Thursday, April 11, 2019

What We Do Is Secret

When I walked into the Sweetwater Music Club to see the Meat Puppets perform the other night, the opening act was telling a joke.

“Why did Eric Clapton walk around with a jar full of semen in December of 1968?” he said. 


“Because he was out of Cream!”

The audience booed, but I thought it was funny. It reminded me of my very first assignment as a rock critic at the San Jose Mercury News, in which I opined that pundits around London must have misread the graffiti that peppered London at the time: “Clapton isn’t God,” I wrote. “He’s just good.”
It was the mid-1980s, and so appalling was this pronouncement that the next morning, the local shock jocks called me up to heckle me about my dastardly opinion on their idiotic morning radio show. “So who do you think is a better guitar player than Eric Clapton,” one of them sneered.

Me, my voice slanting upward like a baby, the way it always did back then until I trained myself not to do that: “Um? Curt Kirkwood?”

Needless to say, the offensive jocks had not heard that name before and used both it and the band’s name to relentlessly harangue me (Meat Puppet? What’s a Meat Puppet? Hey, want to see my Meat Puppet! etc etc etc). But forty years later, here in Mill Valley, it looked like everyone in the audience had somehow come around to my opinion. The venue seethed with men in their 60s, talking about Huevos and wearing Black Flag t shirts, but mixed among them, judging by their conversations, were the grown-up versions of those shock jock’s listeners, by which I mean, Eric Clapton fans, or worse: Dead Heads. 

The Sweetwater is the kind of place where locals will go see whomever is playing, which may explain why the gig was sold out. Or, I don’t know, maybe the Meat Puppets had a bigger following than I imagine. There was that time Kurt Cobain covered one of their songs on MTV Unplugged, after all. That was a good gig for them, but what was a good gig for ME was all the other times, oh so many times, when I went to see them and they burned through their repertoire. I can see them now, three beautiful boys, heads bowed over their instruments, their music wandering crisply through the valley of the shadow of songs. It wasn’t death rock, though; quite the opposite, some kind of louder, golden, version of metal. In those days the moniker ‘punk rock’ had a much wider meaning, and a band like the Meat Puppets were welcome in its embrace, despite playing music that sounded like an arid cross between REM and ZZ Top.

It was perhaps an acquired taste though? I didn’t really know anyone who would want to go with me to this show, not at a venue up a wooded glen on a week night, but as I sat quietly in a nearby café staring at my phone while waiting for the show to begin, I saw a message on my Facebook page from someone who was in SF on a business trip and was looking for something to do for just one night.
“Grab a cab over the Golden Gate and come see the Meat Puppets with me” I wrote on her thread, and to my eternal happiness, she did. Honestly, I thought I was the only person left on the planet who would arrive in a strange city and then take a lone cab a long distance to meet up with a total stranger just to see a band from our mutual past, but it turns out that there is one other woman of my age who will do that.  

Jenny and I had actually never met (although I love her old band Tsunami, and we once ran a book discussion online together), but in this situation, we may as well have been friends for our whole entire lives, because there is a very particular past experience we share which could very shortly be put as, “Going to see the Meat Puppets.” Or, Scrawl, or Helium, or Autoclave, or any of a hundred-odd other bands who you may never ever have heard of but whose gigs and music and overall outlook stitch our pasts together into one cohesive whole. It’s not something very many people have in common, especially women of our age, and those that do must now be pretty much interchangeable. 

In other words, it was like we’d known each other our whole lives. 

“Which side do you like to stand on?” Jenny asked briskly, as she went to the bar.
“Left,” I replied, and she nodded. Presently, she met me in the gap I had discovered on the left, the one that gave us the perfect sight and sound lines, and we nodded ever so slightly as an even better spot to watch from immediately yawned open for us, and we stepped into it together. And it was a little like we were children holding hands and entering a fairy tale because from then on it was magical. Every song we either knew or almost knew, every beat was syncopated in our collective heart, every remark we made to one another was either funny or sage and opened up to a new way of thinking about the experience. We speculated on why the keyboard player helped rather than hindered their formerly more sparse sound, if they were better now as a quartet than a trio, what words could be used to describe the very intense vibe that a single man and his brother and his child can conjure up when they’re playing in unison.  

Chill. Drone. Hardcore. Meandery, a word I just made up. The Meat Puppets are all of those things at the very same time, as if you crossed Tex-Mex music with Television and then added onto each song a feedback-laden finish a la My Bloody Valentine. It was a sound I hadn’t heard in ages, and that I hadn’t known I’d missed, but as good as it was to reconnect with it, what was better was that feeling of rejoining the secret world I used to live in, with Jenny by my side in real life, instead of just in my imagination. Watching the Meat Puppets play at this obscure venue up at the foot of a mountain reminded me of a recent gig I attended, by a Led Zeppelin cover band in Woodside. That band was led by a colleague of mine, who is a simply superb musician, playing and singing note for note renditions of that really difficult music, even the falsetto bits. There were about ten people in the audience, all wearing slacks and open necked polo shirts, and they were rocking out and singing along with abandon to the song “Black Dog”, which, as you may remember, goes like this: 

“Hey there child the way you shake your thing/Gonna make you burn, gonna make you sting” (only the way I’ve always heard it is as, “Gonna make you bark, Gonna make you sit”.) 

It made me giggle at the time because my friend is actually a professor of 19th century romantic poetry, but it also reminded me of why, in the 80s, my friends and I preferred the music of the Meat Puppets, which has some sonic commonalities with the Zep but songs that go, “A long time ago/I turned to myself and said/you, you are my daughter,” or, “Holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand/To beautify the foothills and shake the many hands.” 
Meat Puppets, April 4, 2018
In short, unlike Zep songs, and Clapton songs and the songs of ZZ Top, Meat Puppets songs are about nothing, but they’re also kind of about everything; the nature of evil, the banality of the working day, the landscape of the sun…you name it. Lyrically, they’re very meta, while the melodies they play are evanescent. Their work reminds me of a nice quote from Jerry Garcia, who, when asked if he minded his fans taping his shows, once said, “My responsibility to the notes is over after I’ve played them. At that point, I don’t care where they go. They’ve left home, you know?” 

I love that image, of the notes themselves being shepherded into being by bands like the Grateful Dead – or, in this case, the Meat Puppets, nurtured and created and lovingly curated, and then, leaving home to join Jenny and me, huddled together in confines of a nightclub, embanking ourselves against a cold hard world, burying ourselves, briefly, back in the past. What we do there is secret. I won’t tell if you won’t.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Going Down On The Dirt: Motley Crue before #Metoo.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was standing on the platform of at Union Station in Los Angeles waiting for a train alongside a bunch of members of L.A. hard rock bands when one of them — a rat-faced little guy with bad skin, a big shock of dyed black hair and a ton of acne and eye shadow — began to graphically demonstrate different ways he, in his own parlance, liked to “fuck Japanese girls.”
The cast of "The Dirt" or: Wigs R Us

He lifted his legs and gyrated suggestively. He got on his knees. He bent over a pretend ass and flailed at it wildly. He made high, stupid, squeaky noises in imitation of what he said they sounded like when he did this. He talked loudly about the pros and cons of cowboy and reverse cowboy, and then announced why he preferred to do these things with Asians. It was, he said, because they were “tighter.”

I want to apologize for the nasty and graphic nature of the preceding sentences which may well have made you feel just as bad reading them as I did listening to them, i.e. sick to your stomach. When I heard them, tears popped into my eyes, which I choked back. Listening to him felt like being brutally, mentally, molested. But because I was waiting for a train, I was unable to walk away; and anyway, I was working, reporting the grand opening of the Hard Rock Café Tijuana. He, and I, and everyone on that platform, had been invited by the management to go on a junket which involved a train ride down the coast and then a bus ride across the border, so all I could do was stand there and listen.
In retrospect, I realize now that the band member knew exactly how uncomfortable he was making me, and probably wouldn’t have said any of it if I hadn’t been there, but at the time, this didn’t occur to me. That was my assignment and there were rules about covering it, and the rules didn’t include describing the obscene conversations of the subjects, especially since, as the very, very rare female rock critic in that milieu, I was only allowed to do things like this on sufferance. Had I complained, I’d never have gotten another assignment.

Later on, in San Diego, as I walked down the aisle seeking a seat on the bus, he and his friends all chanted, “Show us your tits!” I flipped them off and they all laughed cheerily. They knew and I knew that we were going through the motions. They didn’t really want to see my tits at 11 o clock in the morning; it was more like we were all taking part in a weird pantomime of what hard rock bands were expected to say to any random female when found in that particular situation — i.e. going on an all-paid trip Mexico.

This incident came back to me as I watched The Dirt, the new biopic on Netflix about the band Motley Crüe. Motley Crüe were the masters of this particular form of cheery old sexism; the Tijuana-bound bands on the bus, whose names I can no longer remember, were very pale imitations of them, but they and their brethren all reveled in this kind of sexist idiocy. The Dirt tries to make a case that this sleazy ambience and objectification was some kind of rebellion against Reagan era conservatism. In the opening montage, a bunch of images of “80s evil” flash by, including bad women’s fashion, some decency crusaders and Nancy Reagan. That those things were terrible is true. That some bands — like the Weirdos and X, who are name-checked on a marquee at one point in the film — fought that through their aesthetic choices is true. What’s false is that Motley Crüe were part of that fight. Nope. They were part of the problem, pure and simple, fundamentally entwined with mainstream culture, mainstream politics, mainstream mores, mainstream sexism. Any movie that argues otherwise is telling some other band’s story, not this one.

A lot of people will enjoy it anyway, because most people love clichés and there’s a ton of female nudity in it, but objectively speaking The Dirt is a terrible movie, full of breathtakingly bad acting and extremely poor dialogue. I had a hard time watching it without fast forwarding a lot, but it did do one thing, and that is, remind me forcefully of that era. Motley Crüe walked the earth in the mid-1980s til the very early 1990s, a time when the bands I loved, like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü and REM and Nirvana, represented their exact opposite values — and a time, also, when almost all rap music was just breathtakingly fun and great, even when it wasn’t also being utterly, righteously, real. I was filled with loathing and disgust for the Crüe and their brethren, partly because their music seemed shallow and stupid by comparison but mostly because the drug and groupie scene both oppressed me personally and grossed me out.

At that time, I did not have the language or the theoretical framework to describe why their degrading use of women in all their music and imagery was so horrifying to me, because I hadn’t been to grad school yet. I just saw them as an evil force. Alas, The Dirt doesn’t quite capture that force, because like so much of history, it is revisionist, beginning with a very early party scene in which we see Tommy Lee giving head to a woman while spraying the crowd with whiskey (or something). While the mise en scene (“wild party!”) may be relatively true, the porny detail is not, simply because such an event would have been performed by two women while the men all watched.

This is not to say that The Dirt disregards that era’s obsessions with dick: there are not one, but TWO, scenes in which the band members discuss business at a table while a random woman, stuffed under it, services them with blowjobs, one by one, surpassed only by the number of scenes of sexual antics in hotel rooms. Later, Ozzy Osbourne (i.e. actor in a frightwig) gives the band some sage advice about not partying too hard and burning out — a clear, if heavy handed, foreshadowing where the film is going to go — before snorting up a column of ants and then his own, and then the band member’s piss. But…why? It’s unclear. Is it an homage to the greatness of Ozzy? Is it meant to mitigate all the scenes of them degrading (or just hitting) women by pointing out that they were out of their heads? Is it meant for shock value, like all the rest of it?

In a recent interview about the film, guitarist Nikki Sixx told Entertainment Weekly writer Katherine Turman that although they were ashamed of some of their actions, “the good news for everybody is this band never abused power, that it was definitely consensual.” In some ways, and with some exceptions — like, oh, maybe the sexual assault Sixx recounts in his book and now denies because, of course he would — I think that’s probably true. At least I hope it is. Despite many disgusting incidents like the one I witnessed at the train station, I never felt physically threatened around that band or bands like them, but only because the women they were humping in my vicinity were so clearly delineated from the likes of me. With hindsight, I understand now that those women probably truly wanted to be screwed in front of everybody by Motley Crüe; and thanks to the democratizing force of Pornhub and Tinder, the kind of debauchery once reserved solely for rock stars — gang bangs! threesomes! penetrating people with food and animals! — can be easily accessed by everyone.

A lot of other things have changed since then as well, of course, but it would be way too simple to laud this film for its depiction of the past by saying, “Those were more innocent times.” As Spencer Kornhaber points out in his article in the Atlantic, the biopic omits many real life details about what garbage people this band was made up of, including the fact that Tommy Lee went to jail for battering his then wife Pamela Anderson, Vince Neil pleaded guilty to assaulting a woman in 2016, the band had to settle a lawsuit with a security guard who alleged they said racist slurs to him, poured beer on him, and directed the crowd to attack him at a 1997 concert, and that Neil’s DUI manslaughter car crash caused two additional passengers to suffer brain damage. Without mentioning those things, The Dirt is able to sanctimoniously hawk itself under the hypocritical title of “a cautionary tale,” but in fact, it is a celebration of a lifestyle, not a condemnation of it. According to Sixx (again, speaking to Turman), ”If you’re making a movie in 2019 about the colonial period and burning witches, and society wants you to remove it because we don’t burn witches anymore, that’s not honest film making.” Fair enough, although when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure that we, as viewers, are as likely to learn something from watching an in-depth history of the depravity of Motley Crüe as we are from the history of the depravity of the Salem Witch Trials.

I see on social media that many people I know are enjoying this film because they see it as fun, corny, or that kind of bad/good hybrid that some people like to wallow in, and it’s true that its very shallowness, as well as the phony, intermittently-ironic, kitschy style, matches the shallow, phony, kitschy badness of the band itself. That can be fun to watch, if you’re not me, and didn’t have to experience some of it. It’s not hip to say so, but in addition to wishing that he’d told the real truth about this band, I also wish that the director had broken the fourth wall either more times or fewer, and had included one single female character that wasn’t either a shrill bitch, or nude, or on her knees.

Despite reminding me of those days and highlighting its ultimate meanness, The Dirt didn’t make me angry, or give me PTSD. Instead, the overwhelming feeling that wafted off it was pathos. There were a number of ways in which that kind of hair-band was pathetic in the first place, at least to me and my friends, and the great thing is, we had the absolute pleasure of watching Motley Crüe’s whole ridiculous aesthetic destroyed in months by a band called Nirvana. They were pathetic then, but how much MORE pathetic to be someone in that band now, 30 years down the road? If nothing else, The Dirt does show four absolute jackasses, and if people are laughing at Motley Crüe rather than with them, it’s understandable. Unfortunately, I know who is taking that mirth to the bank.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Society of the Spectacle, or, Feeling Groovy, 2019 style.

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. -- Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967

In the midst of all the talk about the Oscar nominations, someone I know on twitter recently commented that the two Fyre Festival documentaries were the feel-good movies of the year.  The documentaries (“Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened,” on Netflix, and “Fyre Fraud,” on Hulu) depict the events leading up to, during, and after, an extraordinarily inept music festival that was supposed to occur on Great Exuma, in the Bahamas, in the spring of 2017.

Both documentaries gleefully expose the huge amount of hubris required to stage such a big failure, so the viewing pleasure the tweeter referred to was either the fact that they showed lots of rich people having a very bad time and also, perhaps, that the promoter, Billy McFarland, was sentenced to 6 years in jail. In fact, my own ability to take pleasure in thes documentaries referred to something else entirely: the fact that, as co-promoter Ja Rule says at one point, “at least no one died.”

Although that sounds ridiculously cynical, it’s actually a good point. Altamont, 1969: one man killed in full view of the audience by a Hell’s Angel, who was later acquitted. Roskilde, 2000: 9 people dead. Love Parade 2010: 19 deaths. Route 91, Las Vegas: 851 injured, 51 dead. At the  Fyre Festival, concert goers were merely inconvenienced by having to spend a night at the airport. Oh, plus, they lost their money, but what else is new?  Anyway, given the comparative gentleness of the punishment, it’s easy to mock the whole fiasco – if you don’t care to take into account what happened to the Bahamanians who were involved.

The Fyre Festival documentaries were of especial interest to me, because music festivals are my scholarly area. In fact, I just published a book about them, in which I trace the seeds of the kind of dystopia that the Fyre Festival made real. Much like the people who made these films, I started my book with a core research question. I wanted to understand why music festival goers see festivals as being spaces of freedom, when in fact they are the opposite: jails, almost, where basic amenities are costly and privacy is non-existent.

If you have attended even a small outdoor music festival, you are probably aware that they are the direct opposite of every one of these promises. A photograph of Bonnaroo by air, for example, depicts  an urban nightmare of overcrowding transposed on a once-pristine meadow. Yet year after year, concert goers fall for this disjunction and my goal, in taking on this project, was to understand the roots of this riddle.

In my book, I looked at a number of historical festivals to identified four appeals that I claimed underpin festival rhetoric. These were geographical remoteness, idylls of nature and ecology, the availability of sex and drugs, and racialized narratives about unity that obscure the way that race is usually coopted at festivals and used as a form of spectacle. The Fyre Festival organizers definitely took advantage of some of these false narratives – certainly the availability of sex and drugs is heavily implied, as was the appeal of being at an obscure location on a ‘private Caribbean island’ (a natural feature that would soon be wrecked by the advent of 10,000 concert goers). But to those, it added a few new twists, such as the use of the name Pablo Escobar, a video ad using a lot of super famous models cavorting on yachts, and a lot of ad-copy touting access to the most obvious types of vulgar luxury – private jets, beaches, backstage passes, and so forth.

These appeals don’t really conform to any of my ideas about typical music festival appeals, which skew more towards concepts of community-building, utopian ideals, and Bohemian hipness. True, those narratives aren’t any more real than the ones of Fyre, but the Fyre festival ones are so far off the usual ones that it’s like looking at them in a funhouse mirror. For example, the romanticization of Escobar – who, as the Hulu doc pointed out, was not so much a role model as a brutal murderer — is more in line with the way young people today worship businessmen like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk without assigning a judgment to their foibles. Billy McFarland’s inane insistence on using the name “Pablo Escobar” in his promotional materials at the risk of losing access to the island in question – which he did — shows that he had absolutely gauged the appeal of that narrative at it’s worth. The concert sold out in hours.

The distortion of reality – even just the distortion of the illusions that  underpin festival going -- extends way beyond the rhetorical appeals of the original ad for Fyre and the whole idiotic concept of it, all the way through to its denouement. For me, one of the most telling moments in the documentary was when Andy King – the infamous ‘give a blow job for the team’ guy – says that at the height of the madness, he kept thinking about Woodstock, and how what was really a disaster on the ground has been remembered throughout the ages as this fabulous success. In once sense, he’s right, and it makes sense to invoke that image. But Woodstock had one thing that the Fyre Festival lacked: legendary performances by contemporary musical giants. The aesthetic excellence of the Fyre Festival’s musical content  was nil. It was all just an excuse to cavort on the beach with imaginary models.

All of this is just to say that to my mind, the Fyre Festival simply wasn’t a typical musical festival at all. There may be some lessons to learn from it, but they are not the ones that the documentaries say they are. Both of them blame three things for the debacle: McFarland, social media (specifically, Instagram), and, most prominently, Millennials, and what are said to be their values and practices. But I don’t buy it. Sure, McFarland was a huckster, abetted by a number of other hucksters, most prominently Ja Rule. Nothing new about that, it’s the American condition, and why someone once said,  there’s a sucker born every minute. But social media and Millenials come in for a very bad rap here – so bad, that one can’t help but think that the makers of these documentaries are trying to avert our eyes from something far worse.

Instagram, for example, surely doesn’t deserve to bear the brunt of this debacle. Certainly the Fyre Festival’s use of Instagram exploited a particular area of it – that space where ‘influencers’ hawk their lifestyles. But there are millions of users of Instagram, myself, for instance, who have never gone near an influencer’s page, who had no idea about the Festival, and who wouldn’t be induced to by a ticket to it if they did. I never once saw one of those Fyre-colored profile pages, and I’m on Instagram constantly. Surely the Fyre Festival certainly maxed out the number of people who’d buy into its false promises – and remember, many of those we see in the documentary were being comped in, so they didn’t spend any money on it.

To put the onus on millennials is even more specious, because not all millennials are obsessed with glamour. Example: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a millennial, and one who spends a lot of time on social media, too. She isn’t a Fyre-faller, nor are simply millions and millions of others, even ones who go to music festivals. To taint them all as being shallow and obsessed with their image is to willfully ignore the fact that the Fyre Festival appealed only to a relatively small number of people who had bad judgment about this one thing. Hopefully, they learned a lesson from it.

Besides, one should always distrust blanket assessments of generations like the ones that the Hulu documentary was laden with: “millennials do this, millennials do that.” Millennials come in all shapes and sizes, and one thing often not noted about them is that many of them are incredibly hard workers. This was evident in the documentary, as we saw many millenials continue to work for McFarland well beyond the point when it became clear that the concert was going down. True, judging from the interviews in both, many employees weren’t even remotely concerned about the fact that they worked for someone they fully recognized as a scam artist, to build an app (or a festival) that was clearly sleazy, and this is curious – but I wouldn’t attribute it to their generation alone: this lack of moral grounding is a question that haunts not just the Fyre Festival, but our entire economy right now. Indeed, the same question could and should be asked about the people involved in the Trump administration. Both sets of employees exhibit complete disinterest in ethics of their employers: they’re obviously smart and well educated, or they couldn’t do their jobs, but don’t seem to make any value judgment about what they’re involved in supporting. From the seemingly sensible woman in the Netflix doc who was working on the Fyre app to the young guy who booked the festival by paying the artists way more than their typical fees, their focus is not on the content of what they’re doing, but on how well they themselves can do it.

If you’re going to lay a guilt trip on the people involved in Fyre, that might be the place to lay it – except that there is a word for that kind of detachment: Marx called it ‘alienation,” and it’s a core feature of capitalism. So, much as I’d like to indulge in some schadenfreude, I personally don’t think it’s something any of us should feel superior to, especially not the producers of the Hulu documentary, who paid Mr. McFarland an undisclosed sum just so he could appear on camera and say “No comment” or “I don’t know” over and over again. Isn’t that exactly the kind of cynicism and bad faith that they spend the whole documentary accusing other people of indulging in?

Neither of those realizations made this a “feel good,” movie for me exactly, but not everything about it sucked. In fact, after it aired, some people started a Go Fund Me page for the Bahamian woman, Maryann Rolle, who’d lost $50,000 feeding all the workers at the festival site, and within days they’d surpassed that goal. In short, the Fyre Festival documentary may have exhibited some of the worst impulses of a few people who live amongst us right now. But it also prompted some of the best – and that fact alone kind of shows that the documentaries had a flawed thesis.