Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Book Review: The Rose and the Briar

A young man and possible alcoholic dies of a broken heart; the pretty young thing who previously acted like an unrepentant whelp of a whore by spurning the young man’s advances is overcome by grief and soon follows her love to the grave. Death by broken heart.

A somehow-naïve pregnant woman, already saddled with two children and no doubt one helluva alimony case, finds herself murdered by Father Number Two. Or Father Number Three.

A military captain, his advances spurned and in an odd way of showing how much he loves the fair maiden, vows revenge. His stubborn machismo gets him killed; this time, the pretty young thing remains coolly unaffected by the captain’s death.

In short, typical Top 40 radio stuff.

Such stories and others are explored in The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad, edited by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus (gulp…Dylanologists!). This book gathers a wide variety of artists and writers, including Pere Ubu carnival barker David Thomas, Joyce Carol Oates, and chief Mekon Jon Langford, to examine various American ballads. On paper, if the reader can get past the inevitable problem of defining exactly what an American Ballad is, the book offers an occasionally moving, interesting, and thought-provoking study of American ballads.

Nevertheless, the results are decidedly uneven, primarily for one key reason: the strengths and weaknesses of the book depend entirely on the individual writer’s contribution to the collection. Given the wide range of contributors and the implied assumption that any American song qualifies as an American ballad (Dolly Parton’s Down from Dover is included, for chrissakes), this result was probably inevitable.

At its worst, the book reads like nothing more than a tedious exercise in mind-numbingly boring academia. Cecil Brown, in his chapter devoted to the Frankie and Albert ballad, applies a cold, clinical approach to an otherwise intriguing song and real-life event. Like the worst parts of his recent (and occasionally inaccurate) Stagoloee Shot Billy, Brown approaches the story from the viewpoint of a professor. And that’s not a compliment. I was expecting a pop quiz at the end of the chapter.

Some of the attempts to “fictionalize” the American ballad fail as well. Sharyn McCrumb’s rambling, schizophrenic story centered around the Pretty Peggie-O ballad spends many pages to the come to the ultimate conclusion that (wait for it…drum roll…big finish)…songs are interpreted by different performers to have different meanings as cultural norms shift. James Baldwin’s estate could also rightly sue for royalties on this one. Sonny’s Blues, anyone? “Jack summoned all the old feelings that had once come into him through the music. The pain from so many muted voices. The sorrow…the hunger…the despair…He swelled with the pain and the loss. And then, he…pushed” (66). Ye gods.

Two entries stand out in this collection and make it worth the price of admission. Luc Sante’s study of the Buddy Bolden band in early 20th century New Orleans vividly depicts a singer who has no recorded musical output (and not even any songs on iTunes) and only one known portrait. A modern reader normally wouldn’t care less about Bolden. Yet Sante’s evocative writing style, full of detail but never sounding forced or pretentious, creates a lively understanding of the artist and the New Orleans culture Bolden helped shape . By the end of Sante’s essay, you can nearly hear Bolden’s cornet playing among the chaos of a New Orleans saloon.

Anna Domino’s entry for the story of Omie Wise is the most compelling, and heartbreaking, contribution to the book. Instead of using the stale academic approach favored by some of the writers, Domino writes as Omie Wise, in a letter to an aunt. The effect is like reading the words of a ghost. Despite the fact that Omie was already burdened with children and pregnant yet again (really, at this point, shouldn’t be a little suspicious of men in general?), Domino convincingly portrays Omie as a naïve woman largely unaware of the cruelty of the world. The effect is so convincing and chilling that Domino’s short explanation of the story that follows her letter is largely unnecessary. If you only read one section from this book, make it this one.

At its best, the book offers a deeper understanding of both the American character and how it is reflected in the American ballad, which is perhaps the closest thing this country has to a common mythology. Except, of course, for Star Wars. Although the book is probably not an essential read except for the truly sick muso, it does offer several good entries into the beautiful, heartbreaking, and often brutal world of the American ballad.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

An Indie Junkie's Outdated Review of the 2006 MTV VMAs

Every year as autumn approaches I wait in perverse anticipation for the MTV Video Music Awards. Who will win the coveted Obviously On Something award? Which Rock Legend will be awkwardly paired up with Today’s Hot Star for a little bit of that MTV generation glad-handing and grab-assing? And which musical performance will make me want to reach for a sedative? Awards shows offer writers and critics fodder ripe for various potshots and sarcastic swipes.

The problem is that I am a notoriously slow writer. A sentence here, a sentence there, and the end result is usually a fantastically mediocre collection of cheap jokes, bad puns, and shallow, fairly-obvious observations. So, without further boasting, here is my belated recap of this year’s awards. The Good

The Raconteurs as house band - A high point of the show came very early, as the Raconteurs and Lou Reed (yes, that Lou Reed) ripped through a passable version of White Light White Heat. Although Reed at times sounded breathless (but nowhere near as bad as the dusty corpse of Axl Rose that was propped up and moved by marionette strings last year) and his face looked like a worn-out catcher’s mitt, the version was suitably rough-around-the-edges and was played at chaotic top speed. Although I can’t help but wonder how many Laguna Beach-age viewers thought the song was about Jack White.
OK Go’s synchronized treadmill dance - I still don’t know whether this performance was meant to be taken seriously or as a finely-orchestrated put-on. Sure, the idea of four guys carefully maneuvering around several rolling treadmills is absurd, but there was something visually appealing and interesting about this performance. In college I attended a performance of a university-funded “high art” troupe that essentially danced like David Byrne, in Stop Making Sense, while a giant amplified radio slid up and down the dial. They even wore oversized suits and synchronized their movements. What’s the difference?
Chamillionaire’s acceptance speech - Although I was expecting Tupac to win the Best Rap Video award, Chamillionaire’s acceptance speech was probably the most sincere speech of the night. In fact, it was so sincere and devoid of the shameless self-promotion that typifies the VMAs that it appeared out of place.
Christina Aguilera’s performance - Somehow in the past year or so Aguilera has managed to transform herself from the whore-like gutter rat of Stripped into an intriguing pop musician. Her (ahem) stripped-down performance was completely out-of-step with the ridiculous, faux-Gilbert and Sullivan theatricality of the other musical performances.
The Bad
Bands that look like Todd from Wedding Crashers - Somewhere there must be a factory churning out quasi-feminine, face-ring-studded, skinny, pale-faced, pseudo-goth boy musicians. At some point, A.F.I., Fall Out Boy, and Panic At The Disco all blend together into some sort of weird David Bowie-meets-Marilyn Manson abomination.
Justin Timberlake - Remember that kid in elementary school who patterned himself after the cool crowd? He was always trailing a step or two behind the popular kids, imitating their speech, style, and clothes. Well, that’s Timberlake, whose latest inspiration is apparently Purple Rain era Prince, as displayed in his performance. Given the trajectory of Timberlake’s inspirations, I calculate that he will adopt a Kurt Cobain persona sometime around 2009.
Nicole Richey - She already looks like her own South Park caricature.
Ringtone of the Year award - Some group named Fort Minor won for a song I’ve never heard before. And I had always thought Fort Minor was a Civil War battle.
The Even Worse
Jack Black as host - Don’t get me wrong: I’m a Jack Black fan. I thought he was great in School of Rock and turned a potentially cheesy movie about the (breathe deep) Saving Power of Music into a truly hilarious flick. But toward the end of the show, when he looked at himself in the mirror and said “you didn’t bring the thunder,” it was difficult to believe he wasn’t going through a brutally honest self-examination. His shtick, which seems to consist solely of wild-eyed facial contortions and Heavy Metal shouts, began to grate almost immediately. When Jack White failed to laugh at Black’s painfully obvious “both named Jack with different last names” joke and just stared blankly at him, Black said White was just playing it cool. I must have been playing it cool then as well, because that joke, like most of Black’s throughout the night, fell flat.
Pussycat Dolls acceptance speech - When Pussycat Doll #4 (I’m sure they all have names like Kiki, Melanie, Amber, etc.) thanked Generic Big Music Executive for “seeing this before anyone else did,” I nearly fell out of my chair and spilled Diet Code Red on my newly-carpeted floor. And somewhere, I suspect, so did the remnants of the Spice Girls, whose carefully orchestrated and marketed blend of vacuous bubblegum pop and empty-headed sexuality has been regurgitated as the Pussycat Dolls.
JLo’s dress - Tell me she didn’t look exactly like Zool from Ghostbusters in that thing.
The Butt-Puckering Worst
Jessica Simpson’s heartfelt speech - She claimed it was a highly personal story. So personal, in fact, that she had to read from a prompter and botched several words. No one will ever accuse Simpson of having stayed in a Holiday Inn last night, but if it’s such a personal story, for chrissakes at least glance away from the teleprompter occasionally.
Shakira’s pop belly-dancer debacle - A sure sign that a VMA performance will degenerate into a mess of explosions and writhing dancers is that it starts slowly, with a quiet, semi-cultural flare. Shakira’s performance started thus, with a mellow, swaying rhythm. Wait for it… wait for it… and bam! It hits like an unexpected Slurpee brain freeze. Suddenly the stage floods with a small army of, yes, writhing dancers. While Shakira is a tremendous dancer (though let’s be honest: that “chest thrust” thing she does is a little creepy), she was hopelessly out of tune. Watching this performance was a little like watching a spider in a toilet bowl: you know it’s ending in disaster for the spider, but you can’t help but feel pity for the spider and you hope it somehow makes it.

Like Kanye West’s meandering and largely incomprehensible tribute to Hype Williams, it’s time to put this recap out of its belated misery. If you’ve read this far, you either have some free time or are going through some sort of penance of punishment. Me, I’m going to visit a barber and tell him to give the Fall Out Boy look.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Shakey and the Stooges

A coworker relocated to Israel today. This in itself is no big deal: he’s Israeli-born, Israeli-educated, and Israeli-commando trained. But tucked under his arm as he boarded the plane and it began its long flight to the Middle East, was my copy of Jimmy McDonough’s epic Neil Young biography, Shakey. Or so I imagine.

Around the office I have become known as the Guy Who Listens to Crazy Bongo Music. The guy who disappears once a year to follow a concert around the country. The guy who gets angry when someone thinks that Mission of Burma is an online video game. The guy who knows that the Holy Modal Rounders were not a religious cult. It’s not as glamorous as being The Fresh From College Stud Who Gets The Women, but it’s far better than being The Guy Who Only Eats Dairy, or The Guy Who Blasts Vicious Farts In His Cubicle, or The Guy Who Sniffs His Snot Back Up His Nose All Day Instead Of Buying A Box Of Kleenex.

I’ve since developed a dedicated interoffice network of a few brave souls who occasionally stop by to grab some tunes they’d never hear on the radio or be inclined to listen to otherwise. Think of me as a corporate office version of Red from The Shawshank Redemption.

So when this particular coworker, who is significantly older and balder than me, stopped by my prison cell-sized cubicle and asked what I was listening to, I hesitatingly removed my headphones, paused the iPod, and told him I was rupturing my eardrums to Funhouse by the Stooges.

I readied myself for the usual, and obvious, comment: a smartass crack about not knowing the Three Stooges played music, followed by a shrill impression of one of Curly’s famous ticks, mannerisms, or spasms. Or one of Moe’s two-fingered gouges to the eyes.

But this coworker’s response was different. He claimed that Funhouse was his favorite album from the 1970s, and that he had seen the Stooges in concert in Cleveland throughout the early 1970s. At first I was skeptical; like the Sex Pistols or Velvet Underground, many music fans of a certain age claim to have seen Iggy Pop in his barking, howling, yelping, peanut butter-smearing prime. But as he described how he worked in Cleveland immediately after college graduation in 1968, and soon became caught up in the local music scene, I could tell that he was not bullshitting. He even later showed me his ticket stub from the now-infamous Metallic K.O. show. A true badge of instant respect.

At first the image of an Israeli-born observant Jew tuning in to the abject filth and gutter-prowling violence of the Stooges was hard to reconcile with the suit-wearing project manager sitting in my cubicle. But as he continued to talk about his exploits in the early 1970s, including how he followed Neil Young’s solo acoustic tour around the country with various chemical aids, it became obvious that I was in the presence of a True Sick Muso who had Lived It.

Eventually our conversation turned to McDonough’s Young biography, which I had just recently purchased and finished reading, and which now sat atop a pile of discarded papers in the corner of my messy cubicle. I didn’t think twice when he asked to borrow it. I only gladly offered it, with the comment No hurry at all. Take as much time as you need.

And that is where the trouble began. Among this small circle that I loan my music collection to, there is only one rule. And although it is an unwritten rule, it forms the basis, the fabric, the very foundation of all that is sacred in my music lending system: I do not care when you return the item back to me. Just return it. And if you liked it a lot, support the artist (or the artist’s greedy major label conglomerate) by buying your own copy.

As the weeks passed by and turned into months, and as The Guy Who Sniffs His Snot Back Up His Nose All Day still refused to buy a box of Kleenex, this coworker would occasionally stop by to say he was enjoying the biography. Winter: It is a great biography, I heartily agreed. Neil sure was a heartless bastard at times. Hold on to it as long as you need. No hurry at all. I know you’re good for it. Spring: No man, no hurry at all. It’s all good. Summer: Yeah, Re-ac-tor still is a pile of junk. No, don’t worry about it. Whenever is fine. No rush. I have plenty of other stuff to read.

Which brings me to this morning. As I settled at my desk with my 80 ounces of caffeine madness and began to separate the work-related emails from spam emails offering to consolidate my debt from a Christian perspective while enlarging my penis, I noticed an email entitled “Farewell” from this coworker. Seems he had relocated to a farming commune in his home country, as a complete change from the corporate lifestyle. Without any contact information. I stopped by his office to see if I could find him before he left, but his office was empty, and the book was nowhere to be seen.

With the awful realization of someone burned by a smooth world-class criminal, I didn’t know whether to feel cheated or impressed. The book was gone, but it was in good hands. I wasn’t particularly angry; I could very easily swipe another copy from my brother and then pin it on one of his careless artist friends. I wasn’t even really surprised; after about nine months of not asking for the book back, I could probably assume some common law statute had kicked in and the book was now legally his. Still, I slowly walked back into my cubicle feeling a little bit like a complete stooge.

And not the Iggy Pop variety either.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Free Bird Phenomenon

The concert is nearly over. The applause of the crowd fades slowly. Empty beer bottles clink as they are swept away by the bartenders. A non-smoker coughs in the purple-lighted smoke-filled air. One of the band’s crew members makes a last-ditch play to sell some t-shirts. Married suburbanites head for the exit, trying to beat the traffic and save a few dollars on the babysitter.

The lead singer slowly approaches the microphone, scratches his thick Old Testament beard, and offers a quiet “Thank You” to the crowd. The singer asks if anyone has any requests.

The crowd responds in the only way it knows how: by screaming out their own favorite song at the top of their lungs. And then repeating it over and over, in an attempt to be heard above the shouting of everyone else. From the stage, the shouts blur together and the only request the band hears is “OXMENARDGRUBEN!!”

The crowd waits in anticipation as the band decides which song to play next. But before the band can decide, a rumbling is heard like a gunshot in the night, piercing the relative quiet of the club: “Play Free Bird! Woo!”

The Free Bird Phenomenon is still alive and well in music venues all across the United States. I have seen it happen in small, sweaty clubs, cavernous arenas, and can’t-see-shit outdoor amphitheaters. I have seen it happen at acoustic shows, electric shows, solo shows, and cram-12-musicians-on-the-stage shows. For years I have tried to understand this phenomenon, to stare into its mysterious Southern eyes and reach some sort of catharsis, some kind of greater existential understanding as to why it has survived all these years.

And yet I have always failed to understand the Free Bird Phenomenon. Granted, I’m familiar with the story of how it started (reportedly via Lynryd Skynyrd’s 1976 live album One More From The Road). I just cannot understand why it has persisted to this day.

The reason I cannot solve this mystery is that the song Free Bird, to use the technical term, sucks.

The lyrics, which I’ll call 50% of a song, are boring and numbingly repetitive. Think I’m wrong? The song takes as its central image one of the oldest, most-clichéd symbols in the arts: a bird flying free. And then delivers a short series of awkward near-rhymes: “Would you still remember me/For I must be traveling on now/There’s too many place I’ve got to see.” About every fifth word seems to be either “change” or “bird.” Yawn.

But what about the other 50% of the song: that fabled guitar solo? Let’s be honest: most people can’t stand extended instrumentals in a song (and in today’s ADD world, I’m considering Free Bird a prime example). That’s because most instrumentals, after about the first minute, reveal themselves to be a lot like fake breasts: they’re nice to look at from a distance, but are vaguely disappointing after you’ve spent some time with them. And Free Bird definitely fits this category.

If you don’t believe me try it for yourself: pull up the song on the digital device of your choice (CD players still exist, right?). Settle into your favorite chair. Put the kids to bed. Turn the lights down low. And there, in the comfort of your living room, try to listen to the song in its entirety, including the instrumental, without reaching for the TV remote, checking email, or skipping to a different song. Odds are you will not be able to do it.

Now I realize the song has taken on an added poignancy over the years, especially in light of the various tragedies that have befallen the band’s members. But the song was written before all of those events: before Duane Allman’s fatal motorcycle crash in 1971, before the deadly 1977 airplane crash that ended the classic incarnation of Lynryd Skynyrd. Partly because of those events, the song has taken on a status of mythic proportions. Nevertheless, the song, at its core, is essentially about a one-night stand (or maybe a weekend fling or otherwise sordid relationship), and nothing more. It even employs the famous “it’s not you, it’s me excuse”: “Please don’t take it so badly/The Lord knows I’m to blame.”

So why has the Free Bird Phenomenon continued to this day? Is there something about the song that speaks to the heart of the American spirit, something that reveals an essential trait of the American identity? Doubtful. Is it a sacred, unspoken tradition shared from generation to generation among a dedicated segment of concertgoers? Not likely. Is it just an idiosyncrasy of attending certain concerts in the United States? Possibly. Is it just an excuse for an intoxicated wise-ass to get a few cheap laughs? Probably.

A college roommate once said that Free Bird was like, well, fake breasts. He said this in a drunken haze as he quietly, with the dedication of an artist who had mastered his craft, consumed a deep-dish pizza at 2:30 am on a Saturday morning as Lynryd Skynyrd blasted from our dorm room. At the time I dismissed it as the mere ramblings of a sexually frustrated and intoxicated college freshman. Only years later did I realize the true brilliance and accuracy in his simple, Jim Beam-induced statement.

The Free Bird Phenomenon has become a part of American concert culture, and it’s most likely not going anywhere anytime soon. I guess I’ll have to live with it, just like the Taylor Hicks Ford commercial or David Lee Roth singing bluegrass versions of Van Halen songs. But for me, my new request at concerts will be “OXMENARDGRUBEN.” Wonder if it’ll catch on.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

There Will Be Lateness: Silver Jews at the Duck Room - July 28, 2006

I was enjoying my rock star seating. Comfortably perched at a table immediately stage left with my brother and his girlfriend, all three of us were intaking drinks and gloating because of our table location in anticipation of the Silver Jews' first-ever concert in St. Louis. After over 15 years as mostly studio-only band, David Berman and company were on the road for their first (and possibly only) series of live performances. And we were there.

The Duck Room, so named because of the various duck statues, pictures, and posters that line it, was at full capacity. The small venue, really nothing more than a dingy basement complete with gray concrete walls and minimal lighting, buzzed with a noticeable anticipation.

The Silver Jews took the stage shortly after 10 pm. The opening chords of "Dallas" began, loud and clear from the speaker directly in front of us. Slowly, Berman stepped to the microphone and began to sign.

Except we couldn't hear a single word. His mouth was moving; of that we were all sure. But Berman had either decided to mime the words or we were more twisted from the booze that we thought. How much had we drank? Had the bartender switched our Schlafly for something far more sinister? Why did he snicker when he said "Enjoy your drink?" Had it ruined our ears? I threw a panicked look at my brother. His girlfriend, already skeptical of the concert-going experience and our wild boasting of the Silver Jews' music, gave him a stare that suggested she was not amused and that his night might be ending earlier than expected.

And then we noticed the speaker. In our idiot desire to get the best possible seat with an unobstructed view, we failed to realize we had selected a table whose main accessory, other than a dirty ashtray, was one of the Duck Room's PA speakers. The rhythm guitar was coming in loud and clear though. And it nicely complimented the increasing ringing in my ears.

Now there are two types of concertgoers: table people and pit people. And I am a table person. Give me own space, the option to sit or stand, dance or watch, drink or abstain. I am not a pit person. A pit person is a whole different creature. A pit person usually prefers to wedge like a sardine as close to the stage as possible, pogo or perform any number of other awkward, pelvic, whitey-boy thrusts, and throw fingers in the air in the classic Heavy Metal V. In the concert world, a table person is a lamb and a pit person is a viper. A viper who throws elbows.

But we were desperate. The three table-dwelling and slightly intoxicated lambs would have to take their chances among the vipers. With the quiet desperation and determination of someone about to do the unthinkable, we grabbed our $15 Silver Jews shirts and $12 pitcher of beer, and threw ourselves into the throng.

The sound was perfect, a beautiful blend of country, rock, and folk, all pulled together by Berman's ragged, worn voice. The vocals were clear and upfront, with nice separation between the guitars, drums, and keyboards. We had to constantly duck and weave for a clear view of the stage, but the sound was there and the band was on. For the next hour, we stood among the crazies, the drunks, and the occasional middle-aged married couple making out, and witnessed a truly once in a lifetime performance.

By now Berman's struggles with suicide attempts, substance abuse, and fear of microphones (if you believe the stories) are well known in the indie music world. As Berman stood center stage, matted black hair and Doug Martsch-style beard, he seemed relaxed and perhaps even enjoying the dim spotlight. Never straying far from the microphone and often singing with his eyes closed, Berman's lyrics took on the weight and power of a man who has lived through the pitfalls and joys described in his songs. And even if he wasn't completely relaxed onstage, there was little evidence of his stage freight and faulty memory (and no lyrics book to be seen).

These were not fabricated tales written by an anonymous Top 40 hack and sung by an empty-headed pop princess. These were songs of often brutal directness and ugly emotions, yet they never strayed far from the poetic and strangely beautiful. Songs that could range from the sinister ("two tickets to a midnight execution," from "Smith and Jones Forever"), to the hilarious ("My ex-wife's living in the suburbs with her guru and her mom"), to the sordid (from perhaps Berman's best song, "Random Rules"). Berman sang every word as if he had lived it. And in many cases I suspect he has.

The highlight of the show, however, was the closing song, "There Is A Place." Like the version on Tanglewood Numbers, the song built slowly, starting with a languid guitar behind Berman's painful lyrics. When Berman began to quietly sing about that place past the blues he'd seen, the crowd seemed to soften a bit. Then the music began to build, guitars and drums rolling in like lightning. The song took a turn toward the destructive. "There grew a desert in my mind/I took a hammer to it all." Berman repeated over and over as the drums and guitars built and built, louder and louder, Berman sounding like a deranged prophet. And just as suddenly, the frantic playing stopped, a brief silence, and the musicians floated back into the calm of the song.

Berman left the stage before the song was over. A quick smile, a waive to the crowd, and he was gone, leaving the band to end the show and close out one of the most memorable indie music shows in St. Louis in recent memory. As the house lights came up, most of the crowd didn't move. My brother gave me his patented serious nod, the true sign of approval from a music junkie who's seen dozens of concerts.

No rush for the exits tonight. Not on this night, when no one wanted the dust to settle or the music to stop. And if the Silver Jews never tour again, that is fine with me. Those of us in attendance will remember that for one furious hour at a basement venue located below a burger joint, the Silver Jews provided an inspiring mixture of noise and melody, calm and anger. And that is enough.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Rise of BitTorrent and Decline of Trading

I am a junkie. Like any junkie with a conscience and an awareness of his declining sense of self-respect, my addiction at various times causes personal shame and guilt, usually followed by the resolution that I will end the addiction. Beat this thing for good. Cut it off at the toke point. Or at least reduce it to a controllable level.

My addiction is live music. And is my drug. Like any narcotic, it has its benefits and horrible, horrible drawbacks. And despite what medical experts will tell you, it is every bit as addictive as any chemical drug.

In recent years, sites like dimeadozen and the standard protocol to support it, called “BitTorrent,” have grown in popularity among sick musos like myself. If it has not yet officially replaced trading as the primary means of live music dissemination, it very soon will. There are far too many advantages to this mode for it not to continue to increase in popularity. It will inevitably make trading a footnote in music collecting history (speaking of which, isn’t about time for an update to Clinton Heylin’s excellent Bootleg?) CD trading will eventually become a piece of nostalgia, much like vinyl records and mix tapes.

At its best, BitTorrent offers several advantages that classic trading cannot challenge. BitTorrent is far faster than trading; instead of having to find someone willing to trade, retrieving the necessary CDs from whatever maximum-security vault the collector has designed, burning the CDs, packaging the CDs, and mailing the CDs, all BitTorrent takes is some free software and a PC with burning capabilities, and a user is free to download shows until he falls asleep or his spouse leaves him.

BitTorrent has also substantially increased the amount of live music in circulation. The effort of having to search individual trade lists to find a specific show is now practically non-existent. A simple post to a torrent message board will usually yield a generous collector willing to seed the show, regardless of how rare or hard to find a specific show might be. In this way, BitTorrent has made it remarkably easy to efficiently acquire new live music.

Deadbeat traders are also a non-factor with BitTorrent, and though they have been replaced by their evil twins in the form of deadbeat downloaders, dimeadozen enforces a minimum share ratio to combat this problem. Bad traders are the scourge of the trading community, and my guess is that their food supply is quickly drying up as BitTorrent’s popularity increases. And to the trader from the Bonin Islands who burned me for six CDs, I’m still waiting.

Perhaps best of all, BitTorrent has eliminated the need to travel to the post office to feed the addiction. No longer do sick music junkies need to stand in line with dozens of bubble-padded envelopes, slither up to the clerk’s window, and feel the disapproving glances from other customers as the clerk processes dozens of mysterious packages destined for places like Burma, Papua New Guinea, and Bhutan.

But I’m still not convinced the rise of BitTorrent is an entirely good thing. Despite the advantages described above, some of the “charm” of old-fashioned trading through the mail is being lost as BitTorrent becomes the standard method of sharing live recordings. There was also something exciting about getting a package with new music via the mail. And besides, since 90% of the mail is usually either bills, junk, or offers to subscribe to a men’s magazine, a delivery of new music was always a welcome fix.

The biggest drawback to BitTorrent, however, is that it has unintentionally contributed to a serious decline in interaction and discussion among live music fans, via the usual fan sites and message boards. Granted, many of the postings at such places could range anywhere from the brilliant and lucid to the obsessive, deranged, and psychotic; the point was that the music was being discussed by people who appreciated and enjoyed the music (perhaps too much). And I also suspect that such forms of communication were the extent of social interaction that some of the more “dedicated” traders experienced on a daily basis.

Even the most enthusiastic traders I have traded with for years have moved on to dimeadozen or other live music sites. And I can’t blame them. Like most other honest traders, their intentions are good and their only aim is to find music to enjoy, in the most convenient way possible. Perhaps the sense of community and generosity and lively musical discussion and appreciation will become part of these sites; perhaps they already have and I’m not noticing. But for those traders who enjoyed the online friendship and camaraderie with like-minded musos that traditional trading created, the rising popularity of BitTorrent has depersonalized the trading community.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to check the mail. I’m sure there are bills to pay and subscription offers to men’s magazines to ignore.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Remembering the Madcap: Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett, the troubled and reclusive co-founder of Pink Floyd and cautionary tale of the psychedelic 1960s, has died at the age of 60. According to a Pink Floyd spokeswoman, Barrett died several days ago. The exact cause of death is unknown.
Barrett leaves a musical legacy of a couple Pink Floyd albums and a couple solo albums. The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, depending on a listener’s musical preference, is widely considered either one of the greatest albums of the psychedelic era or one of the most childish, illogical albums ever recorded. “I know a mouse, and he hasn't got a house / I don't know why, I call him Gerald / He's getting rather old, but he's a good mouse.”
Take your pick.
Barrett’s time as the lead singer and chief lyricist of Pink Floyd was short-lived, however. Barrett’s heavy drug regimen and increasingly erratic behavior, including catatonia during some of Pink Floyd’s concerts, took its toll. By 1968, Barrett had left the band after a drug-induced mental breakdown.
From that point, Barrett lived a reclusive life, spending his remaining years at his mother’s house in Cambridge, releasing just two more albums in his recording career, both in 1970. An unexpected and disturbing visit by Barrett in 1975 only confirmed his mental instability to his former band mates. His eyebrows were shaved and he had gained a lot of weight; and if the legend is true, he arrived unannounced during the recording of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a song written about him.
And Pink Floyd went on to become one of rock’s most influential bands. Many of their songs and albums dealing with the disintegration of the mind were either directly written about Barrett or influenced by his decline. Pink Floyd would then spend their musical careers answering criticisms that they were cashing in on their founder’s collapse.
With his death, it is likely that Barrett will be remembered more as a musical stereotype than as an actual person: the image of a troubled boy-genius, the poster-child for both the joys and dangers of LSD. And perhaps in the end this is the biggest tragedy of Barrett’s life: in trying to reclaim his sanity by retreating into seclusion and cutting off contact with the world at large, his legacy will be shaped by outsiders. The inevitable result will be that of a shadowy figure, another drug casualty of the psychedelic, naïve 1960s.
Much like the music of Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and Kurt Cobain, Barrett’s music will always be viewed against the backdrop of his eventual mental collapse. Which is probably unavoidable. Piper, released in 1967, will likely remain the most studied and listened to of Barrett’s recordings. Barrett’s lyrics on the album, a blend of drug-addled nursery rhymes, medieval images, and occult philosophy, sound completely haunting and prophetic in light of Barrett’s mental decline. But listen to the lyrics without considering the source, and they sound, at best, playful and humorous, and, at worse, ridiculous and empty.
But put all those notions and ideas aside, and what emerges is a legitimate musical talent whose songs range from whimsical and playful to philosophical and poetic. Barrett’s fragile voice can stand on its own; forget the myth created both by his retreat and Pink Floyd’s later success. In the end, Barrett’s voice is one of beauty, sadness, and regret: “Won’t you miss me / wouldn’t you miss me at all?”

Don't Come On Up To The House: Tom Waits and St. Louis

Tom Waits has emerged from his Northern California pod to announce a brief tour of the South and Midwest, in true I'm-cooler-than-you fashion. "We need to go to Tennessee to pick up some fireworks, and someone owes me money in Kentucky," Waits said in a press release. The brief tour will stop in Atlanta, Asheville, Memphis, Nashville, Louisville, Chicago, Detroit, and Akron (Akron?). So for those of you keeping score at home, that's eight cities, three of which end in "ville." Somehow I doubt that's a complete coincidence.

Too bad someone doesn't owe him a Buick carburetor in St. Louis. A Waits tour is a rare thing indeed, and it looks like Chicago or one of the Tennessee shows will be the closest Waits comes to St. Louis. Which in itself is not a surprise. St. Louis is not exactly a hot stop destination for artists with a, um, scattered, devoted following. St. Louis is primarily a radio airplay tour stop, with the occassional non-radio-friendly musician making an appearance at either the Pageant, Duck Room, Mississippi Nights, or one of the other smaller venues (Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, and Vic Chesnutt have all made stops in St. Louis in the recent past).

But St. Louis is first and foremost a Top 40 And Aging Rock Dinosaurs city, especially in the summer. It's a city where current hot ticket acts go to get a bump in sales and where aging musical icons brush off their dusty corpses and give it one last fling. This summer's concert list reads like a musical sh-tstorm nightmare, with Kelly Clarkson, Def Leppard, Journey, Sammy Hagar, and Earth, Wind, and Fire all bringing their particular brand of torture to the city this summer. There is some relief though, with yet another Built To Spill show at Mississippi Nights and a truly rare Silver Jews show at the Duck Room at the end of July.

But Tom Waits in St. Louis would have been the true keeper. Granted, the show would have probably attracted the usual crowd who talks during the entire concert, drinks Vodka laced with Red Bull, and leaves during the encore. But for the concert-starved fans in St. Louis who aren't thrilled with the mainstream music scene (and there are many), a Waits show would have been quite a memory.

My brother and I once vowed that if and when Waits toured, we'd take vacation time from work and hit the road, one last wild musical ride before we grew old and possibly grew up. Waits was one of the few artists we swore we would see in concert at some point, at any cost. But we knew it would most likely not happen. We both now have too many commitments, bills, and, gasp, steady employment, with responsibilities.

Today at the gym my iPod seemed to be mocking me. Every fifth song on Shuffle mode was a Tom Waits song. "Come On Up To the House," "Gun Street Girl," "Tom Traubert's Blues," and "Black Market Baby." On and on and on.

And then it hit me. "In Moberly, Missouri/at the Iroquois hotel/She checked in with the President/and ran up quite a Bill." If a city like Akron can score a Waits tour, certainly a city that was mentioned in a Tom Waits song could. Get me the Moberly City Government on line 1 and Tom Waits' publicist on line 2. Forget Tennessee. I hear the Iroquois is great this time of year.

I'll bring the fireworks. And the carburetor. and the Re-Disappearance of Jeff Mangum

On June 28, posted a news story about a mysterious posting on the Elephant 6 message board, attributed to Jeff Mangum. Under the overly-sensational headline "Jeff Mangum Returns!" (large font), Pitchfork printed the entire posting, which certainly did seem to match what little is known of Mangum's current activities and interests. The post described, among other things, the writer's recent recording activities, desire to tour again ("getting to gigs late with cars coughing and trombones smacking on can never be the same but i need to get as close as i can to that again"), and upcoming return to the world of musi ("everthing is happening soon, this is the year").

And everywhere in indiedom, there was much rejoicing and celebration. Jeff Mangum, pigeon-holed as either a mad genius or ultimate recluse, driving force behind one the 1990s' most revered albums, had been bit by the bug and was ready to start scratching.

Except that it wasn't true. Within hours, Pitchfork had explained that the post was in fact a very clever hoax, with Robert Schneider confirming that he had spoken to Mangum, who denied being the author: "i am sorry to inform you that this is not my post." And very quietly, Pitchfork's headline was suddenly changed from "Jeff Mangum Returns!" to "Jeff Mangum Returns?"

Which takes some balls from Pitchfork to even leave it as a question. A more suitable headline would have been "Jeff Mangum Still Wants to be Left Alone: We F'd Up." Now I realize Pitchfork's primary objective is to get people to its site (Pitchfork's days as a small, niche indie-based website are long gone), and I have no problem with that. For all its faults, including sometimes-incomprehensible music reviews, Pitchfork is still the best indie music-related site on the Web. Its upcoming Intonation festival boasts, by far, the coolest variety of indie acts this side of the ocean. And, perhaps most important of all, Pitchfork exposes both musical junkies like myself and casual observers (read: suburban kids with parents' money) to music that otherwise would receive very little notice.

I just wish Pitchfork could have avoided the sensationalism that occurs on a daily basis on CNN or the other mainstream news networks. Like many others who have experienced all the emotions that "Aeroplane" can draw out, I'm sure Pitchfork's intentions were good. "Aeroplane" is an undefinable album, at once one of the most tragic and beautiful musical documents ever recorded. It's understandable that the folks at Pitchfork, acting as fans first and journalists second, wanted the news story to be true. But Pitchfork should have still made sure everything was legit before posting "Jeff Mangum Returns!"

Jeff Mangum may never record another musical note or stretch his voice to that point where you expect it to break. Which is fine with me. We all have "Aeroplane," "Avery Island," and, thanks to the generosity of collectors, a handful of truly amazing live Neutral Milk Hotel gigs. Then again, he may one day record something that rivals the most beautiful and heartbreaking moments of "Aeroplane." Which is also fine with me.

Until that time comes, he deserves the privacy and freedom he probably desired when he left the musical life in the first place. And his fans, for whom the music of Neutral Milk Hotel means so much, should now apparently approach news stories of Mangum's possible return with a healthy degree of skepticism.