Friday, November 17, 2017

The Content Of Their Character: The Breeders, 11/11/17

Once upon a time, when my daughter was about 5, she saw one of those big cardboard cutout advertisements of a bunch of smiling young women bursting out of their bikinis. They were popping the tops off beer or something, and my daughter told me the ad made her feel uncomfortable. “It’s like people are making fun of those ladies,” she said, and it made me feel so sad to hear her say that. When you get older, you realize that “making fun of” doesn’t even begin to describe the emotions that are at play in ads like that, but it only takes a little nudge to remember what it felt like to be a little girl and embarrassed by such poignantly desperate displays of female sexuality.  And then, soon after, you start to internalize them and spit it back out.

They say that by the age of 12, kids have seen over one million advertisements, and that doesn’t even include the media portrayals of women they see in television, film, music and video – the majority of which have at least something in common with that beer commercial. That’s why, if I was going to invent a female protagonist for a movie or a book or a play, she wouldn’t look like Gal Gadot. No sir. She would be a stealth operator, a sleeper cell in the heart of America, a girl no one on earth would feel threatened by, someone absolutely nice. On the outside, she’d seem like the humanoid equivalent of a tabby cat: she could walk right by you and you might not even notice. But inside, where no one could see her or attack her or tweet about her or call her stupid or a groupie or a slut, she’d be this seething mass of secret talent: more creative and special and kickass than every single boy in every single band that would surround her night and day.

Because of course, my protagonist would be a musician. She’d love rock ‘n roll. But unlike so many of its practitioners, she would be polite about it, not arrogant. She would always say thank you to her guitar techs when they handed her guitars. She wouldn’t crave attention for herself. She wouldn’t have a giant gaping hole in her soul in the place where her self-worth should be. She wouldn’t pop the tops off frothy beer cans, or even wear lipstick: indeed, one time, when you showed her how to use your under eyeliner, she would wipe it off and go, "That looks ridiculous on me." She wouldn’t have publicity pictures of herself looking soulful or lost or sexy, she wouldn’t pout or show cleavage, she wouldn’t live in Hollywood, date celebrities, or eat vegan, she would wouldn’t watch her weight.

She wouldn’t even KNOW her weight, that’s how badass this protagonist would be.

And when people would say, “I sure wish there were more people like her,” she’d reach behind her back and say, “Really? Well that’s good…” And then she’d pull another person forward and say, “Because guess what? I have an identical twin sister.“

Of course such a person couldn’t exist, it sounds too novelistic. And if she did exist, she wouldn’t start out being successful on her own, because it’s probable that the first band she was in would underestimate her drive and musicality and talent. In my novel, that’s what would happen, anyway… until my protagonist would take a break from that band and put out one of the most iconic, most sampled, most delightful, most revered records of the 1990s, a record with a single that nothing will ever quit on.

In short, until she dropped the mic on them.

(whispers: LOL.)

Of course, that story couldn’t even happen in today’s music industry, wherein the way women have been treated has been solidified by a forty year downward spiral of marginalization, objectification and just general ishy-ness. But if something even close to that occurred somehow, back then in the 1990s – and I’m not even saying it did -- than the person who it happened to would be my Malcolm X.

What I am trying to say here is that, just by existing, Kim Deal speaks truth to power. Only Kim Deal doesn’t speak it. She IS it. (And Kelley too, of course.)

Anyway, that’s what I thought, the second I walked into the Rickshaw Stop last week, which happened to be the exact  same second that Breeders stepped on stage, since it was an early show and I kind of mistimed getting there. I walked in, and Kim opened her mouth, and I was like… plunged into some kind of sci-fi vortex, into the alternate universe from whence I emerged from, stumbling awfully, all those years ago.

The club, which holds, like, 200 people, was super, super, super packed, but nevertheless I was drawn on a heart-string forward into the maw of the crowd, and it didn’t matter if I wriggled by people, pressing the flesh, because they were all my height, and anyway, it was a warm place, full of love. I had to smash myself against the wall to move myself forward, and then I ran into a little, low, table, and I stood on it, where the view was perfect. A girl took my hand to steady me as I climbed up. 

"Do you think there is room for me?" she said. Of course there is room for you on this bandwagon, I thought, and I helped her up. Then we took turns standing on it with the people standing near us.

Meanwhile, on stage, Kim and Kelley and Josephine and Jim were holding forth. The notes were sort of spaced out, the rhythms are sort of spiky, the lyrics are never easy to read between… it’s a very unexpected sound, but it’s its own thing. And those of us who like it, love it. It bashed, is what it did. It rocked our souls and made us happy. I mean, we are living in some very toxic times right now, are we not? And the Breeders are a super secret antidote of sorts. Thank god I got a shot. 

Just to recap, Kim was in the Pixies. Then in 1990, Kim formed the Breeders as a side project with Tanya Donnelly and Josephine Wiggs, and when Tanya left she replaced her with her twin, Kelley. In 1993, I think it was, they were recording the album which became “Last Splash,” in San Francisco and staying on a houseboat in Sausalito. I went over there one night to interview them for Option and we stayed up all night listening to the new songs. That night was like, it is almost unspeakably memorable for me, because it was the only time in a whole decade of writing about musicians that I experienced from the inside, that is, in which I was able to participate fully, rather than listening from a distance, from that place of weakness and abjection that I was perennially relegated to in those days. If I had learned the language of the future, I would have said to myself, this must be what it's like to be empowered. But I didn't know that then. I just thought I had fallen into some warm, random embrace...and I thought it would happen again.

And in the morning, I was like, “Oh god how I love this, but prolly no one else will.”

Happily, I was wrong.

But…how do you describe the Breeders music to the uninitiated? You can’t, I think. Their music exists in a particular context, the early 1990s, when loud soft loud – that exact cross between Husker Du and Peter Paul and Mary, as the Pixies want-ad put it -- was invented. You can’t describe the Breeders to people, and they might not get it anyway. Get the joke of it all, that is, plus the essential joy of it all: the dialog that the band members are having with music, the way they approach life. When Kelley says, “Hey, guys, we know a Beatles song!” it’s really the unconscious reply to an unspoken criticism, to a whole fucked up narrative about guitar skill and inventiveness and gender, one that probably doesn’t emerge anymore in front of these women because they have literally transcended it, but which is really clear from their choice of Beatles song, “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”

It’s not a conscious joke, or a conscious dialog, either, it’s not even angry, it’s just…their whole approach to life. Their performance of it – which is on “Pod” – is one of the great joys of my life, as are “Cannonball,” from “Last Splash,” and “Iris” and “Doe,” as is their covers of “You and Your Sister” and “Wicked Little Town;” as is just the sight of them on stage, rocking out how they do. The happy grins. The shalala voices. The fun that wafts off the both of them, amidst the furious and effortless strumming of the guitar, the ha-ha ‘solos’ that simultaneously do what they do, andyet are totally functional, but also secretly mock the whole idea of having a guitar solo in the first place.

It is the visible relationship between the two of them that is funny and sweet and is so like me and my sister, me and my best friend, me and a ton of people I know, but absolutely nothing like anything else you see in public. Ever.

It is just plain “Divine Hammer” which has an absolute grip on my brain this week, such that I can’t get rid of it.

Oh, I don’t know what it is, actually. But whatever it is, it is real, like the real tremor of recognition, of faith you get, when you see someone who is totally untrammeled by the more horrible vagaries of popular culture; someone who is defined not by the color of their eye shadow, but by the content of their character. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT: The Dead and Metallica, Nov. 9 2017

I’m always looking for shows to write about, but when I first heard about Band Together, the Nov. 9th Benefit for North Bay Fire Relief at AT & T Park, I was a little bit dismayed. You probably couldn’t find a bunch of bands more emblematic of my early years covering rock for major magazines than the acts they announced as headliners, and not only that, but they were each emblematic in an entirely different way. I spent many years as literal Dead-hater in chief in this country; I spent one summer (1996) covering the Lollapalooza tour when Metallica was headliner, and as for Rancid, those darling little indie punk rock anti-capitalists, they are my spirit animal. In my tiny mind, those three groups are like chalk, cheese and chocolate… bearing in mind that I am a person who truly hates cheese.

 I could hardly get my head around going to a show like that, it was so vastly portentous of my past, while simultaneously pointing out the way that all popular music, once spiky with difference, has lately flattened into this gushy brown sludge. But when push came to shove, I had to admit the whole project was a pretty impressive, especially given that it was only thrown together in the last few weeks, since fires devastated a region of the Bay Area. The swiftness and surety of the way it came together was reminiscent of some equally variety-packed BGP (Bill Graham Presents) fundraisers, like one right after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 that featured John Fogerty, Bonnie Raitt, Tower of Power, Big Brother, the Dinosaurs, Pete Escovedo Orchestra, Taj Majal, Bobby McFerrin, Bob Hope (!!!) and, at separate locations, the Grateful Dead and Los Lobos.

So, whatever one thought about the Band Together lineup, there was no doubt it was in keeping with the old spirit of San Francisco music scene: putting on shows like this is what we do best here. And it was historical in another way, too, in that it was a throwback to the mid-1980s Band Aid type blockbuster fundraiser, though its goals and proceeds are (one hopes) more targeted and successful. Band Together was organized, sponsored, or otherwise kickstarted by the ubiquitous Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, by Live Nation, Another Planet Entertainment, Google, the SF Giants, and by The Tipping Point Emergency Relief Fund, the organization it was benefiting. According to the website, 100% of ticket sales were going to the charity; throughout the concert there were constant calls for online/texted donations, and it had, by concert time, raised seventeen million dollars, which is no small chunk of change.(You can still donate, by the way, by clicking here.)
the dream state of capitalism

Band Together’s goals are entirely laudable – that’s why I threw my money at it -- but even so, I don’t think it’s exactly a coincidence that we’re seeing a resurgence of this type of thing, since the Band Aid era was during high Reagan years, when the Republican mantra was also all about cutting government spending and taxes. Today we live in under a similarly tightfisted regime, wherein GoFundMe campaigns have become a reasonable business model, even, alas, a form of healthcare and debt relief, so my prediction is that we will begin seeing a ton more of this type of concert. And that is only one of the ways that this whole show seemed symptomatic of the very different world we live in now that I am not a rock critic. As I said, to my hidebound mind, set in stone some half century ago, these bands simply don’t belong together on one bill, especially not alongside the inexplicably popular Dave Matthews, white rapper G Eazy and Raphael Saadiq, and the fact that the crowd would welcome all three with equal fervor is just indicative of the cataclysmic changes wrought in our listening habits since the advent of the iPod Shuffle.

Those changes didn’t happen in my soul, though, so for a while I didn’t want to go. It was for a great cause and easy for me to get to, but it was on a work day, smack dab in the middle of the Dreamforce convention, plus, the forecast said it was going to rain. But my brother, who is a world renowned expert on the Grateful Dead, said, “Oh, it never rains on the Grateful Dead in the Bay Area. It’s a known thing.”

And he was right. Despite the forecast, it cleared up that afternoon. So come 7 o clock, after my class got out, I found myself heading down there in a Lyft. The intersections near the park were so packed they looked like Shibuya in Tokyo, and I had to hop out of the car a few blocks early, shouldering my way down to Willie Mays Plaza. All around me, people were selling ticket downloads, and saucy street sausages, and edible weed items, and bootleg Band Together t-shirts. Thick clouds of pot smoke wafted over my head, and the lights of the Bay Bridge winked out to my left. I felt like I had stepped into Bladerunner 2049, only with everyone on the set looking worse, and worsely dressed. The thought made my heart lift, because I am happiest at shows where I think I’m going to learn something, and this seemed like it would be educational in some undefined way.
when the lights go down on the bla bla bla

Sadly, by the time I got to the ballpark, I had to miss Rancid, the only band I like, as well as the pleasantly poppy G Eazy, who I am told took a moment to curse out Donald Trump, arriving instead during the dreadful Dave Matthews Band. God, I forgot how insufferable his music is. Usually I like to cover concerts by sitting alone and walking around and taking notes and texting my brother, but Dave Matthews is so unbearable that I went and bothered my Millenial friend Emily in the club section, who was there on a second date. I know that’s not very nice of me – especially as Emily and I immediately started plaguing the poor fellow with pictures of our recent trip to Budapest – but it was preferable to actually listening.

Meanwhile, Emily and her date were getting the feels because they listened to DMB in high school, i.e. fourteen years ago. I asked them if they liked the Grateful Dead. The date said, “Well...I listen to Bill Walton’s  podcast, and he told a funny story about them.”

Emily: “I don’t like them, but I like John Mayer.”

Date:  “Well, that’s random.”

Us: “No it’s not.”

Him: “?????”
SURPRISE! John plays Jim!

Just then, the band comes on stage, led by none other than John Mayer. Date loses his shit, along with the people behind us, who also were not expecting it (because, really, nobody expects John Mayer, just like nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition). By contrast, Emily, upon hearing some of the not-Dead’s music, immediately loses interest in John Mayer. That’s my girl! Not really, I’m just kidding. What she said was, “this is perfectly pleasant, but it sounds like background muzac.”

Meanwhile, I tweet, “The Dead are the kind of band who wear their own t-shirts on stage.” Instantly, a kind follower tweets back nervously: “Is this going to be like the time you trashed Jimmy Buffett?” Right, I think. That article reaped death threats, rape threats…and that was before the invention of twitter. I decide to calm down a little.

Presently, I looked over, and see that Emily is adding a picture to her Snapchat story. “John plays Jim,” she captions it.

“You mean, John plays Jerry,” I say.

 “Oh right,” she says, correcting it. “Is that with a J or a G?”

Obviously, I am well aware that Dead and Co. are not the Grateful Dead. At this point, I am just going to let my brother do the honors:

Dead And Company arose after the success of Fare Thee Well shows. Phil Lesh had had it with the drummers, but Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart went on tour in Fall 2015. John Mayer first heard the Grateful Dead in 2001. Jeff Chimenti (keyboards) and Oteil Burbridge (bass) are veterans of these sort of bands. Chimenti has played with Weir and various offshoots since 1996, and he isn't dead (they regularly joke about this in interviews, since Dead keyboardists have a Spinal Tap like history). Oteil Burbridge played with the Allman Brothers for 20 years or so (1996-2015)

Most Deadheads think Dead And Co are alright, but not epic. This show was three days before their next tour kicks off at Madison Square Garden, and of course they didn't rehearse, and it showed (keep in mind, Jerry wouldn't have rehearsed either). The consensus of my serious old Deadhead friends who watched the stream said they played badly (and these are people who like them). There was some question of the propriety of playing a song called "Fire On The Mountain" to people who lived in the mountains and lost their home to a fire. 
Bob Weir

To me, it was just weird hearing the Dead’s music again. I range it alongside other scourges of my youth, that is, the many all American things Everyone Else But Me Likes: McDonald’s, Apple stuff, Disneyland, beer. On the one hand, I can understand what’s enjoyable about the continuous loop of pingy little guitar notes, the lyrics about almost nothing, the two drummers, and the aural miasma of, for lack of a better word, Deadishness that descends on this type of gathering, yet something about it always makes me feel outcast and uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, behind us, a group of fat men in tye-dye rose up as one and noodle danced for the duration, possibly for the first time in two decades. Emily was slightly aghast. I tried to explain what the whole Dead crowd, the Dead thing, was about to her but it just wasn’t possible. People today think the Dead are just another band who toured a lot in the 1980s and 90s. Like Rolling Stone magazine, they know it existed as a historical thing, but it’s difficult to convey the phenomenon; the masses of hippie-vans parked along the Panhandle, the kids wandering up Haight street begging for a miracle, the misguided conversations with people telling one how transcendent the Dead’s music is…it all comes flooding back as I listen to John Mayer and Co.  noodling away at endless songs that I thought I would never be subjected to again. At the end, Emily said doubtfully, “Well, I do like it when bands are obviously just playing for themselves,” and I do too. But the music still makes me yawn.

All benefits must by rights spend some interim time praying and praising, and this one was no exception. In this case the honorees were for first responders and fire victims, who had a special section to themselves and were given on screen shout-outs by celebrities like Huey Lewis and Tony Bennett and in person, Buster Posey and Barry Bonds. Then, after a brief break, Metallica come on. As noted above, many years ago I spent part of one whole summer on the road with them, but this is me at a Metallica gig: onstage for first song, taking notes, notes, notes; fourth song, I go down under the risers and run as fast as I can to the bus, get in the bus and cover my ears, because that’s when the pyro begins, and pyro makes me cry. After an interval, I come back up until the finale, then, as the set finishes, curl up in a ball with my head wrapped up in the nearest towel.

I tell Emily this, and she points out that they won’t be doing any pyro at this show, because it’s a benefit for fire victims and we’ve just spent the last three hours seeing between set videos of people talking about the problems of FIRE. She says that even the Warriors didn’t use pyro, out of respect, in the last few weeks. “Well, seeing Metallica without pyro isn’t right,” I say piously, even though I hate pyro. This is how wedded I am to my past.

Emily asks, “Will I like Metallica?”

“Well…they’re very dramatic,” I say doubtfully. But she might: Emily used to be a classical violinist, and Metallica do have a certain musicality; it’s hard to deny that Hammett and Hetfield are super musical, even if the use they put it their talent is making massive speed-runs up and down their guitar necks, and adding tuneless shouting to a swift, staccato, martial beat. And I don’t know why, maybe just because the Dead's sound is so spineless, but I am a little excited to hear it again. It takes me back.  Certainly everyone else in the crowd is revving up for it too – the fat guys in the Dead shirts, the tattooed dudes in Misfits shirts, the men with their sons on their shoulders, the Dave Matthews fan in front of me wiggling her hips...we’re all kind of making this little Metallica-is-coming roar in our heads. 

And Metallica doesn’t disappoint. They come on and fucking POUND it. Sing goddamn, I think; sing off to never-never land. Pound it, brothers, POUND POUND POUND. This is not your background music. This is music for the ages, if the ages had taken place on one chromatic scale, entirely in major chords and only in four-four time.

Down in the field, a pit forms, and Emily looks at it in dismay. “Why are all those people doing Ring Around the Rosie?”

Me, sighing. “If you don’t know, I can’t explain.”

Yes, words fail. I left on Metallica’s fifth song, because I didn’t want to miss the train home and because – pyro excepted -- they hadn’t appreciably changed since I last saw them 21 years ago. I’ve changed though, and here’s how: now, instead of being infuriated on a Jimmy Buffett level by the old Dead Heads swirling around above me and the slightly less old pony-boys hurling each other around in the mosh pit, I sent out waves of love and respect to them all. I love them for still loving their beloved music, whatever it is, and for giving money to a good cause, and for braving the crowds of Dreamforce to come out in the maybe-rain, and, simply, for staying true. 

Be honest, stay true – that’s my motto. The new world is very different for sure, but the new me is definitely better than the old one. The new me doesn’t have to stay to the end of the show or stand on stage during Metallica with my head in wrapped in a Rancid sweatshirt, or get the songs right or even tell you what to think. The new me says goodbye to all that. And good riddance, too.