To quote an old Rush song, “You don’t get something for nothing”

Today the New York Times* has a great article about Microsoft’s Xbox, and how Bill Gates basically screwed a bunch of bands to use their music in titles for the new video game console. The short version of the story is this. Microsoft gave a lot of small-time bands on indie labels an offer some of them apparently couldn’t refuse: Either give us your music for free or we’ll just get some other music from somebody else and you’ll lose out on a great “promotional” opportunity. Read the article and debate the merits of giving away creative work under the guise of promotion, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned as an artist, it’s that you don’t work for free, especially not for a corporation.

*If you have to read a daily newspaper, you might as well read the Times. Though it’s as suspect as any big media outlet, the hacks there seem to publish a better fishwrap than most anyone else on earth. And it’s free online if you register. And if that link to the article above doesn’t work, don’t blame me; because of the registration process for the Times Web site, it might not. If you can’t get it to work, register and search for the article, “For Musicians, Microsoft’s Xbox Is No Jackpot”. Or just go buy a Dead Tree Edition.

Jay Farrar: Another Round Before You Go

There are times when you stop by the local watering hole only expecting to have one beer, and you take your barstool and place your order with that avowed intention, when you feel a hard slap on your back and a loud voice in your ear and turn to see the face of a friend you haven’t seen in awhile. He orders another round, and you settle in. That’s what Jay Farrar’s set at the Intersection was like.

If some of you like me are a little fuzzy on the names like I always am, he did a couple of albums with his band Son Volt, and before that, he was in Uncle Tupelo with a certain Jeff Tweedy (does that make Tweedy his cousin if they’ve got the same uncle?). His accompanist, Mark Spencer, played a Telecaster and a lap steel, while Jay had about half a dozen acoustic guitars with him, although I only saw him play one of them. The crowd was a little too old for a Tuesday night, and pulled tables and chairs up close to the stage where the dance floor would usually be. Farrar’s voice had that familiar tone and cadence, instantly recognizable.

Most of the set was comprised of songs from his new solo album, Sebastopol, very appropriate for the two guitar arrangement (even if the house acoustics and stage configuration was not), the songs a little like the conversation with that old friend where you talk about what you’ve been up to lately. Mixed in was an Uncle Tupelo number and a song or two from Son Volt’s debut Trace.

With the first couple of bars of “Tear Stained Eye,” after the appreciative woops from the crowd died down, I had to wonder why the old songs gave me so much more of a twinge than the new. Is it the fact that they’re old times being talked about that makes them good times, the years and a lively imagination putting a spin to them? Or do good songs become great when you’ve listened to them time and again on mix tapes, and sung along with the tune, out of tune, on road trips into the great West? Maybe he says it best in that very song: “Can you deny/there’s nothing greater/nothing more/than the traveling hand of time?”

Whatever it was, the songs sounded good, the slide guitar on the solo sounding like a trembling saw. I was still thinking about the question when they wound up their set and were brought back for an encore by the polite but insistent applause. They closed with another Son Volt song, “Windfall,” which sounded like the promise you make after a few too many rounds to keep in touch and do this more often, and they were done. I picked up his disc on the way out—as our man Scott put it, “It’s almost like buying the artist a beer, considering you’re cutting out the middleman.” And Jay definitely deserves another round.

Props To My O.G. (Original Geek)

Yesterday, Barry Manilow released his 39th album, Here at the Mayflower. Now I’m certainly not going to go out and buy it, nor should any of you, not when you can pick up a copy of 1974’s Barry Manilow II on vinyl at any thrift store in the country for less than a dollar. For those of you that don’t already own this album and are wondering if I’m patently stupid for suggesting that you should (or wondering if I’ve just descended into that it’s-so-bad-it’s-good kitsch that causes usually intelligent people like Jake Brown to like such awful shit as Britney Spears) listen to “Mandy” and tell me Manilow is not an artist that should be respected.

For that matter, listen to most of his stuff from ’73-’78 (all of which I proudly own on vinyl and regularly listen to) and tell me that it’s not the best Easy Listening music ever recorded (or at least better than Dan Fogelberg). And then tell me that you haven’t found yourself humming along to an Air Supply song you heard Muzak-ed over the PA at Wal-Mart, or stopping for longer than the obligatory five seconds on WLHT to catch the end of “Blue Bayou”. Even better, try and make an argument for why George Michael’s seminal work with Andrew Ridgeley in Wham! is not Easy Listening—because there’s not a “lite” radio station in the country that doesn’t butt “Careless Whisper” up against “Maneater” by Hall and Oates.

If you’re not man or woman enough to admit the greatness of Barry Manilow, then you need to think really seriously about how comfortable you are with your own self image.

Granted, I think there’s probably no reason to own more than three or four Manilow albums, just like you don’t need to continue buying AC/DC records once you own Highway to Hell, For Those About to Rock, and Back in Black. But for some people, getting stuck in a groove is the way they like to live their lives. For these people, the Manilows and AC/DCs of the world are pillars of strength and perseverance, things they can cling to when the shit hits the fan. So props to both artists for never compromising who they are, never re-inventing themselves to meet marketplace demands.

Barry Manilow has taken a lot of shit over the years, erroneously being dubbed the poster child for bad music when we all know that cretins like Richard Marx, Michael Bolton, and Kenny G could each in turn suck the proverbial chrome off a trailer hitch, a ’59 Cadillac, and a new Harley Springer Softail. Although some of Manilow’s career moves were indeed somewhat suspect (not writing the song, “I Write the Songs”, for instance), think about it for a minute, just how much space would those 39 albums take up in your CD storage unit or on your record shelf? If it were indeed all garbage, Manilow would have long since been put out to pasture. But no, the guy has stuck with it, brushed off the criticism and he still looks, sounds, and performs the same as he did 20 years ago. If Aerosmith and the Stones had aged as well and kept their coolness as intact as Manilow has kept his un-coolness, we’d be living in a different world.

Fortunately, in this same space of time that Manilow has neither grown nor changed, I have. Thanks to my dad who, recognizing my fascination with Barry Manilow during my young and formative years (yes, four of my Manilow albums were actually acquired in the 1970s, before I had even turned eight years old), went out and bought me a copy of R.E.O. Speedwagon’s best-selling album of 1980, Hi Infidelity. As much as this purchase of a cheesy pop-rock record must have pained my father—he’s known to all my friends as The Jazzman; my girlfriend even calls him “Jazz”—he must have recognized that if he didn’t do it, distract me from Barry with something other than Spyro Gyra (which, to my credit, didn’t work), I might now be the guy who went eagerly out last night after work and purchased Mayflower. How’s that for good parenting?

So R.E.O. (ironically enough, given my current occupation as an automotive writer, standing for Ransom E. Olds) changed my life by introducing me to what is now arguably an even worse—perhaps just more insidious—genre of music than Easy Listening: Classic Rock. Fortunately, I have been working on combating the resultant disease—call it Neilyoungisgodosis—with the help of a good support group (this being my friends; “Hi, my name is Tom and I really love Little Feat”) and a prescription for regular doses of Public Enemy. My father still has some hope: at least Chuck D. is black. This digression aside, it’s important to remember that good music is good music, no matter how uncool it is, no matter where it came from, no matter what genre it falls into, no matter how embarrassing it is to admit, and no matter how stupid you might have been when you first liked it—or how stupid you are now.

Maximum Cool? or Walt Disney’s Noggin Is Floating in a Vat of Liquid Nitrogen; When Will Mick’s Shriveled Testicles?

On November 20, Mick Jagger’s solo “Goddess in the Doorway” is scheduled to hit the racks. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (the Rolling Stone for the financial set) by Anna Wilde Mathews, “Virgin [Records] is counting on the Web to help Jagger reach out to a new generation of fans in Gen Y, a marketing-savvy and Internet-focused group responsible for fueling the success of acts like Britney Spears and ‘N Sync.”

This isn’t about pointing fingers, but. . .

“Goddess” is the fourth solo album from the grandfather of rock and roll, a man who can comparatively still remember the folks who used to reside on Mount Olympus. The 58-year-old has accumulated other relics (Townshend) and near-relics (Bono; Joe Perry) to accompany him on this outing. Interestingly enough, Rolling Stone magazine’s founder, editor and publisher Jann Wenner, has written a glowing review of Mick’s album, something that I suspect that Wenner doesn’t do too often (write reviews, that is; “glowing reviews” and that publication are achieving a certain synonymous sound). According to Wenner’s biography on the R.S. website, “Wenner himself conducted many of the magazine’s major interviews in its early years, including lengthy session with Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan and Phil Spector.” Any names sound familiar?

Meanwhile, it seems that the Stones (as in the band) are in negotiations about the possibility of going out next year on their 40th Anniversary tour. (What do you get someone for their 40th? Geritol?)

All of this brings to mind a phrase from Samuel Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” I’m surprised that Jagger hasn’t discovered that the time for him to make recordings for the kids is long past.

Potentially Scary News for Liz Phair Fans

Pitchfork is reporting that Michael Penn is producing Liz Phair’s upcoming new album. This fact by itself isn’t a total disappointment, since I like what I’ve heard of what he’s done with Aimee Mann, and I don’t totally hate the sound of the Wallflowers’ album Breach, which he produced. We’ll see. Pitchfork adds (in their typically snarky fashion — but who are we to talk?),

While she was at it, she also decided to co-write some material with Gary Clark of the band Danny Wilson, who has recently worked with such leading ladies of artistic vision as Natalie Imbruglia and Vitamin C. And, being on a roll, she figured she might as well also bring aboard Pete Yorn, the man currently filling the pop culture void left by Shawn Mullins’ slip into obscurity.

I think I might be the only person in America who fondly remembers Danny Wilson’s chipper little song “Second Summer of Love” from 1989. Whatever though. We’ll just have to cross our fingers and hope Liz’s new album doesn’t turn out to be the complete schlockfest that Capitol Records would love for her to release.

Regardless, she still looks great in her underpants.

I GOT FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

I GOT FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

Garth Brooks Makes His World Taste Better

Johnny Loftus

Let’s be honest. Internationally known musicians with platinum grilles don’t need the money. And yet, well-heeled dopes like Sting, Aerosmith, and now Garth Brooks still find a way to schill for corporations large enough to afford the mad duckets required to retain their services.

In anticipation of Scarecrow, his latest “Ehh, maybe I’m not retiring” LP (due from Capital November 13), Brooks has entered into endorsement deals with both America Online and Dr Pepper. In the spot anchoring the latter’s new ad campaign, four pretty young things find the erstwhile Chris Gaines pickin’ and a-grinnin’ on a midwestern porch with a ragtag band of dobro-packing freaks and a bucket of ice cold Dr Peppers. No doubt drawn by the feelgood rhythms of Brooks’ product-inspired jingle, the girls grab a pepper and proceed to get up on the downstroke with Garth and his merry men. Based around the tagline “Be You,” the ad is a politely dull faux-music video with plenty of (puffy)-faced camera time for Brooks, and no clear message beyond the odd notion that attractive college coeds stuck at Wall Drug would like chilling with the same soda-proffering older dudes they wouldn’t sit by on the subway. It even resembles CMT programming in it’s letterboxed video-style, with a floating Dr Pepper hologram in the corner emulating a video network’s icon. To further prostrate themselves before King Garth, Schweppes (Pepper’s parent company) even agreed to an outro hawking Brooks’ new record, complete with a shot of the cover art and a mention of the release date.

It’s no longer possible to be angry with musicians for compromising their music through corporate tie-ins or sponsorships. It’s a simple fact of marketing for the major labels. Why spend millions on price-point discounts, instore standups, promotional tours, and free shwag when when an artist can get paid by a company hoping he’ll front their breat and butter? It’s the blurring of the line between artist and product that’s irritating. At least Aerosmith isn’t seen cruising the streets of “Truckville” in the spots they soundtrack for Dodge. But the jingle is so unmemorable, the product so offhandedly visible, that Garth Brooks’ Dr Pepper ads become a sort of guerilla music video for his new material. Which is exactly the way he wants it. Brooks’ AOL and Dr Pepper deals are particularly egregious because he seems to be positioning them as an excuse for touring – after all, that would entail being a professional, working artist. At the press conference to announce his new record and single (held at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, natch), Brooks was happy to discuss his new music, but held off from questions about his ongoing retirement or lack of touring. Indeed, the man in the 4-corner colored shirt hasn’t toured since 1998, and now seems quite content to let his mega-dollar endorsements sell his record for him while he’s out ropin’ the wind in Oklahoma. Yeah yeah yeah, he wants to spend more time with his daughters. Well, during his various hiatuses he’s found plenty of time to try out for the Sand Diego Padres, hasn’t he?

Garth Brooks’ music is never going to save anyone, or give anything other than the cheap thrill of seeing a guy in a cowboy hat fly “Panama”-like across the stage. But his entrance into the endorsement game is only another bullet in the gut for music in general. Musicians aren’t like athletes. It’s okay for dudes like Kobe or Deion to sell Sprite or shoes or even shampoo. Joe Namath hawked panty hose, and everyone had a good laugh. It didn’t make him any less of a quarterback. But musicians need to be cognizant of their place within their art. Brooks’ endorsement deals and others like it can only dilute an industry already cheapened by homogeneity and lack of substance. And no matter how much he wants to be a Pepper too, Garth needs to see that this ain’t the way to go.

Besides, everyone knows that Bruce Willis singing about Seagram’s Golden Wine coolers will always be the coolest porch-based drink advertisement.

JTL

I WANNA ROCK WITH YOU — PLEASE?

Michael Jackson is Back. But For How Long?

Johnny Loftus

After the wholesale failures of HIStory and Dangerous, and his increasing reliance on foreign sales receipts to purchase Neverland’s animal feed, it seemed unlikely that Michael Jackson would ever again rise to Thriller levels in the hearts, minds, and dancing feet of Americans. In fact, Jackson’s tenuous grip to his King of Pop throne was seemingly strengthened only by screaming throngs of Japanese schoolgirls (always an impressionable lot — remember, this is the same demographic that went rabid for teen albums by Alyssa Milano and Alanis Morrissette…) and the occasional US fan who, most likely, was also an avid watcher of “Wings” and “Coach” — two long-running sitcoms that no one ever admitted to actually viewing. Nevertheless, Invincible, the latest unassumingly-titled effort by Michael Jackson — and his first new studio album since 1992 — will debut at #1 on next week’s Billboard chart, bolstered by first-week sales of over 360,000 units. Taking into consideration the prevailing cultural view of Jackson as a guy just a few slices short of a loaf, his new album’s early success might suggest it a new name — Inconceivable.

Even his stable of high-priced producers admit the difficulty in navigating the hills and valleys of Jackson’s oeuvre to discover the trail to success with today’s youth. “It’s real weird to see a new generation accepting Mike,” said Rodney Jerkins, guru producer of Brandy, Britney, and now The Gloved One. “That was the mission for all of us [while making the album]: ‘How do we get the younger kids?'” And Jerkins didn’t mess around. His beats for Invincible’s lead single “You Rock My World” find Michael Hee-Hee’ing and Shah-mon’ing over a punchy backing track and a great mid-song loop that will definitely blow up in the clubs. And yet, if you dropped Blu Cantrell or R.Kelly vocals onto the track, it would be just as successful. Despite the best efforts of Jerkins and his hotshot mates, there’s nothing in Jackson’s new work that is as seamless as his 80s heyday. An invisible barrier separates Michael’s trademark MS-DOS vocal delivery from his albums’ Windows XP production techniques, making communication between the two impossible. The hype is in place, sure. There’s a longform music video with big Hollywood stars and extended dance moves. Chris Tucker stops by for a skit or two. And there’s a promotional budget that overtakes the GNP of Finland. But at the heart of it all is a frail-looking eccentric who — whether by his excesses or idiosyncrasies, scandals or disappearing acts — has distanced himself from, er, himself, as well as the American Pop audience.

There’s a pained look in George W Bush’s eyes when he addresses “the ‘maircun people.” He puts on a brave face and makes a go of it, but you get the feeling that he’d rather be back at the D.C. Hooters, pounding hot wings and grabbing waitresses’ asses. It’s similar with Michael Jackson. He’s appeared on the VMAs, TRL, concert specials, and has even waved to his fans (seriously — where did they all come from?) in Times Square. But watching his expression shift from grimace, to sweet smile, to glazed fear, and back to bashful grimace, you can’t shake the notion that The King of Pop would much rather be feeding the goats back at Neverland, or at least hanging out in ultra-moderne downtown Tokyo, where even a swan-clad Bjork wouldn’t get a second look.

He might not have to worry about it much longer.

Invincible‘s big daddy status might not last longer than a few weeks. Britney’s shitstorm of a new album will likely sucker punch Jackson with a giant boxing glove shaped like a dollar sign. After all, Jive Records/Spears have at least as much money as Michael, and they didn’t have to pay off Tito to appear on that Jackson 5 reunion special. It will be interesting to see how long Jackson’s newfound connection to today’s record-buying youth lasts. Because even when he tries to be, Michael just isn’t like the other guys.

Jam on it.

JTL

A taste of honey…

If there are folks out there who would like their first legitimate, high-quality taste of Wilco’s unreleased masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, you should get your ass to your local newsstand and pick up a copy of the November issue of Jane Magazine. Make sure you get a copy with the enclosed CD, because it contains “I’m the Man Who Loves You” in all of its glory. This will be of interest to Wilco fans who are obsessive collectors who need to own every single item that has anything to do with Wilco. It should also appeal to audiophiles who are not satisfied with the fidelity of the MP3 files that have been floating around the internet (even encoded at 192 kbps, mp3s still don’t sound perfect).

Plus, Jane Magazine rocks.

Jane was founded and is edited by Sassy creator, Jane Pratt, who is a really cool chick. My wife has been subscribed to Jane forever, and I’ve always said that it reads like a Grand Royal magazine for girls. Or women. Or whatever. But it’s not gender exclusive. There’s smart, funny writing that really stands out in the “women’s magazine” genre. I flip through a lot of Allures, In Styles, Teen Peoples, and Glamours on the crapper and Jane is the only one that I don’t leave on the bathroom floor when I’m done. Even Vogue with its great movie reviews has let me down recently. All those other magazines really seem to have an overwhelming disrespect for women at their core, but not Jane. Jane rocks.

The CD contains lots of cool songs besides Wilco, including tracks by the Beta Band, the Silver Jews, Faith Evans, and lots of artists I’d never heard of before. This is a good thing for me because I really feel like I’m losing touch and losing interest in what’s happening these days in music. I don’t want to be one of those old men who only listens to the bands I listened to when I was 19, so I appreciate the exposure to shit I would never hear otherwise.

I truly do love rock and roll

Okay, that’s it. I can no longer defend her. In a cleverly annotated transcript of a dial-an-interview with Britney Spears, Jim DeRogatis reveals that she doesn’t know where Elvis is from and doesn’t know who originally made “I Love Rock N’ Roll” famous. In case you’re wondering, the answers are Tupelo, Mississippi (although Memphis would be acceptable, and even preferred by some) and Joan fucking Jett and the fucking Blackhearts. I could’ve forgiven her thinking Elvis was from Las Vegas. Maybe she just misspoke, and who really cares anyway? I think it’s really cool that she’s dressed in a white bedazzled jumpsuit for her HBO special in Las Vegas. That’s fine. That’s clever. It’s cute. I like it.

But don’t fuck with Joan Jett.

If I were in charge, I would publicly execute anyone who thought that “I Love Rock N’ Roll” was a Pat Benatar song. I’m serious. That would be the Law, and the Law would be very strictly enforced. I might even make people answer that question before they could get their drivers license, vote, or open a bank account.

I realize that Ms. Jett did not write that song, but it’s her song as much as “Jailhouse Rock” or “Viva Las Vegas” belong to Elvis. And Pat Benatar sucks. If you’ve ever heard her cover of “Just Like Me” by Paul Revere and the Raiders, you know I’m 100% right about this. We’ve discussed this issue before, and it sickens me to have to acknowledge it myself. Oh Britney, my Britney, why hast thou forsaken me?

I saw him dancin’ there by the record machine

I knew he must a been about seventeen

The beat was goin’ strong

Playin’ my favorite song

An’ I could tell it wouldn’t be long

Till he was with me, yeah me

The Art of Writing

A question of the relative (de)merits of so-called “art rock” was raised earlier on this site. The comments excoriating the genre were posted with the degree of fervor that had been anticipated. One observation can be made from the posting is that it seems there is a good percentage of the current listening public for whom the term “art rock” is basically a cipher. While hoary characters like Aerosmith and the Who still resonate, art rock musicians have slipped silently (albeit stylishly) below the surface (“Emerson, Lake and Palmer—what’s that, a law firm?”).

One of the best movies made about music appeared in 1991. It is Alan Parker’s The Commitments, based on Roddy Doyle’s novel of the same name. Read the book. See the movie. (I note the film first simply because I suspect that more people will go to the video rental place than will go to the bookstore or library.) The Commitments limns the development of an Irish band that is created to play soul music. James Brown. Motown. As one of the characters in the novel, Jimmy Rabbitte, says to two of the musicians who will be part of the band:

—Where are yis from? (He answered the question himself.) —Dublin. (He asked another one.) —Wha’ part o’ Dublin? Barrytown. Wha’ class are yis? Workin’ class. Are yis proud of it? Yeah, yis are. (Then a practical question.) —Who buys the most records? The workin’ class. Are yis with me? (Not really.) —Your music should be abou’ where you’re from an’ the sort o’ people yeh come from.

Rock and roll can change your life.