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Friday, March 30, 2007

I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down

In 2000, I was introduced to the notion of what I call the "don't care" audience. While interning at a pop radio station, Mary J. Blige was to be interviewed via phone one morning. Before the interview began, I politely asked if I could ask a question about working with Elton John. Blige's new CD featured Sir Elton playing a hook from "Bennie and the Jets" and I wanted to ask what it was like to work with him. The deal is, the question was never asked because when I ran it by the hosts, one of them responded, "Eric, nobody cares about that stuff!" Thus it began.

I know the mindset I have with music is not in a majority, but I know I'm not in a minority. I am somebody somewhere that cares, so I've never bought the line about how "nobody cares" or "people don't care about that stuff." Recently viewing the excellent documentary, Before the Music Dies, I have a better understanding of how I'm not alone here.

Filmmakers Andrew Shapter and Joel Rasmussen are fans of music who wondered if people felt the same way about how a lot of music is marketed these days. Be it consolidation of radio stations or major record labels, they look at their effects on the marketplace. From the giggly concertgoers at an Ashlee Simpson concert to writers, musicians and label people, both sides of the coin are presented. However, there's a point that's made abundantly clear right away: music treated like a commodity does attract a "don't care" audience. But also proven early into the film is how not everyone falls into this "don't care" audience.

There are plenty of great interviews from people like ?uestlove, Erykah Badu, Dave Matthews, Branford Marsalis, Elvis Costello, My Morning Jacket, and Bonnie Raitt. They share their love of music with their own stories. They also share their scrutiny of the model of instant hits, focus groups and other matters that distinguish commerce over art. Keep in mind, all of these performers have large audiences, sell plenty of records, and continue to do well.

Probably the most endearing part of the film is how it doesn't wallow in a mindset of "Too bad you missed out on rock 'n' roll. It's over." Looking at the major pros of the Internet with websites and downloading, there's a general sense of relief with the interviewees. Plus, strongly urging us to teach our children about the power of music is probably the most powerful point of the film. This part really moved me because I've seen the positive effects of music on kids. My nieces might be too young to appreciate Tom Waits' Small Change right now, but that doesn't mean they will always be unappreciative of it. And I highly doubt they will fall into the "don't care" audience.

Before the Music Dies is a testament to how music affects us. There's a difference between music affecting us and pop culture affecting us. The film wisely goes for the former. Ashlee Simpson may sell millions of records, but so did New Kids on the Block and Right Said Fred. The Velvet Underground and the Pixies didn't sell a lot of records in their day, but plenty of the people who bought their records started bands and/or talked them up. The point is, life doesn't solely exist where the most money flows. For as long as music is sold as a disposable commodity, there will always be those that don't treat it like one.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Burn away

Not too long ago, there was a yearly alumni conference at my alma mater. They haven't done one in years due to various reasons, so I've never had the chance to share my experiences with various students. If there's one important topic I'd like to clear up with college students about the "real world," it's burning bridges.

I don't know where the phrase comes from, but my original thought about burning bridges was this: don't burn them and if you accidentally burn one, feel bad about it and beg for forgiveness. Now I realize it's more like this: don't be a total jerk to everyone you work with. Of course you're not going to get along with every person you work with, but don't go out of your way to please everyone. There's a huge difference.

I've worked with very difficult people and have had flare-ups with them. Would I go so far to urinate on their desks while they are on conference calls? Nope. Would I slash their tires and throw eggs at their houses? Nope. But people equate those kinds of extremities with not filing a report correctly or not having all the right answers. This can cause so much anxiety that it's crippling.

Whenever I want to understand this difference a little better, I think about a certain record label owner who has one of the worst reputations in the industry. Be it constant reprimanding of his employees by threats and screams, bragging to other record labels, or ripping bands off with royalties, it's been difficult to hear the pluses about working with this guy. Sure, it's experience in the music industry for a young person, but it's an extreme collision course of ego and commerce. Ruling his label more like Caligula, Scarface, Hitler, Macbeth, Richard III, and King George, this guy has burned many bridges over the years. So many that when he's been sued, nobody has been come to his defense in the press. With rumors of an impending sale of his label, there have been a lot of sighs of relief across the industry.

Though this is an extreme example of burning bridges, it's a useful example. Of course you have your bad days, of course you have your crabby reactions to people, and you will not get along with everyone you work with. Don't feel guilty when that happens. That said, making every minute of your existence a challenge for everyone around you is what you should avoid. If you want to go anywhere in life, you must understand this.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Clap your hands if you want some more

Whenever I heard the description "Sixties girl-group," I thought of the songs you hear all the time on oldies radio stations. I've heard songs like "Be My Baby," "My Boyfriend's Back," and "Leader of the Pack" plenty of times in my life. But I never ventured much further than that. I never realized that what I love about Northern Soul is similar to what so many of these girl groups embodied. I'm talking layers of snappy melodies, upbeat rhythms and simple-but-dense lyrics. And I never thought a modern band cut from this cloth could make me go ga-ga for them.

Hearing just a little sample of the Pipettes on this week's Sound Opinions podcast made curious. Upon watching their videos (start with the one for "Pull Shapes" first), I can't help but want to share this music with as many people as possible. I don't care if the group has already received a lot of blog love. I haven't felt this moved by bouncy pop music since I heard the Go! Team two years ago.

Perhaps the biggest charge I get with this music comes from the intricate melodies. The vocal harmonies, the keyboards and the strings are key. But their effect isn't like eating some cotton candy; this is like having a piece of chocolate cake. Meaning, this isn't just some sugary novelty. I have difficulty explaining this other than the music really taps into my good side. It reminds me of how pop can be more than fluff. It reminds me of how pop music used to be sold en masse. To be honest, I'm happy to hear this style be modernized.

I doubt the Pipettes will make former Ashlee Simpson fans go bonkers, but you never know. These melodies make me feel happy to be alive. But what I've heard from singers marketed towards the tween audience for the past ten years made me think I'm in a strip club, an SUV, a dentist office or on the set of Barney. In other words, I felt like bouncy pop music wasn't my cup of tea anymore. The essence of effective melodies were stripped of life so everything could sound "perfect" and squeaky-clean for the lowest of the lowest common denominator. I'm glad I found something that made me think otherwise.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

No sex or violence/No morbid silence

How is ballroom dancing a step down in television programming? You'd think this would be catnip for my parents' generation. Aren't they always talking about sex and violence being the signs of the media apocalypse? I don't get it.

So asks fellow blogger Donna about a criticism of Dancing With the Stars. She has an excellent point. I don't get it either.

I'm not a regular watcher of Dancing With the Stars, but I've seen enough episodes to understand its main draw. No, it's not just seeing faded stars try to dance; it's all that physical sexual innuendo. Whether the dancing is like choreographed foreplay or not, this is definitely not the kind of formal dancing you learned in cotillion.

Since this dancing has been considered a "forbidden" activity in public, it can ruffle some feathers. Remember the Lambada, The Forbidden Dance, in the early Nineties? So couple sex with violence and you have some of the most-targeted matters by media watchdogs that think for others. Well, while some think we're on a slippery slope destined for eternal damnation, I see this as an acknowledgment of what's always been around in some form or another.

With sex, there was a time when the most that could be shown was through loose implications and innuendo. Seeing a bare-chested Joe Gillis swim in front of Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. implied the two had consummated their relationship at least once. But the censor codes were so strict that an exchange like "You should take a vacation in Las Vegas, playground of the world!"/"Thank you, but I think I'll spend this weekend in bed."/"Only playground to beat Las Vegas," had to be deleted from Psycho's script. The rules on violence were as strict. The most you could see was a man firing a gun in one shot and then a shot of a man falling over.

Still, with the kinds of sex and violence seen in mainstream movies since the Sixties, you could argue the rope has been loosened too much. But you can't go blaming the prevalence of explicit sex and violence for the media's apocalypse. In my eyes, it's about what I want to watch and what I don't want to watch.

A very timely case in point: the soon-to-be-forgotten The Hills Have Eyes 2. The film opens with something so wretchedly violent that I'm not going to even state it here. (Read the second comment in this review if you're really curious to know what happens.) Is this entertaining to me? Nope. Do I wonder about what passes for entertainment for the popcorn horror film audience? Yes. Do I think we're on a one-way ticket to hell because of something like this? Hell no. I choose to not watch this movie for several reasons. But if I were, I highly doubt my morals would be lowered.

There is still some notion that entertainment should be squeaky-clean and family-friendly. Entertainment should entertain right? We should turn our brains off when the TV turns on or when a movie starts in a theater, right? Not for me. If anything, people who turn to entertainment to escape their problems are compounding those problems in the process.

I can name plenty of other social ills plaguing us that have nothing to do with the sex and violence we see on TV and in movies. I'm talking basic, open communication between family members, lovers, friends, co-workers and so on. What we watch for entertainment is so much of a surface matter when dealing with this. Sure, there was a time when shows like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best portrayed a squeaky-clean existence, but this was also around the time that segregation was in schools, women were considered sub-human servants to men, and homosexuality was considered a horrific sin/disease. If people were so oblivious to thinking that everything was totally fine during the initial post-World War II years, I gotta wonder what people my age will be saying about the Eighties and Nineties when I get older.

I guess for people who remember a time when society's ills were kept at bay by censorship boards, the gyrations seen on Dancing With the Stars are shocking. But come on, when it's a nod to something that's always been a part of life, the shock should be turned around to the shocked person.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Everyone needs a Sunday some days

Spending my Sunday night with KTCU's the Good Show rendered the following:

Being there on the same night as Glen Reynolds from Chomsky was the musical guest was totally unplanned. I was introduced to Chomsky at KTCU in '99 and proceeded to see the band play 40-50 times over the next few years.

The playing of Ted Leo's "La Costa Brava" after a Bill Maher rant was unintentional. But it could have been serendipity.

Seeing only a few old CDs in the Modern Rock rotation shelf was nice. There was a time a few years ago where half of the CDs were released well before '99.

Random on-air conversations about music are still a lot of fun.

Criticizing Chely Wright's "The Bumper of My SUV" as we heard it was even more fun.

Asking a doctor which TV shows set in a hospital are more like real life in a hospital, the immediate answer was Scrubs.

Recognizing a song from an episode of The Cosby Show but didn't know who performed it. It was the one and only John Coltrane's "In a Sentimental Mood." Realizing I already had it on a compilation CD made me feel bad that I never really listened to that CD much. This will change.

Gary Oldman's version of Sid Vicious's version of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" is pretty good. That said, I'm still not sure if I want to see Sid & Nancy.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Cool Confusion

As I'm finally nearing the final page of Pat Gilbert's Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash, I'm more and more interested in hearing the band's post-London Calling material. For years I've heard this material should be avoided, but the curiosity just grows and grows.

My time with the Clash has been a really weird matter. "Rock the Casbah" was my introduction to them, as it was one of the many pop hits I heard in the Eighties. But by the mid-Nineties, the Clash's legacy was a confusing thing to me. An excellent feature in Guitar World by J.D. Considine featured an album-by-album review which convinced me to at least check out London Calling. At the time, my idea of punk rock was fast, semi-tuneful music. I didn't understand punk as a mindset just yet. So that's why I was befuddled about how this album was considered a punk classic. I really liked a number of songs on the album (especially the title track), but this had rockabilly, ska, reggae, and rock songs sounding somewhat like Bruce Springsteen. How was this punk? I came around in college.

While sitting in my dorm one night, a friend knocked on my door and wanted to play a Clash song for me. It was "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais." I really dug it and proceeded to get the Story of the Clash set, then the self-titled, Give 'Em Enough Rope and Super Black Market Clash, and Clash On Broadway in quick succession. I was a fan, but approached Sandinista! and Combat Rock with a lot of caution. As a matter of fact, I rarely listened to any tracks off of disc 3 of Clash On Broadway because I wasn't taken by the samplings I heard.

Then came a really interesting take on Sandinista! from the one and only George Gimarc: he said the Clash gave people enough material to make their own album if they wanted to. Indeed, the material found on six sides of vinyl/two CDs could make a single reggae record, rock record or whatever else. I've always taken his advice with getting into a box set, but I've never gotten the chance to do this with Sandinista! I think the time's finally come.

I'm hoping I'll find a used copy or some kind soul will have the album in MP3 form somewhere. But I still have a lot of trepidation towards Combat Rock (Kyle's write-up on it has stuck with me) and Cut the Crap (aka, the album that is disowned by many critics and fans since Mick Jones and Topper Headon aren't on it). Funny, I vaguely remember the days when I would buy all of the records by a band/artist in one blast and sort things out later . . .

Thursday, March 22, 2007

New Eyes Open

Judd Apatow, writer/director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Freaks and Geeks, and The Cable Guy, has a great take on dealing with bad reviews and good reviews. As someone who has received praise and scorn for his various works, Apatow speaks from a lot of experience. If anything, the lesson learned is that you shouldn't take bad or good reviews to heart. This is a concept I've been working on, especially with the part about not taking good reviews to heart.

I won't lie: I like getting compliments. Getting complimented on my writing, work ethic, drumming and so on is a nice pat on the back. In some ways it feels like vindication for what I'm doing. But I've learned to not place final judgment in the hands of others. Plus, as a critic myself, I understand the other end of the spectrum.

The job of the critic is to give an informed opinion. Just because a critic liked one thing from you doesn't mean he/she will like the next thing from you. Sounds basic right? Well, I don't think a number of people understand this. If anything, a lot of people want critics to agree with them. Praise sounds better than scorn, right? To be fair is to praise, right? Nope and nope to both.

For critics who write for publications that have a large amount of readers (ie, newspaper, trade magazine, online publication and so on), what is said can turn the tides either for or against some piece of work. It happens all the time, but believe me, there is no planned united front for or against anything. Case in point: the Stooges' The Weirdness has been trashed by a number of critics lately. It seems like critics are ganging up on the band and aiming to write the most vicious things imaginable. Was this planned? No. Should the band cancel their tour and run away? No. Because this is nothing new for the Stooges. They were highly disliked when they were first together. This may not be so well-known, but it's true. If I remember correctly, a review in Rolling Stone ripped Funhouse apart. Now, Funhouse is considered a classic for many fans and critics.

Something that should reiterated is how the critic really speaks for him or herself, not for the whole publication. It's not like the editor-in-chief, the advertising coordinator, the sales people, the interns and copywriters all feel the same way about something. But still, the publication's name has a higher stature than the writer, so it appears that the whole publication feels a certain way about something.

With my own work, it's great to receive feedback from people who understand where I'm coming from and give thoughtful critiques. But there can be a tendency to get defensive when certain people seem to love pointing out my apparent shortcomings. I can imagine a number of inquires about "Why isn't this band covered that much in your book?" are coming my way. Believe me, I've thought long and hard about who gets a full chapter, who gets some nice mentions and who doesn't get any mentions. The phrase, "You can't please everybody," comes up again. But I believe deep down, there can be a desire to please everybody. I should know, but a number of epiphanies in the last few months have made me think otherwise.

My advice for anyone working on a book, record, movie, painting, etc.: focus more on how the experience of making this has meant to you. Cribbing something Ian MacKaye once said: if you enjoyed what you were doing while you were making it, how could you say it was a failure? Was it a failure to make a lot of money? Was it a failure to get people's attention? Was it a failure to get people to respond favorably? Sure, those can be influencing factors, but expression is a personal thing. The perspective of the one making something is different from the one whose job it is to criticize that something. Makes sense, right?

Well, I do often wonder about what makes critics tick, especially with lukewarm reviews. What do these people want in order for them to highly praise something? We don't have maps of pleasure centers for anybody else, so praise is more accidental than planned. But think about it: why do we want to be praised? Is it so we feel loved and accepted? This makes things way more about ourselves and not about someone else. So now it does make sense to not take other people's opinions so personally. To me, at least.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I still buy music

Inspired by Late Night Wallflower's excellent write-up on a recent RIAA editorial, I wanted to chip in some thoughts. Although I've bought fewer CDs this year compared to years before, the point is, I still buy CDs. Am I a criminal because I download and burn CD-Rs with music I got from MP3 blogs and SendSpace? I don't think so; I still view the activity just like I viewed it as a youngster. Was my uncle a criminal for dubbing a cassette copy of The Joshua Tree and sending it to me? No. He wanted to share something I might like. (By the way, I bought The Joshua Tree on CD ten years ago and still have it.)

These days, I test-drive a lot of music on MP3s. Simply put: I want to know if this album is worth owning on CD. Chalk it up to being very frugal and picky, but the phrase "spending your hard-earned cash" definitely applies with me. The idea of buying a record before ever hearing a note has almost completely faded from my view. I can't help but be curious because I love music so much.

There are certain cases where a bonus track, EP or DVD will get me out to buy a CD right away. A timely example is Ted Leo and the Pharmacists' Living With the Living, which was released yesterday. Touch & Go's first pressing comes with a bonus five-song EP, featuring tracks not available anywhere else. I have yet to see these bonus songs on any of the sites I check out, plus the proper record has been growing on me nicely (just like Leo's previous record, Shake the Sheets). So this is why I have a trip planned to a local record store today. Simple enough? Well, it's not that simple for other CDs.

While I check out a lot of new records in MP3 form, there are so many older releases I want to check out as well. Unlike the new records I've checked out recently, many of these older releases have been difficult to find online. In the case of buying Scott Walker's In Five Easy Pieces, I had to go on the faith of a well-written Pitchfork review, a nice write-up on Walker in Punk Planet and what I remembered from my single listen to the It's Raining Today compilation. I haven't regretted the decision as I've been listening to Walker's solo material and Walker Brothers stuff regularly since then. But in the case of Feeder's Picture of Perfect Youth and the Clash's Sandinista!, I really want to hear these songs before I consider buying them on CD. And no, iTunes' free 30-second preview clips don't do the songs' justice.

I won't lie: it's way more economical for me to go about this way. I'm thankful I have money to buy the CDs that I really want.

But I will add this: when you hear a song or record for free, there's a tendency to not really dig much more into it if you don't like it right away. I've seen plenty of people on the SOMB say something along the lines of, "I downloaded it a few months ago, didn't like what I heard and I haven't listened to it again." So maybe that's why I've seen the kind of knee-jerk, underwhelming feeling here and especially here about the recently-leaked Voxtrot album. So I gotta ask: whatever happened to letting a record sit with you over a few weeks/months/years and then writing your feelings about it? These days, it seems like a matter of listening to a record over a few minutes/hours/days is enough.

The issues with downloading MP3s and buying music still rages on, but believe me, I still want to touch the stuff I love. I like the new Ted Leo record enough to want to read the lyrics, look at the liner notes and so on. But the days of spending all my free cash on music have long since passed. Maybe the RIAA should understand that with people in similar situations and quit complaining.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Seasons in the Abyss

In honor of the Complete Idiot's Guide to Slayer on Jeff's blog, I have some things to share. I've never been a big fan of Slayer, but it's great to see them get a nice thorough album-by-album review. It inspires me to get to work on a certain other metal band that's mentioned throughout the Guide. But before I get to that, I should say this: there was a time when even muttering Slayer's name came with a lot of caution.

I didn't grow up in a fire-and-brimstone household, but there was a slight cautionary eye towards metal. Metal bands (especially Ozzy and Judas Priest) were highly criticized (and sued) in the Eighties for warping teenagers' minds into doing horrific acts. So for a concerned parent, there's a reason to be concerned, but in reality, metal was not (and is not) the culprit here. However, that wasn't what was printed when a teenager in my neighborhood shot and killed his mother. Featuring a picture of a police officer being aghast at the lyrics in a Megadeth record, it sparked yet another debate about metal music and lyrics. In retrospect, it's offensive to me that people are led to believe that a surface matter like music and lyrics can drive people to do awful things.

In the case of Slayer in my high school years, they were the most extreme of the extreme. They sang songs about murder, violence and other horrors, but me and my friends were never drawn to committing that stuff. We came from good families but had a normal rebellious side as well. What Slayer sang about was way more about the metaphor than the reality. But trying to explain that to a God-fearing Bible beater would often result in the reciting of scripture and other things. Slayer totally tapped into that rebellion and they still are doing it.

The turning point with my understanding of Slayer was with a Q&A section in Modern Drummer. Dave Lombardo was asked about his technique by a person roughly the same age as me. The guy was into jazz and rock, but was a huge Slayer fan as well. At no point was there a discussion about the band's image or lyrics; it was all about the music itself. This was '95 and for a teenager focusing way more on the music than any image, I thought this was cool. There was no cowering in fear, preachy sermons or aghast looks when talking about Slayer. I got the same feeling reading this Complete Idiot's Guide this morning.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Kids Will Grow Up to Be . . .

Mr. Garrison: "Eric, did you just say the F-word?"
Cartman: "Jew?"

-- from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut

A couple of documentaries I've seen in the last few weeks, Kirby Dick's This Film is Not Yet Rated and Steve Anderson's Fuck, deal with society's taboo subjects in pretty tactful ways. Dealing with the depiction of sex, violence and vulgar language in the media, plenty of rhetorical questions get brought up. A quote that really struck me was something Newsweek critic David Ansen mentions in Dick's film about the MPAA: "Even though it's supposed to protect children, it's turning us all into children." How true that is.

I find it odd that we live in a society where the chances are much greater to see an ad using sexuality to sell beer, a clothing line or lingerie than to see people having a mature conversation about sex and sexuality. I don't think it's appropriate to tell a kid going through puberty to start having sex as soon as possible. But I don't think it's appropriate to tell a kid going through puberty that sex is a gross, horrible and vulgar activity. More than anything, the pros and cons of sex, using vulgar language and drinking alcohol should be discussed in mature ways. However, other people (who tend to think for others) want to pass the blame elsewhere.

I don't blame parents who want to keep their children at bay from certain sides of life for as long as possible. But whether parents like it or not, their kids are gonna find out about profanity, sex, drugs and alcohol.

In my case, I discovered the most well-known curse words from two movies (Back to the Future and Spaceballs) and a slide I once played on. Did my respect for elders and authority plummet because I found out about these words? No. Did my morals get so corrupted that I flunked out of school and became a crack-addicted prostitute? No. If anything, it was the beginning of understanding that there are other things out there in the world.

I don't consider myself to having a potty-mouth, but I'm not afraid to use vulgar language when it's appropriate. Does that make me a deviant of society? Nope. I think it makes me normal. But a big part of my normal-ness is not from the movies I watched as a kid, but the way I grew up and was raised. Unfortunately, people who rely on the MPAA, the FCC and the Parents Television Council to be their guardian don't want to look that deep into a person's background. Blame what kids are watching and hearing instead of talking to kids in a mature way about what they're watching and hearing.

One of the really telling parts in Anderson's film is when Kevin Smith describes how his daughter is raised around vulgar language. Kevin and his wife Jen don't hold back the words when they're around Harley, but Harley is afraid to use vulgar language. She just doesn't like saying those words. Where did that maturity come from? I don't know, but it makes for a strong argument.

Probably the biggest frustration I have encountered around parents is how they think their children are mentally inept (or to put it bluntly, stupid). No, we're not born with a mental encyclopedia of the world, but nobody is born dumb. How insulting is it to a teenager's mental capacity to pigeonhole him or her as prey or clueless? I find it incredibly so. I take the attitude that kids are smarter than you and not as smart as you. They're not either one or the other.

So what does this all mean to my life now? Well, as an uncle to three-month-old nieces and with a couple of cousins that are younger than eleven, I choose to respect them as humans. I don't see them as fragile, but as growing humans (just like how I see everyone else). If they were to use salty language around me when they get older, I doubt I'd lose my marbles. I wouldn't cast scorn to their parents, the TV shows they watch, the books they read or the movies they watch. If anything, I'd tactfully inquire about where they heard those words and ask if they knew what they meant. I'm no saint, but I'm not going to lie and pretend like that side of life doesn't exist.

Friday, March 16, 2007

SxSW

Eight hours of South By Southwest yesterday rendered the following:

Parking in a garage a few blocks away from Emo's.
Cost of parking was only $7 and went all day.
Quesadillas for lunch and dinner.
A tan that thankfully didn't turn into a burn.
Meeting a number of people who I had only spoken with over the phone or e-mail in the past three years.
Realizing that in-person conversations still trump phone and e-mail conversations.
Getting a song dedicated to you is still awesome.
Standing next to Chris Wollard and hearing him sing along while Chuck Ragan finishes a solo set is really awesome.
Despite my minor grumbles about Guitar Hero II, I didn't turn down an offer to get a free copy of it.
No regrets about driving six hours for eight hours of fun.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Living for Today

After missing South by Southwest last year, I have short window to go this year. I'm talking one whole day and that day is tomorrow. A number of friends and colleagues who live out of state (and hundreds of miles away from Texas) will be only three hours from me this week. Since I didn't bother looking into getting a place to stay or a wristband, I'm taking the cheapest route possible: pay for a tank of gas, hope to find a decent parking space and just wing it for a few hours.

Why I'm going tomorrow is because of two parties: one runs between noon and 6 and the other runs from 4-7. I'd be stupid not to go, so I'm just going down there. On paper, driving six hours total for eight hours of fun seems weird, but I've done this trip before for even fewer hours of fun.

In 2002, Nick and I drove from Fort Worth to Austin and back in one day/late night. The reason? To see Belle & Sebastian on their Storytelling tour. It was one of the best shows I've ever seen and I don't regret the trip at all. Last year, I drove down to Round Rock just to interview Aaron for a few hours. Yes, I went out of my way, but I needed to get out of town for a few hours and hang out with someone I had not hung out with in a few years. Again, it was totally worth my time.

So that leads me to my point. With my life being very touch and go with a lot of waiting around right now, I need something like this. I might be spend as much time in my car as I will hanging out and dodging the constant marketing, but I know this will be worth my time.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

There is no discrimination between books on a shelf in a bookstore. In the music section especially, there are completely unauthorized ones and completely authorized ones filed side-by-side. Whether or not any of them are good is in the eye of the beholder, but nothing aggravates me more than speculative, unauthorized books getting published.

I've written a lot about my disdain for Andy Greenwald's Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo and my feelings haven't changed. His views have merits and he did conduct interviews with some legitimate sources, but his book as a whole is still an insult to those that bought a Christie Front Drive 7" at a warehouse show, booked At the Drive-In for a house show or let Braid sleep on their floors.

When I started writing my book, I didn't think I would interview all the people I interviewed. Every day was just a few baby steps here and there. After three years, I lost count after the fifty or so people I talked with and/or interviewed specifically for this project. Believe me, there are still a few people I'd like to interview, but it looks like it's not happening. Some people have a much different view of their time in their respective bands now compared to when they were in the bands. Some are impossible to get a hold of for various reasons. I can't wait forever for an interview, so I had to resort to using various legitimate interviews from magazines and webzines for quotes/background. As much as I would have preferred all of my sources to be from interviews I conducted, I didn't want everything to be in hindsight. Hence what my book is.

Why I'm talking about this is when I see a book like Alan Goldsher's "biography" on Modest Mouse, A Pretty Good Read. The book has been rightfully trashed by critics and members of the band in the press. Completely unauthorized with no direct involvement by the band and based mostly on previously-published interviews, the book is more like Dave Thompson's quickie bio on Nirvana, Never Fade Away. Starting off a chapter talking about how he played bass in Shootyz Groove and compared their touring regimen to Modest Mouse's is not a good sign. This kind of approach is an insult to longtime fans who know a lot about a band and new fans who don't know much more than what's on the records. I wonder how a book like this even gets published, let alone stays in print.

I remember buying Never Fade Away as an impulse buy in 1994. It came out only a few weeks after Kurt's death, was short and inexpensive. I didn't find anything offensive about it, but I would learn way more authorized stuff once I read Michael Azerrad's Come As You Are. I've never heard Michael's opinion on Never Fade Away, but I wouldn't be surprised he doesn't think favorably of it. How would you like it if you spent a few years getting to know a band or musician really closely and wrote about it with painstaking research while some writer is handed the task of writing a quick bio on the same matter in only a few weeks? It's no surprise that I keep going back to Come As You Are for reference while my copy of Never Fade Away collects dust in my parents' house.

One of my favorite jokes in Student Bodies begins with a question about a rack of costumes. Toby asks Hardy what they're for and he responds they were for a non-musical version of Grease since they couldn't get the rights to the music. In a lot of ways, this is how I see these largely unauthorized books. I stay away from books like A Pretty Good Read and Benjamin Nugent's Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing because they're not a full portrait. Their credibility as legitimate sources is greatly debatable. I wonder if there are books that never reach the publishing stage because of a lack of proper sources. I hope there are and books that do get published go the way of Lester Bangs' bio of Blondie.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Adventures in book shopping

I usually hit up my local Borders and Barnes & Noble bookstores every few weeks. More often than not, I usually go directly to my favorite section: the music section. There's always something new worth checking out along with older books I've been meaning to check out. I didn't know there was a new 656-page bio on Nirvana by Everett True until I saw it on a shelf over the weekend. However, my quests to find books about culture (be it pop culture, sociology, et al) have yielded some rather odd results.

A couple years ago, I heard about Alissa Quart's Branded: the Buying and Selling of Teenagers. Described as a No Logo-like look at how Generation Y is marketed to, I thought it would be filed in the same location that No Logo is filed under: culture studies. I looked around one Borders in particular to find it and had to go to the last resort: I asked a clerk to look it up in the store's database. To my surprise, Branded was filed in the Parenting/General Education section. In other words, it was mixed in with all sorts of books dealing with school bullies, cheating on tests and how to deal with other growing pains. Um, what? I can understand how a book like this could be filed in this section, but this isn't some guide to raising children.

What makes this filing even more puzzling is this is the same section that Ross Haenfler's Straight Edge: Clean-Living Youth, Hardcore Punk, and Social Change is filed under. I have yet to read this book, but based on its description, it doesn't sound like something for the Parenting section.

So that leads me to my curiosity: where would a book like Everybody Hurts fall under? It's a humorous look at emo culture circa 2006, so would it be under humor, culture studies or music? I'm not sure, but I wonder why I wonder about this when it's so easy to just buy this online and be done with it? The answer is simple: I like to peek at what I'm about to buy. Product descriptions and user reviews give a better light, but they aren't the same as holding a copy and judging for myself.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Thanks I Get

I got a chance to hear Wilco's new record, Sky Blue Sky, last night. I can't say much about how I feel about the album after one listen, but I will say this: the omission of "Thanks I Get" from the album is understandable.

Like the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot outtakes "Not for the Season" and "Cars Can't Escape," here's another case of a great song that's the odd man out. "Thanks I Get" is purely sublime, but it's just too poppy compared to the twelve songs that made the final cut. Its omission is a little surprising since the song has been played live quite a bit in the last year (here are videos of it performed with a full band and solo). Knowing Wilco, I have a good feeling we will get to download the song with the purchase of the CD.

For Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, the CD unlocked bonus MP3 content available online when placed in the CD-Rom drive. Still a very smart move to get people to buy their material, I'm a little surprised more labels haven't taken this approach. In the case of "Thanks I Get," this is a song that deserves a release of some type.

I will say this about Sky Blue Sky, don't be surprised to read "yacht rock" in reviews. I'm still in the dark about what that title exactly means, but it does have shades of early Steely Dan (an oft compared yacht rock band). As a pre-Aja Steely Dan fan, I have no problem with this. But the album is what it is and I'm not about to start some online petition to get "Thanks I Get" onto the album.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Pick up my guitar and play

A few weeks ago, I finally got around to playing the one and only Guitar Hero. Thinking this would be just like playing a guitar, I was surprised during my trial run. Playing the incredibly easy Ramones classic, "I Wanna Be Sedated," I played it note for note just like I've played it on guitar. Yet the song stopped, the crowd booed and I was at a loss for words. Ryan politely explained to me how to actually play the game (you hit the buttons right as they come at you). Once I got a grip on this, I was able to get through a lot of songs. But still, this game is more like Space Invaders instead of a guitar lesson.

I've been playing guitar since 1995 and have always enjoyed the guitar itself. I understand the Guitar Hero games are not meant to be guitar tutorials, but they are meant for the non-guitar player as well as the seasoned player.

I could chalk this up to playing for twelve years, but I've found playing a number of songs on Guitar Hero much easier to play on guitar. Songs like Helmet's "Unsung" and Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" are incredibly easy to me. But I find playing them on the game a torn matter. It's like I have to drastically adjust from regular playing to video game playing. Instead of moving up and down a fretboard on various strings, I'm staying on one part of the fretboard and on only one string.

A major facet of playing rock music (especially punk rock) is downpicking. Just find the chord placement and repeatedly strum in a downward motion. Depending on the difficulty level you select on Guitar Hero, you could play some notes to all the notes. Being a beginner at the game, the highest I can go is Medium. What that means is I don't play all the notes and I get easily thrown off.

I don't mean to piss all over this game series; it's really addicting and great to play at parties. But for me, it makes me want to get out my own guitar, play power chords, riffs all over the fretboard and everything in between.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Last Goodbye

When I got word about the death of Motown pianist Joe Hunter over the weekend, I really wanted to pull out my copy of Standing in the Shadows of Motown and watch the film again. If you've seen the film, Hunter is one of the most prominently displayed musicians and he shares plenty of great stories. But I got to wondering about something I've wondered about for years: why do we feel compelled to immediately buy (or dust off) something by an artist when he/she passes away?

I distinctly remember wanting to pick up whatever Nirvana records I didn't already own when I heard about Kurt Cobain's death. When people like Jerry Garcia and John Denver died, copies of their CDs (which were collecting dust on the shelf) flew out of record stores. It's like death is great publicity. Still, why the sudden urge?

When it comes to grieving about friends and family passing away, I usually think about the memories I have of them. I don't feel really compelled to look at documents like home movies or pictures right away. I think about what these people meant to me and still mean to me. Yet when it comes to somebody I've only really known through records, live performances or movies, I revert back to the source. It's like death serves as a reason why to celebrate the documentation of these people. And I'm not knocking this.

I guess I could chalk this up to the relationships I have with friends and family over a musician or an actor. I didn't know Joe Hunter as someone I sat on the family couch and played cards with. I only really knew him via a documentary I've cherished for years and the Q&A I sat in on after the film screened at the Deep Ellum film festival. Is this just a natural way of grieving for people we knew more through music or film rather than personally?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

What's My Age Again?

I think around the completion of the second Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, director Chris Columbus hinted that the three main actors, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, would not appear in all of the remaining films in the series. He didn't specify why, but he did say age was a major reason. Seeing as how the actors would be out of their teens by the time of filming the seventh and final film, there's always been speculation that the lead roles would be recast.

Well, now with a couple of reviews online for the fifth film, along with a story confirming Radcliffe will be in the final two films, I'm starting to really question the validity of rumors about Watson and Grint not being in the final two films. And I definitely don't buy the age issue.

The buying audience for these films has come to know these actors as the characters they've played in the films. This audience is not stupid and can tell if a recasting has happened. (So far, the only character recast was because of its actor's death.) Radcliffe is Potter, Grint is Ron Weasley and Watson is Hermione Granger. We've seen them grow and have grown attached to seeing them grow. At this point, with their characters aging, we understand that their voices and bodies have changed. So why in the world would you want these people replaced because they looked slightly older than the characters they portray?

There are plenty of interesting stories in show business about playing up age and playing down age. Sean Connery and Harrison Ford played father and son in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but are only twelve years apart in real life. Tobey Maguire perfectly portrayed teenager Peter Parker in Spider-Man even though he was 27 at the time. Earle Hyman and Bill Cosby convincingly portrayed father and son on The Cosby Show, even though they are eleven years apart in age in real life. The list goes on and on. The point is, age in show business has some wiggle room.

I can understand replacing the leads if the Harry Potter series took place over a year or so storywise, but we're talking seven years here folks. No matter if they got the best actors in the world to replace Grint and Watson, they would not be Grint and Watson. Say what you will about their acting talents, but the films work because the chemistry between the three works on film. I get the feeling it's just a matter of signing new contracts and being done with it. Besides, there were rumors that Gary Oldman would not be in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because of money disputes. Amazing what can change when these things work out.

Monday, March 05, 2007

With your feet in the air and your head on the ground

loudQUIETloud was a documentary that quickly came out last year theatrically and quickly arrived on DVD shortly thereafter. Any documentary about the Pixies piques my interest, but a certain story ran in the NME right around its theatrical release that made me hold off on seeing it. Charles Thompson criticized certain editing of the film, but the story made it seem like he was very displeased with the film. Coupled with some rather opinion-as-fact comments made by one of its filmmakers in Fool the World, I had a bad feeling about the film.

I watched the film over the weekend and found it pretty worthwhile. This is a fly-on-the-wall film about the band's reunion tour, starting in a small bar in Minneapolis. Following their tour of the states and Europe, there's plenty of intimate access that no puffy EPK would ever show. That's the perk, but the actual film feels less like the dynamic of a Pixies song and more like the dynamic of a Pixies show. Meaning, the music is incredible, but staring at the people making it can be tiresome after a while.

As noted a few times on the commentary track, the film's pacing is meant to go from the loud onstage sound to the quiet backstage, hotel room or tour bus. It's cool to see Joey and Charles spend time with their families, along with Kim spending time with her sister and David in his own world. The lack of communication between the band members is not a fault of the filmmakers or the editor. This is just how the band functioned on this leg of the tour. There are plenty of good times had by the band members, but it remains very clear how all four have moved on in their respective lives.

After viewing the film, I realized how Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Some Kind of Monster documentary has raised the standard for rock band documentaries. The members of Metallica bore all in front of the cameras because they were willing to bare all in front of the cameras. With the Pixies, their lack of open communication between each other presents many missed opportunities in front of the camera. Word is the film has helped the members communicate with one another.

All this said, I think the best way to understand the Pixies is by listening to their music. In no fault to the filmmakers or the previous live performance DVDs, this band made its legendary status back when there were no such things available. Curious people such as myself wanted to know more about this band Kurt Cobain (and many of his contemporaries) praised, so all we had was the music to go off of. Fool the World is a fantastic bio on the band and pretty essential if you want to know more about their origins. loudQUIETloud digs as deep as it can to get a glimpse of where the band was on this first part of their reunion. The results may not be the most compelling, so maybe a sequel or short follow-up film could provide a different (and more engaging) look at the band.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Following Through

Punknews.org and Pitchfork have the scoop, but in case you hadn't heard, the mighty Dismemberment Plan will play a one-off reunion show in D.C. on April 28th. The reason? It's a benefit for Callum Robbins. Here are the details:

Saturday, April 28th at the Black Cat
Tickets are $15 and they are on sale today at 5pm

After two benefit shows in New York and one in Chicago, a previously announced second show in Chicago is happening at the end of April. With this D.C. show and the aforementioned Minneapolis show, these benefit shows don't seem to stop popping up. And that's good.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Three Years Later

I've told bits of this story before, but I thought I'd lay the whole story out today.

On March 1st, 2004, I woke up to the sound of roofers working on my building. I knew all of the buildings in my apartment complex would be worked on because of a notice posted a few weeks prior. They were finally working on my building and were working at a brisk pace that morning.

Being the first day of the month, I had to turn in my rent check. I planned to stop by the leasing office before I went to my afternoon gig at KLUV. As I'm walking down the steps, I see pile after pile of torn up shingles and old nails. New piles were falling fast and all over the place. I decided I should walk slowly and watch my steps.

When I reached a point where I thought all was clear, BAM! A small pile of shingles hit me on the right side of my head and bounced off my right hand. The hit didn't feel like a punch, but it felt like a hard slap. I dropped my keys and looked up to see if any of the roofers noticed me. I saw about five guys just staring at me, not saying a word. It was as if I was the Elephant Man revealed in From Hell. I dusted myself off and went into the leasing office.

Handing my check over, my friendly landlord Tom asked how I was doing. Because I needed to get going to work and didn't want to be held up by a long conversation about the shingles, I said all was well. I wasn't looking at my watch and walked on over to my car. I didn't notice the small cut on my head either.

To get to work from where I lived at the time, the Dallas North Tollway was the best route. It was a cloudy day and my head was quite foggy because of the hit. I don't know about you, but whenever I'm sick or healing from something, I look forward to when things are back to normal. For some reason, I started thinking about how people were negatively responding to Andy Greenwald's Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers and Emo. I had yet to read the book, but a number of people on the Blackball Records message board and a few Amazon user reviews exposed it for what it really is. The book is not for the people that saw the Promise Ring play in a basement in '95 or bought a Christie Front Drive 7" from the band after the show.

As I approached my exit, I thought about when the story of mid-Nineties post-hardcore/emo was going to get back to normal. Slowing down to go through the Wycliff toll plaza, I thought, "Why don't I write a book about this in the vein of Our Band Could Be Your Life?" It sounded like a great idea and I knew a few people to interview for it.

I pulled into the parking garage and realized that I was thirty minutes early. Getting into the office, I went straight into the newsroom and sent a quick e-mail off to Nick. I told him I had a crazy idea for a book and wanted his feedback. His response: "you're not crazy and I'll help you put it out." Mission Label was kicking into gear and this would be a great project.

With that encouragement, I sent off a few e-mails. I e-mailed Adam Pfahler from Jawbreaker, who I'd never talked to before, and he said he was up for it. Had Adam said no, I'm not so sure I would have gone so fast with it. By the end of the afternoon, I had a few Jawbreaker questions answered and had sent an e-mail to Kim Coletta from DeSoto Records. The next three years would be something like that almost every day/week.

After numerous e-mail interviews, phone interviews and in-person interviews, I lost count of how many people I've talked to specifically for this project. I think the number is between fifty or sixty now. I never thought I would interview so many people, especially the ones I have looked up to for years. Not to make light of them, but I found how human these extraordinary people are. Be it a band member, label owner or a writer, they all eat, sleep and have feelings just like everybody else. That definitely translated onto the page with telling this story.

So where am I at three years later? Awaiting word on my manuscript, whether it needs a lot more work or not. Stay tuned!