Sunday, December 23, 2007
I first became aware of this phenomenon when I was living in San Diego in the mid-90s. There’s a neighborhood there that gets so totally decked out in Christmas lights that it’s become a tourist destination. My future ex-wife had a friend visiting one Christmas, so one night we all went for a drive around the prescribed course of this (70 degree) winter wonderland. Signs up along the route advised us to tune to an AM station for Christmas carols while driving.
It may have just been problems with the ionosphere that evening, but the station sounded low volume even when turned up high. Through the echoey staticy haze you could barely make out sonorous music and an occasional line like “merry Christmas”, as “merry Christmas” would sound if delivered from beyond the grave. While the fact that I was unsettled by Christmas music that evening was clearly a matter of delivery, from that night forward I began to realize that even under the best conditions an air of the uncanny pervades holiday jingles.
Let’s look at a few examples:
The Carol of the Bells. This song has always struck me as being like the soundtrack of a nervous breakdown. Not only are the bells relentless and growing more frantic as the song progresses, but the lyrics themselves seem to celebrate this. One seems to hear words from everywhere, filling the air… Oh how they pound, raising the sound... On on they send, on without end… Upon research I learned that this song is based on a prehistoric Ukrainian chant. That actually makes sense, as it sounds like it could be used to summon the Elder Gods from their centuries-long slumber.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. This song produces a feeling that might be called “heartwarming dread”. The fact that it twice tells us that from now on our troubles will be “out of sight” and “miles away” conveys, more than anything else, the feeling that we must be pretty darn heavy-laden with troubles. And then there’s the line Through the years we all will be together if the Fates allow. It’s hard to know what’s worse- is it the crushing inevitability of our forced togetherness for all time, or the icy powerlessness of this togetherness being the plaything of fate?
Frosty the Snowman. The tale of this snow-golem is inherently fraught with peril. The song tells us he was “alive as he could be”. Well, who worked this magic- God or some demiurge? What does it mean to be alive? Though animated, does Frosty have a soul? If not, do we? Then there’s this: Frosty the Snowman/ Knew the sun was hot that day/ So he said let's run/ And we'll have some fun/ Now before I melt away…followed slightly later by Frosty the Snowman/ Had to hurry on his way/ But he waved goodbye/ Saying don't you cry/ I'll be back again some day. If you want your eight year old to grapple with questions of being and nothingness, action and responsibility in the face of extinction, and death and resurrection, then by all means continue to expose them to the existential maelstrom that is Frosty the Snowman.
Little Town of Bethlehem. Now we arrive at the dark heart of Christmas carols. This one is worth quoting in its entirety:
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
Deep and dreamless sleep. Silent stars going by. Everlasting light shining in darkened streets. Meeting the sum of all hopes and fears on a winter’s night. This is practically a goth song!
I could go on with more examples, but I don’t want to spoil the joy of discovery for you. I encourage you to go forth and listen, and try not to shudder. And, of course, happy holidays to all, and I’ll see you in 2008!
Sunday, December 16, 2007
And lo and behold, I did wake up this morning. And now I have one year clean and sober.
I was actually out past midnight, so technically my reign of non-terror began before I went to bed. Being out last night itself struck me- I was onstage in front of a few hundred cheering people at Mortified, laughed so hard at the other performers that my face hurt, and then spent a few hours after the show hanging out and talking with beautiful, creative people.
I've still got my fears and insecurities. I feel frustrated sometimes with the pace of change in my life. Some things come up now, un-numbed for the first time in years, that I hardly even know what to do with. But a year ago, shaking, sweating, and scared shitless knowing that something had to change or I might not make it, I no longer knew that the kind of night I had last night was even possible.
Now it's not only possible, it's becoming normal. Normal that I'm losing my fear of people. Normal that my creative life is expanding, Normal that my world is getting bigger, rather than smaller. Not only that, I have a chance now to reach out to people who are where I was a year ago and tell them it will be okay. That they can make it. That there's a way out.
I reckon all that's worth sticking around for, and I'll try a year and a day next.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Have you ever been out around town somewhere and run across a group of people who were making a movie? I have before, often with a little flash of envy accompanying the “who the fuck are these people who have taken over a public place?” We mostly shot at the director’s apartment, but our last scene of the weekend was in a taqueria at 29th & Mission.
So last night I the fuck was one of those people. Jason, the director, even got a passing mariachi band to take part in the scene. I have never been happier!
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
Final entry ported over from MySpace! Now I am completely caught up. And all grown up...
I know why I will never be a rock music journalist.
I might never be a rock music journalist because it's a hard field to get in to. I might never be a rock music journalist because being over the age of thirty is a little old to be carrying that aspiration. I might even never be a rock music journalist because I have no aptitude for that kind of writing. These are all plausible reasons that I will never be a rock music journalist.
In fact, none of them is the reason that I will never be a rock music journalist. My Muse lends me to nothing more wholly and joyfully than music writing, and age and difficulty are no bar to success when your will is aligned with that of your Muse. It's too bad that these aren't the reasons that I will never be a rock music journalist, because, while untrue, at least they make sense. The real reason that I will never be a rock music journalist escapes my comprehension.
I will never be a rock music journalist because I like Jim Morrison.
It seems that all successful rock music journalists that I can name have an almost unnatural antipathy to Jim Morrison and the Doors. Jim DeRogatis, who I agree with musically on almost everything, personally authored the chapter skewering the Doors in Kill Your Idols, the volume he edited of a new generation of rock critics reconsidering the classics. Chuck Klosterman, who I frequently disagree with musically but so identify with in his musical and personal preoccupations and how they interweave with each other that I feel like we were twins separated at birth by a freak hospital mishap, rails against Morrison repeatedly in the first 120 pages of Killing Yourself to Live.
Klosterman and DeRogatis are pretty much the extent of my examples at the moment. Two seems like a small survey size to base sweeping general statements on, but I've been known to hatch major life theories on no data points at all, so this hardly phases me. Anyway, trust me, there are a lot more examples even if I can't come up with them right this second. Rock critics hate Jim Morrison. And I just don't get it.
The usual rap involves something about pretension and bad poetry, but is rock music really a place to get fussy about this? This is the home genre, after all, of the rock opera Tommy, Black Sabbath songs with titles like "War Pigs" and such classic lines as: a-wop-bab-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom. I think Jim actually gets zinged because he seriously presented his work as poetry, and asked that we treat it as such.
Was his writing dark? Yes. Serious? Surely. Weird? Without a doubt. But bad? Show me another writer in rock who can throw out the simple brutal beauty of a line like: The killer awoke before dawn/ He put his boots on. Name someone else who could summon forth the lyrical roll and intellectual displacement of lines like: Soft driven slow and mad like some new language. What writer with a lesser poetical sensibility could even get to that point on "Not To Touch the Earth" when the music suddenly lurches to a halt, stray guitar strings screech in ragged disarray and a voice comes out of the suddenly silent space and makes your hair stand on end as it intones: I am the Lizard King/ I can do anything?
Exploring atavistic irruptions of darkness is not everyone's cup of tea and is certainly not a musical mood for all seasons. As often as not, I need silly doo-wop songs from the 50s to keep me regular. But on those occasions when I'm in the mood to ride with the Dead president's corpse in the driver's car/ The engine runs on glue and tar/ C'mon along, we're not going very far/ To the East to meet the Czar there's no one I'd rather go with than Mr. Mojo Risin'.
Even if it means that I can never be a rock music journalist.
Monday, December 03, 2007
All three emerged from writing exercises that use words and phrases to jumpstart your creativity. The first two are pretty much flights of fancy that I've left as they originally came out. The third had something more that it wanted to say, so I kept working with it and revised it a few times.
Ted from the Bureau of Assholes
about the geology of the wolf.
Thus nobody can absolve
that nappy-headed bastard cuttlefish
who masturbates to thoughts of Buchenwald
as if his acid copper parody
of an unblinking vigil of
chameleon maiden trollops
the pristine entrails
of stellar divinities.
Better he had met
the hogweed accordion of the abortionist
or his mother had used a diaphragm
of marigolds and tapers
to arbitrate the okra omen
of his father's
sparrow song seed husks.
That was when I knew I had to write this
If you wander far enough
you will come to it:
the great city
at the edge of forever.
(Standing up to get a hot dog
someone spills mustard all over me.
I was just on the edge,
the way it always happens.
Now my hand hurts
and the opportunity is fled.)
Gone into the land beyond sleep
the land in which the only light
comes from Celestia.
city on the edge of forever,
her ruins marked only by
a wild exultation
brought down into stony fragments
of dream and myth.
(It must be very hard to understand.
Just start with the telephone
and a meal in silence.
You will know that when love calls
you do, in fact, have to go.)
That was when I knew
I had to write this last will and testament
I Think It Came In Through the Window
The egress through which I let it in
To do any real harm:
Just a scotch on the windowsill
Gleaming gold in ice-cube plastic glass,
Volumes of poetry scattered on the comforter,
Their words a swarm of mosquitoes
Into a nodding acquaintance
In the darkness I ordered another.
One shaky morning,
I found I had ordered
A box of maladies
That daily unpacked thirsty demands,
Slaughtered the mosquitoes,
And left the comforter
With dead words
In stale sweat.
Sunday, December 02, 2007
I first ran across the term a few days ago in an article that mentioned the "unfortunately-named 'mumblecore' movement" and referenced Andrew Bujalski. I immediately knew what it was talking about- his 2005 film, "Funny Ha Ha" is one of my favorite independent films from the last few years. The movie resonated on an emotional wavelength of unresolved relationships, unspoken longings, understated intentions and general young urban anomie that made immediate sense to me. I pretty much felt that I had spent a lot of my life being the lead character, Marnie. Or at least wanting to date her. (Without ever telling her so, of course, because that's what life is like in a mumblecore movie.)
This spring at Indiefest I saw "LOL", which struck me in exactly the same way. And carried out much of its low-key longing via the Internet and mobile communications, which made it even more uncomfortably on target. And, lo and behold, it turned out that Bujalski was (briefly) in that film and that its director, Joe Swanberg, considers him to be a compatriot.
Having by then seen a couple indie films in this vein, and just generally picking up on the zeitgeist, I thought there was something afoot. Then I read the above mention, and a few days later saw it used again in a review of the just-released "Hannah Takes the Stairs" which mentioned both "Funny Ha Ha" and "LOL". And "Hannah" is directed by Greta Gerwig, who was one of the online muses inspiring the hapless virtual-relationship obsessed boys of "LOL".
I think these films have a lot to say about our simultaneous longing for connection and difficulty achieving it. I love how consciously lo-fi they are, and how keyed in on the subtlety of internal psychology and relationships. And I adore the fact that the genre has ended up being named something that sounds like a musical sub-genre. I feel like I have found a pocket of fellow travelers.
So I am down with the mumblecore revolution! While it may not be televised, it will be webcast; texted, and screened at independent film festivals.
Friday, November 30, 2007
This afternoon I spent a few hours at the Virgin Megastore downtown bopping around from listening station to listening station. This is something I do about once a month to check out the new releases, hoping, of course, to find something good. In particular, I'm always hoping to find new bands making exciting, interesting music.
I'm not going to lie to you. It looks pretty grim.
Outside of dance music, which is not my scene, and hip hop, which is mostly not my scene and has also been mostly ghastly for a few years now, I was faced with album after album of slightly bleary emo and slightly bleary pop punk and slightly bleary indie darlings and slightly bleary overly-orchestral metal. The few standouts came from stalwarts, which gave me a fine burst of age-pride, but left me concerned for the future of our youths.
The new Foo Fighters album Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace seems to be in good working order. Sliding even further up the age scale, Mick Jones was showing up the kids with his new project Carbon/Silicon which brings to mind welcome echoes of his Big Audio Dynamite days and even of the Clash. I ended up going older still, walking out the door with the new albums from Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young.
Neil Young is sometimes really off, like during 1979-1989, or when he made that weird "Let's Roll" song shortly after 9/11. Even when he's off, he's pretty compelling. But when he's on, as he is throughout Chrome Dreams II, he's irresistible. The plaintive haunting voice is entirely authentic throughout, buoyed by rich acoustic music and welcome occasional trips into seething guitar that puts one in mind of Crazy Horse in full glory.
As for Springsteen, his album, Magic, is. He's playing with the E-Street Band, which leaves him both more rocking and more relaxed than on Devils and Dust. The overall impression is of a master, thirty years on, able to draw on moods and themes from throughout his career and turn them into elegiac vignettes that are musically polished without losing the quality of being heartfelt. I'm especially gratified with the surging "Radio Nowhere" which echoes my own concerns about the musical wasteland: This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?… I want a thousand guitars/I want pounding drums/I want a million different voices/Speaking in tongues
It does look grim, but it is not entirely forlorn.
Putting little KT Tunstall in a miniskirt and boots on the cover of Drastic Fantastic as she hoists her guitar aloft seems like a dirty trick. On the other hand, it's one to which I am entirely susceptible. Actually listening to it, though, filled me with delight that she's grown more fully into the voice in evidence on her debut album. By the time I got to track six, "Hopeless" I just hung up the headphones and added the CD to my stack because she was too darned good to ignore.
Rilo Kiley's Under the Blacklight was an equally delightful surprise. I don't really know them that well so I pictured them as being part of that indie vein that sounds vaguely like everything else in that indie vein. You know, all the Deathcabs and Postal Services and Iron and Wines and what have you. In fact, Rilo Kiley sound like themselves. And it is good.
Thursday, November 29, 2007
When I was ten years old I wanted to make movies.
My friend Steven and I wrote scripts, loose leaf on ruled paper, which I bound together with those little bendable brass thumbtack things that you fit through the holes in the margins. My efforts were pretty derivative- I didn't see a problem with repeating the plot of Jaws verbatim (albeit condensed to ten pages) nor did the fact that George Lucas had already done a spaceship navigating an asteroid field prevent me from thinking that it was a nifty idea for a scene.
Nevertheless, we had heart. We even went so far as to paint backdrops, figure out which of our toys and models could serve as props, and sign up our friends as actors. Our efforts really fell apart over the lack of a camera to shoot anything with. This was pre-digital video days, so we would have been talking a Super-Eight at a minimum, and nobody's parents were interested in springing for that. Small death of a small dream.
Flash forward ten or so years. A college sophomore, I was having one of those "what will I do when I grow up" crises. I now recognize that any twenty year old who is worried about choosing a life path already should be slapped silly and sent out to play, but at the time it seemed quite serious. I took out a sheet of paper (loose leaf again, no thumbtack bindies this time) and went through the Berkeley catalog, listing out all the majors that interested me besides the one I was actually pursuing. The one that most interested me was Film Theory. But no, that was all so impractical, back to Political Science for me.
Jump cut another ten plus years, to 2005. In the pit of misery at a ten hour a day, 6.5 days a week finance job with a dotcom I asked myself, "If I could do anything in the world right now, what would it be?" The first answer to flash through my mind was that I would go to film school. I actually ended up using my post-IPO proceeds from that job to take six months off and finish the novel I'd been working on for the last few years. Not by any means a bad investment of time or money, but I did notice that the desire to make movies had kept itself alive over a twenty-five year period.
And fade in now, two years later. Call me a slow learner, or, I think more accurately, a slow believer. A few weeks ago I went to the orientation for the latest round of Scary Cow, a local filmmaking collective. Last week I went to the pitch session for the projects in this round and met the various team leaders. And today I met in a diner (itself a very cinematic setting) with members of one of the teams and went over ideas for the script and the production schedule.
Roughly twenty-seven years from conception to production, but over the next few months I will finally be involved in making movies. Yaay!
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
This is ported over my MySpace blog from mid-October. But I figure, if we all still have souls, it remains relevant. If some of us have become soulless since then, perhaps even more so!
I was talking to one of my new roommates the other night and he mentioned finding the song of your soul. You know, that moment where, in the midst of the shambles of ill-made choices and fears and doubts and life in general, you stumble across that thing that you really groove to. The light breaks through the darkness, however briefly, bringing you back to who you really are and what you really want.
The song of his soul was awakened in this case by an episode of a prison drama narrated with show tunes, but that's beside the point. I knew instantly knew what he meant. This weekend I was lucky enough to have a moment where I stumbled across the song of my soul.
On Saturday I went to Lit Crawl, the closing event of the annual Litquake festival. The basic idea is that over the course of three hours, readings occur in thirty-five venues across an eight-block strip of the Mission District. You drift from one to another, like a pub-crawl except that you imbibe words along the way. I found myself having an attack of the heebie-jeebies while drifting. Not reading anywhere myself brought up fears of being a literary failure. A friend who was supposed to go with me had flaked at the last minute, and going around by myself brought up feelings of being a lonesome loser (it really may be time to start dating again soon). Being jostled in sweaty, crowded bars made me feel like I was being jostled in sweaty, crowded bars.
In the midst of this charming bouquet of emotions, I squeezed myself into a corner near the stage in Amnesia for "The Beat on the Page", a reading by local music writers. As Katy St. Clair read her tale on being propositioned by 81 year-old country/bluegrass legend Charlie Louvin (it's on her MySpace blog, I recommend checking it out), my cares began to fall away. By the time Wendy Farina (excellent musician and writer and also an eminently MySpacable personage) took the stage to perform her piece about a fifty-year-old woman who has just joined a punk band as a drummer and acquired Jimi Hendrix as a dream music spirit guide, my soul was positively humming.
These were my people. This is what makes my muse beat her little wings and wake me up at inconvenient hours to start writing. This is the song of my soul. And when I hear it I don't want to be anyone else, anywhere else than me, right here, right now.
I know you know what I mean, because you have a song too. And so, my tens of readers, I invite you to write in and tell me about the song of your soul…
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Ever since I started growing my hair out again three years ago I've experienced repeated versions of the following:
I'll be hanging out with people of a punkish persuasion and someone will start in on a story about how somebody or something annoyed them because it was, "fucking hippie." Whereupon they'll pause, look in my direction, and parenthetically insert, "no offense." I'm really not easily given to offense, but in point of fact this comment always does annoy me, for at least three reasons.
First off, as I keep trying to impress upon people, the hair aesthetic I'm going for is more grunge than hippie. Do you recall the average hair-length of a member of Soundgarden in 1991? Two feet, minimum. Go back and check out Eddie Vedder from that same vintage. Not to mention shoulder length supper-shaggy Kurt Cobain. Never even mind Alice in Chains, the Melvins or that dude from Tad. Hair, hair everywhere. And what about all the other things in our collective cultural unconscious that long hair could signify? There's the country western long hair. Founding Father long hair. Pre-Delilah Samson. I could go on. Hippie my ass!
Second, the third generation baby-punks who often come up with this comment are displaying an appalling lack of historical knowledge. Punks, real original punks, were perfectly capable of having long hair. Have these kids ever even seen a picture of Joey Ramone, for Pete's sake? How about the New York Dolls or the Heartbreakers? Iggy Pop's hair has been the same length since 1969 for crying out loud!
Third, and this is the critical point, punk as a philosophy is antithetical to having to look any particular way. After its initial outburst in the late 70s the machine ate it up and spit it back out at us as a style. It was pretty gristly, so it took a while, but the machine is patient. And so, since the mid-80s at least, there's been a very standard punk uniform that hasn't changed at all. This is so un-punk as to be alarming. What's more DIY and non-conformist- me having to have a mohwak or dyed or spiked hair to listen to a certain kind of music, or me having long hair because I damn well feel like it? Having piercings and tattoos as a sign of group allegiance or being the only un-tattooed un-pierced person under the age of forty in all of San Francisco?
To invert the Sex Pistols' lyric: We don't care about long hair. It's our choice, it's what we want to do. My long hair is more punk than your mohwak! Bollocks to all of you! And I'll listen to Donovan any time I fucking want, too!
Monday, November 26, 2007
I've been using the occasion of Thanksgiving to reflect on things that I'm thankful for. Granted, the genocidal origin of the festivities is troubling and the joy of large family gatherings (and indeed the entire holiday season) is highly suspect, but since they've gone to all the trouble of setting up a theme for the holiday, I say we might as well use it. Call me a traditionalist.
So here, in no discernible order, are ten things I'm thankful for:
- Physical Graffiti- I was listening to this album just before leaving town for Thanksgiving, and man, there is not a single out of place note. Even really good albums generally can't get by without one unfortunate dud slipping in along the way (that "Lily and the Jack of Hearts" crap on Blood on the Tracks, for instance), so the fact that Led Zeppelin pulled off a near-perfect double album is truly a wonderment.
- The Beach- Although I work just across from it in San Francisco, I don't get there nearly often enough. Yesterday I went to the beach near my parent's house in Moss Landing, and it was perfect. The sky was overcast and the smooth bay reflected back shades of gray, green steel blue and purple-black. It was one of those moments when you find yourself stunned with admiration for this wild world we've been turned loose in the midst of.
- God- Speaking of the wild world we've been turned loose in the midst of, how about a shout-out to the Blessed Lady who caused it to be brought forth? Love ya, Babe!
- Ainu and Salaam- I just spent four days with my boys, two of the best cats ever made, Ainu and Salaam. The guest bed at my parents' house is none too comfortable, but sleeping with two curled up little furrbies makes it worthwhile.
- Friends- I have some great ones. In the past few days alone I've had occasion to feel blessed that my life includes Caille, Chris (no, I am not referring to myself, I mean the girl one), Corinne, Eric, Glen, Helen, Jason, Jim, Jodie, Karen, Laura and Steve, to name just a few.
- Do-wop- In terms of electronic communications media, being at my parents' house is kind of like being in Poland in the pre post-Communist era. As a result, there isn't a lot to do in the evenings besides watching PBS. Which aired a great show last night of classic do-wop groups in concert. I am not aware that any product of human civilization in the past fifty years has topped the perfection of "Earth Angel".
- Big breakfasts that include pancakes- I've had a lot of them in the last four days, and let me tell you, they were good.
- My family- Okay, they drive me batty. One could argue that they made me batty, but you have to concede the larger point that they made me. And are still there for me when I need them. Even if there's a lot of newspaper reading and not much talking along the way.
- The hip-width to waist-width aspect ratio of the human female- I find this to be utterly delightful. I know that my appreciation has been handed to me by evolution and is in fact a kind of sucker-punch of reproductive biology, but this does not diminish my delight.
- Being sober this holiday season- Every item on this list, the fact that I'm writing a Blog about it, and that there are hundreds (okay, tens) of people reading it has all been made possible by this. 11 months and 9 days, yo!
And there's my list. I feel like it just got me geared up enough that I could rattle off another ten and another ten after that. But let's pause here, and I'd love to hear what you are thankful for…
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Note: I posted this on the MySpace blog after my birthday in September. But I figure I'm even more 37 now than I was then, so it still has relevance.
I've always been anniversary milestone minded. You know, "It was a year ago today that Svetlana and I…" and so forth. Since I don't actually know anybody named Svetlana that example was purely for illustrative purposes, but you get the point. This past Friday I turned 37, so besides being mildly in shock that my life is now 10% over (hey, who are you to say that I won't live to 370?) I've taken the opportunity to review what I was doing around the time of my birthday 20, 10, 5 and one years ago.
20 years ago: September 1987. I was a senior in high school in Castroville, California. I had never had a drink. Or kissed a girl. I've since sworn off one of those, but I retain high hopes for the other. Speaking of the second, I was meeting or about to meet my first girlfriend, Genelle. Which was very sweet. Everything was sweet and innocent then, but also limited. I was subject to teenage depression, so worried about not being popular, and I yearned to get out of the minimum-security prison of high school and move on to somewhere, anywhere, where life was happening. Flash forward to…
10 years ago: September 1997. I wanted life. I got it! I had just gotten married in San Diego, California. We got married on a boat in the harbor, which was great. We got married to each other, which was, in retrospect, a little ill advised. She and I had been together for five years, having met at Berkeley, lived in Japan and traveled all over Asia together before settling in San Diego for graduate school. There was a lot of love, but I think fundamentally we just didn't fit each other. For my part I was too young and had too many parts of my life shut down to really understand that. I was supposed to be writing and creating but instead I had just finished graduate school in business and was working for an international trading company. In a big, white, conservative, relentlessly pleasant city, which was not at all suitable for an expatriate Northern Californian like myself.
5 years ago: September 2002. Finally in San Francisco, where I had wanted to live my whole life! And separated from my wife for about six months, on our way to divorce. Our life together had gotten progressively harder since moving to San Francisco in 1999, and she finally had the sense to tell me she was leaving and move out. Six months later I was about to start post-separation dating. This was really my first dating in a decade. Or ever, when you consider that I never dated in high school, and barely did in college. I won't out the young lady involved except to say that she is the coolest damn lawyer ever, and it was a great reminder that life could go on and be fun post decade-long relationship. I had returned to writing and had begun the first notes on the novel that is now, seven drafts later, out seeking a literary agent. Finally, I had started working a few months before at PlanetOut, which was extremely welcome after spending a year unemployed in the midst of the dot-bust. I stayed there for almost four years, which was great because gay people rule! So says this token straight boy…
1 year ago: September 2006. I had just started working at the Exploratorium, which was great because geeky science education people rule! The non-profit world also had a lot more human work schedule than PlanetOut had in its post-IPO frenzy. I was working on getting my writing published in various venues while drafting a query letter for the novel to send out to literary agents. On the relationship front, I had taken a break from dating, which I'm still in today; except that now I think it's just about at an end. Most important of all, I was nearing the end of three years of bottoming out on drinking and other things that had made my life increasingly unmanageable.
And there you have it. My life now is actually a lot like it was a year ago, except that having bottomed out and surrendered everything is easier. I'm very grateful to be here now and excited to see what 37 will bring.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
So far the 2000s have been pretty sucky. (We also need to face up to the subsidiary fact that nobody has come up with a name for this decade yet. My favorite suggestion is "the naughts", but this doesn't seem to have caught on.) The political and military carnage of post-9/11 existence is the most obvious symptom of our collective malaise, but the decade hasn't been great shakes in musical terms either. I expect this to perk up in 2009 (see my November 14th entry). In the meantime, even in a musical night there are always dots of light. Here are 20 reasons why the 2000s might not totally suck:
Begin de Cycle
1. All That You Can't Leave Behind (U2, 2000)
As the French will tell you, you can't properly begin a new cycle until you have put the fin to the old one. This album finds U2 in a turn of mood and music that perfectly captures the pivot point between the old and the new. We're all stuck in a moment we can't get out of, and this album just might encourage us to get ourselves together.
Calling out to idiot America
2. One Beat (Sleater Kinney, 2002)
3. American Idiot (Green Day, 2004)
The problem with politically themed music (or art of any kind) is that it can get so caught up in its ideology that it forgets its artistry. Sleater Kinney never fall into this trap on One Beat, producing a record that rocks without pause and cries out in the wilderness to remind us, just a few months after 9/11 and well before the press or the political opposition came to life again, that dissent is not treason. If the ladies from Olympia produced a political-musical John the Baptist, it cleared the way for the Jesus that is American Idiot, a masterwork the is political without getting didactic, punk without getting repetitive and a rock opera that actually works as a coherent story. Let's repeat that- Green Day tried to make a political punk rock opera and pulled it off. Wow.
Muses (Throwing and otherwise)
4. Sunny Border Blue (Kristin Hersh, 2001)
5. Beautysleep (Tanya Donelly, 2002)
6. Title TK (the Breeders, 2002)
As someone on the leeward side of thirty, I find it heartwarming that thirtysomething musical veterans made three of the best albums of the decade so far. Half-sisters Tanya Donelly and Kristin Hersh helped form the rock underground of the Eighties (see, that decade has a name, and it doesn't even deserve one!) and inspired the alternative rock outburst of the Nineties by co-founding the Throwing Muses. Kim Deal meanwhile did the same, in even more influential fashion, with the Pixies in the Eighties and the Breeders in the Nineties. More than fifteen years after starting out all three of them are still going strong, as evidenced by this marvelous trio of emotionally poignant, musically searing, lyrically sophisticated albums.
There's still life in the old beast!
7. Elephant (the White Stripes, 2003)
8. Chain Gang of Love (the Raveonettes, 2003)
9. the Konks (the Konks, 2005)
10. Carnavas (Silversun Pickups 2006)
If the previous three deserve praise for keeping moving past the age of thirty, how about a round of applause for Rock and Roll itself for still being capable of making dangerous noise past the age of fifty? During every musical trough some opining occurs that maybe, this time, Rock is dead. Even a quick listen to these four records shows that that's a bunch of bullshit. The White Stripes and the Raveonettes get there through roots revivalism, the Silversun Pickups surf a wave of feedback and distortion, and the Konks, well, there are no words to properly describe what the Konks do, but it's best to hide the children while they're doing it.
11. Dying in Stereo (Northern State, 2002)
12. Straight to Hell (Hank Williams III, 2006)
13. Losin' It (Vancougar, 2007)
Three white girls from Long Island putting out a totally fresh feminist hip hop album? The grandson of the great Hank Williams producing honky-tonk music with a punk rock attitude? An all-female pop-punk quartet from Vancouver making a record in four days that is better than anything else you're going to hear this year? These three albums remind you that, in loving and inventive hands, surprising things can still happen in even the most formulaic of musical genres.
Promising new voices
14. Chutes Too Narrow (the Shins, 2003)
15. So Jealous (Tegan and Sara, 2004)
16. Martha Wainwright (Martha Wainwright, 2005)
Each of these albums represents a truly unique voice, in both the sonic and the lyrical sense, coming in to its own. Without sounding like each other, all three abound with lyrical sophistication, clever turns of phrase, a surprising emotional vulnerability and an unnerving ability to slip in the knife and twist it just when you thought you were in the middle of a safe pop melody. I hope that long and interesting careers lay ahead of them.
There must be some kind of way out of here
17. 18 (Moby, 2002)
18. Reveille (Deerhoof, 2002)
19. You're a Woman, I'm a Machine (Death From Above 1979, 2004)
20. College Dropout (Kanye West, 2005)
Despite signs of life, the 2000s as a whole has been stuck in a musical rut. Sooner or later something will come along that will get us out of it. (In 2009? Ibid.) Could it be in the form of electronica and rock meeting, a la Moby? Or through Deerhoof playing the exploded pieces of a power-pop song in asynchronous tightness? With heavy metal as dance music as brought to us by Death From Above 1979? By Kanye West shaking hip hop out of its stagnant gangster subroutine through multi-genre sampling and rhymes that are actually about something? Whether or not these four albums contain glimmers of what the future might sound like, they at least show that the spirit of searching and innovation remains alive.
Monday, November 19, 2007
On Saturday night I went to see a show. This turned out to be a good idea for three reasons.
Reason one is that I went to the show with my friend Caille. Caille is a fantastic writer and is fabulous and is gorgeous and we don't get to see each other nearly often enough. There's no such thing, as far as I am aware, of a bad evening out with her.
The next thing that turned out to be good about going to the show on Saturday was unexpectedly running in to my friend Janice, who was working at the venue. Janice is cute and awesome and raven-haired and, in the course of catching up and horsing around, she also briefly squeezed my ass. On any given night, my ass is generally open to being squeezed by raven-haired cuties. It is particularly open to being squeezed by Janice.
But the real revelation Saturday, the signal reason it was a good idea to be there at that particular time and place, was the headliner, the Cold War Kids. I was immediately heartened by the goldilocks nature of the crowd. They were young, but not entirely, and hipster, but not horribly. Just right. They were an interesting looking crowd and I thought they must be the fan-base of an interesting band.
And how! As a first-time listener (Caille was the brains behind the evening's outing, I was the muscle) I was instantly drawn in by their intensity and yet carried away by their energy. The lyrics bear careful listening to, but just in case you're not up to it the song refrains and energy carry you away. Everywhere were echoes (I heard Van Morrison, the White Stripes and Americana, among other things) but it feels like a robust individual sensibility is fusing the disparate influences into a full-bodied whole.
In addition to being a damn fine little band, The Cold War Kids have really energetic fans. The packed house was singing along and jumping up for their favorites. I didn't get the sense of slavish teeny-boperism, but of people strongly moved by songs that really mean something to them. I plan to pick up the debut album, so perhaps I'll be one of them soon.
I opened the title of this column with a pun related to the Who. I did this because; A) I'm a dork who enjoys puns; B) In particular I'm a music geek who loves music puns; C) I am PT'sBFL (Pete Townshend's Bitch For Life). I was not as wayward a pun as it seems, though. One particular aspect of Pete Townshend's genius was that, whatever considerable intellectual ambitions he exercised in the Who's albums, he never forgot that rock music is supposed to be dynamic and fun.
The Cold War Kids let considerable intelligence loose in their music. But, unlike many of their lo-fi low-affect indie peers they don't forget to be rousing along the way. Keep an eye on these kids. I plan to.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
I don't always know what my Creator is up to. No, scratch that. I frequently can't fathom at all what the hell She's up to. But I am learning to trust in Her care for me and that She is leading me somewhere. I have also learned that She is not at all above playing jokes on me in the process.
I haven't dated in almost two years. This was by design, and I don't regret the decision at all. Although abstaining from butterflies in the stomach and all the huggy-kissy pooh-pooh was hard, especially at first, there were other things in my life I really needed to pay attention to and get in order. It's been an incredible growing experience and as a result I have a full life and a love for myself rich enough that soon (say, maybe, in another three or four months) it will make sense to share it with someone.
One sign that this time is approaching is that I'm starting to notice the energy of mutual crushlets flowing in my life again. You know, mutual crushlets- like a crush, but mutual, and not as obsessive and senseless.
Back to God. (I was not digressing, although it may have appeared that way.) I have learned from my spiritual elders and from experience that I am on firmest ground when praying only for knowledge of Her will for me and the power to carry that out. In the midst of my recent little crushlet boom, though, I found myself praying, "Okay, besides that will for me and power to carry it out stuff, I really want to know this one girl's name and to let her know that the interest she's maybe been showing is mutual."
Within twenty-four hours I found myself in a situation where I was formally introduced to her. And I stammered out something like, "Oh, uh, I've seen you around but I never knew your name." And then stood there awkwardly without any follow-up. Reviewing this later, I realized that I had received exactly what I asked for- I found out her name and, through being an awkward stammering dork, let her know I kind of liked her.
Ha! I decided I'd been a little too specific in my request. The next time I talked to the Cosmic Babydoll who gives life to us all I backed up from asking for any specific outcome with any specific crushlet and instead asked for something that expressed the general truth of what I want from these situations. I ended up praying something like, "I want to better learn how to give and receive signs of interest and attraction." In short order I found myself on the receiving end of smiles, lingering glances and raised eyebrows. From guys. All weekend long.
Ha-ha-ha! So, God is one funny-assed bitch with a slightly twisted sense of humor. I don't care. I am balls-out in love with Her and this gorgeous, silly, sacred life She has given us.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
What, you may ask, is the Great Rock Explosion of 2009? Allow me to explain.
1955: Whole Lotta Shaking Going On
In 1955, Rock and Roll was born. Ignore, for a moment that the music that "burst" on the scene had, under the name of Rhythm and Blues, been played since the late 40s. Because 1955 was the cultural moment when the uniquely American fusion of Rhythm and Blues and Country and Western that had long been brewing finally hit the boiling point, and the teakettle whistled so loudly that the whole nation heard.
It kicked off subtly enough, with Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock". But the country soon faced the raw sexual energy of Elvis, the ringing guitar of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly's song craftsmanship, Little Richard's oh so queer wild sweat-soaked mania, Jerry Lee Lewis kicking back the stool and banging away on the piano until his crazy curls fell down over his face, on and on. Even now, fifty plus years later, the anarchic thrill of that music threatens to break through anew with each listen.
But by 1960, Elvis was drafted, Eddie Cochran was dead, Buddy Holly was dead, Chuck Berry was in jail, Little Richard had entered the ministry(!) and Jerry Lee Lewis had been ostracized from broadcast following his marriage to his teenage cousin. All too quickly, it seemed to be over.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral.
1964: A Hard Night's Day
Some British kids had been listening in the 50's. Paul loved Little Richard. John said that, for him, Elvis was everything. George, for his part, thought Carl Perkins was amazing. By 1964, these floppy haired kids were writing their own songs and had grown into an awfully good band that seized the charts in the US. In the wake of the Beatles, it turned out that a lot of British kids had been listening. One after another, they arrived. The Rolling Stones. The Who. The Yardbirds. The Hollies. The Animals.
Meanwhile, a skinny kid with wild hair from Minnesota named Bob, who had himself been turned on by Little Richard, was making music that mixed the energy and irreverence of the Rock and Roll of the 50s with older American traditions of Blues and Folk. Along the way, he infused the songs with lyrical sophistication and social commentary.
The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion revived Rock in the 60s. Bob Dylan challenged it to reach a new level of maturity. They spurred each other on, and people on both sides of the Atlantic started rocking. By the end of the decade, Rock and Roll had blossomed in multiple directions: the dark Nietschean poetry of the Doors, the political stridency of the Jefferson Airplane, the sweetly clanging pop of the Byrds, Cream and Jimi Hendrix taking heavy guitar and amplification as far as it could go, the Beach Boys and the Beatles out-competing each other into producing increasingly sophisticated psychedelic masterpieces, the Who turning out a rock opera (for Pete's sakes!) and too many more happenings to mention here.
By the early 70s the brilliant flare had faded. One of the top songs that year was by the pre-packaged poppily cute and harmless Partridge Family. The production advances and psychedelia of the 60s spawned songs that were overly ornate, abstruse, and long. Very long. Singer-songwriters proliferated at an alarming rate, producing acoustic and quiet music. Rock as powerful, noisy, dangerous and vital as came from the outpourings of 1955-1959 and 1964-1969 seemed to be a thing of the past.
Then came 1976.
1976: Anarchy in the UK
A quartet of greaseballs from Queens donned leather jackets, renamed themselves the Ramones, and started writing Rock songs played as quickly and simply as physically possible— three chords in two minutes. Elsewhere in New York, a gaunt dark-haired girl named Patti Smith intoned, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine," as she proceeded to launch into burning intense poetry set to ragged music. A group calling themselves the Talking Heads produced quirky spare paeans to alienation.
Meanwhile, over in the UK, a group of Ramones fans led by some guys named Mick and Joe ripped through fast, noisy garage rock that took on neo-fascism, racism, unemployment and the other social and economic woes of the mid-70s head-on. At the same time the Clash were raising their White Riot, a pimple-faced seventeen year old with spiked red hair and torn clothes named John took on the last name "Rotten" and headed up a band called the Sex Pistols, singing with a snarl so unrehearsed and natural that it electrified everybody who heard it, "I am an antichrist. I am an anarchist!"
Gone were the layers of production, the attempt to be complex, the stifling sense of seriousness that had arisen from the 60s as they decayed into the 70s. The fetid stagnation was replaced by an attempt to be as loud, as shocking, as fast as possible, fueled by the fiercely egalitarian impulse that anybody could do this shit. And anybody did.
The Clash, Elvis Costello, the Damned, the Dead Kennedys, Joy Division, the Ramones, Patti Smith, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Stiff Little Fingers, the Talking Heads, X and literally hundreds of cohorts all over the world flared into being in the few bright, intense years that ran from 1976 to 1979.
A precious few managed to gain large followings. But most settled in to size niches, intensely, but not widely, loved.
The mass market was awash in synthesizers, slick pop production and an increasingly depressing lack of real emotional content. Even so called "Hard Rock" had become the neutered bubblegum of Hair Metal, with a flashy show of rebellion hiding the musically and socially conservative palp underneath. By the end of the 80s, many declared either with triumph or anguish that Rock was dead.
But something was going in Seattle.
1991: Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
A whole generation of kids who felt alienated by the conformist 80s was forming bands. Loud bands. Bands that took something from the Punk explosion, something from the critically unregarded but musically untamed Metal of the 70s, brought in a strain of the melodic from the 60s and maybe even from the synth-pop 80s, and fused it all together with an intensely personal emotional content that the 80s had forced underground. An astonishing number of these bands were crushed into the mid-sized city of Seattle: Alice in Chains, Hole, the Melvins, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden.
Oh yeah. And some guys who called themselves Nirvana.
In the wake of the unexpected breakout success of Nirvana's "Nevermind" (which knocked Michael Jackson's "Bad" from the number one spot late in 1991), new, hard-edged and emotionally dangerous music sprouted up all across the country. It turned out that there was a vast Alternative Nation that had been desperately yearning for something real throughout the 80s and now had a lot to get off of their chests. Not all of it, to be sure, followed Seattle's Grunge musically. But the emotional intensity that Kurt Cobain and company had brought back to Rock was apparent everywhere you listened: Bjork, the Breeders, the Cranberries, Greenday, PJ Harvey, Alanis Morrisette, Liz Phair, Radiohead, the Smashing Pumkins, Veruca Salt, and more, in a hundred directions at once.
Some might date the demise of Rock's last great explosion to Kurt Cobain's 1994 suicide. I don't agree, but his despair at the commercial machine that was co-opting the music surely played a part in his end. It is true that one can't find a decent Grunge album after 1995, although many other strains carried on. Radiohead's OK Computer in 1997 was thought by many to signal the end of Alternative Rock and the rise of Electronica. True or not, Rock radio over the next few years was quickly reduced to droning bleary emo, monotonous post-grunge and watered down commercial Punk.
On top of that, Gen-Y's hideous revenge on the Alternative Nation of Gen X arrived in the form of Britney Spears. Britney's number one "Oops, I did it Again" seems almost to be the voice of commercial pop triumphantly telling us it has once again overcome Rock. After all, she did tell us she was not that innocent.
So is all hope lost? I think not.
Nine years elapsed from the initial outbreak in 1955 to the first wave of the British Invasion in 1964. Another twelve passed from the halcyon days of 1964 to the noisy outburst of Punk and New Wave in 1976. And then fifteen from 1976 until 1991, when Grunge, the bastard child of Punk and Metal, reminded the world that Rock could still be dangerous and interesting. Are you starting to catch on to the periodicity? 1955+9=1964. 1964+12=1976. 1976+15=1991. 9, 12, 15. The next entry in the sequence is 18. 1991+18=2009.
And there you have it. The coming Great Rock Explosion of 2009. Stay tuned…