Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Passing Prince

Well, another rock star done gone last week, Prince, shocking the hell out of everyone, as was his wont.  One of my more enjoyable wastes of time is MSN’s “Health and Fitness” web page as it touches on so many exercise and dietary issues that register with me after the big weight loss.  This week they got into “why celebrity deaths feel so personal.”  Prince’s passing has been like Bowie’s: a monumental outpouring of print, TV and online grief.

Of course, Merle Haggard goes, and most people sort of shrug … or worse, pretend they were fans.  (“Okie from Muskogee” is one of the best protest songs of the 60’s going in the other direction, for which I’ll always worship Haggard.  But if I’m being honest, most of what I got can fit onto a succinct one-disc greatest hits collection.  I didn’t live with Haggard’s music the same way I did Williams Sr. and Cash at various points.)

The “Comments” section of that MSN article is pretty much the “adult” reaction: my reaction when I roll my eyes and think, “Christ, get over it, you didn’t know the dude, and if you did, he’d probably freak you out.”  Much as with Elvis, Howard Hughes and Michael Jackson, it seems like a real bad idea to build your own Xanadu and rule as king of this private domain where strange shit is never questioned.  But that’s a reaction, not any gauge of how I handle someone like Prince passing. 

(I’m a fan.  Not huge.  Really tailed off after the 80’s, but kept track.  More interested in the mysterious “vault” material we’ve read so much about, but haven’t heard.  Always seemed odd to me how he continually put out average material but was supposedly sitting on a vault stocked with hundreds of superior quality tracks.  I downloaded just such a collection a few years back, must have been about 5-6 discs’ worth of material, arranged chronologically.  Surely pulled about two dozen gems mostly from the mid-80’s heyday, albeit with shitty/bootleg sound, but a majority of the material wasn’t anything special.  I was assured by a fan at the time that what I downloaded was only the tip of the ice berg.  Come on, now.)

Let me tell you what I understand about death, after going through the passing of both parents, various friends and acquaintances and elderly immediate relatives over the past decade or so.  I don’t understand shit about death.  That’s what being so close to it tells me about it.

But I do know about living through and with the deaths of loved ones.  It’s not like grieving Prince or Bowie.  Genuine grieving takes time and evolves like a dark flower, in the shadows, when you don’t sense or expect it, sometimes the shadow not leaving for days.  When it first happens, weeks or months.  It doesn’t express itself in heartfelt posts on social media.  Or a good playlist.  It’s mind numbing.  It’s shocking in a brutal, silent way.  It’s a reality shift, a slow-turning, your hard evolution from one type of person to another.  One who doesn’t have to imagine “what’s it like” when people close to you start dying, thus making you sense death inching closer to you.  It’s a shit sandwich.

The simple act of people making big displays about Prince’s passing delineates the difference between that kind of death, a celebrity death, and the kind all of us have or will experience of loved ones on that much deeper level.  A celebrity death feels like a ceremonial passing: a tribal gathering.  Sending the chief off in his flaming raft down the river of no return.  You don’t do that with your parents.  You bury them.  Or get them cremated.  And then you dwell on them in good and bad ways for the rest of your days.  You feel their presence in ways that are so much more powerful than any song, because you need a song to inspire that memory of a musician.  Parents?  You don’t need anything; they’re always with you in some sense.  Very often in the mirror, small details you pick up on as you age that weren’t so obvious before.

I don’t dwell on Prince.  Or Bowie.  Or Lou Reed.  I’ve listened to their music for decades.  Will go on listening.  Truth be told, their passings, while shocking, are relatively easy as their work I most strongly identify with occurred mostly decades ago.  Believe me, if Bowie had died in’77 after putting out “Heroes” that would have been a different story!  I like his last album, quite a bit.  But there’s that, and then there’s the stuff from the 70’s that part of my core being.  I recently got into Lou Reed’s “Junior Dad” in a nice way, from his shat-upon last album with Metallica.  Good song.  But it aint no “Street Hassle”!

There might be big displays around a loved one’s death: falling apart at the funeral, nervous breakdown at work, prolonged depression, tributes of varying sorts.  But I’ve found death to be the hardest, most private wall.  It messes with your head forever, in subtle ways that no one else is going to grasp.  Sure, it lets up, you go on living, in many respects with a much deeper understanding of life now that you’ve sensed what permanent loss really means.  But it shades everything thereafter with that knowledge.  It’s the hardest wisdom I’ve ever grasped.  Not a sage, kindly wisdom.  The kind that scares the shit out of you sometimes.

Nobody got online after Dad passed on and went, “Bill’s Dad ruled!” Or gave him a thousand “likes” on Facebook or whatever.  (Of course, that was an older generation who, like me, has nothing to do with Facebook … mainly over the lack of sincerity which would really not work for me in a situation like this.  It’s not a “how does this VCR thingy work.”  I know how it works and want no part of it.)  Frankly, I would have been offended by such a public display for someone who put even less stock in that than I do.

But I have to realize, celebrity is a whole different animal that reaches into our own little worlds and adds some meaning to it.  I guess the question is, how much value do you put on that meaning?  The whole issue with social media is that it encourages people to see themselves as celebrities in their own lives.  People want to see themselves as being important to dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people.  Strangers, welcome!  In fact, strangers even better.  I realized early on with my writing that part of that driving force was this burning desire to be loved and respected by total strangers, after I died, to be remembered forever as this sentient being who touched so many lives outside his own small circle.

Yeah, well, I don’t know what happened to that desire!  I surely saw what was required to push to a higher level in terms of writing: the hustling, the connections, the tireless self promotion.  But it came at a time when I started falling out of love with the whole shebang, that mental shrine I built for myself as a writer over the course of years, that it had to be a certain way.  And even in a best-case scenario, there’d be a load of shit to deal with that had nothing to do with writing.  Sure, I could see doing it, even to this day, but I don’t kid myself about all the extraneous bullshit that would need to occur for this to happen.

And maybe it’s because I have a slight grasp of that machinery, all that it takes to construct a legend, that I find myself emotionally distanced from celebrity death, even for those celebrities whose work I genuinely love.  I can only imagine the magnitude of self obsession that goes with succeeding on that level, which I mean as both compliment and insult.  You need to believe in your own legend, to push it, to make other people believe in it, and hopefully get a large corporation to market what you do to a mass audience over the course of years.  That’s how celebrity works, so it only makes sense that when a celebrity passes on, this ceremonial hand-wringing and out-pouring of emotion are perfectly acceptable responses.  Death wasn’t part of the marketing plan … but it is what it isn’t.

There’s no marketing plan when someone in your family dies.  No legend, save whatever ones you create, and everyone does.  When I was younger, I used to imagine my own passing, after a heroically-lived life in some unspecified sense, hundreds of people turning up, city and country folk alike, all colors, people who knew me in grade school, high school, college, New York, bagpipes playing, everyone I knew thinking deep, positive thoughts about my legacy.

Christ, what a load of self-aggrandizing bullshit all that was.  Don’t know what I was thinking.  Now that I’ve stood uncomfortably through a few genuinely painful funerals, that sort of grandiose gesture seems so false to me now.  Funerals present a temporary finality to the last few days of horrible mind and soul numbing inertia everyone has just struggled through.  Close the casket, lower it into the ground.  That part is done.  And then the act of real grieving begins, the kind we carry the rest of our days.  Whatever I feel for Prince and his music, I’d rather put it in that sort of context.  And honestly feel pretty good about some of the things he created in his life and has left behind.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Vinyl 3: The Revenge of 1973

There was frontier justice last week in the world of cable television: Terence Winter, co-creator of the deathtrip HBO series Vinyl, was removed from his position, with the show to take a “new creative direction” for next season.  With viewership in six-digit figures when the network was surely counting on an eight-figure audience, things are clearly in panic mode.  They let Winter go, much like the coach of a radically failing sports team getting fired before the season’s end.

You can read here and here why the news put a broad smile on my face.  HBO should have gone the distance: lance Mick Jagger, Martin Scorcese, and all the other executive producers spiking this “too many chefs” recipe for disaster, and factor in a story line where the ass-gobbling, historically impossible band The Nasty Bits goes down in a plane crash.  In their case, on the only place they could possibly exist: Fantasy Island.  (Maybe they could tap Peter Dinklage to reprise the Hervé Villechaize role.)

The show sucks for a number of reasons: the dark, overbearing Sopranos’ clichés of sex, drugs, violence and amorality are the keys.  The depressing mediocrity only reinforces how out-of-touch and inept most TV critics are.  (To judge by general critical response, the show should be a sizable hit.)  In my opinion, the formula didn’t work on Boardwalk Empire either, despite lasting five seasons.  I bailed after two: the constant violence and down-beat tone was too much to bear.  I suspect the show skated on the novelty of framing the 20’s and 30’s in the same sex, drugs and violence formula of The Sopranos.  I found myself despising all the major characters after two seasons and bored with the constant, seedy barrage of gloom – not even the presence of Steve Buscemi, one of the greatest actors of the past few decades, could make me stay.

And, of course, Vinyl has its insufferable revisionist history, mixed with the bizarre practice of pissing on the most popular music of the time.  As if a major record label executive would be dumping on the acts who were making him a fortune.  Right.  It didn’t work that way.  Life isn’t like that.  Hipsters don’t run things.  They comment ironically from the sideline … and I should know, because I’ve done my fair share!  Reading routinely positive reviews of this show is like hearing someone espouse the culinary wonders of a shit sandwich.  Tasteless isn’t accurate: corrupt is the right word here.

The worst excuse I’ve seen put forth on the show’s anemic viewership is “the show’s good, people just aren’t that interested in the 70’s or the music.”  Bullshit … about as wrong as wrong can be.  Witness the recent deification of David Bowie, the vast majority of his legacy based on his work in the 70’s.  If you think it’s only people who were teenagers in the 70’s buying 70’s music now or seeing those crusty old bastards in concert, you’re wrong.  The music has lasted because, for the most part, what has lasted is good.  People who weren’t alive in that decade love it.  Go figure.  Much like I love 50’s music.  Or various strains of folk, blues, jazz or classical going back centuries in some cases.  For every asshole critic with a virulent case against Dad Rock, there are thousands of younger fans who disagree.

If you mean to tell me the main reason Mad Men succeeded was because people are really interested in the early 60’s, that’s just not true.  Sure, there’s the novelty of watching a period piece, but the writers need to create compelling characters and stories that people want to watch and care about.  Vinyl has created a Sopranos’ stereotype of a lead character, supported by characters who are marginally more interesting, but unexplored due to the misguided theory that people want to watch a coke-addled buffoon throw his life away.  (If you’ve been missing Richie Funestra’s unintentionally comic over-reaction to snorting a line, here’s a sample.)

I’ve seen internet commenters get angry with naysayers: stop watching if you think the show’s so bad.  No.  That era is my musical DNA.  I own it, in a sense, as does anyone who grew up in that time period, still loves the music, took that love and built a lifetime of musical appreciation on that foundation.  They’re messing with my cultural DNA, too, in ways I find offensive, and you better believe I’m going to defend it.  I’ve grown less irritated with each passing episode as the show gets slightly better.  Slightly better in the way a three-day migraine isn’t as painful as brain surgery.  I find it offensive that people who weren’t around then might take this horrible show as a relevant time capsule of music in 1973 when the image it presents is nowhere near as broad or compelling as it was.  Music wasn’t joyless and foreboding in 1973: in most cases, it was the opposite.

So the question begs to be asked: what would those of us who think the show is utter dogshit do differently?  For one thing, I’d make it about 1973.  Not about “the birth of punk and hip hop” which were non-issues at the time and would become relevant a few years later.  The show is also filled with misguided interludes of rock and R&B performers from earlier eras playing songs, usually in fantasy sequences, that have absolutely nothing to do with the plot or characters.  Save to undermine the musical relevance of 1973.  I wouldn’t make a movie about Nirvana and slip in Billy Idol and Human League MTV videos – that’s about how much sense the “authentic rock and roll” vignettes make.

I strongly recommend everyone reading this pick up a copy of Jac Holzman’s autobiography, Follow the Music.  Why?  Because the position cokehead/label-head Richie is in on the show is similar to the position Jac was in around the same time.  The folk record shop he had started in a tiny store front in Manhattan in the late 50’s had grown into a multi-national record company, eventually merging with Asylum Records which was on fire with the California sound of bands like The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, etc.  (He helped lay the groundwork for that whole scene by signing The Doors and riding the gigantic wave of their relatively short career.)  If you haven’t noticed, these artists are invisible in Vinyl, as is 90% of what was hugely popular at the time.

The amount of character, intelligence, business acumen and general optimism it took to make that happen provides an excellent antidote to VinylThat’s the kind of person who was running a major record company in 1973.  If we were to take the Vinyl formula and apply it to Jac’s life?  He’d be barking about what a bunch of dicks and pansies the guys in Queen were, despite the fact that the band was growing with each album and on the verge of making the label a fortune.  (But I guess Queen is generally “cool” in revisionist rock history … so the writers wouldn’t belittle them the same way they would Mac Davis.  It’s this critic’s take on 1973 pop/rock music that I find the most offensive about the show.  You don’t need to be an unrepentant Mac Davis, John Denver or Partridge Family fan to grasp this concept.)

The stories are in the artists and music, not the guys running the labels.  Most of what they were doing was pure business.  Not boring, but not the story either.  My god, the human interest stories of people like Springsteen, Jonathan Richman, Elton John, Alex Chilton, even The New York Dolls, who are glossed over and glorified in Vinyl, would make for great characters.  The simple act of David Johansen riding the Staten Island Ferry in drag would be an episode!  Ian Hunter laid out his history with Mott the Hoople nicely in his early autobiography, a guy around 30 who thought his career was one bad album away from a day job when David Bowie wrote a hit single for the band.  Alice Cooper’s journey from preacher’s son in Arizona to demented rock god, if told properly, would be interesting.  Joni Mitchell coming from Canada, Linda Ronstadt from Mexican American roots … their stories would be worth telling.  There are dozens of books and old issues of magazines brimming with detailed story lines about artists from that time.

Or reasonable facsimiles thereof.  I’d much rather a show like this develop its own characters, loosely based on actual reality (not revisionist reality), than having hackneyed versions of real-life rock stars float in and out like B list celebrities on Match Game 76.  (My take on their Bowie episode: it was like watching David Cassidy play Bowie in a very bad TV movie.  And don’t get me started on the Jobriath clone.  Jobriath bombed.  It wasn’t the “wild ambiguous sexuality way before its time” thing.  His shtick was bad Bowie.  He bombed for that reason more than anything.  Wait, Bill, haven’t you seen the documentary?  No, I haven’t.  Back around 2000 I downloaded tracks from his long out-of-print album on Napster.  That’s when I discovered how mediocre his music was.  That happens sometimes when you track down a legend.  The legend sucks.  Need a good Bowie fix?  Try Be Bop Deluxe or Steve Harley.)

The worst thing about the show is that it doesn’t feel like 1973.  About as close as it came was Richie’s wife daydreaming to The Carpenters song “Yesterday Once More” on the radio of her station wagon.  Granted, New York City was veering towards a terrible place financially, and it would be hard to replicate that sort of seedy, off-kilter vibe much of the city had.  I know that feeling as it was the first thing I grasped about the city when I set foot on it in the fall of 1986.  You could still feel the spark that had guided the birth of punk/new wave and pushed the city through a vibrant, creative time period.  When you portray The New York Dolls as triumphant rock gods, as opposed to these bedraggled kids in a very strange, informal performance space, exuding that no-frills 718 vibe that was their true nature, you’re just glorifying music that didn’t fully register at the time.  Maybe that’s what’s missing from the show: the 718 vibe.  It shouldn’t be lost on the show’s producers that the artistic thrust of that whole scene came from kids in the outer boroughs and beyond congregating in what were then ragged neighborhoods in lower Manhattan.  The show seems to operate on the premise that some imaginary “Manhattan” vibe was already firmly in place.  It wasn’t.

And I wouldn’t recommend watching documentaries or news specials to get that vibe.  The 70’s are invariably portrayed as this dark, decaying, ugly time in America: Vietnam, Watergate, inflation, terrorism, etc.  Got news for you: if you were young, and I mean kid, teenage or college age, there was a lot of fun to be had in the decade.  Listen to the music: a lot of it sounded fun, even if the lyrics were hard-edged.  The Ramones were fun … despite singing about being such freaks and misfits.  Bands made the best of their inadequacies and misfortune.  It wasn’t lost on the fans.  You can juxtapose this against the “fun” vibe of so much 70’s pop music, which was intentionally sunny and bright … but the net effect is still the same.  If you want to know why I was never all that hot on Nirvana or grunge in general, it’s because I was nurtured by this sense of music.  I don’t care if we’re talking The Ramones or The Doobie Brothers.  They might have had different ideas of fun … but they both had fun.  Drawing a straight line back through the 60s, like The Beatles and The Beach Boys, straight to birth of rock and roll, which was the epitome of fun.  When you put on songs like “Hound Dog” or “Personality Crisis” … do they sound like fun?  Do they sound like an emotion you want to feel, too?

No fun: that should be the tag line for Vinyl … and they can venerate the Iggy/Stooges reference which seems to be their forte.  The show has flashes of dark humor and subtlety.  There should be a lot more than flashes.  I wasn’t expecting some half-baked mafia stereotypes and over-the-top, drugged-out, self-absorbed stupidity.  The music seems like a sidebar story to what are far less intriguing plots and characters  that are in no way time specific and could be jettisoned.

It won’t be easy to turn this show around, if at all possible.  The head brass at HBO were so sure they had a hit on their hands, and I, too, thought, look at that line-up, the biggest 70’s rock star, legendary director and talented screenwriter, what an unexplored time in music and New York City, how could it miss …  that they greenlighted a second season after the first episode, not realizing they had a gut-busting turd of a show on their hands.  I wouldn’t pin it solely on Terence Winter, although the dark themes of the show surely echo his work on The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire.  The formula simply failed here, as it should have, the whole “mafia/violence/drugs/sex” thing has been done to death over the past 20 years.  Long-time reader Andy S. has pointed out to me that the show has at least five or six executive producers listed on each episode, so I suspect there’s a log-jam of bad ideas, power trips and unhealthy compromises that have weighed down the show every step of the way.

All I know is the TV critics are dead-wrong, despite their incessant log-rolling in hopes of getting tapped to contribute their screenwriting skills to HBO.  The public has spoken, 1973 itself has risen from the dead and spoken, I have spoken, and our message is a sincere “fuck you” directed towards this show.  Whatever guidance I could offer, file it under pissing in the wind.  You better believe I will be pleasantly surprised if this show somehow rights itself in the second season and realizes its true potential.