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-clich├ęd 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.