Monday, August 21, 2006

Why I Like Country Music

Well, just sitting here with no pants on, watching Dog the Bounty Hunter on TV. It’s been awhile since I posted anything. Got myself into a short work gig that’s been nonstop, very intense Excel work from the second I sit down in the morning to the second I leave. Ergo, I haven’t had much urge to be around computers after work. On top of which, when I have, I’ve been engaged in a few big MP3 projects with various folks, which tend to take a lot of organizing, leg-work and CD-burning.

One of the fruits of those MP3 labors has been acquiring a “Top 500 Country Songs of All Time” batch of MP3s (courtesy of Lonesome Ray) based on a magazine article from a few years back in which critics went to town with their top choices. Being that the list is from critics, some of the choices are just ludicrous. Pop bands from the 60s with their one or two country songs. Soul songs from the 60s, too. That’s a real no-no for me. Partially because there’s no way you can draw an easy line – literally every soul singer of the 60s has at least a handful of songs, probably more, that you could notice the song has all the trappings of a country ballad, save for the instrumentation and arrangement.

My problem is that most critics tend to favor a reverse racism, in that when they’re queried to write about “Top 500 Soul Songs of All Time,” you can bet your sweet ass there will not be one white country artist on that list. Not even Tony Joe White doing “Polk Salad Annie” – which is a soul song, and perhaps the best "grunting" song. I’d write this down more to critics being candy-assed rejects than the fact that a lot of 60s soul and country was interchangeable, and one of the greatest crimes of the past 30 or so years has been the separation of color musically, with all of us being instructed to worship black music unequivocally as the cultural voice of a people (it isn’t), and view country music as the domain of hillbillies and, well, guys sitting around their houses watching Dog the Bounty Hunter with no pants on.

Most of that 500 song set is stunning, and put together with another collection of roughly 500 songs my friend P.J. and I threw together a few years ago on our own, and it makes for one intriguing overview of country music, from the mid-1920s through today, although, admittedly and much to my chagrin, the list thins out greatly from the 1980s onwards. And I’m wondering if that’s more because we’re also being trained to see older country music as the only kind that matters, whereas anything more pop-tinged from the 1980s onwards is somehow tainted. Granted, when I watch CMT and see all the Oprah-style issue songs and material geared towards sassy middle-aged women who think they know more than you ever will, I get kind of sick. But if I hang around long enough, there will always be some song that isn’t so bad, whether or not some cardboard cutout with a cowboy hat is singing it. Chances are, that guy’s a front for some very good songwriters and some deeply talented studio musicians who’d never have a hit these days under their own auspices.

Why do I like country music? I’m not really sure. That wasn’t always the case -- my liking it at all as opposed to not being really sure. I’m under the impression that anyone under the age of 30 who likes country music is just weird. It’s a music not meant for young people. Like the blues, it’s meant for people who have done some living, who have lost as much or more than they’ve won, who understand that there is very little heroic in life, that it just goes on, and you live it to the best of your abilities. Pop music is about firsts – love, the exhilaration of experiencing things for the first time, even the morbid fascination with various forms of heartbreak, nay, the wallowing in heartbreak and depression, as best exemplified by the truly shitty grunge rock trend of the early 90s. Grunge rock killed hair metal? What a fucking shame. I like hair metal more than I like grunge rock. At least those guys were honest about their shallowness, and were smart enough to have as much fun as possible before it all caved in on them.

A movie like Garden State, replete with its hip indie rock soundtrack, perfectly underlines the division I sense between pop and country. I rented the movie on DVD two days after my father died. And short of putting my foot through the TV screen, let’s just say I thought the movie was a load of twentysomething, navel-gazing shit. A shiftless, guy in his early 20s with mental problems meanders home to New Jersey when his mother dies. The movie’s about how he deals with his mother’s passing? No. It’s about this weird little twerp falling in love with a future mental patient, while he pals around with a hometown friend who is literally a ghoul with his gravedigging job that finds him robbing corpses. That’s cool? That’s zany, funny, hip stuff? I just put my fucking father in the ground. You put a parent in the ground, the thoughts and emotions centered around that act dominate every second of your life for days, in my case months, on end. Every inch of that movie felt like a lie. It still does. It had nothing to do with the stark reality of a parent’s death that I’d just experienced. That guy's dead mother was just a morbid after-thought to his self-realization hijinx. Real life aint like that -- unless you have no heart.

(Sidenote: that same night, I rented Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. I laughed my ass off at a time when I really needed it, and am now a big Will Ferrell fan. I thought Talladega Nights was brilliant – it set its sights low, and hit every mark along the way. Maybe not a work of genius, but a deeply funny flick where you know exactly what you’re paying for, and it delivers.)

The pop music in Garden State drove home the self absorption and shallowness. A lot of pop music, while pretty and fun to listen to (I do it all the time), is basically heartless. Or more to the point, the people writing and singing the songs haven’t lived enough to convey any real depth of emotion in their art. The music tends to be excellent. But they play at being heavy, or cynical. Hell, I did the same. But I grew out of it, or more specifically had life beat it out of me. That’s what life does when you live long enough. In one sense, it makes you harder, but in another, it opens you up. Being hip and cynical is fun, but sooner or later, shit, where’s the beef? As life goes on, you want to have people in your life you can count on, more than you want people who entertain you, and vice-versa.

And I guess that’s how I came to like country music. It means what it says. Even when it’s lying to you, it feels like it’s telling the truth. Kevin Russell, co-lead singer of The Gourds (my favorite band), called it White People’s Soul Music, and he’s right. I tend not to like country music that doesn’t convey any sense of soul. As noted earlier, switch over to CMT and you’ll get a healthy dose of that. I’d say commercial country music tends to be just as if not more cynical than all the awful little hiphop acts parading around with their faux gangsterism, much less whatever junky faux-punk crap kids are listening to these days.

But every now and then, they get it right and cut through all the bullshit. I wish music could go back to the early days of rock, up through the soul and country of the 60s, when a lot of the music, given a different arrangement, maybe a mandolin and fiddle instead of a horn section, was similar in ways that seem very distant now. People mourn the rock and folk of the 60s, but from a musical standpoint, they’d be better off mourning the 50s, about 1954 through 1960 or so, when the great blues and country artists were going full gun, and younger guys like Chuck Berry and Elvis were pulling as much from both sides and incorporating it into rock. That must have been a time, and if I had my druthers, I’d go there much more than musical place in the 1960s. As it is, I can play that music now, especially the country stuff, and hear a purity of purpose, and a sense of soul, that’s hard to find in most pop music. You think rock is the hardest music ever made? Then you haven't really heard the blues. Nor any number of country songs that nail the hardness of life in ways pop music will never get anywhere near.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

In Concert

I went out to Jersey Saturday and saw a Willie Nelson/John Fogerty concert at the PNC Bank Arts Center (formerly the Garden States Arts Center) in Holmdel. Tickets were gratis, courtesy of my friend Andy S.’s mom working for an organization associated with the center.

How was it? Fine. Glad I got to see Willie Nelson – didn’t know the guy was such a lead guitarist, and it was great fun to hear him do classics like “On the Road Again” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” This is the third time I’ve seen Fogerty and as usual, the guy does nothing but rock the shit out of his old CCR classics. The first time I saw this was about 10 years ago in Wallingford, CT on his comeback tour. This was when he first decided it was time again to play his own songs, after not doing so for decades due to unwittingly signing over ownership of his songs to Saul Zaentz, Hollywood producer and former owner of Fantasy Records, who gave CCR a typical bum publishing deal and never reversed ownership. (On the other hand, a movie like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which Zaentz produced, may have never been made without that CCR money.)

And that night was incredible. Please understand that growing up in a small town in the 70s, it was common to go to a block party or a bar and, without fail, whatever rock band was onstage would have at least a handful of CCR songs in their repertoire. So I’ve heard these songs played dozens of times live by bands that have ranged from awful to pretty good. To hear Fogerty play his own songs for the first time since the early 70s, and see the joy he felt in doing so, was probably the top concert-going experience of my life. It helped that the setting was perfect. He had a beautifully-designed stage set featuring a backdrop of a bayou at day, and then night as the lighting changed. Just a magical night. These past two times, including last night, it was good, but not quite as good as the first. A special bonus was Fogerty dragging out Bruce Springsteen for an encore of a Little Richard song – Springsteen looked and sounded great, although I suspect Fogerty gave him a background singer’s microphone so his booming voice wouldn’t compete. Wish they had done “Rockin’ All Over the World,” which Springsteen has often played live.

It was a strange crowd, too. A lot of guys who looked like Kenny Rogers. Even more guys who looked like Willie Nelson. Older white guys, clearly working class, who had one long, white pony tail trailing down the back of their $50 concert shirts. Each of these guys had a sanguine look on his ancient face, like he knew something you didn’t, and he wasn’t going to lord it over you. Some bozo, drunk-ass New York Giants fans types. Beefy dinguses with large heads, 40% body fat, small mustaches and lousy “fuck you” attitudes, purposely smoking, well, because they’re going to smoke wherever and whenever they want, eh, whatta’ you gonna’ do ‘bout it. I guess you can’t go to a concert anywhere in Jersey featuring a white rock act without dealing with these folks.

Some biker types. At one point, Fogerty went into a spiel about owning a Harley, met with howls of approvals by Harley owners, all of whom looked like they’d be better off with one of those big geriatric bikes with saddle bags, a windshield and tassels on the handlebars. Speaking of handlebars, a lot of handlebar mustaches. One guy next to us had a really bizarre Rollie Fingers ‘stache, must have been about six inches long curling out on each side, and he was dancing like a maniac the whole time. Pretty much just glad he stayed the hell away from me.

Most of the crowd, it was honestly hard to tell if they came to see Nelson or Fogerty, or both. Usually you get two big-name acts like that on the same bill, you can tell. But we’ve reached a point in concert-going where the average age of your Fogerty fan is probably in the mid-50s, and Nelson’s slightly higher. And there were plenty of younger people, but to all of us raised in a concert-going golden era, where the idea of going to concert meant a stadium filled with twentysomethings under a hovering cloud of pot smoke, it was strange to see a venue filled with Wilford Brimley’s. There’s a Toby Keith concert in that venue this coming week – that crowd would surely make an interesting sociological study!

If the tickets hadn’t been free ($55 face value … probably would have been over $65 with Ticketmaster charges attached), I wouldn’t have gone. My rule of thumb is to never spend more than $20 to see a band, which is easy to do in New York City, and preferable to see a band I like in a club where I’m a few feet from the stage. Still, I find that as I get older, the less I want to see live music in any setting. It’s just something that’s faded out of my life. No great tragedy. Just a sign that I’m less willing to put up with all the bullshit that surrounds going to see a show. What bullshit would that be? Let me fill you in:

Ticket prices. As noted, any sort of big-name act these days tends to charge upwards of $50 for a basic ticket. Most much more than that. It’s a rip-off. What’s happening is this last great era of rock stars, who are all pretty long in the tooth for rock stars and years past their prime, are bound to stop touring in the next decade or so. And when they do, there really is nothing that will replace them on that level of filling a 5,000 seat or higher venue. So the concert industry is trying to cash in while the money’s there. It should be interesting to see how the concert industry is in 2016 – I can guarantee you, it will be vastly different from what it is now, probably for the worse.

Parking. Not an issue with me and city shows. But Andy was going out of his mind trying to find a parking space at this awful PNC Bank Arts Center. The place is run by shitheads. There were no clear guides on where to park, and the folks who should have been doing so were pretty much standing around in their yellow vests, not doing anything unless someone pulled over and yelled a question at them. There were douche bags putting lawn chairs in open spaces, to save them for late-arriving friends, which should have been ix-nayed by the staff. And then there was the “Premium Parking Lot” – which was damn near empty, as the Arts Center was charging $30 to park there, the idea being that it was close to the venue, and people should pay more. A truly hideous, unfair practice. We were eventually directed to “Lot 3” – one brief turn from the Garden State Parkway, and about a quarter of a mile hike through a wooded area to the venue. Absolute bullshit. We were pretty steamed by the time we got there.

Food and drink prices. $5.00 hot dogs. $7.00 beers. The usual bullshit you see in professional sports stadiums. No different at concerts. I should have suggested to Andy that we hit a Subway or something on the way down, because the food prices were outrageous. Not to mention that the soda machines in their food court weren’t working, and customers had to scramble around to find warm bottles of Coke for $4.50. People, or at least people like me, get tired of being fucked over like this. $55 for a ticket, I don’t want to drop this much on food and drink. Obviously, some people don’t have any problem with this to judge by the deluge of empty plastic Bud bottles littering the lawn around the amphitheater after the show. You have to be out of your fucking mind, or an alcoholic, to pay $7.00 for a 12-oz. bottle of Bud.

Personal comfort. I’m not a giant. I’m a good-sized guy, but there are plenty of guys much taller and wider than I am. Seats in these venues are designed for guys who are about 5’ 9” and weigh 150 lbs. Any bigger, and you’re wedged in. Next to us, was this truly giant guy, about 6’ 4” and at least 260 lbs., and his large wife. We were packed in like sardines. I sat with my arms pressed in, like I do on a crowded subway. What choice was there? It’s just a sign of cheapness and inconsideration that venues are designed with seats this small. I can go to “stadium seating” movie theaters and have a good-sized, comfortable, rocking seat. No idea why this can’t apply to major venues, save it would cost all of them a small fortune to re-design, and probably knock out a few thousand seats. It really is a problem when you’re in a place for three or four hours.

(Maybe I should have got up and danced? Er, um, no, not my thing. Whether it was the freaky couple in front of us who could have been father-daughter but appeared to be more, doing their hippie-ish sufi dancing, the Rollie Fingers nut doing his acid freak out, or the creepy Giants fans doing their ogre stomp in between smoking and chanting “USA! USA! USA!” for no apparent reason, I wasn’t getting anywhere near these fucking people.)

Ditto clubs. Most Manhattan clubs, you are wedged in to tightly-packed tables with no room to move. Or, even better, you are standing. I can recall many times, going to a club like the old Roxy, and standing all night, through four bands, which meant from about 8:30 to one in the morning. My ankles and knees would be killing me. If it was a crowded show, I simply couldn’t move for hours on end, save to shift weight from one foot to the other. Fuck this! Damn near every show I’ve ever seen, whatever pleasure I felt from watching live music being played, it was always offset by the personal discomfort I felt in one of the above seating/standing situations. It’s just too much of a hassle these days – or at least I’ve reached a point where I’m not willing to put up with all the B.S. just for the music.

The fans. This is a touchy subject. But I really don’t know why a lot of people go to shows. They seem to have little or no interest in the music. They’re going, I guess, because a spouse dragged them along, they got free tickets, or they wanted a break from watching professional wrestling. In short, they just don’t give a shit about music or the artists onstage. Constantly talking. Not paying attention. Not into the music at all. Taking piss and/or food breaks every five minutes. They’re assholes.

On the other end of the spectrum are the uber-fans, the ones who seem a little too into the band and are clearly having some type of spiritual epiphany – which, again, I find impossible because I’m so physically uncomfortable. I don’t know what happens at live shows. What, if any, information is exchanged between artist and audience. Sometimes I feel like I’m a heretic attending a religious ceremony where I have no business being. I don’t look at recording artists as anything but recording artists – and this is no insult, I love music and appreciate the musicians who make it. I enjoy seeing a band rocking out, or an artist singing a song that genuinely connects with me, and thousands of others, in a very real, human way. Job well done – I appreciate it.

It all feels a bit like a berserk pep rally, and I’m not quite sure what I’m cheering for. I guess it’s my distrust of crowds and their willingness to be lead. That’s always made me uncomfortable, especially with rock crowds, who pride themselves on rebelliousness and individuality, but at concerts, become willingly-led sheep. The artist punches his fist in the air, the crowd punch their fists in the air. The artist says something like, “people, help me out with this next verse” and thrusts his mike outwards to the crowd. The crowd sings the line. At a Ray Davies solo show I went to a few years back, during his old Kinks number “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” Ray excoriated the crowd to get on their feet and clap their hands. But I sat there thinking, “I would Ray … but I’m not like everybody else. And I don’t fucking feel like it.”

In a sense, I feel let it down because I sense the possibilities, and have experienced it on occasion, when an audience and an artist truly connect, making a show a memorable experience. Hell, the first show I saw, J. Geils Band tearing up the Stabler Arena in Allentown, PA the week their Freeze Frame album went Number One, and those guys were so elated, and such consummate showmen, that the place went wild. It helped that I was stoned out of my mind from second-hand pot smoke and wearing a DEVO-style plastic flower pot on my head. But there are times when all the bullshit is transcended, and things happen. Actually, this happens at some point in nearly every show. Willie Nelson made it happen when he cut into Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.” Fogerty made it happen a few times with his classics. Just a moment where it all works, and you can feel the energy.

But the truth is, it’s hard to make that happen and maintain it for an entire show. It rarely does. Meanwhile, there are plenty of us out there, tired of being wedged into shitty seats, or standing stock still with our arms at our side, because we simply can’t stand any way else, or next to some shithead having a cellphone conversation during a ballad, or a bunch of guys reliving their frat days. Or what have you.

Music has always been a mostly private experience for me. The times when it’s reached me the most have often been on headphones. Sitting on my bed back in Pennsylvania. Popping open the cellophane on the Ziggy Stardust album. Or Chuck Berry’s Great 28 double album. Or the Kinks Chronicles. Or any great album, where I put it on, and even that first time, I knew something important just happened, and sure enough, I sit here nearly 30 years later just as touched by the same music, along with thousands of other songs and artists I’ve picked up along the way. It becomes shared in the sense of friends being into the same music and having those same cultural references.

What I’ve learned is that when you get out of that small circle of friends, shared musical taste is often about the only thing I’ll share with a lot of people. Before the show, Andy and I were sitting there having our shitty, over-priced food when an older guy looking for a seat asked if he could sit at our table. Sure, we said, sit down. I heard you talking about seeing Jethro Tull this guy said to Andy, who had been reminiscing over all the great shows he saw in his college days. Sure enough, this guy was a Tull fan, and we spent the next 15 minutes or so going over past concerts.

I guess if we were all 23 or something, it would have been more unifying. But this guy was borderline space cadet, on the verge of having his eyes pointing in different directions. I don’t think he was stoned so much as just putting out a very strange vibe – not a bad guy at all. Just deeply weird. And sooner or later, you have enough of these experiences with people you obviously share common musical tastes with, and you realize you’re not all in the same boat. (I've had experiences with Lou Reed/Velvet Underground fans where I realized I'd be more comfortable beating the shit out of them than trying to feel any sense of human warmth with them.) And that’s fine! I guess what I’m reiterating is that music is mostly a private experience, with a rarely realized potential to be a genuinely shared one. And most of that is simply due to the rigid format all concert venues of any size tend to favor, which are not designed for comfort or unity. They're designed to make as much money as possible.