Monday, February 29, 2016

Generational Bias: Run to Me When You Need a Shoulder

Well, I have to give it to Jim Fusilli who writes for The Wall Street Journal: he did a great job of hyping his new book by running with the “generational bias” story line and giving it the acronym “Gee Bee” for short, most likely as a play on The Bee Gees.

This Salon article is where he expounds on his theories regarding generational bias, in his view the act of older music fans stubbornly clinging to the music of their teenage years at the expense of ever learning about, much less appreciating, any new music that has come along since then.
He makes a lot of valid points, most of which I agree with: beyond obvious outlets like NPR, local college radio and tasteful Sirius channels, the recording industry has very little idea how to market new music to older listeners, other than to bang the shit out of the reissue market and over-charge fans for attending live events, mostly on the premise that this could be the last time we see these artists onstage.  The Stones have been milking that cash cow since the 1980’s, but it was up to The Eagles to really capitalize on the practice with their first reunion tour in 1994, possibly the first tour with officially three-digit ticket prices.

Ultimately, Fusilli is a bit of a bullshit artist, and I mean that as a compliment.  I think that’s a requirement in our culture these days to make a living in any media.  He stated something in a Billboard interview last week that I found a bit troubling and showed his hand a little more clearly: “A Gee Bee is someone who likes only old music and rejects new music without listening to it – and will go so far as to criticize new music and new musicians they know nothing about. Gee Bees are really vile. A virus. When you meet one, walk away. But people of good intent and healthy self-regard -- meaning the opposite of Gee Bees -- get caught up in the acceleration of life: career begins, marriage, children, mortgage, caring for elderly parents. Free time is limited; so is discretionary income. Instead of spending a Saturday night at a club, they are decompressing from a hectic week. In those circumstances, it’s hard to keep up with new trends and new bands. So it’s understandable that they tend to stay with music they already know and enjoy.”

Here’s my take on the type of person Fusilli would consider a wonderful human being existing on higher spiritual and emotional planes than the rest of us.

I’ve spent way too much time around people like Fusilli who “get” everything but their own vanity.

So, while Fusilli presents a more sympathetic picture of the “Gee Bee” ethos in his Salon interview, the ugly truth comes out in Billboard.  Vile?  Virus?  Walk away?  As opposed to being a real adult and apparently having little or no interest in listening to any music at all, old or new.  You’ll have to forgive me, but the world isn’t that simple, and adults never fall into such polar opposite camps.  A lot of time with older fans, forget about “old music” as a concept, they’re usually zoned in on one or only a few particular artists from their youth.  Think Neil Diamond fans.  Or Springsteen fans.  And forget about getting them interested in Bob Seger or James Taylor, much less Bon Iver or The Gaslight Anthem.  They tend to overly identify with a small handful of artists from their youth at the expense of any other artists from their youth.  In even more cases, they focus on one genre: there are millions of 50-60 year-old heavy metal fans out there who are convinced everything else from their generation is bullshit.  Never mind ensuing generations, although they'll grant some of the newer metal bands aren't completely bogus.

The problem Fusilli and a lot of other critics have is use of the word “great.”  To me, greatness implies both an immense generational appeal, and enough of a broader appeal that older and younger people than that generation agree with this.  That’s not happening so much anymore, if at all, thanks more so to the intense marketing strictures that took root in the 70’s and sub-divided music forever after.  Age is part of that, if not the whole.

Older people carrying on about Beyonce or Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus tend to be jackasses.  Pardon my French, but I’ve done that dance one time too many.  The only older people you saw carrying on about The Beatles in their time did so because they could make money off them, or they were usually musicians themselves who sensed greatness forming as the band progressed through the 60’s.  Recently, I saw on a musical website a Beatles fan getting upset because a younger fan wouldn't acknowledge their greatness.  In 1964?  I want to hold your fucking hand?  She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah?  I've got lips that long to kiss you and keep you satisfied ... oooooohhhhh!  Man, come on.  If you were 42 back then and going for that shit, you needed your head examined.  (I'd wager that "Yesterday" was the song that made older fans stop and say wait a minute ...)
That catholic sense of taste a lot of these older fans have now tends to come with a salary dependent on embracing musical diversity in ways most sane people would find loathesome.  In the past, critics were not expected to embrace or get everything in music.  If they weren’t openly disdainful of Top 40 pap, they were smart enough to just ignore what they had no urge to waste time on.  For every Top 40 act they got wrong, who actually had enduring talent, there were 35 hey were dead right about.  If you don't get stuff historically wrong with your taste in music in real time, you're a liar.  I've done it dozens of times.  I'm doing it now!  When the time is right for me, I'll wake up on certain artists I'm not getting now.  Maybe I never will (cough, Radiohead Kid A, cough).

“Great” is a subjective cliché, when the word “good” really gets to the heart of the matter and puts things into a better context.  In my opinion, there is a ton of good music being made now.  I went through that phase in the 90’s when I thought new music sucked, it was all over, what a horrible decade.  I look back now and realize there was a lot of good music being made then, stuff I still listen to now: Wilco and Flaming Lips come most readily to mind but there are dozens of others.  I’ve even doubled-back on artists like Kid Rock and Eminem, both of whom I despised at the time.  I’m still not crazy about a lot of Eminem’s 90’s material, but I can hear how he’s grown as an artist and gets into some really interesting topics in his music now.  Kid Rock always had an affinity for rock that I didn’t fully grasp at the time, and if anything, his more recent straight rock/country albums are bit more dull than what he was doing then.

Which is neither here nor there.  I can look back now and realize there was a lot to love in the 90’s, despite the stifling preponderance of hiphop, boy bands and divas swarming over pop culture.  I think I was put off at the time because it became clear rock was no longer the dominant force it once was, and it made me feel “old” for the first time in that what I was interested in was no longer the driving force in that larger culture.

I’ve since come to realize what a blessing that was, how much this new rock subculture reflected my shift to indie music in the 80’s and the 90’s were simply an extension of that, at least for the music I loved.  When Brit Pop came along, with songs like “Creep” by Radiohead and “Live Forever” by Oasis, I was floored by what was going on in the U.K., came to love Pulp, a band that surely affected me as much as any 60’s or 70’s rock icon.  But in a much more adult way.

The 90’s were when I also got fully entrenched in alt. country, not the fanatical extent of people who embraced the “No Depression” way of life but pretty damn near.  Which is why I have trouble with a critic like Fusilli shitting on Don Henley’s last album while trumpeting Chris Stapleton’s.  I like both albums.  They’re good albums (not great).  I think Henley’s is better.  He writes undeniably good lyrics and has great taste in cowriters: those songs sound genuine and original to me, much better than I could have hoped for with most aging rock/country artists.  Stapleton’s lyrics are bland.  He’s a very good singer, surely has the feel, fully understands country, but a lot of his music feels slightly clichéd to me.  I'll listen to it, but in the back of my mind, I know, heard it all before.

I’m with Fusilli in that there’s a whole raft of artists from the 90’s onwards who picked up the alt. country flag and ran with it, leaving mainstream country to devolve into bad 80’s rock pastiches with steel guitars.  I’ve been a huge fan of The Gourds almost from their inception, for me the best American band to come along in the past 25 years.  They’re adventurous, write intriguingly off-kilter songs, have a world-class country vocalist in Kevin Russell and a wild card in Jimmy Smith who provides a rambling, fun edge to their music.  (Of course, the band has been “on hiatus” for a few years now and may never re-group, each with their solo projects that are always good, but not quite The Gourds).  So you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t herald Stapleton as the musical savior of country authenticity.  I’ve seen dozens of artists in this genre who are just as deserving of the hype he’s receiving now but never received.  Just last month I went on a big Bad Livers/Danny Barnes kick after hearing “Death Trip” on an episode of True Blood.

That’s another thing that I find happening all the time as an older music fan: I find myself doubling back to flesh out a band or artist I didn’t fully grasp at the time, or was completely unaware of.  The past month I stumbled over John Grant (and his previous band, The Czars), Benji Hughes and The Suburbs.  The first two are newer indie pop/rock guys with great pop sense, the third a Minneapolis band from the turn of the 80’s who were ahead of the curve on synth pop and got washed away by the huge MTV/British wave of bands that swept in a year or two later.

In my mind, the appreciation for these three bands/artists is roughly the same.  I don’t differentiate that two are relatively new and one is decades old.  The Suburbs have music that sounds like it could have come out last week.  Let me clarify: there’s been a whole raft of critic’s darling bands in the 00’s and now who are replicating the same kind of music The Suburbs were doing close to 30 years ago.  Save The Suburbs were better at it and non-derivative.

This is another thing that drives older music fans nuts: critics raving about music that is completely derivative of better music that came out in the 70’s and 80’s.  It’s a mistake to play “match the new artist to the old artist that you know someone loves to get him to like new music” game.  It never works.  Never. 

And you know why?  Because a vast majority of the time, simply stated, the older artist did it better the first time around with the luxury of having done it first.  Never mind the emotions tied in with that music, intertwined with that person’s life in ways that still serve as a source of self identity.  Critics like Fusilli aren’t taking the emotional context of a music fan, new or old, into their assessment.  It’s not a qualitative analysis for the fan: he’s attached to that music in more ways than one.  You can play him a newer artist who sounds exactly like an older artist with genuinely good songs, and the older fan will reject the new music.  He already “has it” in a sense of having that emotional attachment to the older artist he’s gone through life with. 
That doesn’t make him an asshole.  We also need to take into consideration adult emotions, i.e., having life kick the shit out of you a few times over and how that affects your ability to feel.  I wouldn't say we shut down as we age so much as we protect ourselves after going through some of the rougher things life has to offer: the deaths of parents, siblings, friends.  Divorce.  Work-related bullshit.  Things that should have happened and didn't.  Things that happened that never should happen to anyone.  We all have our lists, some longer than others.  Once upon a time we were so open and trusting that a song could win us over in three minutes and stay with us for the rest of our lives.  It's fucking hard, if not impossible, to be that open after cycling through decades of hard, sometimes negative emotions that are life altering no matter when they occur.

It’s hard to quantify or qualify any of this.  Having been a big Vonnegut fan, I’m fond of the phrase he used in The Slaughterhouse Five of Billy Pilgrim becoming “unstuck in time” where the past, present and future play into his life, in ways that he can’t grasp or control.  That’s how I feel as a music fan now, with decades of experience and no intention of stopping any time soon.  There are oceans of jazz and classical music I’ve yet to discover, plenty of artists from the past 50 years that I could easily double-back on and learn from, and of course, dozens of new artists who will enter my life usually through a song or two, but sometimes with a great woosh of a multiple-album find and an hour or so of intense downloading to get my bearings with this artist.  Sometimes, it’s overwhelming: if anything, I don’t’ have enough time to fully absorb all of it.  The traditional way we had of becoming attached to an artist -- buying one album being floored by it, memorizing lyrics and liner notes, legendary album cover art and photographs, then going back and buying catalog albums over the course of weeks, months or years and slowly assimilating the full impact of the artist -- is gone.

In other words, I’m too fucking busy to worry about whether new artists are “good” or “great” and feel no need to judge people my age or older based on my “superior” musical taste.  Most of them probably think I’m a dick who never properly grew up!  And in some respect, they’re right.  But I’ve not grown up in a very good way, in a way that respects imagination and possibility, and thrives on constant creativity.  Music has always gone hand-in-hand with any writing aspirations I’ve had, and both surely feed each other.  To me, an ongoing love of music, any type of music, demonstrates a profound and healthy curiosity about life.  I want to believe something better is going to come along ... and maybe my firm belief in that actually prevents it from ever happening.

Frankly, anyone who listens to music in any way, passionately, really cares about it, I respect that.  If they’re stuck in a time machine set to 1974?  1994?  2004?  So what.  If their appreciation in music is wrapped up in nostalgia?  Again, so what.  Does Fusilli really think there’s some new paradigm here, that fans of current cutting-edge bands will somehow rise above their fate and embrace all new music that comes after their generation?

Most of them won’t.  Most of mine hasn’t.  Most of my generation was in no way into the cutting edge music of the 70’s and 80’s.  They went with what they knew, rock music being jack-hammered into their collective consciousness via AOR radio.  The X Factor of emotional involvement with the music remains a constant throughout their lives.  I know I can’t replicate that emotional intensity I felt towards music in my teens and early 20’s.  Part of that is experiencing musical firsts, but part is also experiencing emotional firsts, especially as a teenager.  If you want to simplify it all and make believe older people don’t like newer music just because they’re narrow-minded assholes … have at it, apparently The Wall Street Journal is looking for a few great thinkers like you.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Vinyl II: Into the Cut-Out Bin

I’ll do this one more time with the new HBO series, Vinyl.  It’s a bad show.  It’s not going to get better.  Ship wreck bad.  Feels nothing like the 70’s that’s part of my musical and cultural DNA.  Watchable for rock fans to see just how wrong they’re going to get it each week.  Of course, I’ve read it’s already renewed for a second season, which I suspect HBO is going to regret.  But Terence Winter is a heavy-hitter in the industry, a lot of time and money is committed, and I’m sure this is standard procedure for someone who’s proved himself on that level.  I’ll say this: it’s nowhere near as bad as the CBGB’s movie!  But it sure isn’t good.
Record label head Richie after blowing a meeting with the Germans looking to buy his company: “I had a vision … an epiphany … rock and roll, that fucking energy, forget Yes, forget Emerson Lake & Palmer, like the first time you heard it, it’s fast, it’s dirty, it hits you over the head.”
1n 1973, this line of reasoning was predictable bloviating from the usual suspects: staff and contributing writers for rock magazines who resented that they had no power over popular opinion.  All those prog rock bands, no matter what anyone said or did, sold millions of albums all the way through the 70’s.  Punk had zero effect on their popularity.  Johnny Rotten was running around in a Pink Floyd Animals t-shirt with a big X through the album cover?  Fuck Johnny Rotten.  He didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to Pink Floyd.  Punk killed nothing, or maybe you want to tell the guys in Pink Floyd and Roger Waters that the millions of dollars they made on their last tours is really Monopoly money.  And I don’t know what you’d tell Johnny Rotten, who’s made a nice living in the music industry over the course of decades.  He punched the clock just like David Gilmour did.
If the show will be about a guy driving his record-company into the ground in 1973, this would be the way to do it.  Mercury Records took a chance on The New York Dolls that didn’t pay off: they were a commercial failure in their time and ceased to exist by 1975.  (For a number of reasons you can read about in this book, punk would not have existed without them.)  David Johansen had a spotty solo career through the late 70’s before morphing into Buster Poindexter in the 80’s and becoming a massive success.  It took all those “underground” New York City bands years to first form, gather a small following then possibly break through.  Most of them didn’t.  You could argue that only The Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith and The Talking Heads made it on that high a level at the time.  Television came close, deserved so much more, but were gone after two albums.  There were dozens of bands in that scene through the early 80’s.  Dozens.
Look at a top album list from 1973.  Or another.  Or another.  Or another.  And that’s just the popular stuff, never mind the really cool stuff that was bubbling under and would influence artists decades after the fact.  Could we, once and for all, put to rest the concept that punk “saved” or “killed” anything that was going on with music at the time?  It didn’t, not even in the U.K.  It had a noticeable influence, particularly over there.  In that supposedly horrible 1970-76 period after The Beatles broke up and all those 60’s band started to wane, there were dozens of great album being made by artists who are still active today because of the brilliance of their work then.  Punk killed Roxy Music?  Bowie?  Get out of here with that bullshit.
Band on the Run, in particular, stands out for me.  Revisionist history has it that Ram was McCartney’s real masterpiece.  It wasn’t.  (Nor was McCartney II a few years later, which pop fans who must be smoking banana peels are trying to elevate to that level.)  Ram was dumped on at the time for the reason it’s lauded now: it was a very organic, unpolished album by a former Beatle who didn’t seem to have the urge to swing for the fences a la Side 2 of Abbey Road.  This was as if McCartney had locked in on "Two of Us" from Let It Be and went with that feel: a homemade album by a talented artist.  Fans were indifferent to critics – they bought the album anyway, but the general critical perception was that Ram was a misfire.  Band on the Run was the sound of McCartney taking his rightful place.  Considering the album was made under such odd conditions, partially in Africa at a very strange, violent time (which could be any time in the past few centuries), with his band falling apart.  He stopped screwing around and got his bearings.
If anything, I’d put forth the concept that music was so good then that fans from that time period are disinclined to seek out newer music as a result.  Everything thereafter to them pales in comparison.  A mistake, sure, but I can’t fault them for their taste.  They’re not the first set of fans to do this with “their” music nor will they be the last.  When you hear some asshole rolling out “Dad Rock” … this is what he’s trying to say.  It’s petty jealousy as much as critical analysis.  Not everyone moves forward with music in their lives; most people don’t.
The Velvet Underground/Warhol Factory flashback scene.  A guy like record label head Richie, who had been at the forefront of early 60’s R&B, wouldn’t have a fucking clue about The Velvet Underground.  (In the first episode he “got” ABBA while his AR staff laughed at him.  That, I can believe.)  He wouldn’t have been prescient enough to “get” The Velvet Underground.  It’s not fair to say The VU failed in the 60’s – they put out four studio albums, all of which went relatively nowhere despite being brilliant.  When you talk to guys now in their 60’s who were serious rock fans in the 60’s, in their teenage years, none of them were Velvet Underground fans.  If you were into The Velvet Underground at that time, you were pretty hip.  Very hip.  Presciently hip.  The few people who knew about them were just as likely to view them as a half-assed, East Coast version of The Doors.  Which wasn’t fair, as history has shown us.  That’s the problem with this show.  It’s trying to rewrite history to match the revisionism that has since placed a band like The Velvet Underground in its higher context.  At that time?  Richie would have been flipping out over Tommy James and the Shondells.  And he wouldn’t have been wrong.  But we can’t have a gritty HBO series about a smart record-company guy flipping out over a poppy guy performing “I Think We’re Alone Now.”  Unless Richie is breaking a beer bottle over some guy’s head in a bar, then we can play shit like that as a goof on the soundtrack, right?  Or The Monkees, maybe?
And why do movies and TV shows constantly make Andy Warhol seem like a shallow, strange jackass?  He wasn’t.  He built a successful production company employing dozens of people that handled his art work, the art work of friends, movies and music.  Most people who knew him always comment on his intelligence, politeness and manners.  Not how strange he was.  I never, and I mean never, get any sense of that in any of these movies or shows.  He was a well-mannered guy from Pittsburgh who made it big in the art world and spread around his success.  If you did a pie chart showing all he did in his life, anything to do with The Velvet Underground and rock music in general would represent a single-digit sliver.  He wasn't some hipster albino vampire as portrayed in more than a few movies over the past few decades.
Using “Yesterday Once More” by The Carpenters as a flashback scene to denote the hip, former Warhol Factory chick transitioning to a suburban Connecticut housewife.  Was this meant as a joke or ironic commentary on this woman changing her life so radically?  It’s about the only honest moment I’ve seen in the show thus far.  I’m not sure why this episode has that song title.  Every episode appears to be yesterday once more.  Given that time has been kind to The Carpenters, I’ll assume that the makers of the show are being serious here … as the scene didn’t feature the suburban housewife purposely running over one of her asshole neighbors with her station wagon.  It seems that’s the only way this kind of pop music is normally used in a series like this.
“The new (Jethro) Tull?!”  record label head Richie barks incredulously, as he pulls the Tull album from the turntable in a coke-fueled fit of rage and breaks it during an AR meeting.  He yells at his staff to run out there and find blazing new rock acts that make them feel alive.  Because Jethro Tull, like Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer, are dicks in revisionist rock history.  Which is all wrong.  Those prog rock bands were and are fantastic.  Most of them still have careers in music, if they want them.  My advice: if you find a critic now shit-canning Yes and other prog rock bands, write him off, because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  (It’s time to file away those hip credentials with all the wedgies you suffered in high school, guys.)
What would have taken real balls?  Have record label head Richie storm into the AR meeting, Goats Head Soup is on the turntable, in a coke-fueled fit of rage, Richie rips the record from the turntable, smashes it into pieces and screams, “Get this shit off!  Don’t you know the Stones are dead?” then goes off into his troop-rallying rant about real rock and roll.  That album came out in the summer of 1973, and it sucked!  Of course, the Stones weren’t dead.  Mick Jagger is executive producing the series!  But it was a commonly-held opinion at the time, and not wrong in the context of the album’s mediocrity compared to what came before.
(What would also be cool, too: working lesser-known Stones tracks like “Fingerprint File” and “Till the Next Goodbye” into the background music, assuming they're going to get into the next few years. 1973 was about songs like “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” … not Kool Herc in his Bronx Project rec-room basement getting way ahead of history that no one was grasping at the time.  I suspect all he was doing was mimicking the Jamaican folks living in the Bronx then who had been toasting at block parties long before this.)
The constant practice of hazy flashback scenes with actors lip-synching to late 50’s/early 60’s R&B songs.  I’m seeing an actor portraying Bobby Blue Bland doing “I’ll Take Care of You.”  Earlier, I saw a very half-assed imitation of Jerry Lee Lewis doing “Breathless.”  (I should also note the series uses a lot of re-recordings of classics rather than the actual songs … I forgive them, knowing the small fortunes they must be paying per episode to license all this music.)  This seems to be a routine practice in each episode.  I get what they’re trying to do: connect this music from record label head Richie’s past to his present … but I don’t get, at all, how it fits into the 1973 rock scene.  It didn’t.  It had next to nothing to do with it.  Vast oceans of music, styles and societal change had swept through the world in that ensuing decade.  If Richie was running an independent R&B label and trying to wrap his mind around the Philly International label gaining so much momentum and newer artists like Barry White rising, it would make perfect sense.  He wasn’t.  There’s a word that describes someone in 1973 who was into The New York Dolls, unsigned “punk” bands that didn’t exist, The Velvet Underground and Bobby Blue Bland: hipster.
The Nasty Bits rehearsal performance in a restaurant backroom.  Again, what a steaming pile of horseshit.  (These guys don’t even move right for the 70’s!)  This band did not exist in 1973.  Or 1974.  Or 1975.  Or 1976.  It might have existed in 1977, but if it did, I can assure you, it sucked.  But wait, man, their songs are based on the real-life band Jack Ruby?  I’ve listened to Jack Ruby’s few songs on youtube … they're not that good.  Yeah, I know real hip people are, like, going to disagree with me, man.  Impressive that they sounded this way in 1973, but you have to realize, they sound like a bunch of teenage white guys who can barely play their instruments.  I suspect a lot of nascent bands, even in the mid-60’s, sounded like this in their two-car garages.  The neighborhood jerk-offs in my small town circa 1975 blowing out “Smoke on the Water” on pawn-shop guitars sounded like The Sex Pistols because they didn’t know what the hell they were doing!
Record label head Richie was going to re-invent his company to capture the future of rock and roll?  I got news for you: what they’re getting so wrong in this show actually happened.  It was a small New York City record company called ROIR that was infamous for putting out live cassettes of all the hippest, most cutting edge punk and no-wave bands around New York in the late 70’s.  They were great; I owned at least a dozen of their releases, my favorite being a live collection of The Mekons.  I recall meeting the owner once at a record fare and being knocked out by how cool he was, just a wonderfully approachable, friendly, intelligent guy.  (This was late 1980’s.)  Not a cokehead Italian in a Black Sabbath t-shirt barking in my face about real rock and roll!
This has been the lot in life of most people in the recording industry on the cutting edge.  What was cutting edge rarely made it on a recognizable level culturally.  Hip people were aware of it.  Rock critics would become aware of this music over time, write about it occasionally, and if a band was lucky, it would get just enough traction to put out a single or EP, develop a small local following, sell cassettes and t-shirts at the shows, and maybe tour if they could find a manager and arrange dates.  This blossomed nicely into a very cool 80’s indie music scene that I threw down with.  What Vinyl is trying to do in 1973 actually happened in about 1983 or so, when labels like IRS, Twintone, Enigma and 4AD started putting out music regionally in various cities and college towns that blossomed into a thriving national indie scene.  Allowing young bands to tour by the seat of their pants, in vans, playing small clubs and theaters if they were really making it, and piecing together some kind of life in music.
HBO would have been better off trying to tell Alex Chilton’s story from Big Star onwards.  A guy who was famous in the 60’s, watched his band fall apart, got hooked into a younger pop band in the 70’s that was brilliant, over-hyped on its inception, but went largely unrecognized despite this (partially because of bad luck and timing with their failing record label), and pretty much followed every tenet put forth in this show about how real rock and roll did or didn’t happen in the 70’s.  I’d be remiss not to point out that Chilton was dead-ass broke at various times and working day jobs when the music wasn’t happening because there was little to no interest in what he was doing.  That’s rock and roll!  And not something that has anything to do with this series.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Vinyl Bullshit

I'm going to try something different here.  Watching HBO's Vinyl now on their streaming app.  I had high hopes for this show, still do I guess, but as I watch it, there's just so much "off" about it.  Easily-corrected off.  Off in ways that are utter bullshit to longstanding rock fans.

What I'll do here is keep a running list of what I see wrong.  Sure, there are right things.  A lot of great one liners.  The "right" 70's hair and facial hair, as so many 70's based TV shows and movies have (like every adult male in the 70's had a handle-bar mustache and/or sideburns).  Understand, I wasn't even there, I was a kid at the time, but fully engaged in music, in magazines, devouring anything rock-related as a kid.  Even in this once-removed position ... I can smell the bullshit. 

You want to know why I'm not a famous writer?  Because whatever relentless drive it takes to position yourself with HBO to the extent that they'll greenlight a series like this ... is inversely proportional to the senses of style, taste and basic history (i.e., getting it right) that a person like me has.  These are smart, talented guys who love the same music I do and have the same historical references.  But they've learned to bend truth and push connections in ways I haven't ... and it's just not worth it to me to be that full of, well, bullshit!  So, here's my informal list of what's wrong with the series.  And understand, a goofy Cameron Crowe movie like Almost Famous, whatever else you think about it, gets just about everything right in terms of how it portrayed the times.  I wish I could say the same for Vinyl.


1. Was the Mercer Street Arts Center remotely like it's portrayed (i.e., a ratty, back-alley rock club)?  Wasn't it part of a hotel on Houston St. with different performing rooms, of which one was where the Dolls were doing their thing?  They seemed to have mistaken the grubbiness of CBGBs with this scene, i.e., I don't picture the Arts Center as being all that run down? When I see pictures of the crowd seeing the Dolls, sure there were some people glammed up, but most of them seemed like normal rock fans, i.e., mostly in jeans and t-shirts, not too flamboyant.  Flamboyant didn't really exist yet in American rock lexicon, at least not in that flashy/drag-queen 70's way the Dolls brought into play.

2. We have a British kid in a punkish band living and playing in NYC in 1973, trying to "make it" there.  Was there any historical precedence for an artist like this?  The entire downtown scene was kids from the outer boroughs and mostly northeast/midatlantic America.  There were no British "punks" in Manhattan circa 1973.  There were no American "punks."  There was a loose gathering of downtown bands playing music that would form the basis for "punk" to be recognized as a trend a few years later.  The pictures seem to portray a bunch of under-fed white kids who looked like they'd been to college or were just hanging out on street corners in Queens.

3. NYC subway cars and stations circa 1973:  were they this run down, garbage strewn and graffiti covered?  Graffiti, at least the colorful, bubble-lettered type that's now considered an art form as opposed to simply-scrawled tags,  seems more like a latin-influenced trend that came in later in the 70's, and I'd be surprised if it was that widespread in 1973 that subway cars were being tagged like they appear here, i.e., like they were in the 80s. For a good reference point as to how subway stations looked at the time, you have scenes in The Exorcist and The Warriors as a guide.  (Actually, any number of New York-based movies ... like the original Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 for starters.  But I guess some old Jewish guy in a houndstooth fedora reading the Post on the Uptown 1 isn't quite as romantic.)  The subway cars would eventually get bombed with graffiti as appears here, but the stations themselves, I'd wager, were always relatively clean.  (An inside joke to New Yorkers.  Of course, they're dirty. but never as dirty as portrayed in movies like this.)

4. Guy in major label AR Department name drops the band Suicide ... in 1973?  Did Suicide even exist then?  Would a major label AR man be name-dropping them?  A guy in this position at that time wouldn't even be name-dropping Television, who started it all.  He'd be doing this two years later. (Reader Andy S. has indeed let me know Suicide existed at the time, even played the Mercer Arts Center.  But did not put out an album until 1977 and were only a live entity at the time ... and a deeply unpopular one to gather what the band members and people on the scene have noted in books and articles!)

5. The AR Guy mentions a recording session with England Dan & John Ford Coley.  Again, did they exist in 1973?  I recall 1976.  England Dan was Dan Seals, brother of Dash Seals in Seals & Croft, who were huge at the time.  A simple Wikipedia search reveals these guys got a major-label shot in the early 70's with A&M that went nowhere, they disappeared for five years, and came back big in 1976.  They weren't recording in 1973, and no one would have thought to name drop them as an inside joke to how they were wasting their time with them in a recording studio.  A better choice would have been Barry Manilow.  He was New York born and bred, made his name playing gay bathhouses backing Bette Midler and was just starting his solo career. Same cultural effect as England Dan & John Ford Coley, more accurate and more likely to have actually happened at that point in time.

6. I know Led Zep covered Gene Vincent's "Something' Else" in a BBC radio concert.  (Reader Andy S. corrects me: Eddie Cochrane.)  Would they open a show at Madison Square Garden with that song?  Did they ever play this song on any American tour?  If so, I can assure you, they never opened a show with a cover.  (Sidenote:  I'm well aware that it costs a small fortune to license Led Zeppelin's music for movies or TV.  Crowe's movie Almost Famous is a bit of an anomaly in that it features Led Zep tracks, probably because he knew them personally for years after interviewing them as a teenager.  Any reason they couldn't have picked Bad Company? Then again, how "cool" would Bad Company be to younger viewers who've been raised to believe Led Zep and Pink Floyd were the only two rock bands in the 70's?)

7. The street scene with the black crowd listening to R&B played by a DJ on a turntable and speakers set up outside a project.  Did this happen in Manhattan at all, i.e., where the record company head was traveling his car?  This was a Bronx thing that historically started happening later in the 70's.  Not anywhere in Manhattan, and that's an important distinction to make.  A record executive traveling to gigs at night at major venues would not have been taking detours to travel by projects in the South or Central Bronx.  His driver would have been freaked out taking any street that wasn't the Grand Concourse or Jerome Avenue.

8. Receptionist tells record company head: "Lester Bangs returned your call."  Really?  An American record company head merging with a multi-national German corporation would be calling a rock critic working mostly for Creem?  I don't think so.  I'd buy an AR man or publicist calling Lester Bangs, but not the head executive of a major label.  You can read Clive Davies' and Jac Holzman's autobiographies to see how much time they spend talking about music critics, i.e., virtually none.

9. "Where are we with The Good Rats"?  the executive asks his AR crew.  Come on.  Were The Good Rats ever really discussed by major label record executives?  They were big in the NYC area and had that vibe about them, always.They might have brushed against a major label at the time, but that was it, they were never a going concern at that level.  More than likely, an AR guy from Queens was raving about them, they signed a deal for one album with a major, it got put out, sold 100,000 copies, 75,000 of them in the NYC tri-state area, and they went back to their indie label home, where they belonged.  I could see an executive asking: "Have we dumped The Good Rats yet?"  Someone working on the script was a teenage fan at the time.  There's a much better reference to The Good Rats in the movie Roadie, where the aging Blue Oyster Cult roadie reminisces with his teenage crush in his old bedroom to an old (and good!) Good Rats song, which makes perfect sense for two Queens kids remembering the 70's.

10. Classic Scorcese or tired cliché?  Two grown men beating the shit out of another to a pop song, in this case Hurricane Smith's "Babe What Would You Say?"  Didn't we see this one before, better, in Goodfellas, where two grown men kick the shit out of another to the tune of "Atlantis" by Donovan?  Which goes all the way back to De Niro fighting off a gang of thugs in a pool hall in Mean Streets to The Marvellettes' "Please Mr. Postman"?  I would suggest that in a Martin Scorcese movie if you hear a song like "Seasons in the Sun" by Terry Jacks or "The Night Chicago Died" by Paper Lace ... someone's in for an ass-beating.  Because Scorcese thinks it's funny to score extreme violence to frilly pop music.  It was funny the first few times.

11. The whole "Nasty Bits" British punk thing is fiction and completely out of place with anything going on musically with NYC and/or major labels in 1973.  It just didn't exist.  The one or two little-known NYC alternative bands essentially going nowhere at the time were in no way British and did not have that British punk vibe that these tracks clearly impart.  This is putrid stuff, so wrongly out of place that any serious rock fan has to reject the premise.  Which wouldn't matter, save I gather this band is going to be a running, major theme in this show, since Mick Jagger's son is cast as the singer and he's one of the producers.  Purposely derailing a show historically just to appease one of the show's producer's is a bad move.

12. Did the Mercer Street Arts Center building collapse really go down like that?  While the band was performing so that the band, in effect, "rocked" the house down?  Of course not.  If it had, there would have been a few dozen corpses and hundreds of people injured. 

This show is off to a bad start.  Times being what they were, I guess we're going to be getting into "the birth" of disco in gay clubs, the downtown classical/experimental Philip Glass scene that was exploding at the time,  places like Max's Kansas City and CBGB's.  I can only guess at how wrongly these will be portrayed by people who know better, but must think their artistic license is somehow better than the already intriguing reality that existed.

A much better and more interesting show would have been a loosely-based fictional show on Bruce Springsteen's early days in Asbury Park, New Jersey, especially tied in with the race riots going on around that time and the issues of urbanization and (at the time, lack of) gentrification that started in the 70's and spread outward.  But what do I know ... it seems easier to juggle history in ways that serve no purpose other than to appease egos during writers' meetings.