling Stone. His day job, incidentally, was selling women’s shoes. Out of the box, Bangs was, in the context of his surname, onomatopoeic: writing about “It’s a Beautiful Day” (which is also the name of the group), Bangs didn’t pull back any of his smack: “I hate this album, not only because I wasted my money on it, but for what it represents: an utterly phony, arty approach to music that we will not soon escape.” Imagine his living in the Age of Celine Dion.

Lester managed to get bounced from Rolling Stone. He moved from southern California to what he described as “Deeetroit.” He, as he put it, “did time” there starting in 1971. He wrote for Creem. Five years later, after creating his own form of writerly and personal havoc (the portrait that DeRogatis, whose credits include the Chicago Sun Times, Penthouse, Guitar World, and World of Wrestling, draws of Bangs is a man who had a taste for Romilar and disinterest in personal hygiene), he moved to New York. There he was to write for a variety of venues. And he was to die there on April 30, 1982, probably of a drug overdose (the medical examiner wrote “Acute propoxphene poisoning” and “Circumstances undetermined.”)

Between ’69 and ’82 Bangs wrote many blazing pieces, sometimes changing his mind 180 degrees (e.g., from excoriating the MC5 to extolling the band), but always speaking in his strident, idiosyncratic voice. And speaking of voice, Bangs started bands that he performed with; apparently, he sounded like a walrus. Writing about music wasn’t enough. He had to make it.

A blurb that appears on the cover of Let It Blurt from Cameron Crowe says, in part, of the book, “it reads like rock and roll.” Which may, indeed, be the case. Breakups and screwups. Highpoints and low. Maybe it is less a celebration, and more of a cautionary tale.

Money for Nothin’…and MTV

As Johnny writes below:

“The problem was, I couldn’t locate Simpson on the stage. There was Daly and his bland, olive loaf smile. There were the three galoops vying for her hand. But where was Jessica?”

and:

“But the sad truth is that no one really knows who Jessica Simpson is, beyond those 70s Farrah glasses and white stretch pants. The jackasses jockeying for a slot next to her would probably line dance on rollerskates for any blonde with a figure such as hers, minor celebrity status or not.”

Little did he know how right he is. Check this quote from the 28 March DTW Free Press: David Lovejoy, the guy who “won” the mutant Dating Game, said: “I made a complete fool of myself on national television. I line-danced, answered a few questions and rode a mechanical bull, all to get a dream date with a celebrity I didn’t even know.”

This sounds like the conditions in the Soviet Union, when people used to see a queue forming and simply got in line, not knowing whether they’d get bread or motor oil when they reached the front. But in our Bread-and Circuses Culture, we don’t need to worry about essentials; we just go down to some resort and attempt to “win” whatever is winnable, to hell with the what. It’s all about commodities and about getting them with the least amount of effort. Notice that while there have been game shows essentially since there has been television, game shows have been elevated out of the daytime or pre-prime time right into the center of the mix. MTV, the channel that has done more to create slick packages out of ostensible rebellion than any other outfit, is now saying, in effect, “Sure, the other guys may let you win a million dollars, but we can provide something that’s at a whole different level [smirk, smirk].”

So what is it about: Music?

Is This Website Real & How Do You Know?

A front-page story in a recent edition of the LA Times looked into the creation of web sites for entertainment products—films—by alleged fans. As the story, “Fake Fans, Fake Buzz, Real Bucks” by Dana Calvo (20 March ’01), opens: “The 34-year-old computer whiz in Silver Lake got a phone call from the friend of a friend—the head of publicity for a movie studio. The offer as $10,000 a week for an Internet ‘project.'” The project was to create an indie-appearing website to flak a movie.

The story of the generation of the enthusiasm for The Blair Witch project is well known. And because of the usefulness of the Internet to create interest (Blair cost about $1-million to make; it grossed, according to Calvo, $128-million in just five weeks), this is becoming a marketing strategy. And let’s face it: movie companies are record companies. The names are different but the suits are the same.

Calvo writes: “The hired enthusiasts don’t reveal that they are on entertainment company payrolls. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to verify which Web pages are by genuine fans and which aren’t even by tracing the registered owner of the site.”

Which strikes me as somewhat disturbing.

Take this site, for example. How does someone know that those of us who post to this page aren’t really in the thrall of some anti-Sting cabal? How does someone know that there is actually more than one person writing this stuff? I don’t want to get into some sort of riff on solipsism here (“Hmm. . .I haven’t been to France for a while: How do I know Paris exists?”), but to simply muse on the fact that those who participate in the creation of bona fide sites about stuff really need to concentrate on providing authenticity of voice, a reality that can’t be bought by corporate suits. I suspect that if you were to go to Yahoo and search for a pop artist, beyond the “official” sites there are more than a few that are nothing more than genuine-for-hire. It may be dismissed as just a matter of the unenlightened not getting it (“So what?”), but it seems to me that this is sort of a slippery slope to the world described in 1984, where the Government (or in this case, the Industry) creates the entertainment for the proles. And there are one hell of a lot of proles whose spending affects what gets elevated and what gets quashed.

There could be an argument raised that this is done only for the “name” acts, but isn’t it posible that given the comparative low cost of creating sites (the guy from Silver Lake obviously got one hell of a deal; I imagine that Jake may be wondering at this point. . .), it would be the marginal artists who are more likely to be the ones for whom Internet crypto marketing is done. The budget may be low, but the Internet is infinite.

The truth may be out there. It’s just hard to find.

(Next time: Man on the Moon? Fact or a bad movie shot at Area 54?)

Oops!. . .and the Joy of Monosyllabic Thinking

Back when this site was young, there was a spirited discussion about the phenomenal and physical attributes and values of Britney Spears; consequently, it surprises me that there hasn’t been an analysis put forth about what Spears has recently put out, the lead Pepsi commercial that was broadcast during the Academy Awards telecast. Her packaged paean to the Dionysian aspects of brown carbonated sugar water was in itself unremarkable; the synchronized dance number with a crowd of clones was fresh when Paula Abdul did them, and Ms. Abdul’s sell-by date is long passed. While I am not insensitive to Spears’. . .charms (and I am not referring to the Pepsi logo charm that she had dangling from her belly button), I submit that (a) if she had to put on her own makeup and (b) she was a bagger at Meijer’s, few—if any—of us would give her a second glance. Such are the transmogrifying powers of celebrity.

What is more telling about the nature of pop culture and pop music from those who are manipulating it is the clear contempt with which the consumers of the products are treated. This was evident in the commercial aired in order to keep viewers in an increasing state of anticipation for the Spears commercial to come.

You may have seen another commercial aired last year for a product that is used to remove brake dust and related detritus that adheres to car wheels. There were two guys sitting in plastic-webbed lawn chairs, one of whom was holding a garden hose, both of whom had synapses that fire like a Zippo without fluid. “Yew jus spray it on.” “Yew jus spray it on.” Brilliant. A car-care product for morons.

In the case of the Pepsi spot, the main character is evidently a younger brother (or perhaps uncle) of the two who, in this case, has a job. There he is: white paper hat and apron. A fry cook. (Who among us has not had to wear such gear?) He is shown looking up at something while a fireman in full regalia is frantically working behind the kid, dousing a grease fire (or perhaps Michael Jackson’s dome engulfed in flame, which, as you may recall, was the consequence of a Pepsi ad). Said fry cook is oblivious. The camera reverses so we can see what the slack-jawed focus is on: a TV showing the Britney singing-and-dancing Pepsi commercial (yes, a commercial within a commercial). “Yew jus drink it down.”

What does this say about what Madison Avenue thinks about the consumers of pop?

Time to Put Out the Red Light, Sting

“That Sting—he’s a really good singer.”

—Sting, in a pre-Academy Awards interview during which he explained that (a) he was unlikely to receive an Oscar for “My Funny Friend and Me,” a song that he and David Hartley wrote for “The Emperor’s New Groove (he was right) and (b) what the members of the Academy were going to be thinking after his performance of the tune during the ceremony.

The first time I saw Rod Stewart in concert was in the very early ’70s at the Birmingham Palladium (Michigan, not England), when he was with the Faces, a band that featured the likes of Ron Wood and Ronnie Lane. As the band was essentially unknown then (people may have known the Small Faces), it was a listening situation where my friends and I sat on a bench with our feet propped up on the stage. I saw Stewart and the Faces several times after that, primarily at Cobo Arena. They’d become known. At the end of ’75, Stewart went solo. Before he became a disco Vegas lounge act (without playing Vegas: just running with the accoutrements and the approaches), I’d seen him multiple times.

Although I’m sure that many of you are wondering why anyone who openly admits he’s seen Stewart several times would be permitted to post stuff on the main page, I should point out that (a) when playing Detroit, he’d often invite the likes of David Ruffin on stage, (b) even on the peroxided “Blondes Have More Fun” (’78) he does a respectable version of “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” and (c) “The Mercury Anthology” (’82) is nails.

In 1984, after moving back to Detroit from a stint in Rockford, Illinois (Warren Zevon during a concert at the city’s Metro Center: “Rockford! ROCKford! How can you miss with a name like ROCKford!?! All 100 or so of us in the largely empty hall could have clued him in), my wife and I went to a concert at Pine Knob. It was Rod Stewart. He was out in support of his “Camouflage” album.

Let me say this about that: I once sat through a Three Dog Night concert. (Oddly enough, the lineup was Rod Stewart, Johnny Winter, and then the Night(mare). Unfortunately, I didn’t drive that night and the guy I was with had no idea who the other two acts were. I was nearly whipped to death by the fringe on his suede cowboy jacket as he kept time to the Dog’s greatest hits.

Fortunately, I did have the keys for Stewart at the Knob. We left. Fast. It was embarrassing for me to watch. I am only surprised that it wasn’t mortifying for him.

While never really being much of a fan of the Police or solo Sting, his is a career that is somewhat hard to miss. And there have certainly been some high points.

But will someone tell the guy that it is over? Elsewhere on this site the whole notion of musicians selling their music for wallpaper in ads has been debated. I don’t think anyone has gone as far as Sting and the Jaguar commercial (“What does a rock star dream of?”) He isn’t even driving the damn car! What is that all about?

I happened to catch him during the preshow activities at the Superbowl, during which he ended his act by jumping down about 2.5 feet from the top of an amp. Wow! That’s REALLY rockin’, Sting. His performance of the song referenced above during the Academy Awards show would have seem oddly stiff had he not hit so many flat notes.

Just as Stewart doesn’t fool anyone, Sting’s antics are pulling the wool over the eyes of only those who book acts for big, televised events. Oh, yeah, and the millions of people who still buy his whorish releases.