Monday, August 13, 2018

Love Buzz

On the evening of the day I landed at SeaTac airport, an airline groundskeeper stole a plane and flew it around the Olympic Peninsula, so the powers that be had to close all airspace around Seattle: every airport, every runway, every traveler, grounded, for fear of accidents. The incident ended tragically, but objectively speaking, I liked the idea of the Seattle area being closed off to the rest of the world for a few hours like that. With Pearl Jam playing at SafeCo Field, and Sub Pop’s 30th birthday celebrations at the Mural and on Alki Beach, it was a good time for this beautiful city to just close ranks. 

I barely slipped in under the wire before the gates of the emerald city clanged shut on fandom, and that befits my role in this story as well. I’ve always been the observer, outside looking in, never one of the in-crowd but oh, so close to the action, and always, always, so admiring. From the very first moment I came here, sometime in the 1980s, I felt like I had found my people. I knew I would never be a real Seattle-an, but I wanted to be near them and absorb their very particular, very dark, very dry angst. I drew strength and courage from that, as have so many others in my wake; they allowed us all to feel that we were, in Pierre Nora’s terms, “participating emotionally in history.” I wanted to bear witness, and that is what I did.
Sub Pop Records plays a huge role in my career, so coming to their 30th Anniversary party was a bit of a no brainer for me. The celebration took place on August 11 at Alki Beach in West Seattle, to which I bicycled from my friend Jay’s house up the hill. Half way there it started to rain lightly, so I bought a baseball cap at the merch booth and put it on backwards, and it was exactly like putting on one of those mythical talismans you read about it in fairy stories or Harry Potter, like a ring that makes you invisible or a cape that makes you brave. From the moment I had it on, everything was magical. The sun came out, and the bands went on, and I walked down the cement walk by the stages, and ran smack into my old friend Kim Warnick, and we hugged like there was no tomorrow. Both of us have experienced times when it felt like there wasn’t. But there was. And this was it.

And so Kim and I sat down on the verge of the beach, because Kim said she hates sand, and tried to catch up, but it was hard to do when there was so much to catch up on – and when Kim is the most popular person in Seattle. Walking around with her is like walking around with a Seattle Seahawk, everyone stops her and high fives her. Still, we tried to catch a few other bands – Metz, Clipping (Hamilton star Daveed Diggs band), Bully, and so on — before wandering over to the 57th street stage to check out the food and art. The band on stage was School of Rock, playing Sub Pops greatest hits, and as we walked toward them, they burst into “In the Summer” – one of the poppiest songs by Kim’s band the Fastbacks. We both screamed, I think, and rushed the stage like idiots…it was such an incredible thing, so synchronicitous. I think Kim cried a little bit, watching those fifteen year olds sing her song.

It was that kind of a day though, a day of the super feels; a day when our mutual respect came due, and we all of us paid it back in one big lump sum. Later on I saw on FB that Charles Peterson ran into a man who had one of his iconic photos tattooed on his forearm, and I imagine the feeling was the same. Children singing your songs, teenagers blasting your images onto their very flesh…what a time it was to be alive, and what thing to have created! And yet, such are the vagaries of fame in America, that I am not sure those outside the magic circle – or those who didn’t make it to Alki Beach — quite understand what a great thing it was that the people of Sub Pop did, not just for grunge and for the city of Seattle, but for generations of youth, who still, after all these years, can’t hack the mainstream and its cruelty and violence, who long to escape from the banality of evil.  Sub Pop is the only company I can think of thatfor thirty straight years has both redeemed and romanticized the whole idea behind business culture. Nothing makes me happier than seeing the SubPop store in Seatac – well, unless I get to see that Alaska Airlines plane with SubPop stamped on it in person. I love the manifesto that they wrote, Evergreen style, that you can see on the wall in Terminal D there:

It reads, in part, "it is our intention to market and sell the recorded music and related merchandise of artists whose music some shifting definition of "we" really and truly love. We mean to represent those artists as faithfully and diligently as possible and hold out hope that this is enough for us to remain solvent in the face of the well documented collapse of the music industry at large. We also enjoy laughter, good times and the company of friends."

SPF 30 exemplified these values. Most free festival concerts generally have a lot of drawbacks, like drunken crowds and horrible toilets and too much sun and horrid noise. Sub Pop, if you can believe it, circumvented all of that entirely. According to my local friends, they made a concerted effort to include the community of West Seatle in their aim, using local vendors, replacing worn out amenities, and ensuring that the area was safe and pleasant all night long. The four stages (named Loser, Flippity Flop, Harsh Realm and Punky) were stretched out along a lengthy area, so that everyone was able to fit comfortably in to the stagings, and if they didn’t feel like fitting, they could go walk on the shore or even sit in the water and watch from a boat craft, or from a bar on the main drag. It felt comfortable rather than crowded, despite its estimated 50,000 person capacity. From every angle you were being bombared with beauty, either the Seattle skyline, the Olympic Peninsula, or the sound itself, green and grey and black all over, lapping lightly on your footsteps, swallowing up your pain.

Meanwhile, as the day continued, the weather remained Washingtonian, i.e. cool and mild, and the sound and the toilets were perfect, simply because so much care had been given over to making this experience exactly what a festival should be like. Weirdly, since Sub Pop is the opposite of hippie dip, it was a literal love festival, with people simply shouting their love and appreciation at each other, hugging and kissing and moshing in the pit. It was the festival to end all festivals, a consummation devoutly to be wished.


It’s hard to write about everything that happened or all the bands that played at this all day festival, because there was so much going on, so I will confine myself to writing about the Fastbacks. Back in the day, I didn’t just love the Fastbacks, I lived their lives for them — at least on paper. There is just a certain type of band that I can get into the skin of and say what I think they want and need to be said, and for that, I have been duly rewarded with friendship. I mean, it all happened organically - years ago I saw them a ton of times in my home town and then I took it to the road: once we drove to San Diego in their van and played in someone’s backyard in Chula Vista and after the show was over there was a fight and someone shot off a gun. Another time I went to Park City Utah where they played a party after the screening of the documentary “Hype”: Michael Stipe was in the audience, as was Sandra Bullock. Later on in life, they took me places I’d never been to, like Istanbul and Budapest and Vienna, where they opened for Pearl Jam in stadiums large and small, and in exchange, I wrote about them obsessively. I remember one time I was at some conference – SXSW or NMS or CMJ or something, and someone said, they hated the fact that people like me “had so much power” over which bands became popular and I said; “Dude, if I had any power whatsoever, the Fastbacks would be as big as the Beatles.”

The Fastbacks aren’t as big as that, but those who love them lovely dearly and I count myself as their number one fan. They haven’t played live in a many years due to various unfortunate events, and I was thinking as they took the stage, only to crush the crowd with Kurt’s melodious speed runs, Mike’s massive backbeat, and Kim and Lulus casual deftness with those powerful guitars, how they were probably the first or only punk rock band I saw with girls playing instruments, and how their songs always seemed so untainted by ideology or idiocy. I could watch Lulu and Kim in a way that I could not watch anyone else, as if they are me and I am them, and I still can, even as we all push sixty. Those two women have lead the way for me to know how to be a person in this world, and for that I am forever grateful. 

When Mudhoney took the stage, it was as if they were flaying the collective eardrum of the Puget Sound. That sound — the murky guitars all covered in buzz, the stupifyingly loud drumpoundary, and then Mark Arm’s exquisitely undercutting it all with his flat, deadpan howl  — it is the epitome of grunge, is it not?  Honestly, someone needs to deconstruct why that a skinny bespectacled man shrieking “touch me I’m sick’ can inject such weight into an otherwise mute art form, but it’s not going to be me: I watched Mudhoney briefly from the sandy shore and then I unlocked an electric limebike and start riding off into the sunset with their music reverberating into the night. I wanted to leave the scene in the same way that I arrived, mid-song, mid-shout, mid-story, mid-Subpop, mid-Seattle. I want that feeling to never end.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

These Days

I'll be honest with you. My very favorite thing to do in the summer is get the hell out of my own pasture and explore somebody else's way way greener one. But most of the time, there's nothing for it but to just hang around town and try to appreciate the charms of your own little piece of the planet, however bland and horrid that may be. And it turns out there’s a great many of interesting things in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, including an abacus, an IBM 1401 Data Processing system, a self-driving car and a giant globe that you can play fun games with Google Earth on. For me, however, by far the most poignant is a diorama honoring the invention of the MP3. It consists of a giant photograph depicting a record store in 1979, under which there is a small selection of those old world platters known as vinyl in racks meant to simulate the experience of record store shopping.
computer history museum display

The racks are real, and so is the fun of flipping through them, but talk about history being written by the winners! That display can make you feel a little bit nauseous, much like the ones you see in museums honoring the Old West with a statue of a Native American warrior in full tribal dress, i.e. proud, dead, and completely conquered, their perfect image frozen in a time before the battle was so decisively won. The MP3 exhibit had that exact same edge to it, triumphant while at the same time grudgingly nostalgic about a past it can't stop itself from admiring. 

It is also, alas, pretty accurate about the era which saw the demise of the form, all the way up through the records (vinyls) they’d chosen for display in a ‘typical’ rack beneath the photograph. There were titles by the Eagles, Devo, the Stones, Duran Duran, Huey Lewis, Rod Stewart, Gerry Rafferty, Peter Gabriel, Steve Miller. I flipped and flipped, hoping for a record by a black person or a woman, but no. The entirety of jazz was represented by a single artist, David Sanborn, thus capturing much that is wrong with this kind of archiving. On the one hand, the selection was spot on. On the other – well, yuck.

That play list doesn’t represent what was actually available for sale in those years, but it is surely an exact facsimile of what the people who were inventing computers in California were listening to on the radio at that time (and I know this for sure because part of my dissertation research – and my upcoming book -- was on Steve Wozniak and his relationship to music). 

The rack looked so grim that I decided to re-curate it. After a little thought, I chose the five records I thought were worthy of display: Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True, the first Marshall Crenshaw record, the Waitresses, Chipmunk Punk (because they at least do a cover of the Ramones), and Jackson Browne’s Hold Out. JB only made it in there by the skin of his teeth, in part because it felt like honoring the ghost of Nico, and in part because I had a ticket in my pocket to see him perform in San Jose at the City National Civic that night.
my choices

Do you know that word ‘mood’ that kids say today when they feel something too deeply? Jackson Browne is a mood, and when I was very young, he was also bigger than you can possibly imagine. Wikipedia says he sold 18 million records, and at his height I didn’t know a single person who didn’t have at least one. Old punks, sorority girls, parents…he crossed all boundaries of fandom. Even some of the hip and groovy Paisley Undergrounders I knew in the late 80s grudgingly admired him because of his connection to the Velvet Underground. You can mock him if you want to, but I don't know why: his biggest single, “Somebody’s Baby,” underpins the scene in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, where Jennifer Jason Leigh loses her virginity to a callous older guy, and so evocative was its use therein that it’s hard for me to separate the scene from the song now. It’s like the opposite of when a product uses a song to sell itself: instead of fusing the song to the movie, “Somebody’s Baby” has replaced the screenplay in entirety, becoming shorthand for a particular type of high school experience in the early Reagan era. That the experience wasn’t a good one is exactly what makes the song so resonant – that is, what makes it ‘such a mood.’ Truthfully, his whole metier is one long paean to regret and regrets? I got a few. 

Jackson Browne cast a long shadow in the late 70s but by the time the 1980s came around with its rap and its punk and its new wave and its cynicism, he was easy to make fun of, both for his extreme earnestness and personal commitment to lost political causes, and also the way that his sound – which his pals the Eagles monetized into a mushy stew of crappy lyrics and turgid tempos — seemed like the antithesis of everything one liked about rock. Also, there is something vexing about him that I can only describe as his weirdly stubborn inability to be truly intersectional in spite of almost monumental efforts to be so. For example, although he clearly loves and admires world music, you never heard anyone say the word “corazon” with a more gringo accent (although that’s probably pretty much how I say the word too).  And the whole paradigm of the handsome solo artist surrounded by virtuoso musicians, and the female backup singers (inevitably women of color) standing 20 feet from stardom, is hard to defend, especially if, like me, what you really prefer is a really ugly band like the Afghan Whigs putting four really loud guitars up front and singing songs about fucking.

And yet...?

And yet, going to see him perform this summer was required of me, in the same way that not being in Portugal anymore was required of me. You can't deny your place in the world. So I returned to Jackson Browne on this night with no expectations, and the second he began, at 8 pm on the dot, with a new song called “Some Bridges”, I was thrown into the past, like the proverbial boat born back against the current. “Some Bridges” reintroduced Jackson Browne’s sound to me — it, like his visage and haircut, has not changed (at least if you’re not wearing your glasses, which I wasn’t), but it was only on the second song, “That Girl Could Sing,” that the ubiquity of his role in my mental playlist sank in. My cousin Jennifer took out her phone and started Shazaming and I put my hand across hers. No need, actually, because when it comes to this shit I am the human Shazam. I can name that song in 3 notes – except in the case of “Doctor My Eyes,” which I named in ONE.
Pretty much what he looks like without my glasses on anyway

In truth, the music of JB is a little TINY bit older than my peak era, such that I actually remember that when this song came out, I thought it was called “Dark To My Eyes,” and I still secretly sing it to myself that way.  Indeed, listening to him retrospectively, I see how Jackson Browne really keyed me to a particular way to think about and even hear music and lyrics; to focus in on them alone, and to vaporize the thrumming lap steel and other accompaniments such that they seem natural and unimportant by comparison. They aren’t, but that’s what the best singer-songwriters can do. Many of Browne’s best tunes and lyrical images in his work seem simple and true and beautiful, the musical equivalent of Raymond Chandler prose or Ed Ruscha paintings, steeped in a vision of California that I lived very deeply, in another world, a long time ago. Hearing anything from Late From The Sky, Running On Empty or The Pretender reminds me of the California of my youth: of driving all over the state in the back of a station wagon to diving meets in places like Woodlands and Visalia and Escondido and Petaluma, of a thick carpet of golden rippling down hillsides and poking in and out of forests, of the ocean and the sand and the smell of water and chlorine and something else that I would now recognize as the smog-free scent of an endless summer.

In addition, Jackson Browne’s best work raised the kind of questions and stakes that the majority of popular music out there today won’t go near. After all, “The Pretender” is a song about the shortcomings of what Walter Benjamin called the dream state of capitalism, or as he put it, the hell space the sits between “the longing for love/and the struggle for the legal tender,” while “For A Dancer” and “For Everyman” are as haunted by grim death as the most shell shocked of murder ballads. And of course there is his masterpiece “These Days,” one of the best beloved and most covered songs for literally generations of musicians. Written when he was 17, it is the song Holden Caulfield would have written if he’d wandered Manhattan two decades later, crystallizing that specific angst he felt into 3 minutes of musical perfection.

To be honest, I felt like I outgrew both Holden Caulfield and Jackson Browne a long time ago but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t much that was worth listening to in both of them, a non-toxic emotional resonance which is in too short supply today. Ten years ago I might have spent half this column mocking Jackson Browne for that, and maybe railing on the song “Red Neck Friend,” but today, I say fuck that. Honestly, the last time I was in the City National Civic was to cover Ted Nugent for the San Jose Mercury News, and if you’d told me then that idiot’s world view and politics would be the ones prevailing over America over and above the ideals of Jackson Browne, I would not even have believed you. These days -- these days – I can only think of one response to the terribleness of the current zeitgeist, and that is to become a kinder and more thoughtful person to everyone around me: that is, to become the kind of earnest person who listens non-judgmentally to the music of Jackson Browne.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Made To Be Broken

One night back in the 1985, I missed seeing Soul Asylum’s set at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco because I went to see the Butthole Surfers at a different venue.  The Butthole Surfers played in front of video footage of bloody car crashes, shouted frightening slogans through a bullhorn, set the drums on actual fire, and just generally left the audience shattered, but by the very next morning, I knew I’d made the wrong choice: the sibilant hiss of the words Soul Asylum were ricocheting down city streets the moment they left the stage.

What does it say about a band, that 30 years later, I remember a gig I missed better than the one I saw? We may not have had the internet or social media back then, but somehow word was out: miss Soul Asylum at your peril. By going to the Buttholes, I had imperiled myself, but was able to make it up a week later when they returned to play the I Beam and knocked me flat.

Even forewarned, it was something of a surprise, because in those days records really didn’t do much to tell you what a band was going to be like, live. Soul Asylum’s recorded output was a case in point. At the time I first saw them, I had probably heard one track from their debut (Say What You Will) on my local college radio station, and not really taken it in, so being blown away by them so thoroughly was unexpected. And in early 1986, soon after the afore-mentioned gig, they released Made To Be Broken, their 2nd LP, again produced by Bob Mould of Husker Du. As on the first one, Mould attempted to recreate their live sound in a recorded setting, and the result was radically different from the echo-y, click-track-ish, groomed vocal records we were used to hearing on major labels (and on records made by bands from England). To the unaccustomed, this sounded loud and fast and slightly unintelligible. It took a while to get used to. But when one did, one realized: Soul Asylum rocked. They howled. They crashed through the beat with the kind of passionate intensity that infers that, yes, anarchy has been loosed upon the world.

Soul Asylum’s work differed from punk rock in that a, their lyrics were vastly more clever and b, they were just so much better at playing it. The music was an astute mix of hard rock chords bashed out beneath a high, keening vocal style that both mimicked and mocked the status quo. Experiencing their live performance was an exercise in hearing; in slamming, banging, and absorbing guitars the way car springs absorb shock and then, because every action has an equal and opposite reaction, spewing it back out as fandom.

In short, going to see them created the kind of bodily pleasure that was integral to 1970s and 1980s and 1990s punk rock experience. But one wonders if it can translate to future generations. Soul Asylum themselves posed this question on the song “Ain’t That Tough,” when they wondered aloud why it is that bands “just get passive,” before they get old. (Note: I always thought the line was "just get passe" but I now stand corrected by the songwriter. I like my version better though.) It’s a question well worth asking, but thanks to the magic of postmodernism, surely the records that document it – records like Say What You Will and Made To Be Broken and the extra tracks included here in, some of which were live staples -- won’t sound as dated to young people as, say, melodians do to me. Indeed, I challenge a kid from 2060 to listen to “Ain’t That Tough” or “Ship of Fools” or “Tied to the Tracks” or “Whoa” and not, well, rock the fuck out.  

For those kids, Made To Be Broken may well be the finder’s key that opens the box in Special Collections – the box labeled ‘origins of grunge.’  Because although it has been argued that the sound of grunge wafted west from Detroit, like a sonic mushroom cloud exploded off the MC5’s detritus, another theory is that well before it got to Seattle, it settled first on Minneapolis. It was there, in the late 1970s, that bands like the Suicide Commandos and the Suburbs helped transform a sleepy Midwestern city into a truly spectacular incubator of post-punk bands and fans, one whose legend lives on today. Husker Du, The Replacements, Prince, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis…the list of massive talents who were living and working there in that era is truly eerie.

Looking back, it’s hard to say why Minneapolis’s music scene was so much richer and nicer and deeper than that of other similar sized cities at the time, but to an outsider, there are two unique aspects about the location: the State’s unusual liberal bent during the otherwise reactionary Reagan 80s, and the horrible weather. Maybe places like Minneapolis kind of lend themselves to a more socialist approach. In Minneapolis, if a person accidentally lost their mittens in the scrum by the club door, they’d literally freeze their hands off if someone didn’t lend them others.

Perhaps it was that harshness that bred a prairie-form of hospitality, a ‘we’re all in this together when we go’ mentality that permeated the music and the mindset there. In New York City, and Los Angeles, and Boston, bands competed in a cutthroat manner for the very small amounts of cache and cash that were available; they affected a snooty viciousness that rock ‘n’ roll has always cultivated.  Not so in the Twin Cities, where the watchword was Ubuntu (if they’d known it). Indeed, there is a video in existence on YouTube of the Minneapolis Music Awards of 1986, in which Soul Asylum tie for best garage band in Minneapolis with their friends Husker Du. In it, Dave Pirner grabs the mic. “I’d like to remind you that we’re here tonight to celebrate music,” he says. “…and music is not something that can be judged.”

That na├»ve statement, so out of touch with the tenets of not just music, and business, and the vile soul of corporate America itself, is truly emblematic of the remarkable charm of both the band and the city. But then, the stakes were so low back then. Music wasn’t a competition because there wasn’t really even a pie to divide up. That lack of pie was exactly why, in those days, bands like this toured constantly. They’d get in the van, as Henry Rollins puts it, and head up and down the country, east coast, west coast, up Hwy 70 and back on 80 or 90, playing town after town after town. The audiences were invariably tiny and the bars were indubitably dank; the bands would sleep on the floors of fans houses in order to save on hotel bills, eat only fast food and throw out their dirty socks rather than wash them so the van wouldn’t smell too bad. It was a brutal endeavor but the result was tangible: these bands smoked live. Also, it was the only way to circumvent the death grip commercial radio and MTV had on the playlists of America, since this was pre-streaming, pre-MP3, pre-iPod, pre-shuffle.

And it was also beautiful. It was beautiful, first and foremost, because the bands were beautiful in themselves, in the way that all boys that age are. Second, it was beautiful to witness, because they had the work ethic of an American farmer circa 1845, if their seed was songs, and the soil was sonic, and the music they played had been tilled to perfection. You think that playing super-fast guitar runs and keening in a high pitched voice is special, that practitioners of that art deserve giant amounts of money and fame and debauchery? Nope. It turns out any kid with a cheap Fender and garage and a lot of time to practice can do it too. And, at least in the case of Soul Asylum, they can write the shit out of a couplet as well. 

That’s what you’ll hear on Made To Be Broken —a record that takes a bunch of middle American white bread influences and then puts them in a dumpster, willing us to dive for its treasures. It is a sound that is neither as impenetrable and dark as Slayer, nor as just plain dumb as Dokken, and it is as good an explanation of the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure/Wayne’s World/Spinal Tap aesthetic as anything out there.

A young John Wick and friend
Like Bill, and Ted, and Wayne, and Nigel, Soul Asylum were just kids back then, really, just some little boys in ripped jeans and high top Converse All Stars. But their ability to harmonize, play their guitars in unison, and ultimately, withstand a decibel level that could have harmed even a snake, had been honed into a sharp, pointy, sonic stick of a weapon. Why were they weaponized, you may ask? Honestly, just because. Nowadays, when people look back at the late 20th century, they will note that it was a time when there were no wars for boys to go fight. Instead, for forty or fifty years, between Viet Nam and 9-11, there were only hobbies: sports, robotics, taking drugs, and, for the lucky or crazy few who had wanderlust, courage, and deep if suspect poetic instincts, forming a band and taking it on the road.

That must be why when I think of these bands playing live, I think of them like commandos; as if they were some kind of crack team of sharpshooters or Special Forces, a perfectly coordinated team of ninja assassins sneaking in to some citadel on a rescue mission and absolutely killing it. The citadel was The Mainstream, of course – the 1980s Reagan world where everyone wore polo shirts and voted Republican — and the rescued were the rest of us.

No, there weren’t any wars back then, so the boys in the bands had to create their own battlefields, and Soul Asylum were the masters at it. Like their friends in the Replacements and in other bands all over the country, they plotted sorties behind enemy lines. They crept up on the battlements.  And then they took the whole thing over the top. Of course, it was all pretend, but then, that is how it should be. What a glorious time in our history, when those kinds of actions were only metaphorical. 

Today, what’s made to be broken are actual things -- toys, iPhones, printers -- planned obsolescence is, alas, a viable business strategy. But in 1986, objects were more robust, and Soul Asylum’s dictum really referred to the way they approached both making music and living life. As they sang on “Never Really Been,” “Ain’t it strange how some things never change, Ain’t it strange how nothing stays the same?” 

Yep. It surely is.  

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--A reissue of Made To Be Broken is out now on Omnivore Records. It includes extra tracks, and you can purchase it online at the link or at your finer record stores. The previous words are the liner notes.

--Soul Asylum's original bassist Karl Mueller died in 2005 of throat cancer.  His wife, Mary Beth, has created a non-profit organization dedicated to educating people about the eight preventable cancers that are avoidable through lifestyle changes or early detection and treatment. You can donate here: