Saturday, December 05, 2015

See Through Wall

While watching the recently-released DVD of Roger Waters The Wall, I couldn’t help but think one thing.  The movie is an over-the-top concert film of the show Waters took on the road from 2010 – 2013.  It is visually stunning and well worth it for any Pink Floyd fan out there.  But … it was so over the top … all I could think of was the recent ISIS mass shooting at The Eagles of Death Metal show at the Bataclan in Paris.  And how if the same thing happened at this concert, everyone would assume the gun fire and carnage was part of the show.

A few other negative things played on my mind, too, in deep retrospect, long after I had first absorbed The Wall in the waning days of 1979.  Thoughts that never would have occurred to me back then, as a teenager, with so much of my life ahead of me.  At the time, my only major gripe with The Wall was the deep anti-education vibe.  “We don’t need no education/we don’t need no thought control” were the key lines in “Another Brick in the Wall.”

I got it.  Smart kid.  Look what Roger Waters is doing, couching his anti-authoritarian message in the most easy-to-grasp terms for a young rock-and-roll audience, take it to their level, in America’s case high school.  He’s an intelligent man assuming a similar level of intelligence in his audience.  That they know they need education but can hopefully discern in their minds when authority is being abused in this situation.

And he was dead wrong!  How many dozens of kids did I see, who hated school, who could have done well there, and later in life, take that song and its message as justification to completely disregard anything school had to offer.  Look … even rich rock stars know education is bullshit.  Waters clearly didn’t have a clue as to how many millions of kids out there didn’t “get it” on that higher level and took the song as an excuse to blow off school.

I liked “dark sarcasm in the classroom”!  A teacher hit me with dark sarcasm, I’d hit back, and he’d smile.  Ah, this kid gets it, he understands how life works.  The few teachers I didn’t like were either phoning in their lesson plans and no longer gave a shit about education, or were abusive in ways that went way beyond something as advanced as “dark sarcasm.”  I suspect Roger Waters did well in school and had more than a few teachers who remember him fondly.  He’s making this up to create a fictional world for his character?

That’s nice, but the problem with The Wall is that so much of it is so clearly tied into the reality of Roger Waters’ life with the themes of rock-star alienation and a man dealing with losing his father in a war.  This movie drives that point home, literally, with Waters taking a road trip, in between concert footage, to visit first a war memorial in France to honor the passing of his grandfather (who died there fighting in the trenches in World War I) and then to Italy, to visit the beach at Anzio where his father died (in World War II).  The footage is beautifully shot and helps to illustrate that major theme in The Wall.

But seeing those scenes put a thought into my mind that I hadn’t considered before, and wouldn’t have before my parents passed away.  I got along fine with both of them, don’t have any overly negative view on how either of them raised me.  Do I remember some negative episodes?  Things I wished they had done differently?  Sure, we all do.  If we have kids, they’re having the exact same conflicting emotions about us.  They’ll always have those emotions.  And if they’ve been raised with any sort of common sense and decency, a long way down that road, when the parents are gone, it will occur to those kids, as adults, that their parents were human, made mistakes, but they had kids for a reason and were ultimately decent people.

Or, they were flaming assholes, and one day, if the son’s a rock star, he writes a song like “Mother.”  Or is this fiction?  Was Roger Waters’ mother as portrayed in The Wall, a smothering presence who ultimately loathed her child?  We know the missing/dead father is a very real thing for Waters, emotionally and physically, but don’t know if the mother is based on reality or just another shade of oppression Waters purposely added to his wall.

Seeing Waters so emotional at these final places his paternal relatives were alive made me wonder: what if both had lived and become flaming assholes as parents of the sort as portrayed in the song “Mother”?  I guess it’s Waters’ point that he never had a chance to find that out, and that’s his tragedy, but would it be a tragedy if they did turn out to be negative forces in his life?  They were just people.  Like you or me.  Like your parents, whether they’re dead or alive.  Like the guy sitting next to you on the bus.  Or the woman the next cubicle over at work.

There’s no romance had they lived.  There would just be the reality of another key person in his life, with the potential or being a nurturing or destroying presence.  Or most likely an uneven mix of both over the course of decades.  You see, I only underline this because as an adult, for decades now, it occurs to me that adults carrying on about how bad their parents were, like busted chainsaws, tend to be assholes.  That’s just simple common sense: bad parents often raise bad kids, filled with bitterness, blame and regret, that they may pass on to their kids should they choose to take that path.  That’s what goes on in my head when I hear a song like “Mother” now.  Great guitar solo, but I know better.  (If you want a more recent take on a similarly troubled adult, check out Eminem’s song “Headlights” about regrets he has over how he portrayed his mother in earlier songs.)

I can assure you, no such issues occurred when I first heard The Wall!  It was Thanksgiving morning, 1979.  I had gone out running, as I did every morning as a teenager.  When I came back, showered and went up to my room, I turned on the radio to listen to some rock and roll, WMMR out of Philadelphia.  The song was “Goodbye Blue Sky.”  I didn’t know it was Pink Floyd for sure, but thought it might be.  I had never heard the song before.  When it ended, another one began.  Then another, each equally stunning to me, just a beautiful flow of music.

The DJ then announced that the station was previewing the new Pink Floyd album The Wall that would be released the following week.  I was stunned, sat there on bed just staring at my bedroom wallpaper, listening to the words and music, knowing I was hearing something that would resonate with me for years, possibly my entire life.  I liked Pink Floyd as much as the next teenage rock kid in the 70’s.  Still do, there’s a reason people still listen to those albums just as intently 40 years later.  But this was one of those deeply emotional musical moments that become a part of me almost as much as real-life experiences with family, friends, etc.

You better believe I bought that album the moment it was placed on the store shelf, in this rare case at the local Boscov department store as they had advertised a better price for the double album than Listening Booth, my home away from home farther down the mall.  Like so many kids, I was floored by the album.  Time hasn’t been as kind to it for me, but I still recognize it as a great album.  Dark Side of the Moon will always be their grand statement.  And I’ve come to believe Animals is a fantastic, under-rated album that isn’t far off that high-water mark.  These days I find The Wall too relentlessly depressing and, as noted above, a little too clichéd in terms of the types of neuroses and depression I recognize in other adults who simply missed some key personal revelations.

Which doesn’t mean Waters didn’t hit this thing out of the park with this stage show of The Wall he took on the road.  I kick myself now for missing this at the time because the experience in person must have been stunning, the gigantic graphics and flourishes of art work and color projected on the wall built around the stage.  When pictures of people killed violently, be it in war, terrorist acts, demonstrations, etc., are flashed on the wall, it’s a profound experience with the music illustrating the emotional depth of their passing.

But another thing that spooks me, yet again, based on personal experience, is the audience in this movie.  There are constant shots of audience reactions inserted throughout the movie.  And these are rabid Pink Floyd fans who know (and sing, annoyingly I’m sure) every word to every song, while clutching CD’s and t-shirts to their chests, often with tears in their eyes.  God help me, I love music, have the decades of musical experience to prove it, but I have never felt that fervently about music, as if it was sacred.  These people looked like zealots in a religious ceremony.  I don’t envy that level of faith.  As with all forms of fanaticism, it mildly frightens me.  (Lately, that sort of fanaticism scares the shit out of me, for good and obvious reasons.)

I have a hard time separating that berserk level of fandom from the isolating, inhumane conditions that Waters surrounds his semi-fictional rock star character with in The Wall.  It doesn’t make sense to encourage that level of devotion to a concept one knows is deeply flawed, and in some senses, depraved.  The whole point of The Wall is to refute the level of false devotion and treat people like human beings, nothing more or less.  So why would Waters place himself in this role where he can clearly see that people are projecting the same false, irrational expectations on him?

Then again, I’ve expressed the same skepticism at any live music event, don’t quite get the stunning levels of acquiescence in fans in that environment.  “Getting into” music, I can get behind.  But there are often things going on at concerts that I’ll never understand, expectations of talented musicians that make no sense to me.  I guess so much of this is tied in with being a teenager, and that mythical belief that this is an exalted, sacrosanct time in one’s life, as opposed to another link in the chain.

Rock and roll, or at least rock and roll as we knew it in the 60’s and 70’s, may end up being a memorial to that teenage myth.  To me, it’s just good, often great music, that occasionally transcends its boundaries and becomes something more in one’s life.  That’s a good thing … at times, it’s a great thing.  But, again, first thing I thought about while watching this movie was Bataclan.  And I don’t mean the cool Velvet Underground reunion bootleg that I got.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Summer of '89

I suspect most critics are waxing poetic over Ryan Adams’ interpretation of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album.  It’s the sort of quirky endeavor most critics find charming, as they also see themselves as enlightened beings dipping their toes into pop culture on a regular basis.

I’d love to wax poetic here, but I’m all out of wax poetry.  This album sounds bland as hell, at best.  I generally don’t read Pitchfork, but Mark Richardson nailed it.  Somebody refresh my memory.  Wasn’t Ryan Adams the guy who blew a gasket every time some boorish asshole at one of his shows bayed out “Summer of ‘69” the way boorish assholes used to bay out “Freebird”?  The joke of course being Ryan is one letter off from Bryan Adams, and the thought of him doing a Bryan Adams song live seemed outlandish and, in Ryan Adams’ mind, insulting.

Well, I’d put Bryan Adams’ pop legacy up against Taylor Swift’s any day of the week, and there’s a lot of what Ryan Adams is doing now that reeks of bullshit.  I would have found Ryan Adams doing a Bryan Adams tribute album a lot more palatable, just as I would have found Bruce Springsteen paying tribute to Bob Seger much more enjoyable than his ho-hum Pete Seeger tribute album.

Adams in a Rolling Stone interview: "I was listening to that record and thinking, 'I hear more.' Not that there was anything missing. I would just think about the sentiments in the songs and the configurations. It wasn't like I changed them because they needed changing, but I knew that if I sang them from my perspective and in my voice, they would transform. I thought, 'Let me record 1989 like it was Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.'"

He would have been better off recording Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska like it was Taylor Swift’s 1989.  That, I'd be interested in hearing.  What a pile of nonsense all this is.  The most cynical part isn’t even the concept of doing this to rope in younger fans (and I suspect he won’t rope in many as there’s an enormous gulf between what he does and what your average Taylor Swift fan expects from music).  It’s the muddy reverb/echo effect he’s added to every vocal on the album … that same horrible production gimmick now used by every overly serious folk/country leaning artist.  It sounds cheap and terrible; I’m not even sure who’s responsible for making that such a cliché with artists like this.  My Morning Jacket?  I love the band, but that vocal effect has turned into the archetype of the half-baked hipster trying to make you believe he’s deep, man.

I did a quick tool through youtube and checked out Taylor Swift’s videos from this album (as I can’t listen to it on Spotify).  That sort of stuff is what it is and surely has a large audience.  It’s pleasant enough and a lot of fun to watch/listen to, but not something I’d seek out or follow.  Which is fine, I’m far from the target audience here.  You need to ask yourself what in the hell has happened in pop music when someone who is clearly this generation’s Olivia Newton-John is being positioned as, I don’t know, Fleetwood Mac, maybe, in terms of artistic respectability.  The Buckingham/Nicks/McVie iteration of Fleetwood Mac was light years beyond what Taylor Swift has going on, which I suspect she’d readily admit.  And as far as I’m concerned, their level of talent is beyond whatever Ryan Adams has going on, too.  There used to be a whole swath of Top 40 acts in the 60s and 70’s that had a level of talent far beyond what the Top 40 has to offer the past few decades.  It’s not a bad thing that they came and went: it’s a bad thing that nothing of comparable artistic worth has replaced them, and fans have lost any sense of recent pop history to even know or remotely grasp this.  Since the 90’s, it’s been roughly the same songwriters mining roughly the same genres with generic songs that snap into any sort of pop-star template applicable.

And I like Ryan Adams, however much this new album puts me to sleep.  From the first time I heard “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight” I was all in.  He’s done songs over the course of his career that have flat-out floored me and consistently has a few tracks per album that I’d put up against any artist out there.  I don’t even fault him for messing around with a concept like this.  But it’s the sort of thing he should put out on a lark, maybe available via his website, with a knowing wink.  Not presented as something that horseshit critics are going to fawn over and find cultural value where there is none.

I cast my mind back to 1989.  The year, I take it, when Taylor Swift was born.  In Wyomissing, no less, about an hour south of where I’m from.  1989?  I was halfway through my 20’s!  New York City still felt new to me as I’d only been here two years.  What was I listening to at the time?

It’s hard to say.  I had yet to buy a CD player but would within a year, and this was the first song I played on it.  Records had been on their way out all through the 80’s, and I’d get rid of my turntable within five years (a decision I don’t regret at all).  That was an awkward period where my main media format was cassettes, a very short-lived time, maybe a 2-3 year window in the late 80’s.

My tastes were all over the place.  I actually have an iTunes playlist called “NYC Late 80s.”  Here it is:

Aztec Camera - More Than a Law

Bowie - Absolute Beginners

Bowie - Blue Jean (Dance Mix)

Bowie - Miracle Goodnight

Bowie - Never Let Me Down (12-inch remix)

Chilton, Alex - No Sex

Coolies, The - Mrs. Robinson

Crenshaw, Marshall - I'm Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)

D'Arby, Terence Trent - Wishing Well

Del-Lords, The – Judas Kiss

Depeche Mode - Personal Jesus

Erasure - A Little Respect

Eurythmics, The - Shame

Ferry, Bryan - Slave to Love

Fine Young Cannibals - I'm Not The Man I Used To Be

Godfathers, The - Birth, School, Work, Death

Godley & Creme -Cry

Havalinas, The - Another Out

Haysi Fantayzee - Sister Friction

Jesus & Mary Chain - Darklands

London Quireboys, The - I Don't Love You Anymore

Michael, George - Kissing a Fool

New Order – Temptation

New York Dolls - Showdown

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark - Dreaming

Pet Shop Boys - Jealousy

Pixies, The - Hey

Pop, Iggy - Isolation

Prince - Alphabet St.

Ramones, The - Howling at the Moon

Reed, Lou – Legendary Hearts

Talking Heads, The - (Nothing But) Flowers

Texas - I Don't Want A Lover

Verlaine, Tom – Swim

Waits, Tom – Hang Down Your Head

When in Rome - The Promise

Understand, I was listening to a lot more than this, but I picked the list to grasp songs that defined how I felt living in New York City in my mid-20s.  A lot of new wave, some Brit pop, some R&B, more than a few alt country bands (before alt country existed).  Go ahead and youtube/Spotify songs you may not recognize – you’ll be surprised how catchy they are.  A lot of those songs are lost to the winds of time.  And a lot of them, had you walked into some cool New York bar or club, they would be playing on the sound system, and you would feel cool, too, by extension.  It seemed like every time I walked into The Ritz on 11st Street in The Village, "Birth, School, Work, Death" by The Godfathers was blasting from their sound system.

So I can’t fault Taylor Swift for being in her moment.  She’s doing her thing.  I don’t’ care for her music, but I like her, or at least how she presents herself.  I like that she’s from Relatively Nowhere, Pennsylvania, as I am, and she’s done well for herself.  I like Ryan Adam, too.  Bed-head haircut, thorny image and all.  He’s written some great songs along the way, every now and then, he locks in on a level I recognize as being a cut far above the rest, and I’ll always give him a chance.

But, man, this album he’s done is just the worst fucking idea he’s had in a long time.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Stipe End

On September 9, 2015 at a political rally in Washington, DC, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump used the R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” as his stage entrance music for a speech.  Lead singer Michael Stipe’s responseVia bassist Mike Mills’ Twitter page: “Go fuck yourselves, the lot of you – you sad, attention grabbing, power hungry little men.  Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.”

Funny.  That’s exactly how I felt seeing R.E.M. at Madison Square Garden after they broke big on the 1988 Green tour.

Well, I didn’t feel that strongly.  I was more confused and put off by the spectacle and newly-found high-school age MTV audience, after spending the past few years watching a slurring, gentle, hairy Stipe and similarly scruffy band playing college campus arenas and theaters as opposed to stadiums.  (The apex of hipness was seeing them play the Bucknell College field house, about the size of your average high-school gym, on a pre-Fables of the Reconstruction tour.)

It’s a strange thing, using music as a triumphant announcement of arrival of the “star” at events.  Maybe from the days of gladiators appearing in the coliseum?  I don’t know.  Music used in this fashion is now irreversibly tied into sporting events (a fairly recent development … watch footage of baseball and football games pre-1980’s to get an idea).  Every baseball player has his favorite “walking to the batter’s box” song … these days mostly hiphop and various types of Latin music.  I loved former Phillies’ second basemen Chase Utley for the simple reason that his batting song was “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin.  My song?  I’d pick “At Seventeen” by Janis Ian just to mess with the pitcher’s head.  But the best choice I heard was from an older coworker who grew up in the 60’s: “I’m a Loser” by The BeatlesReverse psychology at its finest!

I’ve written before about the mixed emotions I’ve had about Stipe and R.E.M. after they broke big and left behind their discreet college audience.  In retrospect, I was much too hard on R.E.M.  While I don’t think all those post-Document albums are on par with their earlier work, I’ve found there are songs on each that add up to an entirely acceptable whole.  At the time I felt let down by each album, but when you lay them out end-to-end and listen, you do find threads of greatness running through each, if not the whole shebang.  That was the hard realization of the 90’s: no one delivered the whole shebang anymore, not even, maybe especially even, artists who had done so in the past.  As a fan, I learned to pick and choose what really mattered, a habit that only intensified in the digital age.

Stipe joins a long list of seemingly liberal-leaning musicians who find themselves offended by conservative political candidates using their songs as theme music for speeches and rallies.  This goes all the way back to the hackneyed “Ronald Reagan doesn’t understand anything about what ‘Born in the USA’ means, man” Springsteen issue of the mid-80’s.  I got news for you: most of Springsteen’s fans didn’t either, as the song was occasion for fist-pumping and high-fiving during his concerts at the time.  And apparently Springsteen himself didn’t either, otherwise he wouldn’t have used the American flag as backdrop on the album cover of the same name, co-opting that symbol to embellish his image with its power and all it implied.  It seems to me that if Springsteen took cart blanche to use a powerful symbol for his own personal and political agenda, why not grant the same misappropriation of power to Ronald Reagan and one of his songs?  Or at least recognize you're just as full of shit as the other guy?

You know what would be refreshing?  If Stipe had responded: “That’s cool.  I’m in no way affiliated with Donald Trump or his political party and will not be voting for him.  But I understand that people will use our music as they please.  Have at it, Mr. Trump.  And by the way: YOU’RE FIRED!”

I don’t understand the faux outrage of the musicians, nor why they’re perfectly fine with liberal candidates using their music.  Because they agree with their politics?  Honestly, who gives a shit?  It seems like a petty, shallow qualifier.  Frankly, if I was Michael Stipe, I’d be touched and surprised that someone like Donald Trump (or more likely his campaign manager) was a fan of sorts, that he could find some common ground via music.  That seems like the whole point of music to me: to find common ground between people.  Not to reinforce the artists’ utterly bullshit political credentials, be they left or right.  What’s the difference between Ted Nugent pontificating as he does, or what Stipe just did?  I don’t particularly care about the political leanings of either musician: I only care about the music.

I don’t recall the exact quote, but I recall when Nirvana made it big and hit the MTV/stadium circuit, apparently Kurt Cobain found it disdainful that “frat boys” were attending his concerts, and it made him feel angry and depressed.  Not grasping it was his nature to feel that way, and the whole “frat boy” issue was irrelevant … if not them, he would have focused on something else to bring himself down.  But wasn’t that really a victory?  Guys who used to pick on and make fun of him were now paying money to listen to his songs and see him perform live.  Maybe it’s a glass half empty/half full sort of thing.  If he had been better mentally adjusted and less disconnected, he might have grasped this and reveled in it as opposed to feeling threatened.

And that’s what this is, when you peel away the layers.  Michael Stipe feels threatened, not by Trump, but by the simple fact that he can’t control how people use or interpret his music.  Think back to the movie Reservoir Dogs, the horrifying way Quentin Tarantino used the Stealers Wheel song, “Stuck in the Middle with You.”  Was Gerry Rafferty offended?  Maybe.  I don’t know because it was never publicly reported as being an issue.  (I susepct he wasn’t offended by the royalty checks.)  But a psychopath sawing off a bound man’s ear?  Was that “cool”?  And that’s just fiction.  Imagine some of the possibly offensive things people must do with rock music as a soundtrack in real life.  Stipe himself noted how so many fans mistook “The One I Love” as a heartfelt love song, and not the bitter goodbye note it was.  I don’t recall Stipe telling those fans to go fuck themselves, even though many a teenage couple no doubt swooned over each other at the prom with this song as romantic backdrop.

But this is politics.  If Stipe doesn’t tell Trump to go fuck himself, all his wonderful liberal friends and acquaintances will think he’s a lesser human being.  I made a similar mistake with Stipe when he shifted gears and turned into a bona fide rock star.  I felt threatened.  Here was this mumbly-peg, weird, Athens, Georgia college-town poet kind of guy in Salvation Army store clothes singing indecipherable, abstract lyrics over Byrds-style musical backing … and we all thought we were the coolest, hippest people on earth … because “the masses” didn’t know or care who we were, we were smart, and we had our own little scene.

Well, Stipe starts to enunciate his lyrics, write more coherently, shave his head (to beat the male pattern baldness beast), wear make-up, take political stances … the band signs an outrageously large and inappropriate major-label deal … and now I hate these talentless rock-star pricks!

I was childish and wrong, like so many of us who were fans in the early days.  It’s a college thing … you would think going to college would have made us smarter and more open-minded.  And it did, but in some ways, it turned us into fucking idiots.  It made us reactionary and sterile in ways that were the antithesis of the artistic freedom we strove to embrace.  I see it now, too, in spades in other much younger college-educated folks.  It’s bullshit, I know this now.  There’s what people expect of you, and there’s who you are.  As time goes on, you know who you are, and it has nothing to do with what people expect of you.  I suspect that when you’re a celebrity on any level, that line is so blurred that it’s hard to recognize in one’s self.  Especially in this age of Facebook friends, Twitter followers and so many other illegitimate methods of self affirmation that are really toxic forms of self delusion.

Something tells me if Hilary Clinton decided to use “Stranglehold” by Ted Nugent as theme music for her events, that Nugent would laugh his ass off over the irony and try to arrange a photo op with her.  I could be wrong, but as big an asshole as he appears to be, something tells me he’d “get it” on a level someone like Michael Stipe would never allow for himself.  That’s not to imply that all conservatives are wonderful, open-minded people.  But I’m no longer surprised by conservatives who seem to grasp the finer points of liberalism, and liberals who just seem like reactionary, uptight sour pusses.  I was raised believing the exact opposite, and did so well into early adulthood.  “Conservative” and “liberal”  have lost their meaning for me, and I abandoned identifying with either long ago.

Just relax.  When Trump gets elected, thanks to the stirring Republican National Convention speech by Caitlyn Jenner, and the chimp in a Napolean hat he chose as his running mate becomes president after Trump checks out Nelson Rockefeller style ... well, as the song goes, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Book of Jobs

I’ve been reading the Steve Jobs biography over the past few weeks, not the more recent one, but the humongous bestseller from 2011.  I guess the one that “dishes dirt” in comparison, but it strikes me as a reasonably honest take on a guy who was a brilliant, innovative designer and an awful manager.

The stories and anecdotes of his assholery are legion in the book.  For every brave leap forward in technology, there are plenty of sidebars regarding tantrums, seasoned employees being told their months of work are “shit” (despite being a slight tweak from brilliance), and a dogged disrespect for the consumer.  That last one isn’t mentioned once in the book.  But anyone who’s lived through the computer age from the beginning, like I and millions of other have, knows that Apple has priced their computers extraordinarily high all along, not to mention their phones, under the guise that they are the best and everyone else is, indeed, “shit.”  That arrogance was an overwhelmingly negative aspect of Jobs’ personality that he imprinted on his company and products.  Jobs never cared about what people wanted – he cared about dictating to them what they should want, and having a real knack for then making them want these things.

I salute him for that.  I never wanted an iPod Classic, but it became obvious when he put out the 160 GB model that I had to have one, as nothing else came near.  Now?  I just bought a refurbished 5th generation iPod Classic with a 256GB flash drive … off a Canadian dude on E Bay who appears to be a handful of people doing this.  Because Apple has deemed streaming the way forward, when it isn’t, when it’s far from a universally usable, reasonable, complete alternative to playing owned files stored on a drive (and never will be).  And they won’t make devices with this high a storage capacity.  Because they don’t want it.  Ergo, “we” don’t want it.  What they want is what we want.

The company sucks in that respect: always has and always will.  As much as Windows makes shit that often drives me insane (aspects of Windows 10 for the past few weeks as a fresh example), at least they take functionality into consideration.  Or put it this way: I’ve been using Windows, particularly the Office programs, since their inception at every job I’ve ever been on, including ones where I used Macs that ran Apple version of Word and Excel.  I guess that’s the difference between the two in my mind: Windows is for work, and Apple is for play.

As far as I’m concerned smartphones are all “play.”  They’re toys.  Very cool toys that can do a lot of fun and interesting things.  But we’re adults, kids and teenagers playing with toys, electronic versions of rattles that little babies shake in their cribs.  They have their place.  If you try to criticize anyone who’s overly obsessed with their smartphone, you’ll get back, “You don’t understand its capabilities, there’s so much you can do with it, you’re just out of touch with the rest of us.”

And he’s probably right in that respect.  Until you realize 99% of what the person is doing with the smartphone is pure self-absorption, a fiendish dedication to social media, feelings of abandonment when they’re not pinged with some sort of meaningless “like” or “thumbs up” after posting something, or more urgent texts that are the old world equivalent of people calling each other up and saying “whatcha’ doin’” and getting the response “oh nuthin’.”  It’s not that I have an over-powering urge to be out of step with the majority; I have an over-powering urge not to be an astonishingly self-absorbed asshole.

No one’s saving mankind with a smartphone.  It’s debatable whether or not they’re even doing anything constructive.  But think about it.  This culture didn’t fully exist until 2007, and at that time, it wasn’t as full-blown and insane to the point of distraction as it is now.  Blackberries had been floating around the culture since the late 90’s, but mostly in a business/work context.  I started getting tired of people far too wrapped up in their smartphones by 2008.  People using phones on crowded city staircases during rush hour remains a huge pet peeve for me.  I have to fight back the urge to slap the phone out of their hands and let them choose between an ugly confrontation or their phone.  (I know they’d choose the phone.)

Bring it back to Steve Jobs.  Reading his biography, I’m left with the concept that Jobs was dedicated to subtlety and an advanced state of being.  He saw himself as refined, possibly the most refined person on the planet.  If he wasn’t refined in a certain area, he’d invite the best people from those areas into his life and examine what they did, so he could sense the connections between their dedication to quality to what he was doing with computers and phones.  He paid attention to everything: every detail of his life mattered.

Some might think the concept of millions of people being addicted to their smartphones would be heaven to Jobs, that they were using his product all the time, pouring billions of dollars into the company he created and thought he was a god for engineering this cultural shift.  But if I’m reading this biography correctly, Jobs would be horrified with how people use smartphones now, basically as substitutes for life itself.  The phone has become the axis around which the rest of people’s lives spin.  Think I’m full of shit?  Take away smartphone addicts’ phones, and they will literally have nothing to do, and possibly no mental wherewithal to pick up the thread and get back to living life without a device.

Which nobody wants.  I don’t want it.  I love my iPod, use it daily.  I use my iPhone for occasional calls, email, apps and texts.  I’d rather have a full-screen computer to get on the web.  And I’d rather listen to music on the iPod.  I’m not a photographer, but I can assure you if I had any interest, I’d want a camera, not the camera in an iPhone.  These things were designed to complement our lives, not take them over and hold us hostage.  That’s pretty much how I feel now with the iPod and Apple’s refusal to build larger flash drive players: beholden to a company who built the perfect portable device for music lovers, and then chose to cater to millions more who really don’t give a shit about music, save whatever grabbed them in their teenage years.  And now they’re being told to stream.  Not because it’s a great leap forward.  Because Apple is now in collusion with record companies, who don’t want to get caught flat-footed a second time in the digital age.  Taking into account data caps, incomplete musical selections and countless instances of streaming being ineffective to totally useless in public places … streaming is not the answer in terms of digital music.

And one device was never meant to rule them all.  Particularly a god-damned glorified phone.  Cast yourself back to life before cellphones (if you’re able) and imagine someone running the concept by you that one day people would be obsessed with phones they could carry around.  It would have seemed laughable and trite.  What kind of assholes would get hung up on such meaningless bullshit?

Well … us, apparently.  And I hold Jobs accountable.  Not for pushing the smartphone into this ridiculous stratosphere with his superior design and image building skills.  For ramping up his core philosophy with every product: don’t ask the consumer what he wants, tell him what he wants.  Dictate the terms of his life to him.  It makes my head spin thinking how successful he was in putting this ruse over on so many millions of people.  He got me, too!  But not on the level of people I see stumbling around New York every day who are suffering from derangement of the senses.  Anywhere from those who can probably be gently nudged back into the here and now, to those who are, for lack of a better description, mentally disabled.

For someone who went on a spiritual quest to India, started a company with a friend in a suburban garage, rebuilt his life from scratch a few times over and examined every inch of his life to make sure it met the high standards he held for himself … I’m having a hell of a time matching that image with that of millions of people who are so obsessed with phones that they’d rather film an event (like a concert) than be part of it and fully engaged in the moment.  And don’t buy Bob Lefsetz’s bullshit that “young people are all about having experiences.”  I’m not sold (on his statement, or his constant millennial ass-kissing).  They’re all about recording and cataloging experience so they can immediately transmit the experience to their social media set, and have those people across the internet acknowledge what wonderful, well-rounded people they are.  It’s artificial self-fulfillment via the positive reinforcement of others.  Key moments in their lives don’t seem to exist unless they can be filmed and posted on a social media website of choice.  The experience doesn’t seem real unless it can be documented on a smartphone.  (Of course, this is a tag-team derangement of the senses via smartphone technology and the depraved influence of reality shows.)

Forget about generational or cultural differences: this is a warping of reality and how we’ve come to understand it over the course of centuries.  Sure, I’ll catalog a lot of the key experiences of my life in places like this, but it’s what I want you to see, with a purpose.  Not my whole life.  Not anywhere near it.  (Trust me, like your life, much of it is so boring and mundane that you don’t want or need to see it.)  Plenty of people have turned out novels, and movies, and poems, and songs, through their experiences.  I suspect if we could see the actual experiences that, say, Charles Dickens had that inspired him, if we got into a time machine, gave him a smartphone and taught him how to use it, all those great novels would vanish.  It would have made more sense to him to film those things and just watch those clips endlessly.  Rather than try to make sense of that experience through some type of art form.

I’m not seeing any art in undiluted reality as presented by someone filming with an iPhone.  Even concerts look boring and sound like shit as portrayed on youtube.  The same goes for personal experiences.  Well, I’m wrong there.  Kids filming skateboard stunts do look pretty cool.  And guys testing theories, like what “shit hitting the fan” really looks like … these people are breaking down barriers.  But the rest of it?  Is this what Steve Jobs had in mind when he started pushing his creative genius in this direction?  Something tells me that if a few knobs in front of him at a Dylan concert had sat there holding their smartphones aloft and filming the whole concert, he would have been furious.  Rather than having the self-revelation that maybe he got shit wrong with how he wanted these things to work in people’s lives.

I’d tell you to read the Jobs biography, but maybe you can get by filming yourself with an iPhone reading it and sending it to all your friends, so you can show them just how smart you are.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Beach Boys and Dad Rock

A few things have been ringing my bells musically this summer.  This first came a few weeks ago, when I finally got to the theater to see Love and Mercy, which takes on Brian Wilson’s life at two important junctures: the making of Pet Sounds in the mid-60’s and shortly after his comeback in the late 80’s.

The movie left me with mixed emotions.  I appreciated the attention to detail with the Pet Sounds-era music and showing that creative process, which must have seemed insane at the time to all involved.  Paul Dano is a strange actor who has veered close to Crispin Glover territory for me in some past performances, but he did a great job of capturing that whimsical, damaged sense of Brian Wilson as a young man at the peak of his creativity, and simultaneously dealing with the neuroses brought on by how his deeply troubled father raised him.  Throw hallucinogenic drugs into the mix, at the worst possible time in his life, and it made for a shipwreck of a human being about decade down the road.

Aside from that, the movie felt bland and predictable.  Nothing wrong with John Cusack’s performance – if anything, he nailed it, too.  But seeing as how the movie was openly embraced by Wilson and his wife Melinda, it’s no surprise that she’s presented as the shining beacon of hope in his ravaged middle-aged life who saved him.

And I suspect that’s bullshit.  Not that she didn’t play a major role in changing his life at the time.  But the movie went to great lengths to underline all those Beach Boys clichés, like Mike Love and Dr. Eugene Landy being harmful presences in his life.

I don’t doubt Mike Love is a major league asshole in terms of band politics; he’s possibly the most-loathed member of any legendary rock band.  But … he’s also one of the greatest lead singers of the 60’s pop era, and just the sound of his voice was an integral part of the Beach Boys image.  Put yourself in his shoes in 1966.  The band has had one major success after another and has taken the genre of surf music into a new realm, from twangy instrumentals and goofy novelty songs to this great American myth involving beaches and surfing.  The three major components of that myth were Brian Wilson’s songwriting (with help from Mike Love on the lyrics), the band’s image as these perfect, All-American kids with talent and their vocal harmonies that lifted the songs to a higher level.

Pet Sounds is their best work?  Bullshit.  Well-meaning bullshit, bullshit I get, but just bullshit.  I’d have to go back and wade through their previous albums, but their best album?  Hands down, that would be the early hits collection released in the mid-70’s, Endless Summer.  I know, not an actual album of new material, but that collection underlined the collective power of their singles and the Beach Boys myth all those songs created when taken as a whole.  Much larger than any album of original material.  And the three best songs from Pet Sounds, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B” and “God Only Knows” fit right into that myth.

But the rest of it?  Its’ a strange hodgepodge of styles, possibly the worst recording of a harmonica I’ve ever heard, a lot of oddly-skewed ballads that, granted, were like nothing before, but to this day, I’m not convinced that the album is anywhere near as great as most critics deem it.  It just doesn’t feel that way to me: never has and never will.  Nor did Smile, which I’ve been hearing in various iterations since the early 90’s, when I first got to know a few Beach Boys fans who were so fanatical (as most of them are) that they created their own versions of Smile from dozens of bootlegs.  Most of them weren’t far off from what was eventually released and called Smile by Brian Wilson.  And that was a glorious mess of an album … far from the legendary brilliance we’ve been instructed to view the aborted album as over the decades.  Some beautiful pop moments surrounded by insanity.  Whoever compiled the album of scraps from those sessions, Smiley Smile, did a fantastic job of grasping most of what mattered (save for not including “Surf’s Up”), although that album stiffed in 1967.

Endless Summer presents a blueprint of American teenage life circa 1963 about 10 years after the fact.  An America most kids didn’t fully grasp, but wanted to: cars, chicks and surfing.  I know, because even though I was born when that music was being made, by the mid-70’s, when I first started hearing and appreciating those songs, I immediately sensed that myth, associated it with summer and the ocean, and it became a powerful connection that stays with me to this day.  That album went a long way towards cementing their legendary status and encouraging future generations to listen, which is how decades-long careers are made.

Songs like “Be True to Your School” and “Don’t Worry Baby” say a lot more to me about pop music and America than any of the album tracks on Pet Sounds or Smile ever will.  Much like Chuck Berry, CCR or The Ramones do, too.  There’s a purity of purpose there I can respect.  Not to belittle Brian Wilson experimenting and pushing boundaries.  But he was deviating from a formula that worked perfectly for all of their early career.

Which is surely why Mike Love freaked out when they veered from the path.  Of course, they had to do something.  That sort of innocent pop was on its way out (and would eventually morph into bubblegum), with all the major bands from that era starting to experiment.  I gather the rest of the band didn’t quite know how to handle it: two younger brothers who didn’t want to tangle with an older brother who they recognized as the band leader, and a guitarist who was more than likely just glad to be along for the ride and given the chance to sing lead every now and then.

Mike Love was the only band member with balls enough to challenge Brian, even though he didn’t have the creative power to back it up.  And he surely knew it, which was surely the real cause of all that intra-band friction.  In his mind, the “cars/chicks/surfing” axis was going to last forever, or at least as long as they would as a band, and when Pet Sounds under-performed on the charts, it didn’t help matters any.  At Beach Boys concerts in the 70’s (and thereafter), fans went to hear the hits, not album tracks from their trippy period.  Good Vibrations” was and is surely a touchstone of their set: a compromise single from that Pet Sounds era joining the best of what Love and Wilson held sacred about the band.

The strange thing was that after Pet Sounds and Smile, they settled right back into a very comfortable and acceptable pop sound on all their late 60’s and early 70’s albums.  Do It Again”?  I Can Hear Music”?  Darlin”?  Those are great pop songs in any era.  Albums like Sunflower and Holland fit nicely into the band’s history, finding that middle ground between the past and the experimentation put forth by Pet Sounds and Smile.

But Brian Wilson started losing his grip on reality in the 70’s.  This youtube clip from a Beach Boys TV special from 1976 underlines the weirdness.  Brian gained a truckload of weight, literally spent a few years in bed, rarely leaving his house.  How bad it got, I’m sure only a few people know, but he was clearly having a difficult time just functioning as a normal human being, forget about leading a successful rock band.

And that’s when Dr. Eugene Landy was called in by the band and management to shift him back into a productive life.  Love and Mercy in no way touches on the herculean task to bring Brian Wilson back from the near dead.  Years of therapy, exercise, hard work – it didn’t happen in a few weeks or months.  Years.

Let me take you to a record store in State College, Pennsylvania.  I think it was June of 1988.  I had graduated two years earlier, but had gone back for a weekend visit with some friends, probably for their big summer arts festival.  We all congregated one afternoon at the record store on College Avenue where we spent countless hours and hundreds of dollars.  (I remember this day well because I bought The Indestructible Beat of Soweto on vinyl!)  The owner said, listen to this.  He slips on a record that I recognize as Brian Wilson, but have never heard before.  It was the song “Love and Mercy” that he got a promotional copy of before the album release a month later.  It was a perfect summer day, and when the song got to that soaring vocal breakdown section, I nearly wept: it was like learning an old friend we all thought was dead hadn’t died.  We all stood there laughing when the song ended because our minds were completely blown.

What was more surprising were the magazine articles and TV interviews with Brian around that time: he looked incredible, had lost all that weight, was in solid physical condition, simply looked better than he ever had as an adult.

But, of course, none of that comes through in the movie Love and Mercy.  I don’t want to make anyone think Dr. Landy didn’t radically overstep his bounds and become a negative, dominating force in Brian Wilson’s life, but that movie did nothing to underline the massive role Landy played in reviving the creative and actual life of a musical legend.  The movie had a happy ending?  The evil Dr. Landy was vanquished?  From what I’ve gathered, Brian Wilson went on having mental issues after Landy left.  And I’m sure he got help along the way.  It’s childish to think that someone with severe mental issues would suddenly be healed by a woman’s love and an overbearing therapist being removed from the equation.

Movies, politics and the internet have a way of pasting real-life people as heroes or villains to suit the story when the reality of our lives are far more complex and impossible to label.  I see that same black/white tunnel vision in so many people now, seeped irreversibly into their moral fiber that they’ve become too stupid to grasp that the real world doesn’t work this way.

Speaking of being too stupid to grasp reality, let’s talk about Dad Rock.  I’ve been hearing the term a lot lately, even though I’ve been hearing it since the 90’s, when grunge and hiphop were taking over and saving us all from, uh, both hair metal and Dad Rock.  Grunge and hiphop didn’t save anyone from anything.  If anything, they created their own malaise that we still suffer from.  For some reason, the phrase Dad Rock has been bandied about quite a bit with critics talking about Wilco’s new album, Star Wars, and how they’ve somehow beaten the “Dad Rock” syndrome with this album.

After a few listens, I like the new Wilco album.  It’s nowhere near the level of their first five albums (thanks to Jay Bennett), and it feels incredibly slight.  But it’s receiving accolades for not being “Dad Rock” and taking real chances.  Despite the fact that a handful of songs on the album sound like half-assed, garage-band takes on glitter rock which is, er, um, Dad Rock by definition.

Let’s look at that alone.  Glitter rock classics:  “All the Young Dudes” by Mott the Hoople, “Ziggy Stardust” by David Bowie and “Bang a Gong” by T. Rex.  Phenomenal pop songs that resonate.  Compared with these new Wilco songs?  I love Wilco, but it’s like comparing a kid doing real well in Teener League baseball to a Cy Young pitcher in the major leagues.

But that’s not the problem with people who use Dad Rock as a catch-all phrase to insult older white music fans.  They’re not insulting the bands … if you ask them, they’ll say, “Oh, I really ‘get’ Bad Company and Journey.  On a certain level, I recognize their greatness.”  They can never just love something unequivocally … which is a large reason why I got out of the racket.  I realized how emotionally stunted so many people into indie music were.  As noted before, uncool people pretending they were cool.  It’s the same people a few decades on spouting the clichéd Dad Rock insult.  When you peel away the layers it’s white self-loathing and ageism.  (Ever hear anyone refer to Al Green and Bob Marley as Dad Rock?  Or maybe Dad Soul or Dad Reggae?  Of course, not.  They’re white people insulting other white people they consider buffoonish.)  All this coming from uncool white males growing older by the minute, desperate to establish their hip credentials with younger music fans who often don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground.

Generally when you hear a critic spouting horseshit about Dad Rock, he’s trying to use that as a comparison to this new, great band who isn’t and will never be Dad Rock because it’s so innovative and risk taking.  He’s probably right on some very minor level.  The problem being when you take risks and innovate, very few people remember you or view your work as some easily identifiable cultural touchstone for future reference, positively or negatively.  Can?  Neu?  No one considers those bands Dad Rock, but they are.  I’d wager those guys are grand dads by now.  There are hundreds of influential bands from the 70’s and 80’s who, by definition, are Dad Rock, but have nowhere near the cultural clout that casual, and especially newer/younger fans will recognize.  And these asshole critics who love insults like Dad Rock will latch on to those bands to make it seem like those influential bands that barely scraped by were the creative giants of their time.  That’s never the case.  They were niche bands doing music that was often far too obtuse to ever make it commercially, but surely influenced more popular artists – like David Bowie, in particular.

And isn’t it a little odd that the insult Dad Rock, coined in the 90’s to insult classic rock fans of the 60’s and 70’s, is still used 20 years later in the exact same fashion, to insult the exact same bands and fans?  It underlines how powerful a genre classic rock is (which I don’t take any perverse pleasure in … it just is) that a lame insult, indicative of a mediocre mind drawn to music criticism, because the guy spouting it was terrible at sports and couldn’t be a mediocre sports writer, is using a decades-old cliché in the exact same fashion … that his god-damned mediocre father used to establish the same bogus sense of cool.  Dad Rock, meaning music white dads like, now includes bands like Pavement and Guided by Voices.  Those 90s alt. rock fans who originally coined the term have kids approaching or well into their “disparage everything that came before us” age.  The newer, larger problem being music has been so devalued for them that they don't care or know about it enough to insult anyone over their listening habits.

So, any time you see the phrase Dad Rock in print, ruminate on this.  Even the guys in Wilco seem to suffer from it!  They published a list of recent albums that they want fans to support … and it reads like a hipster checklist.  Surprisingly, I know and have tracks from most of those albums … and recognize a lot of it falls into that “sort of OK but nowhere near as good as its influences” indie music category.  A few of those bands/artists are much older, too, in the case of Ned Doheny going back to the 60’s.  But that’s just the hip sort of thing anti-Dad Rockers embrace, uncovering also-rans like Doheny to point out what we were all too stupid to miss the first time around.  Only problem being we weren’t that stupid, and there are many valid reasons most people have no clue who Ned Doheny is. Or Curt Boettcher.  Or Emitt Rhodes.  Or Kevin Coyne.

Would it have killed one of those guys in Wilco to say, “Man, not much new music is inspiring me, I’m going through this period of listening to Supertramp and Van Morrison on the iPod?”  Yes, it would have killed him, dead, in the parlance of the emotionally-stunted assholes they're foolishly trying to impress.  It’s a tired game I’ve seen people playing for nigh on four decades in one form or another.  How long will it go on?  Well, are you still hearing Eddie Money songs on the radio?  Only Speedy Ortiz can save us now!  At some point in my 30’s, I realized there was a parallel universe in my head that had nothing to do with reality.  The “Dad Rock” spouting aficionados may never come to that realization.