Sunday, September 26, 2010

In Dreams

I’ve been having a bad dream for the past few years that I can’t quite figure out. Most of my dreams, I can’t remember, mainly because they’re too nuts. Not like movie dreams that have some recognizable purpose or plot. Mine usually involve dead people, celebrities, people with wings, talking animals, animals with people’s heads and vice-versa, purple skies, centaurs, shifting physical scenes, like a forest, open countryside and rural dirt roads suddenly appearing in downtown Manhattan (that dream always relaxes me), or a cliff suddenly appearing in a bedroom and me walking off. They’re vivid as hell, I only remember bits and pieces, and the ones I do remember make no sense and spook me.

This recurring one is a nightmare, albeit not a horrific one. No vampires, werewolves or yellow-eyed demons. It’s simple. In varying formats, some unseen authority figure determines that something went horribly wrong back in the early 80s in terms of tabulating grades and earned credits … and in each case, I am forced to go back to high school to get my diploma, which was erroneously awarded to me at the time. Starting Now. As an adult. Dream started in my 30s, now in my 40s.

I don’t have this dream every night, week or month. But often enough to know it’s a recurring theme, and one of those troubling dreams that always leaves me with a headache when I wake up. (That’s usually how I know I’ve had a nightmare that I can only vaguely remember.)

This last one stuck out for me because the first day of school, where I decided to use my wings and fly to my high school which is just where it was and is now, about two miles out the road on Route 61 … this time, I was wearing red leather lederhosen, with no shirt on underneath, but reconsidered when I was about to go through the front doors, realizing how weird I would look to the kids (or anyone, outside of a few select nightclubs, Right Said Fred blasting from the jukebox). I never went in – and this is where the dream ended. The dream tends to end before I actually take classes, or even see any of my old teachers.

The dream never applies to college, probably because going back wouldn’t be as uncomfortable or unrealistic. Plenty of adults go back to college. But I’m sure as hell not after hearing horror stories of people dropping $20K/year on their kids’ college educations now. Of course, in my dream, I’d expect to be the same gangly, fresh-faced kid I was then … as opposed to the more Rodney Dangerfieldesque reality of passing time.

I’m not sure why this inspires so much dread in me. Even when I was a kid, I thought too many other kids in high school were assholes. Couldn’t stand the trendiness, the cliques, the cattiness, the profound lack of maturity. I run into adults constantly who haven’t seemed to grow one iota mentally or emotionally over the following decades. Or at least I constantly encounter people at work who embody the worst of high school. Kids now? Cellphones, texting, the desperately empty pop culture, which makes the empty one I grew up with seem like the Renaissance. I don’t know if they’re “worse” than how kids were then – they surely do seem that way. But I can see what’s going on now is pretty similar to disco culture we had in the 70s, save amplified a few thousand times to overbearing proportions, with the Guidoism similarly turned up to 11. Watch Saturday Night Fever sometime … not much has changed, only grown more embarrassing.

In some strange way, I’m seeing the dream as a parting with my youth. I don’t want to go back, this much is crystal clear in my dream. There is dread. I’m being forced to go back. As you get older, you stop playing games with the concept of “youth.” Well, at least I do. There are plenty of guys well into their 60s dying their hair jet black and wearing that dead give-away “all black” outfits that scream “middle-aged man still trying to look hip.” There are some things about adulthood I will never grasp: overbearing self importance, fake authoritarianism, wearing collared shirts at all times, never wearing shorts, extreme debt, dishonesty as a way of life, money as status, forced life decisions, etc.

But one of my biggest pet peeves about adulthood is other adults kissing the ass of youth. You see this all the time with music. In the bad adult mind, this stuff is considered sacrosanct as it represents kids claiming some type of music as their own … and recalling how they felt at the time, too, about the bands and music they worshipped as teenagers. But they forget that there was plenty of music in their time as teenagers that they openly and wildly hated, too, often music that gets targeted at all teens. I would expect to walk up to some full-blown indie kid now and hear him say, “Man, hiphop sucks. It's empty. It’s a parasitic form of music that’s gone nowhere in decades and had very few original ideas to begin with.”

All right, so that was me talking. But a kid saying that is considered valid because of his age – me saying that is an “old man” who “needs to listen to some old school/underground hiphop to really hear the good stuff” and “just doesn’t get it.” I get it. I got it for about two years in the mid-80s and moved on when I grasped it was going nowhere musically. I get all kinds of music way beyond hiphop or the predominately white pop rock I was raised with. I’ll often see this debate with music fans, with lame adults always siding with the “can’t criticize anything kids like because you're not a kid” take. They won – a long time ago. And look at pop music now: horrible junk for the most part that gets more constricted, redundant and tired with each passing year. A 13-year-old seriously listening to a very small field of pop music for three months has just as valid an opinion as a 45-year-old man who’s spent decades listening to all kind of music well beyond and including pop? That’s how the world works now. Everyone’s equal. We should exchange the Supreme Court with the cast from Jersey Shore. Why the fuck not?

It’s that altar our sick culture has erected around youth, that demands we all worship at it, even when our teen years are a dot in the rear view mirror. To criticize it in any fashion is to be out of touch. When any sane person can see the altar is 98% shit and 2% substance. Sane teenagers see this all the time, but of course are heavily outnumbered by morons, same as it ever was. But we’re all expected to maintain the fa├žade, out of some misguided sense of respect. Life goes on. I don’t mind seeing kids foisting this lie on me, as they don’t know any better, but adults? I don’t get it. Seeing life this way is an extremely defeatist attitude that ignores the simple act of aging. It’s permissible to be honest: if you think something sucks, say it sucks. Life goes on for everybody. Somebody thinks that makes you old and out of touch, let them get old and out of touch, so they can see what bullshit a stance like that truly is. I want to be out of touch with teen tastes because I’m not a teenager, and there’s something creepy about adults playing up the faux hipness they mistakenly see in themselves out of some deep-seated insecurity regarding the aging process. I can only guess what compels adults to swallow such dogshit. (Best guess is some of them are making money from that stance and know not to rock the boat.)

I can recall being 11 or 12, sitting in my dad’s room, listening to a rough cassette copy of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album. This was the first album I bought, with snow shoveling money. And what an album – some of Elton’s best songs are on there. But there was too much filler, a forced double album when the guy was already putting out two albums a year. When I say a “rough” copy, I mean rough, recorded to cassette the old-fashioned way: holding an awful, low-grade plastic microphone, plugged into the cassette earphone jack, up to one very bad stereo speaker for the length of each album side. It sounded awful, even the good songs.

I was sitting there, listening to what may be Elton John’s worst song, “Jamaica Jerk Off.” I don’t think it’s a song about Jamaicans masturbating. “Jerk” could be referring to the type of chicken you get there? The actual lyrics don’t seem to be about guys jerking off. It’s just a dumb title, strapped on a terrible cod reggae song that Elton never should have recorded, not even as a b-side. I recall not being too crazy about the song even then, and had no idea what jerking off was (although you better believe I would in another year or two). But I had recorded the album in its entirety, and there it was.

Just as the song is playing, Dad walks in to take some money out the wallet in his drawer. I notice him pause as the song is playing. He doesn’t fly into a rage, but barks out, “That song’s disgusting! You shouldn’t be listening to crap like that!” He didn’t flip out and take or turn off the cassette player. Just made it known he thought the song was a piece of shit, and walked out. By the same token, “Candle in the Wind” or “Bennie and the Jets” could have been playing, and he’d have been put off. But not to the extent of hearing a horrible-sounding song about masturbating, or so he thought.

I recall being mildly offended in that “this is my kind of music, man” way … but even in that moment, sort of agreed with him. He left before I could say, “Yeah, you’re right” and explained that I had recorded the entire album without editing anything out. The song did suck, big time. What I loved about Dad, and his generation, is/was their ability to just say, in essence, “fuck this shit” to their kids and not be worried about any repercussions. If I had kids, I can guarantee you, I’d be the same way. Nothing was broken in him or wrong with his generation. They thought something sucked. They said so. We all got over it. I’m sure Dad’s opinion would have applied to many things I loved then musically and still do now. So what? Not everyone gets everything, and sooner or later, we all get off the merrygoround of pop culture, especially when it starts getting too sickening to bear, as it has been through the 90s and 00s.

Peel away the layers, and I think this provides the sense of dread in that dream. I think there’s also a fear of change going on in there. Change is good when you’re a kid, but as you get older, changes are not always for the better. People die. Get sick. Lose work. Get divorced. Lose friends. There’s still positive change, but a lot of the changes we go through after 30 aren’t good. Of course, you learn this is life kicking your ass, and provides even more opportunity for some kind of growth once the shock wears off. But we all hit these plateaus in life and just move right along, punching the clock, banking the money, wondering if this is what it’s all about, etc. I’ve been claiming that I’m hanging on to this clammy “working in an office” way of life by my fingernails … for decades now. Would love to ditch it for something else, but not quite sure how to pull it off in terms of money/level of income and such. I suspect that dream dwells on that longstanding desire for change.

I have no idea what the red leather lederhosen means. Only happened this past time. In my sub-conscious, I can recall that scene in the so-so 80s flick Streets of Fire where Willem Dafoe, as the bad guy, comes walking out of a wall of flame in those leather bib overalls with suspenders – I think that was the vibe I was going for in the dream, but of course looked like a total asshole instead.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Alternate Born in the USA

When Bruce Springsteen put out his enormously successful Born in the USA album in the summer of 1984, I was waiting for it. “Dancing in the Dark” had come out a month earlier, and I grew to like it after being initially put off by the 80s synth sound. I still recall putting the album on for the first time, on release day, and feeling blown away by the title track, and much of what followed. It was that summer’s album, endlessly playing my homemade cassette copy on the Sparkomatic in Dad’s Yellow Hornet station wagon, driving around with the beautiful Born Again before she was born again. It was a good summer.

But some things don’t age so well. That girl was gone a year later, in more ways than one, and over the years, I’ve come to realize Born in the USA has real problems as an album. You can hear what the problem is: what Springsteen was convinced he wanted at the time, mass superstardom, how he geared the album to invite that level of celebrity into his life … was not what he wanted, which he found out later, and that desire was at odds with who he was. Not his image … working-class hero, friend to the blue-collar man, etc. Who he was … a guy from Jersey who never had a job as anything but a musician, had played his ass off all his life, carved out a beautiful niche for himself as a respected and successful recording artist, but pushed himself into a role that was far from his simple desire to do what he had been doing. Born in the USA now sounds like a bloated attempt to achieve mass fame.

It helps to understand the history and recordings leading into the album, to hear the kernel of an idea he had, to put out a solid album of shorter rock songs to follow up the starkness of his all-acoustic Nebraska album – sort of a rock-and-roll addendum to that album’s folk leanings, with the same concise, no-frills lyricism. It wouldn’t have made him a superstar, but the album he could have put out would have been his best. I listen to the music around that album, the stuff that has never made it out officially, and can hear a much better album that would have been completely true to who he was as a musician and worked out just fine with his image.

But, producer Jon Landau seemed to insist on superstardom, and Bruce went along with that desire. “Dancing in the Dark” was an addendum to the end of the sessions when Landau noticed they didn’t have what he felt was a blockbuster first single for the album. So, he made Bruce write one, complete with teen-friendly synthesizer backing and beats, tailored to the production values of the time. This song should not be on the album: it should be what it is, a single. Bands used to release singles all the time that weren’t on albums, and this is surely one of those cases.

But that wasn’t the only song that shouldn’t have been on the album. “Cover Me” is among Springsteen’s worst songs: b-side material at best, a song he should have given to someone else. As it was the second song on side one after the title track, everyone involved obviously thought it was a gangbuster track that would blow the roof off. Even that first time I heard it, I thought it was a bad song. I was too young then to hold it against him, but what was he thinking? (Aside from the obvious, that he had let himself be talked into throwing more contemporary-sounding material on an album instead of sticking to his creative guns.)

And there are a few other songs on the album that I would have made b-sides. Songs that are now considered Springsteen classics, but for my money, are just a little too bloated or playing too hard into image-mongering:

Downbound Train: I know people who swear by this song, but I just don’t quite get it. This would have been a b-side. A great b-side, too. (I could have been talked into putting this on the album.)

No Surrender: Cheesy stuff. He had earlier cut a song called "Where the Bands Are" that’s simply a better executed version on the same theme of recalling what it felt like to be a kid playing in a band. A better song all around. This is a b-side. “Blood brothers on a stormy night with a vow to defend”? Man, come off it. This is deep-dish sicilian with extra cheese.

Bobby Jean: a great song. For me, this was the keynote song of the album for a long time. Better than a b-side, too – I’d have saved it for the next album. (If you’re familiar with Springsteen’s outtakes, there are any number of songs around each album that are just as good as what he chose to put out, but didn’t for reasons known only to him.)

I’m Going Down: this song has b-side written all over it. How a song like this made it onto a serious album, knowing the songs he had sitting in the can that he didn’t use, I have no idea.

Glory Days: a good song, but wouldn’t have made the cut. For one huge reason: Bruce describing a fastball – a common baseball term for the pitcher throwing his hardest, fastest pitch – a “speedball” – which is something made of heroin and crack cocaine that a drug addict snorts or smokes. There are no “speedballs” in baseball. How in the hell did anyone in Springsteen’s camp not know this? How did he, purportedly a lifelong Yankees fan, not know this? Did people know this and not have the balls to approach him and Landau, and say, “Bruce, there are no speedballs in baseball.” It’s not a bad song – would have b-sided it, or saved for another album.

What’s left? A core of strong, short songs (some that were better in their original form before Springsteen greatly altered the arrangements), along with a slew of outtakes from the home-made demos he made that, you can tell, must have been his original concept of putting out a twangy, rockabilly-style album, without the calculated image mongering that floats through most of the above-noted song. I’m going to list each song, in order, to my Alternate Born in the USA, with accompanying youtube clip when possible (or MP3 download otherwise) so you can hear how this would have come across … save a lot of these songs are demos and would have sounded even better as finished product. But, here goes. And the album is now titled Your Hometown, not Born in the USA.

Side 1 Track 1
Vietnam
Lyrics from this song eventually appeared in “Born in the USA” and the b-side “Shoot Out the Light.” He should have stuck with this original track as it communicates a rawness not present in the final product (in which much yelling and forceful singing was made to replace this original subtlety). And it conveys the image of the song’s protagonist being a ghost and not knowing it, being told by the factory foreman, “Son, you died in Vietnam.” He should have kicked off the album with this exact track, more polished of course and tightened up without the lyrical stumbles, as he was clearly feeling his way through the demo. Jimmy Cliff has a song called “Vietnamthat feels like what Springsteen was going for with this early take. It works so much better than the song “Born in the USA.” I loved this song at the time, but can live without it now.

Sidenote: Much was made of Ronald Reagan trying to appropriate this song for his own political purposes in a speech of his from the time. Springsteen’s response was that Reagan had no idea what the song was about, otherwise he wouldn’t have quoted it in such context. Well … with a video for the song that featured Bruce looking as if he had just come off swingshift at the sewage treatment plant, and the fist-pumping arrangement he laid on this song, I’d wager most of the fans in the stadiums he played for on the ensuing tour were getting the same limited message Reagan’s speech writers did. Which was a catchy chorus that played into any number of “Burn This One” t-shirt American stereotypes, with Bruce pumping his fist triumphantly in the air in the video. The album cover was Bruce as working-man standing in front of a huge American flag. My take? Don’t expect everyone to understand your message when you’re playing around with massive images that existed long before you were famous and will be around long after you're gone.

Side 1 Track 2
Darlington County
I would have seen this song as being in competition with “Glory Days” and chose this song instead. A rollicking, fun-sounding song that’s really about two big-talking-but-broke guys from the North headed South to look for work, only to have one of them hand-cuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford. Could be the best song on the album. This is Springsteen at his best: writing unassuming, straightforward rock songs that have a deeper message woven through the lyrics.

Side 1 Track 3
Sugarland
Another straight-ahead rock song about a farmer sitting in the Sugarland bar while his life falls apart around him. There’s such a great sense of forward motion on the song when that rhythm guitar kicks in. Springsteen was equaling his heroes (John Fogerty, Chuck Berry) with songs like this, and it’s a strike against him not to recognize it. He put a piece of tripe like “Cover Me” on the album and left a song this good off? Shit. Totally senseless.

Side 1 Track 4
Delivery Man
Again, simple song about a truck driver having an accident on the road, save his cargo is chickens, and all that implies in terms of chasing them down afterwards. Sounds stupid? Simple? The music makes it works – that twanging sound of early rock, the echo applied to the vocals, just a great little song that works on every level. I can hear myself listening to this in a car on the interstate late at night and feeling at one with the world.

Side 1 Track 5
The Big Payback
Another stripped-down rock song about a guy who sees himself as never catching a break in life (“the big payback”). It occurs to me there wouldn’t be a lot for the rest of the band to do on these songs. There wasn’t anything for them to do on Nebraska, and limited duties on his more sedate (and apparently solo) follow-up album, Tunnel of Love. Clarence would have been shaking a lot of maracas and not playing much sax. Maybe this should have been another solo album, with the concept of a more fleshed-out, electric follow-up to Nebraska? That would have worked for me. Give Roy Bittan and Clarence a break. No horn sections either. But instead we got the headband, buff biceps and big, blowzy choruses.

Side 1 Track 6
Stand On It
This was a b-side that was better than some tracks on the album. Tight, ass-kicking rock song that gets it done. Again, much like Chuck Berry simply describing what he sees in his American life, Bruce does much the same with unassuming songs like this that work just as well.

Side 1 Track 7
Shut Out the Lights
Listeners would say … wait a minute, parts of this song appeared in “Vietnam.” Exactly. Wraps up the first side with a slow-take on the same Vietnam Vet having the same bad time, save the song’s tone now suits its message. This was a b-side – again, inexplicably. A better song than many that were on the album. The running theme of this piece!

Side 2 Track 1
Don’t Back Down
This would have been the first single – just a great little pop song that would have worked just as well as “Dancing in the Dark.” Again, when the rhythm guitar kicks in on the second verse … that sort of stuff is priceless in rock and roll. The subtle little moments that make all the difference between a good and great song. Same title as a great Beach Boys song, too.

Side 2 Track 2
Working on the Highway
Nothing magical or deep here. A simple song about a guy who works on the highway. A rock song. Calls to mind any number of early rock greats, like Buddy Holly or Bobby Fuller. That’ll be the day when I die. I fought the law and the law one. When I looked straight at her, she looked straight back. I know what he means … you do, too. This isn’t rocket science: it’s rock and roll.

Side 2 Track 3
TV Movie
Another b-side that … oh, I think you get the picture by now. Springsteen would later write a bad song called “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)” – this was a better attempt at looking at life through the skewed lens of television. TV movies are always worse than real movies, which is a nice little dig this guy takes at himself and how he sees his place in the world. Oh, and the song rocks?

Side 2 Track 4
Pink Cadillac
The best b-side Springsteen has ever put out. Should have been on the album. The double entendre in the song makes for fantastic rock and roll, taps into the myth of car songs and twists it around perfectly. Did I mention the song rocks?

Side 2 Track 5
Johnny Bye-Bye
I didn’t have this youtube version … which is even better than the already solid b-side from that time! This is just a great song about the death of Elvis Presley. For the 10,000th time, this should not have been a b-side. Are you gathering that when I finally heard all these bootleg versions and b-sides Springsteen chose not to use for the final Born in the USA album mix, I was shocked and dismayed? To me, that period from the Nebraska album, where many of these songs took root, leading into the Born in the USA sessions, Springsteen had stripped his songwriting down to its essence, which was describing how he saw America in the most basic, easy-to-understand terms possible, yet imbuing each song with a deeper, darker meaning that made clear his underlying sense of distrust for where the country was headed at the time. He got no better than this as a songwriter, and was miles above any songwriter at the time. There may have been times before and after this time period where he wrote more impassioned and daring songs, but in terms of basic songwriting, this was his golden age. The best rock and roll, the most elemental of it, sounds so much easier than it is to create.

Side 2 Track 6
I’m on Fire
Along with “Darlington County,” a song that was pretty damn good as-is on the album. “I’m on Fire” appears to be one of those few “high lonesome sound” rockabilly tracks that made the cut with him and Landau … when the whole fucking album should have been all of these songs that took the basic concept or rock and roll as Springsteen knew it (a lonely kid growing up in the 60s and a musician taking his place in the pantheon in the 70s) and pushing it forward. “Dancing in the Dark” was a pop single made solely to provide a hit. “I’m on Fire” is Springsteen being true to himself and channeling the best of his musical heroes. This would have been the second single from the album.

Side 2 Track 7
Your Hometown
The title track of the revised album. Yes, it’s the early version of the big ballad “My Hometown" that closed the Born in the USA album. This version, simply stated, blows the doors off the big ballad Landau and Springsteen chose to go with. Much the same lyrics. Same message. It just sounds so much better without the crappy 80s synth keyboards and hammy ballad touches of the final version. This version kicks ass. In a song that’s about getting one’s ass kicked through life. This is how life is … you get your ass kicked, and you keep rolling. You don’t stop to have a big spotlight pick you out onstage and try to make other people cry with your story of woe. Fuck that. Life kicks your ass. Life kicks everyone’s ass. Your hometown is dying. You don’t feel so hot yourself some days. But what is there to do, but keep chugging along the way this song does?

That’s it. A vastly different album, one that rocked twice as hard and long as the final product, had no bombastic/cynical hits aimed at teenage kids in the 80s, and stayed true to the artist’s vision of rock and roll as he knew and practiced it. Springsteen would be slightly less well known now as a result, but he’d have an album to his name that would be known for being rock solid from one end to the other, made no apologies, asked for none, and would be remembered today as the best album he ever put out. As it stands, he’ll be reissuing a deluxe version of that album (Darkness on the Edge of Town) this holiday season, and I’ll surely be buying it as it’s stacked with the kind of outtakes noted above. This should have been the one.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Future of Music

Sparkomatic. Let the word sink in for a moment. Spark … O … Matic. If you were a working-class kid in the early 80s, this was the automotive radio/cassette deck of choice. Preferably with a Big Brute power booster (which seemed to make the muddy Sparkomatic sound like mud and shit) and whatever speakers you could afford. For Dad’s yellow Hornet station wagon, I made my own speaker cabinets with some bottom-of-the-line Pioneers and particle board Dad left in the basement. One of those still sits next to the coal bin. The damn thing looks like something they listened to The White Album on at Spahn Ranch back in the summer of ’69.

Sparkomatic is not the future of music. It wasn’t then. It was something you bought when you had just enough money to afford a system for your car, but this was still momentous, as you could make cassette copies of your vinyl albums and take them on the road with you. Eight tracks had been in vogue before this, but I recall very few people having eight-track tape recorders. One of Brother M’s friends did, and I recall the huge ordeal we went through just to have the guy make an eight-track copy of ELO’s Face the Music. Brother M had acted as if this guy had just mixed and produced the album himself. It took the guy 40 minutes. He probably made a copy for himself and got stoned the whole time!

It may not have been the future, but it represented a greater mobility and freedom of choice for the listener. Of course, you had to have the records and stereo at home (in my case, the similarly budget-priced Soundesign audio system) to first create your own mixes, but that was understood. A few years later, the Sony Walkman would roll in and change everything. I bought one almost immediately. I’ve read quite a few articles over the past few years regarding how isolated we’ve all become because of iPods and everyone listening to music on earphones in public. Shit. I’ve been doing this since the mid-80s. A lot of people have. It’s nothing new.

Why bring up Sparkomatic now? Because it occurred to me the other day that the state of the recording industry now would be like going back to the early 1980s and having Sparkomatic dictate to record companies how they should operate. All they did was supply consumers with a mode of listening – granted, a great one that allowed them to take their music with them. The concept would have been ludicrous.

We have the same today with Apple’s line of products, kicked off by the iPod and followed by a handful of devices that allow the consumer to take his music anywhere. But we also have iTunes? Steve Jobs himself has said it exists only to sell the devices. Same goes for the music he doesn't create or own: it exists only to sell the devices.

Let that sink in, too. The music exists only to sell the device it is played on. Go back in history again. Records existed only to sell record players? No. Record players existed so consumers could listen to great music at home. There has always been a culture of cool around great stereo systems, but it was just that. A cool thing to own, especially a higher end one. But it meant nothing without the music to play on it.

The same basic concept still holds true today, but Jobs has turned the world so upside down in terms of making the listening device the “cool” thing to own that it’s very hard to see this. And a lot of people don’t. The listening device has become more important than the music on it. Free downloading has done more than any other factors to decimate the recording industry in the past decade. There are many other lesser reasons: the industry humping hiphop into the ground by making it the driving financial force at least a decade past it’s sell-by date, price gouging, suing individual free downloaders at random, installing root kits on CDs without the artists' permission or fan's knowledge, outrageously priced live ticket prices with two-figure hidden fees, lopsided corporate structures that threw far too much money at top executives, refusal to help brick-and-mortar stores survive at the turn of the century (by not budging on list prices on physical product in the midst of a downloading revolution) … it’s a long list.

Suffice to say, the recording industry has treated its fans like shit for as long as I can remember. This was driven home to me as a kid in the 70s every time I went into chain record stores at the local malls. For every cool record store owner or employee, there were a dozen who were the worst sort of douchebags. Snotty, arrogant, acting as if they were the recording artists themselves (many were … in Foghat cover bands). Buying a record became a test of “guess the cashier’s moods and tastes” which was usually wrong as they’d smirk at your purchase no matter what it was. When I moved to the city in the 80s, I was introduced to the wonders of Tower Record employees, perhaps the kings of shithead record store employees in terms of their blithe lack of respect or concern for the customer. It seemed like they hired these people solely for whatever sub-genre of music their limited taste in clothing and hair styles represented. (But I have to say, Tower had some great employees mixed in with the shithead parade, not to mention some very cool people running small indie stores all over NYC.)

It may not have seemed like much – how can you blame an entire industry for lower-rung retail employees? But that same arrogance and disdain towards consumers that was so ingrained in the foot soldiers was common currency in every facet of the recording industry. They just didn’t give a shit about the people supporting them. But you know what I’ve learned as an adult? Every major industry is like this, and in some cases, as with oil, cable TV and real estate, displaying outright hostility towards the people helping them not just survive, but live like kings. It’s a system built on shit, and it will fail someday. Of course, I’m not sure what will happen when it does – life could grow much worse than what we know now – but that doesn’t make the lack of respect for the common consumer any more acceptable.

So, when the “music is free” revolution started going down in the late 90s, you better believe my sentiments at the time were “couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of pricks.” Of course, that was before I realized free downloading was going to crush the industry and threaten the ability of many recording artists to go on making music in any form. When the massive retail stores went down a few years ago – which was like an empire falling – followed shortly by the indie stores that were the heart of the industry, very few people seemed to recognize the huge blow this was. “Oh, the mode of consuming has simply changed, people are downloading from iTunes and buying the occasional physical product at Amazon or Best Buy.”

No. An entire generation of kids has been raised on the concept of free downloading all music being perfectly normal. Sure, there’s a sizable contingent of people still buying music legally, as downloads and physical product, but the numbers are so far below what the industry normally puts out, and not coming back, that it should be crystal clear that things have changed forever and will never be the same again. Video gaming has also usurped music listening in terms of cultural coolness with kids, and this is just bad news all around, as far as I’m concerned. You need to see a few kids who play these games for hours daily to grasp how warped and ultimately uncool this trend is. It’s a waste of time that makes a kid listening to his album through headphones for an hour or two (which I did routinely for years at the same age) seem profoundly productive in comparison.

So, in this climate where music has little to no monetary value with the next generation, yet a vast majority of them own some type of Apple product to play this value-less music on, you have to wonder where things will go from here. When you can download the entire catalog of Led Zeppelin or The Beatles in a few minutes for free, the acts of absorbing and growing with the music become negligible, and those two acts were what made the recording industry so powerful and lasting in its prime.

Thus, we have THE CLOUD. If you’ve been reading up on this topic lately, THE CLOUD will save us all. A lot of people are putting forth that Jobs annual unveiling of new products in September not including larger hard-drive iPods represents his understanding that THE CLOUD is just around the corner, and he no doubt has his fingers in that pie financially.

Simply stated, the cloud is music by subscription. You don’t own it in a traditional sense of having physical product or files on your hard drive. In the future, we are told, the consumer will pay a monthly fee to a service that allows him to stream any song at any time at any place. The cloud will include music officially sanctioned by both major and indie record companies for the consumer to listen to. (Right now, that means The Beatles would not be in the cloud as they’ve denied digital rights to their music.) There are countless bands that would not be in the cloud simply because they were on small indie labels pre-CD age that no longer exist. There are thousands of live tracks that fans have downloaded religiously over the past decade (where they once would have paid a small fortune to bootleggers …) that will not be officially sanctioned. And there are thousands of bootleg tracks out there, studio outtakes and such (think Dylan’s complete Basement Tapes) that will not be near any cloud. Much as we see certain channels dropped from cable companies due to rate disagreements, certain artists will surely pull their catalog from the cloud routinely when they dispute how much they should be getting reimbursed for renting out their music.

Barring all that, the cloud will contain a huge selection of music, no doubt about it. It will be yours, but you will not own it. If you stop paying your monthly subscription, your cloud will disappear, which could mean tens of thousands of tracks and playlists you’ve assembled over the course of years. Think about that. You’re 72 years old. Have a cloud that contains 50,000 tracks, and an intricate system of playlists that spans every genre of music known to mankind. You’re now on a fixed income , can barely afford the grocery bill at the senior citizen high rise, and something has to go: the cloud.

I’m looking that far ahead, because your average Facebook fuckhead carrying on about the beauty and inevitability of the cloud isn’t. I’m looking that far ahead because that’s what music fans do – we look to grow and move forward with our music collections, like greedy land barons snatching up every available piece of fertile ground we can find. It’s a good thing, to see an appreciation of music as some type of personal growth, because it is in a way. I can look back to the first singles I bought in the early 70s (Gilbert O’Sullivan, Elton John, etc.) and trace my development with the passing years and desire to learn more about music in general, particularly music outside my daily cultural reference points. To have something as banal as not making a monthly subscription payment completely wipe out what would literally be an empire of lifelong musical tastes carefully constructed over the course of decades?

It’s bullshit. That’s an extreme case, but it’s good to look at that extreme and understand just what renting music means on a long-term basis. Which is to say, something like the cloud would make sense to the casual fan, someone who listens to music intently through his teens and early 20s, or the adult who wants to hear “the oldies” from that time in his life, or have a tasteful collection to play at family gatherings and such. This is the bread and butter of the recording industry – where they surely make the bulk of their profits. Selling to kids buying the cool stuff now and adults looking backwards.

But right there is the problem. Kids now are either not interested in music as a cultural force … or they’d downloading it for free in massive numbers! Either way, there is no or limited financial value in trying to sell anything to them, much less the commitment of a subscription service. There are obviously some kids buying music, but they’re heavily outnumbered by those who aren’t.

And we’re going to sell a subscription service to these kids who are already swiping gigabyte upon gigabyte of music? No. They’re not going to buy. You will have a set audience for this, the kind of people who buy everything on iTunes, the Apple army and adults who don’t really care enough about music to own it (i.e., a lot of adults). Admittedly, this is a large cross section of people who could make this a viable option … but nothing, and I mean nothing, like the financial windfall the recording industry was in its prime. I have no problem with the cloud being another option, but knowing how fucked up the recording industry is now, and desperate, too, I can only hope they don’t fall for this line of reasoning, hook line and sinker. Obviously, this isn’t going to happen immediately, but again, I’m looking down the road.

Which is what has a lot of people thinking “cloud” when Steve Jobs doesn’t even mention the iPod Classic and only puts out product with smaller storage drives in this year’s annual unveiling of new product. He seems to be gearing his tastes towards boutique purchases, incredibly small iPods, the size of half dollars, that you just know are going to be hot sales items with all the kids. But that’s all. It worries me that the lifelong fan, the sort of person, like me, who could easily fill up a 160 GB iPod (I’m at 110 GB now and will have this thing filled up in another year or two … and this is sparingly putting on music, not throwing artists’ catalogs on there wholesale), are being viewed as non-entities in the future of music.

We are the future of music. Some kid buying a fucking iPod Shuffle is more than likely not the future. A decade from now, he’ll look at the cute little colorful thing in the drawer and think, “Yeah, man, that summer we saw MGMT at the shore, fuckin’ A, dude.” (Presumably, he'll then add some MGMT songs to his subscription service.) I have to believe your average consumer of products like this is not the future: the musical passion is not there. (As it wasn't for most kids I knew in high school who championed Styx, Journey, REO Speedwagon, etc., and their CD collection today represents a time capsule of all those bands and nary a whimper from any band that came into existence past 1985. Nothing wrong with this in my book, but just underlining the fact that kids glomming onto popular bands, while showing little or no desire to appreciate other kinds of music, represent a one-off sale, not long-term customers. Of course, the recording industry has been built on millions of one-off sales as opposed to thousands of long-term customers.)

The desire to sport a fashion accessory is the future. And, again, as noted upstream, music has become an accessory to a fashion accessory for far too many people, who have mistaken the vehicle for the driver. It’s a Catch 22: you can’t sustain an industry without creating a sense of passion and dedication that will carry a fan through decades of listening experience. Gadgetry does not create passion. It creates a love of gadgetry. Which has nothing to do with music. Unfortunately, the world we live in now, music needs the gadgets to survive.


I can’t fault Jobs too much. He’s simply responding to market demand. Sure, creating it, too, but he’s not going to be making product that no one wants to buy. I have to believe there will be a built-in market of hardcore music fans who will always buy a larger, hard-drive based player. (I would hope he’d shoot for a 250 or 320 GB player down the road.) Forget about just music, a lot of people would buy a larger-faced product to watch TV shows and movies that they own, too. I’m not against the concept of a subscription-based service for all these forms of media. I’m against the idea of that becoming the sole or leading way people consume these media.

The pain of it is, I could go out and buy a 500 GB Archos media player tomorrow if I wanted. But I recognize Apple as putting out superior product and having such a broad consumer base that there are any number of accessories being manufactured by other companies that make switching to Archos much less appealing. (For me, I’m speaking directly of iPod charger/speaker systems, which are fantastic – does Archos have anything like this for its players?) I like the iPod and have invested over 18,000 tracks into its system design at this point … transferring those files, and a few dozen heavily-detailed playlists, to another system at this point would be an enormous pain in the ass. But catching wind that Jobs may be gearing future efforts towards much smaller players in anticipation of THE CLOUD sits even worse with me.

What do record companies need to do? I’d say one thing only, if they are to survive. Invest heavily in companies that will challenge Apple’s market dominance in media players. Now’s the time. Because this company that does not create music has usurped the creative direction of companies that do create music. It’s not right. The universe is out of balance, much as it would have been in 1983 with Sparkomatic telling CBS and Warner Brothers how to market and distribute their music. The thought of that would have been laughable to the extreme at the time. The extremely laughable has become reality in 2010, save I can see only one person laughing, and that’s all the way to the bank.