The occasion of MAGNET’s anniversary has a lot of us reflecting on just what the hell we think we’ve been up to the last 15 years. It turns out that what I’ve been up to is the slow, inexorable, sometimes painful realization that I’m as full of shit as everybody else. No way, gasp you, the loyal reader of this space. Surely you (that is, me) are joking, setting me (that is, you the loyal reader) up for some delightful and well-crafted punchline. But no, not this time. There is no joke. At least I don’t think there is. I really have come to the conclusion that I’m precisely as full of shit as everyone else.
Here’s why this is relevant for discussion purposes: When you’re given the privilege of a space like this to communicate with some number of random strangers, it’s assumed by all parties that you somehow deserve that privilege. That you’ve earned it. If I don’t feel like I have something worth saying, then there’s no way I sit down at my laptop and tweeze every painful one of the 1,100 to 1,300 required words from the shriveled lobes of my poor sodden brain. And if you don’t feel like I have something worth saying, even if you think that only because it’s sitting there on the final page of an otherwise really good and fun and smart music magazine, then you don’t make it this far. That doesn’t mean you automatically agree with what I’m saying, incidentally-only that you start reading this thing on faith that it belongs here.
So it has become kind of troubling for your humble narrator to continue to fill this space while growing ever more aware and certain that he (that is, I) is (am) just as full of shit as everyone else.
It’s so very punk to want to slam dance all over the grave of the American Record Industry (b. 1929 – d. 2008). Good riddance to The Man. Let us gob on the memory of all those tone-deaf A&R men, greedy suits, house producers, misguided promotions foofs and slick payola palm-greasers. Let the mp3 rule, give the artist the power, long live musical freedom!
At this year’s induction ceremony for the Rock and/or Roll Hall of Fame, no less a rebellious iconoclast than Billy Joel (80 million records sold) introduced musical freedom fighter John Mellencamp (28 million units moved) with a note of triumph: “Congratulations, John! You outlived the record industry!”
Raising children is the ultimate opportunity to indulge your music snobbery. For anyone who writes about music or just plain spends way too much time listening to it, thinking about it and standing in bars for three hours waiting to see someone play it, kids are your golden chance to replicate your own magnificent taste in the personality of another living human being. (Or two or three of them.) Except for the minor problem that it doesn’t work.
Before we go any further, let’s get rid of the Clockwork Orange-y image you might’ve been forming of Little Alex with his eyelids forced open, watching violent images and listening to Old Ludwig Van as part of his social reconditioning. We’re not talking about force-feeding our favorite tunes to helpless young children here, although God help the toddler who fucks with the stereo on my watch.
Kidding, kidding. Seriously, though, it’s a heady thing to realize when they’re young that you have virtually complete control of what your kids hear. As a parent, you are able—and perhaps obligated—to create a top-40-radio-free environment for your offspring. You wouldn’t store leaky barrels of benzene in the nursery, so why would you allow strangers to fill your children’s impressionable brains with shitty music?
In the nightmare from which there is no waking—or, as you may know it, life—there will be a giant music festival. Only there won’t be any bands or singers there. It will be a music festival devoted entirely to dweebs who excel at Guitar Hero or Rock Band: video games that allow you to realize, virtually speaking, your fantasy of being a rock star. This is not a guess.
Toward the end of 2007, an ad appeared for a concert featuring Gibby Haynes and a bunch of teenagers from the Paul Green School of Rock “playing the music of the Butthole Surfers.” This would be like Michael Jordan—no, wait, that’s wrong; it’s Gibby Haynes here, so we’re talking more like Sedale Threatt—getting paid to come out and play guard for the local high-school basketball team. There are already what amount to rock ’n’ roll fantasy camps. Saggy old middle-age nerds get to put on ripped jeans and play power chords next to washed-up frontmen and drummers. It would be funny if it weren’t so freaking depressing.
Just as Madden NFL and Tiger Woods PGA Tour allow sloppy-fat dopes to “compete” from the comfort of their sofas like actual athletes, these video games let soulless, tone-deaf lardasses pose like Eddie Van Halen and Ritchie Blackmore in the middle of some wankerrific solo. Rock Band even allows for the mystifying phenomenon of people who want to pretend to play bass. WTF?! Even real bass players don’t want to play bass.
Here’s a quick look back at 2008, the year that’s spreading all over you like a stain.
I spent a lot of time thinking about fame this summer. It started with the story I wrote elsewhere in this issue about a band called the Mendoza Line, which was as successful at ducking fame as it was at making great records. I followed the thread to a live performance by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the stars of the movie Once, who were astonished by the film’s impact on their music careers. Before its release, they had played to a tiny crowd at the Tin Angel, an intimate folk club in Philadelphia. Now they were playing at a sold-out theater-style venue in Philly that’s hosted everyone from Radiohead to Ray Davies.
Hansard is also the lead singer and songwriter for the Frames, an Irish band that’s been plugging away since the early ‘90s. He was all too keenly aware that this little independent film was making a bigger splash than his entire career with the Frames.
“It’s like I’ve spent the last 17 years knocking on the world’s door,” Hansard said from the stage. “And now the world suddenly has turned around and said, ‘What do you want?’”
All those years seeking fame, and now he was freaked out to get a taste of it.
One of the obvious reasons to write about pop (or any other kind of) culture is the belief that you can somehow change it. Maybe you can nudge it in a certain direction or, by sheer force of your impeccable taste and powerful prose, convince every living human being to drop what they’re doing and listen (I mean really listen this time) to a certain artist or album.
This is, of course, ridiculous. Nobody will ever hear the Stones’ “Torn And Frayed” or Uncle Tupelo’s “High Water” or the Vulgar Boatmen’s “You Don’t Love Me Yet” precisely the way I hear them. I can type from now until the Cows reunite and it won’t matter. You’ll hear and like what you want, I’ll hear and like what I want, and as long as we can occasionally nod our heads knowingly in time with the same song, things are cool. And music and art and books and movies will evolve as they will, no matter how many words are wasted yearning for the good old days.
What, the alert reader asks, happened to this doofus? Aren’t those so-called, probably nonexistent good old days—when every band had a cool name, two guitars, bass and drums and excellent T-shirts for sale at a reasonable price—the entire raison d’etre for this so-called, probably nonexistent place we call The Back Page? What changed?
Simple answer: science.
The year 2007 marks exactly three decades since the Year of Punk, 1977, and it’s stunning for someone who cared then and cares now to attempt keeping score on how things all turned out. For me, the fundamental choice between the Sex Pistols and the Clash was a no-future no-brainer. It was Clash all the way. Joe Strummer and the lads were angry and righteous and filled with passion and, in their brave way, even hope. Johnny Rotten and his bunch were cynical little shits who yelped about anarchy as if they had any idea what that might actually be like.
Well, here we are, 30 years later. The Pistols were right, while Strummer’s grand message of hope is down in the ground with him and the worms. There is new music I like and new music I don’t much care for. There is no music that I believe in, and there won’t be again. So fuck it. Download some shit your friend likes and wonder why your attention span isn’t long enough to reach the end of this sentence. Turns out everything is pretty vacant after all. Here’s what the next 12 months will look like. Let’s hope we make it all the way to the end.
Get a good grip on your memory. If it doesn’t go back to the 1970s, you may want to read a book or two. See, Hollywood is coming for our icons next, and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it.
The madness started a couple years ago, when Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for doing the same damn Ray Charles imitation—side-to-side with the head, face taking in the air—that everybody does. Ray set the template: early family traumas, love of music, a love story, some success, battles with drink and drugs, temptation that fucks up the earlier love story, pressure from The Man, redemption, decent soundtrack. Last year it was Johnny Cash and June Carter, essayed in Walk The Line by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. She got the Oscar this time.
So you’re leafing through the ads in the Sunday paper and what to your wondering eyes should appear but the new Cat Power CD for $7.99. At Best Buy. This, you figure, is a great thing. Cheaper than iTunes, way cheaper than the $12.99 they’ll probably be charging at the local record store. And look: You can pick up Broken Social Scene, the Arcade Fire and a couple other titles at the same ridiculous price. It’s almost free, and therein, gentle indie rockers, lies the problem.
A quick confession: I have been guilty of buying music and DVDs, as well as appliances and such like, at Best Buy. Oh, I resisted at first. When they built the monstrous new store up the highway from my house, I avoided it entirely for a few years. Better to spend money with local businesspeople, I figured. Better to support the stores and shops run by entrepreneurs with an investment in our community. I wore down.