Monday, July 16, 2018

The Men Don't Know

Caitlin said, “Can you pick me and my friends up after the Harry Styles show tomorrow?” I was like, “Sure,” and then I thought, ‘Wait a second! That’s not how I roll!’
One Direction. Back in the Day

I still read the rock press, so I know Harry’s solo work (from his self-titled album Harry Styles) is supposed to be better than that, and that he was in Dunkirk, that he dated Taylor Swift and that he is moderately cute. But what I really know is what this kind of show — whoever the singer — is like. The earth-shattering screams. The heaving masses. The little girls jumping up and down and weeping with excitement, the hand holding, the ear-splitting, the mouth-stretching energy that pours out of their bodies...You’d have to be a monster not to want to get a piece of that — albeit a monster who hasn’t seen Monsters Inc, in which the whole world is powered on the screams of children.

I’m not, which is why I am here inside instead of waiting in the parking lot, teetering up the metal stairs to the top of the venue, peering down at the stage from on high. Below me stretches a thousand aisles of partly empty seats, and at the end of each one is a couple of girls in a party frock, posing themselves for selfies with the stage below as the background. I can almost feel all the simultaneous snapchats being sent, like electrical current through my veins. All are decorated with the same badges and stickers and exclamation points: “AT HARRY STYLES!”

Normally, ice hockey arenas are just these vast, sterile, cold cages of air. But when that air gets puffed up with ecstasy, they can become almost holy, and this was that night – maybe in part because the energy in the room was entirely female. You’d think that Harry Styles might have a modicum of gay male fans, and no doubt he does. But they weren’t very present on this particular night; the place was full to the brim with women, and that in itself was kind of fun and relaxing. At one point, I looked behind me and saw exactly two men in my section, and one of them was clearly someone’s father and the other a bored boyfriend.

Presently, the lights came down and the opening act, Kacey Musgraves, came on.  You wouldn’t think she’d be a good fit for Harry Styles, but in fact, she’d be a good opening act for anyone in the sense that she is just unambiguously awesome. Her music sounds like the 5th Dimension meets Tanya Tucker, but despite its smooth jazz vibe, she radiates authenticity to the point where her transformative version of the Gnarles Barkley song “Crazy,” which featured horns and a cello, didn’t even smack of appropriation; by the time she got to her gay pride anthem “Follow Your Arrow,” the audience rose up and cheered. Clad in a blue spangled body suit and thigh high black boots, she mopped up even the chatterers (like the girls in the seats next to me): after her set I overheard one of them say, “I thought I didn’t like country music but I guess actually do!!”

In between acts, the crowd danced and sang to a medley of hits from the 1970s, songs by the BeeGees and Elton John and Queen. Then the song “Olivia,” by 1-D (the massively popular boy band from whence Harry Style came), came on, and the place exploded, never to really be put back together. From that moment on, the room fomented, and when Harry arrived on stage, it blew. No one sat down for the next 90 minutes as he trucked through his entire solo record (“Sign of the Times,” “Sweet Creature,” “Carolina,” etc.)  with a few additional 1 D songs (“Stockholm Syndrome,” “That’s What Makes You Beautiful”) and a cover (Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”). With the exception of the first named and the last named song, I wasn’t familiar with the music, but there was a ton to like about this show anyway, from the fact that it was stripped down stage to his truly awesome drummer, Sarah Jones, who was in the bands Bat For Lashes and Hot Chip, and has her own band Pillow Person.

I sort of wish this was a blog about Sarah, but it’s still cool that Harry hired her. Anyway, he can play his own guitar, and that’s a lot more than you can say about Justin Bieber.
Sarah Jones

Beyond that, there is not much to say about Harry Styles…except that there sort of is. On the one hand, as indicated, Harry Styles is kind of bland and corporate. Nevertheless, he pulls it off. The skill he wields and the persona he exudes is gentle, soft-hearted even – his  tour T shirt read, “treat people with kindness,” and that sentiment, which describes either his core values or those of his audience, are surely nothing to smirk at. Also – and I can’t quite articulate this -- but you have to understand that I have billions of years experience at these things, my not-so-secret power is that I can totally grok their nuances, and the nuance of this show was this:  although everyone in the audiences had previously loved One D, and currently love Harry Styles, there was some kind of layer of irony shooting through their fandom – irony, or nostalgia, or just self-knowingness, a sort of sly undercurrent of laughter about the funniness of their fandom, and the best part about this was that Harry himself was in on the joke. Everyone there was laughing at themselves together, in the best possible way. 

So it didn’t matter that I wasn’t in the magic circle. I got the feeling that was in every heart in there very well, because it’s primal. Yes, choirly voices, high pitched screams and the utterly basic joy of singing along with ten thousand people is very much my wheelhouse, and it is not to be dismissed or downplayed. It is so worth participating in.
heroes are hard to find: Harry in Dunkirk

What I mean to say is, we are all so jaded now. The harsh edges and quirks and groans I look for in other acts have all been filled in here, as if with musical caulk, or that kind of makeup which smooths out every crease. You know the deep scary gothic-ness of Nick Cave? Harry Styles is the actual, literal, opposite of that, the anti-Cave, performing purity and light. For some reason, as I watched him sing and dance and heard the loud collective love for him charge through the room like a storm, I thought of the Thai cave  boys and their miraculous return this week, rescued by bravery and kindness and luck.
These are dark times, but you can keep your chin up

As I said, you’d have to be a monster to not want to be a part of this. And since the older I get, the more monsters I become aware of, it’s good to run into a knight now and again.

Monday, July 9, 2018

No One's Little Girls

Last week London was on blast, burning up from a heatwave that had settled on top of the entire island, melting train tracks and pavement as far north as Scotland, even trapping one young man whose foot went into a puddle of tarmac as if it were quicksand. The tube was full of signage warning people to bring water everywhere and leave the train if they felt ‘unwell,’ but despite the imminent prospect of someone fainting at your feet, it was kind of awesome. Having just arrived from a land of rage and nastiness, it was soothing to be enveloped by the giddy sensation that everyone around me was unreasonably, even guiltily, happy. Between that royal wedding, the world cup and the weather, England was in a good mood for once. England was dreaming.

But there is one thing I can’t stand about England right now and that’s Love Island, a nightly television program on the BBC in which 14 total tossers live together in a villa in Spain in order to hook up with each other. There is ostensibly some kind of a prize at the end, but the rules to this game are obscure: in essence, they just walk around wearing as little as possible, flirt with one another in unintelligible accents and say really dumb things. (Example: “What animal is beef made of?”) Of course all fourteen of them are gorgeous, although absolutely identical to one another, especially the women, who are blonde, ‘fit,’ and surgically altered. All of England is absolutely riveted to this inanity, but it made me impossibly sad. On Love Island, the women literally service the men on camera (albeit under duvet covers), and then cry when the men change partners. So much for the #metoo movement: With the immediate destruction of women’s rights, I found its gender dynamics absolutely dystopian.

And so I repaired to the continent, where in some ways it’s eternally 1985. For example, one night I got in a taxi in Porto and the driver had the radio set on Bryan Adams song “Run To You” – on repeat. I heard it three times before I got to my destination, which was three times more than I’d heard it in the last couple decades. And also three times too many.

Bryan Adams makes music that is indescribably banal. It’s hard to imagine that it could spark the smallest amount of interest in a listener, especially twenty years after its release. As the cab wound it’s way through dark streets of Porto, questions arose from my subconscious like bubbles surfacing from the deep: questions like, ‘Who would listen to this and like it? Who is even supposed to speak to? What is the point of it, and why does it even exist?’

In some ways, questions like that don’t deserve answers. But the answers may well cut at the heart of all the taxing things about women’s roles in this era. After all, Bryan Adams is quotidian man, and his songs are quotidian culture. They use three chords and words of one syllable and a four-four tempo and an electric lead guitar. “Bleached’ isn’t a white enough word to describe it: It is dumb music, using the word ‘dumb’ in both its senses. It is emotionally mute, yet weirdly dominant. Even when it’s not toxic, masculinity like his isn’t exactly reassuring.

 It is also the kind of music that punk tried to disrupt and though punk didn’t succeed — if it had, I would have been hearing “White Riot” instead of “Run To Me” in that cab that night — it did lead me to this city on this day, to participate in an academic conference on punk rock entitled Keep It Simple, Make It Fast, at the University of Porto.

KISMIF (as it’s called) is in its third iteration, and this one’s theme is gender. To that end, the conveners had asked organized events around ideas that explored gender, identity and DIY cultures. Gender, identity and punk ought to be a but there were occasional hitches, as when, after a plenary talk in which Dr. Helen Reddington discussed the connections between reggae and feminist punks, the first question, from some : “….but…what about the Clash?”

Honestly. There are so many great men that I know, but there are also a number of men who feel a need to insert themselves or their proxies into every narrative, no matter what the topic. I get that they don’t even know they’re doing it, but I no longer feel like putting it aside. I wish I felt entitled enough, like a white male, to just tell men as a genus to just shut the fuck up.

Actually, I know full well that my life would be so much poorer, if all men shut the fuck up. But so is theirs, when they make women do so. And yet they do so, again and again, without even meaning to.

Later on, in the Cyber room of the Casa da Musica, an intimidating brutalist building by Rem Koolhaas that is full of uncompromising angles and uncomfortable planes and dangerous stainless steel staircases, the seminal punk band the Raincoats performed six songs in front of a huge picture window. Behind the glass, a Portuguese cityscape turned the scene into a gigantic painting, a landscape foregrounded by a portrait by Vermeer, or John Singer Sargent or Lucien Freud. It was like one of those painterly pictures where medium is all daub-y and thick, and the people in them look all craggy and lived in, and are holding objects that speak of their profession. The Raincoats were holding electric guitars, rather than carrying jugs or lanterns or flowers, and I can’t even articulate how great it was to see women who, rather than lying about in dim repose to be gazed upon by viewers, were caught in the midst of the act of creation.

The Raincoats music isn’t angry, really; not in the way the Slits or the Clash were. It’s observational and empassioned, and sounds at times like a verbalized sigh; like you’re listening into someone’s thoughts. Along with the Slits, whose drummer they shared, the Raincoats were an all-girl punk band formed in London in 1975. Its members met at art school in Hornsey, having come from a world which Viv Albertine once characterized as being closer to the 1940s than to the 70s. In her speech at KISMIF, Gina Birch reiterated this point, when she mentioned that the home she grew up in had outdoor toilets; Guitarist Ana Da Silva grew up on the island of Madeira where in her youth there was no daily newspaper and no television. Somehow that makes it all the more remarkable to me that the bands they formed with their women friends in London used the form of punk to reconfigure everything about the world they lived in. Just by cutting off their hair and wearing odd unflattering clothes, they disrupted the very notion of how women were looked at, at the time, and here’s the thing: they’re still doing that. Live, today, the Raincoats disrupt everything you thought you knew about how music should look, and sound, and feel. They are unlikely heroines in a world where the women of Love Island reign supreme.  

KISMIF’s focus on gender in punk was not only timely, it was spot-on. Later, in another plenary speech, Gina Birch talked about how, as a female, you have to go through you life ‘listening over’ lyrics: “I mean, like, ‘lay lady lay…lay across my brass bed,” she quoted, rolling her eyes. Jeez, I hadn’t even thought of that one, and I think about this kind of thing a lot.

But that in a nutshell, is the tension that won’t go away. Women, like the ones on Love Island, are seen and men are heard – even if their music is utterly banal and indifferent, even if they have nothing to say, even if they’re old and ugly, even if, like Bryan Adams, you can’t possibly imagine what it’s adding to the world by existing. It gets heard even then.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Up & Down with the Rolling Stones

Sarah lives in Cardiff and The Rolling Stones were playing at the stadium down the road. She debated on Facebook on whether to take her children to see them — to introduce them to a unique and formative classic rock band. Sarah’s friends were divided on the wisdom of this, but I was not. I hate The Rolling Stones so much I sometimes think I must actually love them. As many a blues artists has noted before them, it’s a thin line between the two.

Let’s get this straight at the outset though. I don’t hate The Rolling Stones' music. I hate what they represent, and like so many antipathies, my relationship began as an affair of the heart. I started out enthrall to them and what I perceived as their dangerous personas, their glamorous auras, their satin scarves, their diphthongs, their androgyny, their vices. I swooned to the sound of “Exile On Main Street,” I truly love the songs “Gimme Shelter,” “Tumbling Dice” and “You Got The Silver,” I can play “Dead Flowers” on guitar. But I wasn’t their lover, I was their victim…and when they lost my fandom, I became ashamed of it, and they grew monstrous in my mind. I felt implicated in their crimes.

Once they were dead to me, I went through four of the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. It was, however, a mourning period unsupported by the community at large, who continued – who continue – to be absorbed in every value and grace note and spectacle they present. That this is so is why and how it comes to be that, fifty plus years after their debut, the Rolling Stones are on tour this summer, playing enormous venues like the one Sarah eventually went to in Cardiff.

Yeah, I lost that debate, and so it occurred to me that it might be time for me to come to terms with my hatred, in order to reach at long last, the fifth stage of grieving, acceptance. What follows is a fugue of sorts, in five parts, the same number of times I’ve seen them live. 

1)    The first time I saw The Rolling Stones was at the Oakland Coliseum and it was on Mick Jagger’s 34th  birthday. A helicopter strafed the crowd and dropped little packages on its head, which proved to contain fortune cookies with inserts that read “happy birthday Mick,” and irony of irony, I recall thinking then that he was as old as the hills. A few years later, I went to see the band at Candlestick Park with my friends Lori, Kathy, and Kathy’s boyfriend Nick. The opening act was Santana and it took us practically all day to get there because we walked from, like 24th and Mission. I’d never seen Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco up close, and it shocked me a little, because I’m stupid and white and grew up in the suburbs, and I’d lived in the Bay Area my whole life and still didn’t know we had a ghetto, or what it looked like. The relationship – or non-relationship – between The Rolling Stones and race and class and economics was a closed book to me at that time: I knew nothing about any of those things. I didn’t know that “Some Girls” was a paean to groupies, I didn’t know that the Stones were fans of black music who had somehow occupied it without giving it proper credit, none of it. I just had your basic bad time at the concert, i.e. I had to pee the whole time, the stage was way up high so I had to crane my neck, a bunch of drunken frat boys stood in front of me yelling shit, and Mick was wearing balloon pants and looked like a clown.

( 2)    Years passed. I was in college and Cocksucker Blues was playing one night only on campus, with Robert Frank, the filmmaker, in residence. I went with my friends and was shocked straight by the scene in it, in which a bunch of gross looking roadies take turns having sex with a teenage groupie while the Stones stand around beating bongos. Years later, this is what I wrote about it  in my book, Exile In Guyville: “I’m old enough now that I understand that to some people the sight of girls masturbating and having sex with a bunch of men is erotic, but at the time, it just seemed depressing….The desperate girl was depressing. The lecherous roadies were depressing and disgusting. Most of all the, the Stones, staring down at them, bored and disdainful, were depressing – like noxious villainous Roman emperors  no one in their right mind would root for, because I would be like rooting for Caligula.”

( 3)    Then it was high grunge and I was in the thick of it. My idea of a good show at that time was one where you got into a small mosh pit and pressed sweaty flesh with shirtless boys and possibly the lead singer, while guitars ground out super loud and ominous chords behind a relentless drum and absolute roars of rage, where you basically became one with noise...a show by the Fluid or Fugazi or the Afghan Whigs. Meanwhile, in real life, for my day job, I covered bands like Nirvana and Metallica for Rolling Stone and Spin. In 1991, I was asked by Entertainment Weekly to review “Flashpoint,” the live Rolling Stones LP, and when I turned in my copy the editor called me up to beg me to change the letter grade I gave them, F, but I refused. I re-read it recently and I was surprised at how kind I was to the band, which may have been copy editing thing: I didn’t actually use any swears, though I did call the record an embarrassment,  question  why, after 28 years together, the band couldn’t play “Paint It Black” in synch, and conclude that it was “a crass, predictable, and poorly executed — and I hope, for the sake of anyone who enjoyed the tour live, not entirely accurate — document of what sounds like the band’s exploitation of its public’s loyalty and love.”

    Good thing the internet didn’t exist then or I would have been doxxed and then stoned to death.

(  4)    In  1997, I went to see the Stones at the Oakland Coliseum again, this time in support of their record “Bridges to Babylon.” Pearl Jam was opening, and I was sort of friendly with that band, having just returned from touring Eastern Europe with them, including witnessing a triumphant gig in Istanbul the likes of which I think the Stones will only ever dream of playing, so I had super good seats. Neil Strauss, then the critic for the New York Times, was seated next to me: soon he would write a best-selling book about how to pick up, use, and exploit the good will of women that sort of distilled what the Stones whole ethos projects. Meanwhile, on stage, the Stones had a giant mechanical dragon that moved around on stage behind them, and in the midst of their machinations, I had this apocalyptic vision of what would was going to happen to that dragon in the future: it would sit in some junk yard, somewhere, and start up feebly one day when everyone else on the planet was dead.  
bridges to babylon set

Musically, that Stones show was much like the one I’d heard in Flashpoint, same songs, same motions. “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Start Me Up,” “Get Off Of My Cloud.” Johnny Ramone was seated behind me, and as he got up to leave, I turned to him and said. “Johnny, I like your band so much more than this one.” I was always glad I did that. It was one of my life’s few right moments.

( 5)    The next spring, I saw them again at what’s now called the SAP Arena in San Jose, where the Sharks play, and sat in the sports box with the publisher of the paper I worked for. It was 4/20 on the actual day that Columbine happened, and that incident was much on my mind, to the point where I couldn’t concentrate on the show below me…but I might not have been able to anyway. The sports box was a million miles away from the stage and everyone in it was laughing and talking and eating hors d’ oeuvres while the Stones played down below. Mid-show, the publisher introduced me to a man he described as Neal Cassady’s son, like this; “Gina, this is Neal Cassady’s son!” Like he didn't have a name, or an identity of his own.
Neal Cassady. With Timothy Leary.
Then he turned to me and said, “I can’t believe I get to be in the same room as Mick Jagger!” I looked around the cavernous arena and I thought, ‘Dude! This is not a room!’ Honestly, you might as well say, ‘I can’t believe I get to be on the same planet as Mick Jagger...or Mother Theresa, or Pele…or a man who may possibly met Jack Kerouac when he was a baby.

 And therein lies the rub, really; that’s what they’re selling, year in, year out, their high ticket prices are predicated on the idea that you get to be in the same vicinity as them. Also, it’s a brand thing, like buying a Porsche or carrying a Prada bag or bragging about having seen Hamilton – just a very obvious way to show that you have money. When I was young and idealistic and all into Fugazi and punk rock, that infuriated me,  but now that I’m older, I try to see those things in perspective, as harmless quirks of the human psyche that, well, twas ever thus.

As for brands and marketing, advertising is now such a foundational part of capitalism, apparently the global economy would collapse if we didn’t all buy into that mindset.

That said, there’s a small little part of me that still feels betrayed by the Rolling Stones, not because they are making so much money off humanity’s weak need to draft off others’ supposed coolness, and not because they have marketed themselves into meaninglessness, and not because their live shows are boring retreads that are essentially the same as seeing Bachman Turner Overdrive at an Indian Bingo parlor only more expensive, but because way, way down underneath their cocky, sexist, toxic white masculinity, there was some incredibly great music. The Stones are like my parents now, a hollow shell of what they once were, and as with my parents, I no longer feel angry. It seems funny to say this, but I now even think that they might have sold themselves short. After all, as of this writing, seeing the Stones in Berlin next week costs less than 75 euros on Stubhub. But the Rolling Stones as a concept is just like the ad says it is: priceless.