Obsession, Insanity and Fanaticism

There’s a new article about Syd Barrett on Last Plane to Jakarta. As with the vast majority of John Darnielle’s writing, this piece is at times hilarious and insightful and celebratory and sad. He hits pretty close to home for me in one of his famous “footnotes” discussing the track, “Opel” which remained unreleased until 1988:

It was a great moment for music, but a terrible moment for obsessive people around the world. For years we’d wondered what might lay gathering dust on some London studio shelf or in a Cambridge bedroom — what hidden treasures, what lost masterpieces? When sub-par material is unearthed, there’s hope for us: perhaps someday we’ll learn to enjoy what we have and stop losing sleep wondering whether there are unreleased full-band recordings from the Birthday Party’s final, turbulent, incredible year together. Perhaps we will stop digging through the endless morass of the internet trying to find Joy Division bootlegs we haven’t heard yet. (There are none.) Then something like “Opel” turns up — a lost recording that confirms the possibility that the very best stuff is still unheard. There is no hope for us, my friends. We are doomed to our sad record-collector existences.

I’ve done my share of obsessing. And I can tell you that it’s not healthy. I’ve driven myself pretty close to the edge of some fairly Syd-like insanity over some bands in my day. And it’s bad. You end up burning yourself out after while. That’s why you’ve got to learn to take it slow. Take it easy. You gotta just get it under control. Can stop any time. I’m still a record collecting addict, but I’ve learned to manage my addiction.

I went through a phase in high school when I bought every Smiths twelve-inch. That was a difficult thing to do on a part-time dishwasher’s wages in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thank God for Vinyl Solution and Zak’s Diner, I guess. Herm at Vinyl kept that Smiths bin well-stocked and my Zak’s let me work just enough to buy my records. After I owned everything ever released (the elusive “This Charming Man” single was the final Holy Grail), I stopped listening to them. Almost completely. Only recently have I let them back into my life again. Slowly. And with an objectively critical ear. Johnny Marr’s production doesn’t sound nearly as perfect to me as it used to. It sounds muddy and overproduced a lot of times. You don’t really need twenty-five layers of guitar parts on one song, do you? And Morrissey’s lyrics which I once swallowed hook, line and stinker now mostly sound overdramatic and silly. But there are moments that cut through the nostalgia and still stand up on their own. “I Know It’s Over” is still a beautiful song. My man Phil is working on an extended feature about people’s continuing obsession with the Smiths. I look forward to seeing what he uncovers in the souls of all those people who are still feeling what I once felt.

Yes: Close to the Edge

I’m told by Jeff that if I try to argue that the contempt with which the band Yes is treated is nothing more than some sort of reverse snobbery that I will be piled on by virtually every person who has anything to do with this site.

Given that the Comments section is open to the entire Internet world, this could be a big pile.

While I don’t want to completely deflect attention away from the Red Cross that is below, I do want to bring back some attention to normalcy: Although, as Jeff argues below, it is important that we maintain some sense of vigilance, it is also essential that we don’t allow ourselves to ignore many of our usual concerns and interests because to the extent that we do, the Bad Guys win. And that is unacceptable.

One more disclaimer. I am making an argument for Yes, not for any of the other bands with which they are normally associated; I am making an argument for their recorded music, not for the live performances (which I have never seen—hell, Phil, 30 years per Crenshaw show, and none for this band: What kind of fan is that?), which I suspect must be fairly disturbing nowadays (which may explain why they are rolling out with an orchestra).

OK.

Seems to me that people are dismissive of Yes because the music is highly produced/engineered. It is labeled “Art Rock.” On the one hand, one could say that if rock is worth its, well, rocks, then it is Art. Consequently, to be called “Art Rock” is a compliment, one unappreciated by those who are using the term as an epithet. On the other hand, there is the idea that “rock” is fundamentally, well, fundamental, and to the extent that music is heavily artistic (in the sense of being something that is consciously thought out and executed in a manner that is calculated), it is bad. Perhaps this is a particularly American notion, one that can be best summed up in a Walt Whitman term: “Bardic yap.” Pure rock is argued to be “yap.” And Yes ain’t Yap.

There are few guitar players who have a signature sound, guitar players who can play on the recordings of bands with whom they are not associated and who could be identified from their pure sound. The Edge. Pete. Van Halen. And a few others. One of those that I’d put on the list is Steve Howe. Through the years, he has been able to pull sounds out of his guitar that overcome the excessive flourishes of Rick Wakeman’s Grand Central Station-sized keyboard array. He has been able to play notes that distract us from the Hobbit-like lyrics and sounds of Jon Anderson. (BTW: Howe, on his solo albums, has a voice with an inverse relation to his guitar playing: Just Say No.) But Howe’s distinctive sound, supported by the remarkable drumming of, especially, Bill Bruford and Chris Squire’s bass, create remarkable music.

Perhaps the music that is produced by Yes simply isn’t rock. It is in a category onto itself (and, yes, I can imagine some of the categories that it can be put in by many of you, most of which are noxious). But let’s put that notion aside. Let’s assume that it is rock based on nothing more than the characteristics of the (1) time it was created; (2) the instruments with which it was created; (3) the nature of the people who create(d) it, it is rock.

So what’s the problem?

Let the games begin.

Hunter Thompson for president in 2004

Hunter Thompson for president in 2004

He never claimed to be anything but a nice guy and an athlete… And now Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is finally back on ESPN Page 2 after his summer vacation:

This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed — for anyone, and certainly not for anyone as baffled as George W. Bush. All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child-President, has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it Now. He will declare a National Security Emergency and clamp down Hard on Everybody, no matter where they live or why. If the guilty won’t hold up their hands and confess, he and the Generals will ferret them out by force.

Good luck. He is in for a profoundly difficult job — armed as he is with no credible Military Intelligence, no witnesses and only the ghost of Bin Laden to blame for the tragedy.

Yes, indeed. I think it’s time I pack up my wife and dogs and move to Woody Creek and start my own compound. Weekly updates from this political guru are not nearly enough to keep me fixed up. I need a fat shot of HST!

Feeling the Burn in the Motor City (Revised)

So it seems no one really got my point. So it’s gone. The article may still be hanging around in caches somewhere, but I can’t help that. I can, however, make what I’m saying clear.

What happened Tuesday was terrible. It was inexcusable and unjustified. But I think it was preventable. As the responsibility for our security falls with our government, a government supposedly of, by and for the people, we need to take a closer look at our roles in the political and social systems in this country. We need to become more involved. Not just when crises like this happen, but all the time. Our government and our society failed to protect us on Tuesday. We need to make sure we will be protected in the future. That doesn’t come without participation. The only way we can honor those who died is by changing things so that something like this doesn’t happen again. There is a considerable body of evidence out there indicating that a terrorist event like this was imminent, yet nothing was done to prevent it. Let’s not just go back to normal, let’s fix what broke in the first place and keep things from breaking in the future.

Please stop flying into buildings

Please stop flying into buildings

God help us. I get into work today to find a group of people staring at the television. Just as I realize that the smoking building is the World Trade Center, I see a plane fly right into the second tower and explode. Live on tv.

All the major news websites are totally down right now. Either overwhelmed or just plain off. This is fucked up.

Back to Some Old Bull Shit

The Death of Cool and Grand Royal

By Phil Wise

Why does everything suck? You may ask yourself that question as you stop into your local Starbucks and pick up a Grande Latte, but you know the answer. Because cool doesn’t sell and this is the United Statistics of Americorp. Last week’s closing of Grand Royal is the latest casualty in this corporate-dominated, zip-locked world where it’s hip to be square.

Founded in 1992 by arbiters of hip, The Beastie Boys, Grand Royal records set out to be the modern day equivalent of the Beatles’ Apple Records—a safe haven for artists to create and market their work. The B-Boys are insanely successful and have truly earned the crown of cool with their impact on music, fashion and progressive politics in the early- and mid-90s. The excitement surrounding 1992’s Check Your Head was genuine and deserved. It was a slight departure from their classic Paul’s Boutique, yet in line with their appreciation of old school hip-hop and funk, 80s hard rock and their burgeoning talents for “world music.” Released at the dawn of the alternative age, Check Your Head was the ever-present soundtrack for millions of B-Boy wannabes who would do almost anything to emulate their Brooklyn heroes.

Real B-Boy, Mike D., started out just designing some phat gear. His subsequent clothing line was an immediate sensation with skater kids and New York hipsters, but it was never gonna hit the malls. Combine that stunted promise with the creation of Grand Royal Magazine in 1993 and you’ve got the seeds sown for world domination.

Over the past nine years Grand Royal has grown to be a magazine, clothing designer and outlet and, of course, record label. As a label it stood out in its almost pathological sense of diversity among acts. Not to be pigeonholed, Grand Royal signed some of the 90s most unique, fresh and sometimes downright unmarketable bands around. Their roster posted such acts as Scapegoat Wax, Astounded, Nullset, Sean Lennon, Ben Lee and their top selling groups: Luscious Jackson and At the Drive-in. All but the last two groups were marginal sellers at best and that may be where the crack in the glass began.

The breakup of their two top selling acts (the latter, ATDI, on the eve of their tour to promote the million selling Relationship of Command) can’t have been good for business. As a label, I think Grand Royal was doomed from the get go. Why? Because cool doesn’t sell, dumbass. Niche groups are just that and appeal to select audiences, which despite the flood of alternia in the 90s, remains relatively small.

But I think Grand Royal could have been saved if, in the 90s when the Beasties and their Mothership were at their height, they could have established Grand Royal as a brand. A concerted effort to parlay the Beastie Boys authority on hipness to a full line of clothing and related accessories could have given Grand Royal a brand promise, to use marketing-speak, that would rival McDonalds or Coca-Cola. Then, those legions of B-Boys and B-Girls may have accepted these fringe groups that GR, the record label, was promoting. But that would have spoiled Grand Royal and reduced it to the same level of celebrity vanity labels as Bad Boy, Maverick, or Fred Durst’s new day job, Interscope (all relatively successful, by the way).

Grand Royal was original and promoted groups that displayed the same sense of originality and diversity that makes its founders’ music so influential and vital in this pop-washed world. The fate of its acts is yet to be determined but I would say there’s little chance of picking up the Buffalo Daughter or Sukpatch singles at your local Best Buy. Better get to Grand Royal now while you still can pick these gems up—Better late than never.

NAUGHTY BABY DID A NO-NO

The 2001 VMAs Get Boring With the Cheez Whiz

Johnny Loftus

The 2001 MTV Video Music Awards made it perfectly clear that Pop is dead. For a show that has always offered at least a few bright spots, nothing in the performances, appearances, or posturing of the celebrities chosen to appear was remotely controversial, artistic, or even funny. The entire show was like Technicolor Malt-O Meal. And you know what that’ll look like when it comes out the other end. Like watching the final talent show at a summer camp you didn’t go to, the VMAs played out as a series of product placements masquerading as some celebrities playing charades in an elevator where the cable just snapped. Laugh it up, popstars: That was your fourteenth minute.

Sure, Britney’s not going anywhere for awhile. She’s too entrenched. Shit, if Virgin gives that old bag Whitney Houston a hundred million dollars for SIX albums, when all we’ve heard out of her for the past 4 years is “It’s not my pot!”, then it’s a good bet that Britney will survive the Poplife shitstorm that’s on the horizon. But what about Dream, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Willa Ford, Eve’s Crush, or even Christina? Sorry girls. I think Branson’s hiring, though. They should have known when they read the production notes for the VMAs that required the lot of them to arrive on stage at once, en masse, like a police lineup. (“Alright Mr Jenkins, can you pick out the diva that did this to you?”). MTV knows that they need to find a fatter cash cow toot suite, but they probably figured, “Hell, what’s one more awards show where we wring out the last of whatever saleable assets these galoops had in the first place?”

And that’s what happened.

All the popstars, thugs, and moan-rockers threw themselves and their record labels a big party, and hopped around on the platform in silly hats, yapping about their upcoming albums. After all, platinum football fields and wrist ice don’t come cheap. While Macy Gray took the product hawking to QVC-like levels, wearing a dress that proclaimed the release date of her forthcoming LP, no one else was any better, or less subtle. P.Diddy and his crew of Cosby kids opted to arrive at the VMAs not in a limo, but on the flatbed of a Peterbilt, slip-sliding about on the back end, rapping – no, pleading – “We ain’t goin’ nowhere.” I’m sure that Sean Combs/Puffy/P.Diddy/Puff Daddy/Diddy Pop would like to believe that, but nothing in his new material, or that of like-minded NYC rapper Jay-Z makes me think anything other than “Where’s the remote? Maybe I can catch the last few minutes of an old ‘Law & Order’ episode…”

That’s the anthem. Get your damn hands up.

The event began with the inevitable pre-show, which was about as exciting as Kurt Loder’s new haircut. Kid Rock showed up giving props out to the D with his vintage Bob Seger tour shirt. Sitting next to the Detroit player was some west coast pussy, Ms Pam Anderson, who seems to be giving Michael Jackson a run for his money in the surgery department. Poor Pammy looks like a cross between a blow up doll and a ‘Slippery when wet’ road sign. Next to take the stand in the court of Kurt was Britney and – I shit you not – Mick Jagger. While it wasn’t clear whether he was impersonating Austin Powers or vice versa, Jagger was definitely eyeing up Justin’s lady. “Aye Kurt, Oi seemply laawwve Britney’s work. Oi believe she perfawmed one of our sawngs, did she not?”, all the while wishing he had mirrors on the tops of his loafers. While the dichotomy of Jagger and Spears sharing space together was mildly interesting, the effect wore off after the 20th mention of their November album releases. Mick, next time just buy a billboard.

So the nizight went izon, with appearances by Snoop, DMX, Mark Whalberg, and — ? – Tizim Robbins. U2 smiled wanly through their interviews and a performance of “Elevation” that featured more technical glitches than a Soviet Internet cafĂ©. Pizza Hut pitchman Carson Daly, bestowing upon the bewildered band a “Video Vanguard” award, referred to their work as “a fist in the air, a kick in the balls, and 2 hearts beating as one.” Well, that’s true, but for all that dope and his network know about Rock and Roll, they’ll christen Smashmouth as the progenitors of the “next big thing.” After a series of ill-timed bits and an appearance by Will Ferrell that just made you feel bad for him, the Remaining Ramones were trotted out as icons, and then promptly denied speaking time. J Lo and Ja Rule failed at being sexy. Alicia Keys, a bright spot in the Lauryn Hill Fallout Sweepstakes (Macy Gray, Nikka Costa, Jill Scott, etc.), blew up the arrangement of “Fallin'” into a groaning, teetering beast that devoured the simple pleasure of the song’s studio version. Oh well, I guess she’s just trying to be remembered in the midst of MTV Babylon.

The Lindsey Wagner movie airing opposite the 2001 VMAs on Lifetime was more edgy and controversial than MTV’s big event. In an evening dominated by Hip Hop and R&B, concessions were made to that other fading trend, Nu Metal. Staind moaned about something or other; Linkin Park’s squeaky clean lead singers won’t make anyone wasn’t to stay out past curfew (11:30pm) in Dad’s car. Aren’t these guys supposed to be scary looking? MuDvAyNe, the Eve’s Crush of the Moan-Core world, accepted their award with glittering mohawks and bullethole makeup. Ooh, I’m so scared. Jeez.

MTV won’t change. Its soulless programming of artists it chooses will continue unabated until a pop music movement comes along to either change or destroy it. Though the commemorative articles currently circulating think otherwise, Nirvana and their grunge brethren didn’t change the station. They were absorbed and compromised by it. Maybe Radiohead, Wilco, Ron Sexsmith, Bjork, Superchunk, Edith Frost, Smog, Lucinda Williams, and Ryan Adams will get together, form a summit, and change the musical lives of everyone out there thinking that MTV is a requirement on our cultural radar. But probably not. Britney Spears will release her new album in November, and it will most likely do very well. Even though her performance of “Slave 4 U” resembled a tribute to Scandal’s video for “The Warrior,” even though the song was the biggest piece of trash since her boyfriend’s performance of “Pop” 20 minutes before her, there’s no question that Britney will continue to sell records, at least until she becomes a full time actress. And MTV will be right there to analyze it, package it, and re-broadcast it until it’s time for them to give her a Video Vanguard award down the road in her career. She should be ready for that in about, oh, 3 years?

That’s the deal with this Pop life, and that’s why it’ll fade out.

JTL

GRAND ROYAL, RIP 1993-2001

“Our intentions were always simply to create a home for exciting music and the people who were passionate about it,” Diamond said. “It really sucks that we can’t continue to do that.”

That’s Mike D of the Beastie Boys in the press release regarding his Grand Royal record label going out of business today. You can read it in it’s entirety here, and sound off on their board.

[More on this coming up soon… – ed.]

Continue reading GRAND ROYAL, RIP 1993-2001

Sex, Drugs, and Well. . .

Sex, Drugs, and Well. . .

One of the ways that music—not always rock and roll, but for many of us, it or some variant—can change your life is when it works as a catalyst: There is a certain someone, you, and the music. At the point when these are mixed together, it doesn’t matter if you are in a concert hall or the back seat of a borrowed Buick: It is all that matters.

Throughout time—yes, I’m guessing that our Neolithic forbearers and firebearers were rhythmically beating sticks or rocks or blowing through marrow less bones and bopping around the flat dirt outside the cave—this has been the case. Although there is probably a tendency nowadays to think of music/dancing/sex in the context of today (I suspect that many of us are time-ists, thinking ours is the pinnacle while a minority believes “they don’t make ’em like they used to”—regardless of what “’em” may be), one of the wonderful aspects of the film Amadeus (1984) is when Constanze, played by Elizabeth Berridge, is chasing Tom Hulce’s Wolfgang around: his music may be mannered, but the catalyst still kicks in. There has always been a whole lot of shakin’ going on.

Back in the late 1970s, one of the bands that many a dance bar DJ played when they wanted to “slow things down”—which is not to overlook this band’s up-tempo numbers—is Earth, Wind & Fire. Which, like many bands that wore clothes that looked funny then and which continue to look funny now, pretty much dropped off the screen (and turntable). Maybe it had something to do with the Phil Collins/Philip Bailey collaboration.

But like many things from then, they are back in now. Earth, Wind & Fire is touring.

The band, of course, has a sponsor. Viagra. Apparently, Pfizer isn’t merely going to put up banners, but will actually have booths at the venues so that guys can get their, er, health checked.

Imagine: “Excuse me, honey, I have to go see a health paraprofessional about my, ah, about some, umm, equipment. . . . Want me to get you a wine cooler on my way back?”

Maybe this gives EW&F’s “After the Love Is Gone” a whole new meaning.

Rock and roll can change your life.