Monday, March 9, 2020

Everyone's a Love Story

First, you’re born. Then you go to kindergarten and high school and college and then you live on your own. Eventually – reluctantly -- you learn how to pay your bills and call the principal’s office and regularly see the dentist and so on and so forth, but I think you never really grow up until the day you have to dismantle your parent’s house. Until the day you have to get rid of all your old books. 

Purchase here:

Furniture can go into storage. Clothes can go to Goodwill, and everything else, fuck it. But books have a special place in my heart, and at least at my parent’s old house, there are so damn many of them. Every room has a bookshelf and each one contains the outward manifestation of someone’s entire inner life. 

It’s bad enough dismantling my Dad’s collection, which include the books he brought from London when he immigrated in 1955, a ton of penguins, school prizes, high school textbooks, and a book autographed by his favorite artist Henry Moore. But it’s even harder to do my own books, which include not only the ones I loved as a child and college texts through two different programs, but about one thousand novels of varying degrees of literary merit which I like to feel that any minute I can put my hand on. It’s not any one book I want to keep. It’s the entire collection. 

Splitting them up feels like a violation, but I can’t keep them all, because space, like time, is an actual thing, and it’s at a premium and anyway, many of them are falling apart. However, every day it takes me ages to figure it out each one’s individual fate. For example, I was doing this task the other day that I came upon one called “Hubcap Diamond Star Halo.” It was by a writer and singer called Camden Joy and as I turned it over in my hands, I remembered that I had only read a single page of it and thought it so poignantly, beautifully, written that I put it down and never looked at it again. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read it. I always  told myself I’d get around to it. It was just that it pained me to do so. Reading it would be like letting a stranger stroke my mind and who would want to do that?  

That’s my memory of it, anyway. Years passed – a quarter of a century, minimum – and I received a copy of a Camden Joy CD in the mail. But I didn’t play it, because the thing is, my life alongside new music has been so traumatic that I have deliberately created a world where actually listening to any is a bit of an effort. I don’t have a stereo in my home, so the only time I can listen in a concentrated fashion is in the car and then only occasionally because I mostly listen to NPR. But the other day I was driven off NPR by the news of Elizabeth Warren dropping out of the Presidential race. The pundits were picking her over like vultures and it made me so sad that I decided to listen to music instead. 

It was at the golden hour just before the sun sets, when the cypress and pine trees that line my route through Golden Gate Park are extremely spooky and jagged, and you can see in between them to where the sky lightens up in the exact place where the ocean begins, and you know for certain there is about to be a fog. I put my hand into my bag and it fell on the only CD I own right now, which is the new one by Camden Joy.
The CD is called “Updated Just Now,” and it has a mere seven songs on it. I suppose they’re songs, anyway, because they are sung, but they are more like little short stories set to music. They use the kind of conventional instruments and time signatures you hear on other recordings – that is, guitars, bass and drums, plus cheesy keyboard sounds, a xylophone or a hurdy gurdy or something, all recorded so you can hear the fingers on the strings, so to speak  -- and the music was recognizably of that genre, so popular when I was younger, where the singer’s voice is slightly off kilter and so sounds like it’s someone you know. The songs are singable – they have choruses and what not -- but they are also punctuated throughout with unsettling fragments of old media, mostly of disasters being reported in the news, which inevitably tethers the music to the incredibly dispiriting zeitgeist of now. 

Maybe that was why it DID something to me. It was like that damn book, only shorter. I knew the instant I heard it that it was speaking to some part of me that isn’t on the surface of my brain at all, some nameless part of me that lives very much deeper down. What even was it? I don’t know, except to say that it is possible that the songwriter and I have read all the same books, and now we’ve forgotten them all and are trying to reconstitute them in a form that speaks to the here and now.

Oh, it’s a fools game, trying to describe music, but it’s a full hour’s drive from San Francisco to where I live, so I was able to get to know the characters on this record pretty well that night, and I had to wonder what made them so compelling to me. Maybe it had to do with its dissemination; that it was for all intents and purposes handed to me personally, outside the sad-making tornado of capitalist realism – and that temporary autonomous zone is also wherein most of the songs themselves take place. 

For instance, the opening track, “American Trash,” is about the way that the media makes shitty things seem romantic and glamorous  - “you know that feeling when you see something tragic and laugh?” -- and then when you find out the truth the world becomes less beautiful. “One More Chance” is about a series of people who get in trouble with the law through no fault of their own, like one who gets out of a prison and has sex with a priest in the gloomy men’s room of the greyhound station, or another who helps a stranger out who then turns out to be a felon. “Sing a Song of Love” is some kind of dreamlike pirate story that borrows images from Spain and Shakespeare and then affixes them to a narrative that lurches into absurdity: “Above a sky of mint toothpaste/a fog rolls in from outer space/a thief enters the house he cased/and takes the place of what’s-his-face.” “Everyone’s a Love Story,” which requites a farmer boy’s high school love-turned terrorist, is the catchiest and least obtuse of the set, but although it tells a very romantic tale, it’s not one that the movie of will star Reese Witherspoon. It’s so shy that it’s more like a sigh than a triumph. 

Such song subjects, and the treatment of them here, clearly do not speak of the world that we currently live in, or if they do, it is only as a critique.  And I suppose that’s why I like them so much, because at the moment I, too, feel like my entire being is in revolt. Back in the day, theoretically, I wrote about music in order for it to become popular. Or that was my mandate, anyway: I’m not sure that’s what I was really doing, since deep down I didn’t care if it became popular, I only cared about writing, qua writing, and as a commercial endeavor, that didn’t go well, it didn’t go well at all.
 So maybe that’s what Camden Joy and I have in common: rather than cater to a mass audience, unintentionally, he and I create things that are essentially for audiences of one. Theoretically that should be easier than hitting it big, but I’m beginning to think it might be harder. That’s why I’ve decided to hide my work, in the cyber equivalent of a bookcase in my parent’s house. I want it to be a brilliant surprise, like this record was to me.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Holiday in Hollywood

The other day I went to L.A. and in the course of a mere four hours, I had both the worst and the best Lyft conversations of my life. During the ride to the airport from my home, I was forced to hear a driver’s insufferable chatter about the problem with higher education. But on the other end, I got a driver who wanted to talk about the reduction of aura that is caused by our reliance on Spotify’s play-me-more-of-the-same-please algorhythm. 
Kathy McCarty plays "Younger Generation" at the Lovin' Spoonful reunion
It was tempting to deduce that the kind of people who drive Lyfts in LA are just a lot more interesting than the kind that do it in Silicon Valley – the former, Cory, was an aspiring improv comic, while the latter, Van, claimed he had a startup -- but perhaps that’s reading too much into it. Still. It was Cory’s contention that all travel is better when it’s colored by odd, random song choices that seem to come out of nowhere, and to that I heartily agree. 

In addition to hating Spotify, he was against social media, arguing that it had reduced people’s attention spans, made them narcissistic, and created a need for people to pursue inauthentic and desperate experiences. And while I agree with every word of that as well, I also sort of disagree. “The thing is,’ I told him, “I love the ‘me’ I present on social media so much more than I love myself. She is happy and aspirational and self-assured, whereas I am very much not. Curating her experiences on Facebook is a way to remind me that I can be better.”

He seemed unconvinced, but maybe that was because he was younger than me and surrounded by more narcissists. Anyway, it was only a 17-minute ride to my destination, so we didn’t really have time to hash out the truth: instead, when I got out, I settled for thanking him for having made up for my lousy Lyft conversation in San Francisco. “Oh, the universe is very fair, so I’m sure my conversation ruined someone’s else’s ride equally this morning,” he said, laughing, and it’s probably true. At least in L.A., where ridesharing has become such an integral part of the experience of being there, the conversation one has with one’s Lyft driver has replaced the whole thing of random music coloring your world. 

I used to live in LA, one million years ago (i.e. before the internet), but nevertheless, but it’s not a town I know very well. One thing that struck me on this trip was the way that ridesharing more than anything has made L.A. a different place…a place that’s both smaller and bigger; a place where you can walk around now, a place where you can drink. Hence, just a few hours after I got there, I was walking down Hyperion Boulevard, high as a kite, and it felt for a minute like time had stood stock still. We were on our way to a house concert, where my friend was set to play her music, and it reminded me of another house concert I’d been invited to, at which a variety of musicians in the bands that were loosely called the Paisley Underground had played their music all night long. 

That night I remember thinking I had achieved nirvana just by being there, because I had managed to enter into some kind of it’s-like-Paris-in-the-20s zone. And now it was happening again, only this time it was different, because thirty years has turned L.A. into a far more glittering city. That party was in a dumpy bungalow near Venice Beach, while at this one, there were fine wines and amazing food and these enormous couches laid on oriental carpets out in the backyard, and there was a croquet court or something – or possibly it was a graveyard. And yet, as with the other party, we were surrounded by the scent of jacaranda, and thus, the imminent sense that some Raymond Chandler-type character was about to lurch out of the trees and send one of us on an emergency night-flight to Mexico.
Rodney & John, somewhere in the Hollywood Hills

Still, there was no doubt that it was the kind of party that in France in the 19th century would have been called a salon, and by that I mean, it featured a performance by a puppeteer. There was also a mesmerizing performance by a duo called Rodney and John, and you know that feeling when you think you’re going to watch someone perform, I don’t know, dumb old blues, or a copycat of a Pavement song, and instead you’re confronted with something original and poignant and deep? It’s just the best feeling, to be reeled in like that, reeled and gutted and sunk on a hook of hooks. Later, I was told that one of the members of this duo was an Oscar-nominated actor, and this may well have explained the phenomenon, because their presence in that room had a radiance to it that would be harder to explain if it wasn’t coming from people who already traded successfully in the art of mesmerization. It was enchanting. I was enchanted.  

It was neat seeing that, but I’d come to support my good friend Kathy McCarty, who was also performing. Kathy, who lives in Austin, had a weird dream last summer that she had written a big hit song, and when she woke up she sang it into her i-phone and then she recorded it with some crack musicians she knows for good measure. She has been insisting ever since that she’s going to become a real rock star at long last – because that’s what happened in the dream – and both this performance, and the next night’s (about more later) was in many ways the dream’s fruition. When she sang both it and her other material, she lifted the whole room by the roots of its hair and shook it out like a mop. There was about the entire proceedings a sense of inevitability that is hard to recapture. It felt ordained.

The thing about taking Lyfts everywhere is that anything can happen in them, and on this trip, anything did. The very next night, my friend Heather accidentally hit ‘share’ and the second pick-up was so drunk and skanky that our Lyft driver cancelled the whole ride and stepped on the gas rather than stop for them.  Don’t worry, the next day she spent hours tracking him down on the app in order to pay him, but at that exact moment, we were on the way out of Glendale, having just spent four plus hours at the Alex Theater at a Tribute to and performance by the 60s rock band the Lovin’ Spoonful. 

It was a fundraiser for the Autism Think Tank, and because it featured the performance of 38 songs by the band in question, all performed by different artists, it took a very long time. So many artists! So many songs! So many instruments, and interpretations, and intentions, all at once. It was confusing. Some of the performers, like Mark Eitzel of American Music Club, and my afore-mentioned friend Kathy, really made the material their own. Kathy had been given the hard task of interpreting the song “Younger Generation,” which contains deathless lines like, “Hey Pop, my girlfriend’s only three,” and “She’s got her own videophone and she’s taking LSD,” so it’s an enormous tribute to her genius as an interpreter that at the end of the song nobody burst out laughing.

Other singers did more faithful versions, which is probably just as well, because the thing is, a lot of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s songs that you haven’t heard, you maybe haven’t heard for a reason (though of course tastes, like your results, will vary). But with 38 artists, there was something for everyone. Heather was blown away by Dave Alvin and John Sebastian’s instrumental version of “Night Owl Blues”; I personally enjoyed hearing Mickey Dolenz, formerly of the Monkees, doing “What A Day For A Daydream.” But the highlights were where you’d expect them to be, as when the band (or what’s left of it) played their biggest hit, “Summer In the City.” Christ! (as my mom would say.) That songs makes you think, old-codger like, they sure don’t make songs like they used to! 

But “Summer in the City” is an old, old song…and this is how young I am: I remember listening to it when I was about five, and loving it because I thought that when John Sebastian sang, “Cool cat, gonna find a kitty,” he meant that he was going to go out and find a real kitty – ownership of which was, at that time, the impossible dream of my heart and soul. 

These are the kinds of thoughts that make me think maybe I’ve lived too long. To be five years old and listening to the Lovin' Spoonful on a transistor radio shouldn’t have anything in common with being at the Alex Theater a half century later…but of course it does, of course it tangles up the space-time continuum, of course it does that thing that the Cory had said that Spotify is so incapable of, i.e. providing some unexpected, wholly random jolt of pleasure that will always from here on in color my remembrance of Glendale in February as it takes its unexpected place on the soundtrack of my life.
And of course I love to hear the songs of my youth, lovingly rendered by the musicians of today – although the truth is, what I like to hear is music, qua music, i.e. guitars and bass and drums and violins, because when they are put together in a certain way, whether by Kathy McCarty, by Rodney & John, or by any of the 38 performers at the Alex Theater on Leap Night, what they are is, to paraphrase John Sebastian, magic. The Lovin’ Spoonful tribute at the Alex Theater caught at some of that like gossamer, and then it hung it strand by strand from the heads of everyone inside.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Willie, Tyler, and The Promise of the Real

Recently, my friend Mary and I agreed to become the new editor and associate editor of the IASPM journal – the International Association of the Study of Popular Music – and practically our first move in our new role was to become the only two people on earth to have seen shows by Tyler, the Creator and Willie Nelson in the same 24 hour period.  At 9:30 pm, just as Willie was leaving the stage of Frost Amphitheater in Palo Alto, we noted to one another that Tyler was just about to take the stage in the nearby town of Fresno. At that moment, it felt like the two of us had our finger on the pulse not just of the Bay Area, but of the entire world of popular music.

Willie and Lukas Nelson

Of course ‘the world of popular music’ is a large and variegated place. But if there is a spectrum, then Tyler and Willie stand on the exact furthest ends of it. On our left, we have a 28 year old rap star who’s rise to fame rests on the following key points: member of a talented and forward-thinking rap collective whose music eschews normal musical pathways and is disseminated on platforms like soundcloud and YouTube; owner of a trendy clothing brand called Golf, a conflicted relationship to his own homosexuality, and a guy who assumes a bizarre persona by wearing a blond wig as a nod to Andy Warhol. Or maybe Sia. Or maybe Donald Trump. On our right, we have an 86-year old country star with a vast catalog of songs centered on male dominance and heteronormative love whose career has spanned the entire media history of the 20th century. And who, incidentally, may also be wearing a wig – or a hairpiece, in the form of two long hippie braids.

 But maybe there is more in common than the wigs. In my course on race and ethnicity I sometimes teach a unit on ‘why country music sounds white.’ The argument is that country music isn’t naturally a white idiom, but that it calls out to white audiences because both its musical tropes (old timey, acoustic instruments, drawl, twang and 4/4 time) and its lyrical ones (patriotism, Christianity, alcohol, dogs, trucks, trains, and death) deify the values of the past. That is, they romanticize a past where being conventional white and male is natural, powerful, and right. People are often sad in country songs, but only because things were better ‘back then.’

By contrast, rap music sees the past as a place of pain and devastation: rappers tend to write more about the future as a place where the songwriter will achieve success, revenge, or happiness – and they often do that by depicting themselves as standing outside of society, as a lawbreaker. Rap music also sonically transforms old instruments and makes them sound new: technology is its ally, not its downfall. In that sense, the two genres are opposites, but they also have commonalities; in many ways they are in some ways two sides of the same coin. As Joshua Clover, writing about Lil Nas X’s astonishingly big hit “Old Town Road” in Commune magazine recently, put it:

Country and hip-hop are the last two indigenously American genres standing. No cultural tradition is purely indigenous, and elements of each can be traced back to Africa, to Scotland, to the Caribbean, and so on, but the claim is clear enough. The syntheses happened in the United States, and both genres in different ways signify “America.” Not only do they retain their vitality, they have for some time existed in parallel, best enemies buoyed and constrained by authenticity, selling in similar volume and, most importantly, retaining the kind of committed audiences that have allowed them to weather the digital storms and market restructurings—not unaffected, not unchanged, but more or less intact.

Nelson features prominently in the recent 8 episode documentary by Ken Burns entitled “Country Music,” which traces the history of the genre from the turn of the century onward, from its roots in  hillbilly and folk music and its prominence on radio stations in the 30s and 40s, to its heyday on television, on records, and in Nashville and beyond. As the documentary makes clear, Willie Nelson’s oeuvre is predicated on authenticity and musicality, and at Frost both these aspects of his work were completely evident. His voice sounded great and his band was the apex of pristine musicality. Because of his age his set was, inevitably, a little on the short side, augmented by a lengthy set from his son’s band, The Promise of the Real. Everything you need to know about that band is embedded in its name, which is akin the President’s wretched promise to build a wall on the Mexican border, or Andrew Yang’s to give everyone a thousand bucks a month. It’s a promise, not a commitment, and it’s especially weird coming from the mouth of the son of someone who is, without a doubt, “The Real.”

Tyler the Creator

By contrast, Tyler, the Creator doesn’t even promise. He is deliberately, maybe even ideologically, anti-authenticity. Instead of the ‘real’, he depicts himself as a chimera, a trickster, brand, and a persona. Tyler’s music isn’t played on any radio station, but he is an incredible success: in San Francisco, he sold out two nights at the 9000 seat Bill Graham Civic; prior to the show they had set up merch stands in Civic Center Plaza and were doing a brisk business in deliberately hideous $60 Golf t shirts and replica blond wigs.  Musicianship is not a big feature of his performance, though he did play piano at one point. His show consisted of him alone on stage singing, and sometimes, not even singing, along to recordings. At both shows, Willie’s and Tyler’s, the audience sang along to all the music. But at Nelson’s show, the audience sang on top of his voice, while at Tyler’s show, the audience’s singing was often the entire vocal track, replacing him as singer. In this way, the artist and the audience became co-creators – and co-consumers. And while I think this is partly the point of Tyler, the Creator, and I understand that it is how contemporary popular music works, I wasn’t that into it. I did like a few songs, like “Earfquake.” But nothing really stood out to me. The next day I asked one of my students what he loves about Tyler so much and all he could state was that he’d seen him six times, the first time at Coachella.

This isn’t meant as a dis of my student, or of Tyler. It just struck me that its harder to write, or think, about music today than it was in mine. I’d have had a hard time reviewing that show, beyond saying the names of the songs (which, unlike in my day, I can easily find out on Songkick). That’s probably why there isn’t really a job like the one I used to do now – no one reviews live shows anymore, and maybe no one should. If you want to know what happened at Tyler, The Creator’s show – or at Willie Nelson’s – you can go look it up on YouTube. As to the value of seeing both these artists on essentially the same day, all it did was remind me that the musical universe is wide and welcoming place.