Friday, March 31, 2017

Steve Bannon's Acid Flashback

Isabelle said, “I want to start a band called Steve Bannon’s Acid Bath.”

We were talking over the phone, the way we do now, reflecting on an article I had shared with her from Wonkette which described anapartment Steve Bannon rented that has a Jacuzzi full of acid (“the dissolvey kind!”) in it. She often calls me on bluetooth while she’s driving the 45 minutes to her home in Encinitas from her work in Lemon Grove.

She’ll be heading up the 5, with the deep blue ocean sparkling on her left, all that wasted beauty. I’ll be staring out the window 1400 miles north of there in Olympia, looking at grim, grey, relentless rain. It’s weird we live in the same universe, I’ll think, much less on the coast of the same country.

“Steve Bannon’s Acid Bath,” I say admiringly. “Musically, itshould sound exactly like GWAR.”

“Yes, yes. With everyone wearing giant masks with exploding cysts on them…goo-ing up the audience.”

I giggle. “Remember the time we went to Iguana’s in Tijuana the night after a GWAR concert and the stage and everywhere was still all messed up with paint?” We both laugh, a little ruefully.

”Yeah, you got some on your best pants.”

"...and then I made butt prints everywhere!"

And we fell silent, remembering. Isabelle’s and my past is littered with these colorful moments, bright and shiny memories that twinkle through the dull patina of reality: kids, commutes, rain; layoff notices, bills, college entrance exams…the usual bull crap that makes up our little lives. Our music fandom used to be our escape, but now it often feels like there is no exit.

Later that night, Isabelle sent me an e-mail with a fake press release for Steve Bannon’s Acid Bath.

“Formed in the basement of a DC squat, Steve Bannon’s Acid Bath is set to tour the US. Taking a page from the Richmond, Virginia performance art act GWAR, the band that performs in giant rubber masks, each representing a member of Trump’s inner circle. Bannon’s mask is clearly the most detailed, complete with cysts and a real rodent crawling under his skin. The band, whose fans now refer to it just as Acid Bath, are selling Bannon Masks on the internet that have propelled the band from obscurity to mainstream fame.

Calling its music “fake music,’ both the band and and its fans aren’t concerned that the band members can’t play their instruments, read music, or sing. The band’s singer, Kellyanne Conway Twitty, says, “If Trump can be President with no talent for the job or training, then it only makes sense that we can do the same thing with music. We are to music what Trump is to government. That is why we are so beloved.”

Next week, the band is set to perform on Saturday Night Live.”

I wrote her back. “We should print this up and send it to every media outlet, without the last sentence, and with a photo. It can be our follow up to the Free the Fronds movement.”

“Free the Fronds” was a fake protest group we formed back in Palo Alto when we first met, right out of college. The group (i.e. that is, the two of us, plotting it all out at a table at the Peninsula Creamery, Palo Alto’s only all-night eatery) demanded that a local hotel untie the fronds of their three brand new palm trees. We made flyers and hung a banner over the train overpass and stuff like that, and although the whole thing was absurd, just a way for Isabelle to use all the cool copy equipment at her job, we were only half joking. We really didn’t like the way the poor trees looked, with their fronds tied up like troll-doll hair for weeks and weeks on end, even though we found out later (when the hotel finally consented to untie them and invited us to the opening ceremony) that it was the healthy way to transport them.

It probably says something terrible about Isabelle and I that we were always more likely to start a fake protest movement than a real band. That was true then and its true now: we both would sooner be in the audience than on the stage, or even back stage. It’s our single commonality, and it’s uncommon, I think. Backstage is a place of broken dreams. It is unromantic and cold there, but those who covet it feel happy to be there, so privileged, so special. I did myself once, but I learned not to: it wasn’t safe there, in any case. It was a place where you were going to be ignored or belittled.

Later on, when I became a music professional, we found ourselves permanently ensconced there, and it wasn’t…it wasn’t a pure place. Being backstage brings out the worst in people. One time I was backstage at a show – the Three O Clock at the Keystone Palo Alto -- and the next day this girl Francine kept boasting to me about how she was backstage and hung out with the band, and I was so horrified, because I had been there the whole time and thus knew that she hadn’t, and I couldn’t speak. I felt like I was seeing her in her underpants, viewing her naked soul in all its ugliness, exposed.

And the worst was, I knew I had just such a soul, and that it too was tempted, all the time, to show itself.

To be honest, I probably still have it, but everything is different now. I fain to say it, but we grow old, Isabelle and I; the bottoms of our trousers are rolled, and the peaches are less and less tempting. Life is harder and the news is faker, and stuff that seemed hilarious back in the 1990s now seems positively sinister.

Of course, maybe it always was and we just didn't know it: for instance, someone recently told me that the cost of the care and maintenance of a single one of the palm trees on Palm Drive in Palo Alto is exactly the same as the cost of a Stanford education, and I believe it.

Our frond liberation front was on to something, we just had hold of the wrong end of the stick. Way wrong.

Meanwhile, today there is no chance that we’ll be going backstage at anything, and that’s OK; we don't much like going out at all anymore. But we still like making fake protest groups, and this time I think we know which end of the stick is up. Isabelle thinks that Steve Bannon's Acid Bath should be like a cross between ghost-band camp and a fantasy baseball league: you-all can join in with fake songs you've written or fake flyers you've made, or however you think you can contribute to the project. We're planning on sending Acid Bath out on tour next week. Each of you will have to post your flyers up in your own city one by one.

The only thing is, you all will have to swear yourself to secrecy, since our goal is to hoodwink someone into booking them, at which point they'll have to cancel -- Milo-like -- because of the threat of white supremacists.

Who's in?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mighty Whitey

A bunch of years ago, Terry Zwigoff made a film about obsessive record collectors called Ghost World. It was based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel and it stars a very young Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch as two teenage girls who trail around after some loser old man blues-fan vinyl junkie (Steve Buscemi) because they are enamored of the past, which they think is more real than the horrid, plastic, present. Enid and Rebecca hate everyone and everything, and Enid, for one, can only find solace in the sound of the blues.

I thought of that scene when I first read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and I thought of it again this week as I finished Hari Kudzru’s new book “White Tears.” Ghost World is a beautiful and tragic chronicle of the alienation and ennui imposed on suburban kids by the soul grinding samey-ness of, well, the age of mechanical reproduction. “White Tears” jacks that aspect of record collecting up about a thousand percent and then multiplies it by its natural, yet oft hidden, corollary, race-driven exploitation. In short, the book is about a whole bunch of things that have been on my mind lately. 

First and foremost, it is about hipsters and their appropriation of black music and the scarily obsessive and secretly hurtful nature of what is-or-is-not cool. Its protagonists and anti-heroes, Seth and Carter, are not so much record collectors as sound vultures, jonesing on the sonic patina of other eras, and doing it through actual things: not only records, but special headphones, special sound monitors, hardy old equipment…stuff. They fetishize the past. They live in Brooklyn, and Carter, Seth says, “begins to dress like the year was 1849 and he was heading west to pan for gold.” They bill themselves as audio craftsmen, “artisans of analog. We would even offer to record to quarter-inch tape, if that’s what the client wanted.” Because they are record producers and djays, they pursue particularly rare records to cannibalize for other people’s recordings, post-modernly. “The present is dry, but add reverb and you can hear time reverse its flow, slipping on into the past, into echo and disaster … distance can create longing. It can open up the gap into which all must fall,” Seth tells us. 

Marx has a word for this process, and the word is reification. To thingify. Seth and Carter thingify sounds. That the things themselves rise up against them in revenge is just one of the ways this book spins the concept of mass consumerism, so that here, ‘hurtful’ ends up meaning to be literally hurt, to be beaten, smashed, and otherwise tortured on the rack of (imagined) social justice. It also may have something to do with history. Because, as Seth concludes, “On your record deck you played the sound of the middle passage, the blackest sound. You wanted the suffering you didn’t have, the authority you thought it would bring. It scared you, but you thought of the swagger it would put in your walk, the admiring glances of your friends. Then came the terror when real darkness first seeped through the walls of your bedroom, the walls designed to keep you safe and dreaming. And finally your rising sense of shame when you admitted to yourself that you were relieved the walls were there.” 

“White Tears” has much in common with the film “Get Out,” including an ending that is pretty much a revenge fantasy and is, fair warning, really violent. Beyond that, though, it is also a book about rich people: rich people, and rich people’s kids, and the people around rich people and their kids, and how unculpable – that is, lacking in a sense of culpability -- they feel and act about the things their money has wrought or is wringing on everyone else. Does this sound familiar? It should, because at this moment in history, I feel like we are all in the process of becoming unwitting human teabags being repeatedly dipped in a stenchy brew of greed, extortion and vice to have our humanity leached out of us.The question really is, where does our culpability begin and end? This is an era of chickens and roosts, and addressing that thorny question in fiction feels very, very timely.

I found that part of the book pretty satisfying – more satisfying then the Robert Johnson-Mississippi Crossroads-Deal With The Devil part, although granted, this book takes that narrative back to its logical roots. Hence – spoiler alert! -- at its heart, “White Tears” is actually a book about convict leasing, mass incarceration and private prisons, or in other words, exactly what I’ve been teaching in my class for the last two quarters, American Crime and Punishment. 

I wish I could have assigned it last quarter, not only because it contextualizes readings I did assign, like “Autobiography of an Imprisoned Peon” (1904), but because I desperately need people to unpack this with (as we say in academia). Since I can’t, I am writing about it here in the hopes I can unpack it with you. Because, as good as I think this book is, and much as I recommend it, I also kind of think it does a disservice to music, to collecting, to sound, to culture, to fandom, and the actual redemption that those things can offer us. Because it is redemptive to listen to music. It is the one sure way back to paradise, or it is for me, anyway. And paradise is definitely not a place this book has any room for.

In fact, the central conceit of “White Tears” is that sound waves may linger in time, “that they persist fainter and fainter, masked by the day to day noise of the world.” If you could invent a good enough microphone, the narrator suggests, you could hear everything that ever happened, and honestly, I don’t think that’s so farfetched. A few years ago, the filmmaker Sam Green made a short documentary about the (one inch) tape archive of Louis Armstrong. Green doesn’t believe in video-taping his work or circulating it in any way other than live; so as with Robert Frank's Cocksucker Blues (only for different reason), his films can only be seen in his presence.  According to the documentary, Armstrong really liked taping things at his home on a big, state of the art tape player, and the film Green made ends with several minutes of the sound of Armstrong’s breath, after he has fallen asleep in front of the microphone. 

The result is, as Green in his live narration pointed out, that for a few moments, we, the audience, get to breath together, across time, along with Louis Armstrong. Yep. That happened, and it happened to me, thus, in my humble opinion, giving the age of mechanical reproduction kind of a big fat second chance. Distance may create longing, but distance can also be bridged. I like to think that those bridges are what our humanity rests on, and not as "White Tears" sort of suggests, what is taking it away.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Got Dead If You Want It

Yesterday in my post on Teenage Fanclub, I included a link to a newspaper article in which the band complained about playing a gig at a radio show in San Francisco in 1991 where everything went wrong. To my surprise, after I published it, my brother told me we – he and I – had been at that gig, and he had the notes to prove it:

12/10/93: Concourse Exhibition Center, San Francisco: Porno for Pyros/The Wonderstuff/General Public/Cracker/Evan Dando/They Might Be Giants/TeenageFanclub/Tony Bennett/Mazzy Star/Nick Heyward/Redd Kross. KITS Green Christmas Benefit.

At that time in my life, I went to so many shows I can’t remember 80 percent of them. Fortunately my brother went to many of them with me, and he has a hard drive instead of a brain. This isn’t exactly news to me -- one time I was in his apartment in Jersey City and he showed me an excel spread sheet of every show we’d been to since 1975 and it weirded me out so bad I promptly forgot about it. Besides, at the time I couldn’t really think of a use for that information. But it shows the difference between my brother and I. My brother writes an incredibly well-researched, fact checked and evidence-based blog called Lost Live Dead that catalogs every single Grateful Dead show ever played, including things that happened on beaches and at public libraries in 1965 and stuff. My blog just tells you how I feel about shit.

And therein lies the difference between us. In my day, we didn’t have diseases like Aspergers, ADD, ADHD, or even autism, we just called people ‘hyper’ or ‘nerdy.’ And I honestly don’t think my brother has any of those things; he’s very personable. But he does have an obsession with lists that is truly phenomenal. When he was really little the lists took the form of baseball statistics for the Oakland As. (He still keeps those, too.) Then rock came into our world and it started to be more about the different lineups of Santana, what tracks Ginger Baker played on, albums produced by Al Kooper, etc. etc. He is the kind of person who's favorite band is Can.
kraut rock

My brother is older than me, and we have VERY different taste in music. In the late 1970s, I had to listen to the Grateful Dead bleeding through the adjoining wall of our bedrooms every night, and it made me crazy; I probably became a punk rocker just to retaliate. Or maybe not, because the Grateful Dead’s music made me mad on so many other levels as well. I hated the instrumentation, for one thing – all that noodling through unbearable doodah nonsense. And I hated the subject matter of their songs, the ye old Americana stuff, it seemed to me like it glorified eras that were steeped in prejudice and machismo. They and their ilk called women ‘old lady’ and ‘mamma,’ and that infuriated me. You couldn’t imagine the Damned, say, or the Buzzcocks, calling a girl ‘mamma.’ That terminology still makes me want to punch someone.

I grew to have better reasons for hating the Dead, but I never grew to like them, even a single little bit. On the day Jerry Garcia died a news crew came to interview at my home two blocks from Haight Street and I said something so unsympathetic to the community’s loss that they packed up their equipment and left without taping. (Then, or so my friend Michele tells me, I went and played ping pong in the basement of the Chatterbox and the bartender played “Truckin’ by the Pop-o-Pies” as a tribute.)

My brother, however, did learn to like some of what I listened to. What’s more, his list-obsession worked in my favor, because his favorite thing in the world was to add to it. That meant that, unlike my friends, who always claimed they wanted to come with me to the shows that I was reviewing, only he actually did so. When push came to shove, my friends really only wanted to come when the assignment was Lou Reed, the Kinks, or REM, but my brother could be counted on to attend shows by Chicago, Motley Crue, Iron Maiden, or Rick Derringer, i.e., most of my assignments. Because he views listening to music as a purely intellectual activity, he’s up for anything. Indeed, a few years ago when I was visiting him in NYC, I dragged him out to see the AfghanWhigs the Beacon Theater. That band is completely outside of his musical wheelhouse, but he’s used to going to see stuff with me and then, I suppose, just spacing out. You can totally picture that scene: I’m headbanging my brains out to  “Matomoros” or “Fountain andFairfax”  and he’s staring at that  lovely thing on the ceiling, planning out a blog post on the Allman Brothers annual Beacon Theater stand which is the thing that he considers this venue famous for. 

But, twas ever thus. He is eternally looking backward, at music from a historical perspective, and I like to think I am looking forward: or at least that I am in the present. We live on different coasts now, so we never get to go to shows together, but you’ll probably see him weigh in here from time to time. And if you care about the Dead at all, definitely go visit his blog. You won’t believe that he and I live on the same planet, much less grew up in the same household, but DNA is weird that way – as is music fandom.