Monday, November 5, 2018

Millions Like Us: My book and Welcome To It

“The only true crowd is the one that precedes us.” – Elias Canetti
 Photo by Lance Mercer.

Someone once told me that you should be able to describe every project you work on in eight to eleven words, or people will lose interest. That's why I tell people that my new book is about rock crowds and power: it's short, sweet, and a play on a famous book title; very catchy, in fact. But the truth is, when I started graduate school at Stanford University, in 2003, the idea of a dissertation topic eluded me. I’d messed around with ideas about the fiction of non-fiction, news in fiction, and what might now be called ‘fake news’ in fiction, but the whole concept of writing a book-length essay was anathema to me. At one point, someone told me, “It will come to you all of a sudden, sometime in your third year,” and that is exactly what happened. It arrived, mid-third year, fully formed, like a ripe pear of sorts, in one perfect thought bubble above my head, during a German Studies class that was taught by a visiting professor named Andreas Dorschel. The class had exactly two people in it, myself and a girl named Kate, and we were reading exactly two books, “Masse Und Macht” by Elias Canetti and “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” by Sigmund Freud. Every meeting, Kate and I and Professor Dorschel would comb over some theme in both texts and then Kate and I would bike to yoga together afterward. One day, a particularly noxious passage in Freud stood out to me, notable in part because of its gendered language and the bizarre image it conjured up, one both different yet strangely similar to many of the grunge shows I’d attended the previous decade.

“…we only have to think of a troop of women and girls, all of them in love in an enthusiastically sentimental way, who crowd round a singer or pianist after his performance. It would certainly be easy for each of them to be jealous of the rest; but, in face of their numbers and the consequent impossibility of their reaching the aim of their love, they renounce it, and, instead of pulling out one another’s hair, they act as a united group, do homage to the hero of the occasion with their common actions, and would probably be glad to have a share of his flowing locks.” 

Ping! Rock Crowds and Power.
End result of my dissertation. Out now!

It came to me unbidden, and what was more, the minute I thought of it, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: theorize about the many rock festival crowds that I had participated in as a rock critic throughout the 1990s, uninterrupted by the aesthetic problems that plagued me as a journalist. Rather than weigh up the pros and cons of various rock acts, or rock ‘n’ roll itself, I thought it would be nice to take a step back from the world that I came from and think about why it existed in the first place. What was its appeal? What was its purpose? What was at stake? According to Freud, joining crowds is a libidinal urge. According to Canetti, it is a biological imperative. According to me, it is neither. By the end of yoga that day, I knew what I hoped would be in each chapter, more or less, and from then until today, it hasn’t really changed much, except in that rock festivals have, if anything, become bigger and better attended, much more of a universal youth experience for Americans than they were in 2006. 

It’s now been twelve years since I thought of that idea, eight since I finished my dissertation, four since I “sold” the book to the University of Iowa Press, and two days since it was finally published. In the hopes of interesting people in its content, here is its opening passage.

One cold Christmas Eve in 1910, the citizens of San Francisco gathered in the streets to hear world famous soprano Luisa Tetrazzini sing from a platform built on the steps of the office of the San Francisco Chronicle. For half an hour the opera star, backed by an orchestra and fifty person chorus, held a crowd estimated at 250,000 spellbound with her unamplified voice, which the newspaper described as “sweet, clear and pure in all its artless beauty.” “If you closed your eyes,” wrote Samuel Dickson, “you would have thought yourself alone in the world with that beautiful voice. I was two blocks away and every note was crystal clear, every word distinct.” 

In later years, Tetrazzini’s name would find renown due to her liking for a particularly creamy turkey casserole recipe. But in 1910 she was the equivalent of a rock star. Her performance was billed as a gift to the citizens of San Francisco, but although one might be tempted to think of it as akin to the time in 1987 when U2 played for free at Vaillancourt Plaza, it was more like the time in 2014 when they gave their music away for free on the iPhone 6.

Louisa Tetrazzini performing on the steps of the Chronicle, 1910
In both those cases, the artist in question had an economic agenda that transcended merely entertaining their fans. U2 was promoting its records (Rattle and Hum, 1987, and Songs of Innocence, 2014). In the Tetrazzini case, the concert -- beautiful, pleasurable, valuable, and well-meant though it may have been -- was at least one part a veiled threat. Tetrazzini was in a contract dispute with a New York concert promoter who was not meeting her salary demands. When the promoter, a Mr. Hammerstein, wouldn’t release her from her contract, she threatened to “sing in the streets” instead. In other words, if he didn’t pay up, she would give away for free what he had hoped to sell: her voice. 
Eventually, Tetrazzinis contractual issues were resolved, and she sang (for profit) for a month at the Dreamland Ballroom in San Francisco, but she still made good on her promise. Thus, her free concert carries with it the useful knowledge that every free concert has an ulterior motive. Also, Tetrazzini’s concert proves that even one hundred years ago, musicians were already struggling to assert their rights of ownership over their art. As Stewart Brand once famously said, “Information wants to be free. It also wants to be expensive.” The same thing can be said about popular music. Regarding information, Brand went on to note, “that tension will not go away.” In the case of popular music in the age of the internet, that tension is practically the whole story. 
Because Tetrazzini’s concert drew a reported 250,000 people, because her concert took place in San Francisco, the locus of 1960s free music festivals, and because it was held on Christmas Eve, it seems like a properly sentimental starting point to begin a book about rock festivals. After it was over, the Chronicle described the crowd as, “a monumental microcosm of humanity itself ... boot blacks rubbed elbows with bankers and painted creatures with fat and wholesome mothers of families.” To many music lovers, it is this microcosmic element of humanity – as well as the ability and the desire to rub elbows with it - that makes the experience of seeing live music in the midst of a large crowd uniquely satisfying. Music festivals are places where we override many of our prejudices about mankind and that allow us to think we are accessing a larger social world. At the turn of the 20th century, such a gathering was rare, but thanks to subsequent developments in amplification, the next one hundred years would abound with such gatherings. These festivals would be bigger. They’d be louder. And they would become distribution centers for certain forms of power.
Woodstock. 1969. attendance, half a million. Strong.

Although free and festival-like in nature, Tetrazzini’s concert really has little in common with the kind of gatherings that would come to characterize the gigantic free concerts of the latter half of the 20th century. To begin, it was not amplified, as amplification technology did not exist. (The Chronicle does report, however, that her voice, “unaided by artificial means,” was heard miles away from the Chronicle at the corner of Haight and Webster, when a business man identified as Ray Stone held his telephone out the window of his office on Geary Street, and had his family listen in. Sixty years later, a friend of mine successfully asked the bartender to unhook the phone at CBGBs so she could hear all of Television’s set there, so la plus ca change etc.) Still, the lack of amplifiction makes it a reminder that the type of concert that today we call a rock concert is a truly modern invention. Prior to the invention and widespread adoption of the gramophone (invented 1877, adopted c. 1929) and the radio (invented c. 1895, adopted c. 1920), music was always experienced live, and often for free. Indeed, symphonic music was a common feature at boardwalks, parks, town band shells, and other community gathering places across America and Europe. Since the adoption of radio and records as a means of hearing music at any time and any place, this is no longer true, but the desire to hear music performed live remains constant. People still seek out the live music experience, and they still want to gather in giant numbers and rub up against one another, often at great trouble and expense.
One reason may be simply because music sounds better when performed live. Also, because being in the presence of an artist has a psychological value. But most importantly, I think, it’s fair to say that people who love music have a deep desire to be in the close proximity of others while they are enjoying the same music. At the very best concerts, the music and the artist and the experience all merge to make an event that is something quite different than simply the hearing of a live performance of music. Listening to music is one thing. Listening to it together is a whole other experience, one that can change a simple act of appreciation into a political action. As an example, when speaking about the experience of living as a West Indian immigrant in London in the early 1970s, Paul Gilroy described the experience of community bonding over listening to Jamaican-inflected pop musics like ska and reggae in a crowd setting in London. He wrote that in so doing – in listening to this music alongside others from his diasporic community -- they became 

"…Not so much lost as lucky. An unusually eloquent militant and musically rich culture oriented us and gave us the welcome right to employ it in order to defend ourselves, identify our interests and change our circumstances. We were buoyed up by a worldwide movement for democratic change and energized by the intensity of a very special period in the cultural life of our diaspora."

Gilroy’s experience, which he calls “listening together,” though specific to a time and place, perfectly captures what happened in the late 20th century at countless other specific locations. Woodstock stands as the easiest of these gatherings to parse: at it, gatherees were able to display their allegiance to a new set of values and lifestyles in a manner that accrued emphasis and feeling; as a group, the audience appeared to become an ideological force. At Woodstock, the phrase “you had to be there” gained currency, and throughout the ensuing years, large musical gatherings have attempted again and again to serve this purpose, though the values, lifestyles and ideologies have changed radically. In Tetrazzini’s time, an outdoor concert of that type was a foreshadowing. By the end of that century, it would be a commonplace.

If you're interested in this book, you can order it for amazon or from the link right here! Also, I'll be appearing at The Bindery on Haight Street on November 15th. For more information, click here.