Monday, November 19, 2018

Apocalypse Again

Last Thursday the smoke from the California fires in Butte county seemed to have settled permanently atop the Bay Area. The AQI was over 300, visibility was so poor that you couldn’t see Sutro Tower from middle of Haight Street, and almost every work place, my own included, had sent everyone home to shelter in place. By 6 pm the thin brown veil of ash that was covering everything in sight had been covered by darkness, leaving only the grey blurry sensation that comes when you forget to put on your contact lenses. Most people who were out had on face masks, like Freddy Krueger, which added to the sense of dystopia. But life has to go on, even in the apocalypse, so I parked my car on Cole Street, left my daughter sleeping in the back seat, and went to Amoeba Records to see the Ace of Cups play their first performance in San Francisco in, oh, something like 40 years.

 The Ace of Cups were an all-female band that played around the Haight in the mid to late 1960s. As my brother puts it in his excellent blog (please click through here), “throughout the 20th Century, the Ace of Cups band was a mystery bordering on myth: an all-female "psychedelic" band playing many of the legendary places with all manner of legendary headliners, but with no released recordings, no known history and hardly even a photograph.” As Corry notes, they weren’t the first all-female band by any means, but they were the first to write their own music, not wearing uniforms or playing covers, at least in that scene. The fact that so little is known about them – that they didn’t get a recording contract and so on – is beyond unsurprising given that even today such a thing is considered weird, inappropriate and noncommercial. 
 Despite their obscurity, I had heard of the Ace of Cups of course – my brother being their unofficial historian – but I had no idea what their music sounded until I saw them at Amoeba, and guess what? They were great. It was a little unsettling to watch them though. There was such a casual, fun grace to them; a vibe and an aura (for lack of a better word) that was wholly unique. We’ve become used to the sight of 70 plus year old men playing guitar and rocking out in ways that look much like younger men doing it, but the sight of women in that age bracket doing the same is…dare I say it? Better. It’s better, because first of all, they both sing better and look better. It’s a gender thing, I think. Men fall apart in their old age, they just do. It’s also better because, not having burned out touring for all those years, they don’t seem jaded or cliché’d. And finally, it’s better because it’s new. If it’s something you’ve never seen before, it’s probably well worth seeing. 

 I hope the Ace of Cups go on tour, so you can see them too. I hope they get to open for a band of their era. How about for the Grateful Dead, or whatever they’re called now? How about The Zombies, or the Eagles, or Fleetwood Mac? How about Patti Smith or Ringo Starr or Roger Waters? People in those audiences would probably really love them, because of their music and their back story and their courage, and because it’s just neat to see women do fun things at that age, it gives one hope for oneself.
 I’ll be honest though. Given the weird night, I probably wouldn’t have gone to see them if it wasn’t that I had my first book launch, at the Bindery on Haight, practically right next door. It was such an apocalyptic night, I’m surprised anyone came at all, and since I knew everyone personally in the audience, I didn’t prepare anything to read. Instead, I asked people to vote on which chapter they’d like to hear from, and the surprising consensus was that they wished to hear my thoughts about raves. So this is what I read:

A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress. --Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man
One evening in 1994, a friend of mine who worked for Rolling Stone called me up in a dither. She had arrived in San Francisco that afternoon on assignment to cover a Full Moon Rave in Santa Cruz, and she couldn’t for the life of her find out where it was to be held.
The rave was of the kind that gave clues, rather than a map, to its location. For example, a typical invitation – perhaps a flyer, given out at a bar – would ask you to call a number that would then direct you to the name of a store in Hunter’s Point, where you then had to buy something – perhaps a carton of eggs, indicated by an image on the original flyer -- and written on a single egg inside the carton would be the longitude and latitude of the location in Golden Gate Park.
Today, such devices seem laughably simplistic. If you were told to find a store in Hunter’s Point called Quikmart, you’d google its address, and if you were then given a location written in longitude and latitude, you’d use an app on your smart phone to find it. In 1994, this was not the case. You could spend hours driving around Hunter’s Point looking for the right shop, and you’d be especially hampered if you were from out of town. This is why my friend was flummoxed. I was, too, but as it turned out, my downstairs neighbor was d-jaying it, so I just asked him where he was going. 
"May Day" by Andreas Gursky

In other words, we found out the old fashioned way, through word of mouth.
As this story indicates, the clues to these dance parties ranged from obvious to obscure, but they were part of a larger project that elevated the experience of attending a rave to one of ideology rather than function. Just as grunge recouped ideas about punk rock and class status and inserted them into a more modern musical landscape, the intention of techno music was to meld the sonic output of electronic technologies with bodily pleasure; intellect with emotion. The ‘search’ was part of this project, and it had other advantages as well, eliminating casual comers and creating imagined communities of like-minded individuals. 
What’s interesting about this is that the concept of search, combined with the concept of the crowd, is integral to what is possibly the 1990s most entrenched-technology and cultural shifter, the search engine. The search engine, which was developed throughout that decade, has changed the way that most people think and even act. If, as Trevor Pinch and other SCOT theorists would have it, technology is socially constructed by users and not the other way around, then searching for raves is the perfect metaphor for its time. To do so, at least in San Francisco, was to participate in the zeitgeist; to experience the cutting edge of post-industrial age and its byproduct, the new media economy.
But to search is different than to seek. Ravers, like hippies, were more likely to describe themselves as seekers after enlightenment and a form of mental freedom. To search for something is a more prosaic activity. A seeker is on a personal journey. A searcher – like John Wayne in the movie of the same title – sets out on a more public quest. A search engine (rather than a seek engine) looks through public information, and this act, like Wayne’s hunt for his kidnapped niece, may have broad consequences. 
My name in lights
 Searching for music festivals, then, is different than seeking enlightenment, and it has a different outcome. As early as 2000, researchers were suggesting that the codes used to rank search results were (or perhaps one should say “are”) inherently political, based on invisible rankings built into the system. As we have seen, music festivals have been used as spaces for political statements and gestures and ideologies, but as with the politics of search, the biases and ideologies at festivals aren’t always entirely apparent: instead, the power hierarchies they inscribe are invisible. On the internet, search crawlers (“spiders”) crawl the web, displaying the ‘best’ – i.e. most popular, useful, or frequently asked for – results to users. This is a good allegory for music festivals. They too are spiders, crawling through culture, displaying results, popular acts, popular technologies, and advertisements, to attendees, who then spread them to culture at large. 
Of the many technologies that are on display at raves (turntables, sound systems, MDMA, portable toilets), the most obvious display is that of the attendants: ravers, scantily clad in glittery costumes with wings, face paint, spangles, backpacks and pacifiers, dancing ecstatically into the night. On the surface, raves seem to be advertisements not for people, or for music, but for a state of mind. Ravers would have it that this state of mind is the same as that of hippies – peace, love, freedom, and oneness; the merging of society with the self. But it may be more complicated than that. The rise of techno, through the medium of the rave, is a giant endorsement for the post-industrial economy and all its affordances. If, as Marx once said, history repeats itself, the second time as farce, then ravers are reproducing the gestures of the counterculture, without a hint of irony – or of lessons learned.

Also, if you are in the San Jose Area the weekend of December 1st, I will be doing another reading and discussion with my friend film critic Richard Von Busack, at the Santa Clara Valley Brewing Company at 7 pm. Come on down!

Monday, November 5, 2018

Millions Like Us

“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.