On the Radio (Flashback): Time Bomb

In the mid 1990s I used to work about 45 minutes away from home at a gas station–much to the chagrin of my parents who couldn’t understand why the hell I had to drive 45 minutes to pump gas when there were perfectly good places to pump gas in our home town.  The long and the short of it was: (1) I didn’t want to be caught pumping gas by someone I actually knew and (2) there was a girl involved (the place was owned by her father).

As with most things, the law of unintended consequences had a powerful showing here.This was the glorious year of the Ford LTD Stationwagon.  First of all, since I was young and driving a lot not only did I get into my first fender-bender, run out of gas during a snowstorm and receive my first, second and third traffic citations, but I also got to listen to the radio constantly at a time when alt-rock was king. During many of my long drives into the cold, I heard songs by the band Rancid.

I can’t listen to this song without getting happy now. What the living hell was wrong with me?

As I mentioned a few months back when I was going through my obsessive phase with Palma Violets, I was dismissive of almost everything in second-wave punk for no good reason. Although I grudgingly acknowledged the quality of Green Day (and who didn’t? the radio played us all into submission), Rancid–with its snarling vocals and stripped down sound–seemed easy to mock and easier to dismiss. And yet, when I listen to it now, it seems so much more transgressive, immediate, and authentic (again, whatever that means) than a lot of the other schmaltz I thought was good. (“Wonderwall? What the fuck?)

I think that a good deal of my suspicion of punk’s second sailing has to do with poorly held and even more poorly defined ideas of authenticity and originality. At 16, I thought that such words had meaning and had no concept of things like appropriation, homage, and metamorphosis. Even worse, when it came to a band like Rancid, I was too fucking ignorant to know that two of the members were old-timers from Operation Ivy who had enough cache and real DIY punk character to make the members of Green Day blush. Hell, Rancid never even signed with a mainstream label.

So, I guess the lesson here is that if you’re worried that someone else is a poseur, you should probably check into their bona fides and, even before that, do the whole monkey in the mirror thing and make sure you’re not a complete fake. I’m trying to make amends for this and many other asshole moments in my youth.  Just today I downloaded the album.  My kids are going to be rocking out with safety pins this afternoon.

And what do you think of all this, my brother?

New Music: Palma Violets, Best of Friends

For the past few weeks, I have been a little obsessed with the track “Best of Friends” by Palma Violets. A few weeks back I underwent some paroxysm of music purchasing and ended up having to compose two posts about my acquisitions. The fact is that I found much of my new music forgettable–so much so that while running with @jake_turbo it took me a few seconds to recall that Okkervil River was the name of a band whose album I had recently purchased.

But this song: I’ve tweeted about it, I have tried to force my children to listen to it. I even brought it up in a class:

What is it I like about this band? There’s something old-school about the production value. The vocals are a bit raw; the music is a bit fun. And the sound altogether recalls some of the DIY days before digital music. There is an abandon and intensity to the song that seems part hardcore (the opening wail reminds me a bit of Fugazi’s “Repeater”) and a little bit punk (the song made me long for that old track “Time Bomb” by Rancid).

The rise of digital music, which has fragmented distribution a bit and has allowed additional artists access to the public, has resulted in a good deal of overproduction, slickness, and hollowness to music. Even bands that play ‘real’ music like Vampire Weekend seem too much the product of recording studio beautification. Even as I get older and hate noise more, I find myself attracted less to the packaged ‘purity’ of most mainstream music and longing for a dirtier sound.

Even if the dirt is manufactured, Palma Violets are giving me what I want.

Now, a band like Tullycraft might look askance on a punk/hardcore sound used to write love songs. I don’t. Can’t we get a little maudlin and mayhem at the same time?

 

 

 

(Songs for) Debt Servitude

I have read a lot lately about the spiraling forces of income inequality: student-loan debt, new possible mortgage fears, and the breakdown in the basic social compact of which education is a central and collapsing piece (Thomas Frank, why do you have to make me so sad?). During my sister’s recent visit when we got to celebrate the Red Sox’ most recent World Series win and even during the good news of my brother landing a real teaching job, discussions have been sobered by the reality of crushing student loan debt.

So, before the pretty lights of the holidays distract us, here’s a re-post and reminder that we live off tomorrow’s wages today.

My brother recently wrote about one of the influences on the pervasive depression–the seasonal affective disorder–in our hometown and similar regions. I think there is more to be said about it. But I want to warn you before you start reading: this post is one of those times when I am going to start ranting. I will definitely get political and personal.

Yeah, I am getting up on it

Yeah, I am getting up on it

I will talk about music, but I will mostly talk about something that should concern all of us: the widening gap in prosperity in our country, the broken promises of the American dream and a system that really can bear no better name than debt servitude.

(Ok, ok. I originally wrote “debt slavery” but the younger j thought that this was historically insensitive. In my mind, I countered that this is a big deal too, but words mean a lot. I’ll save the histrionics for the end.)

What does this have to with music? A relatively small amount, if you think about the issue directly—yet, it has to do with the hopes and fears that fuel our music and give it its themes (both high and low), the twisted values that dominate the commercial end of music in this country, and the real-life effects that send many of us rushing to our headphones for escape or with the fragile hope that someone else may communicate what we’re feeling in a better way.

Here’s the dramatic pitch. There is something really, really wrong about our system. We all buy into a series of values and promises that turn out to be worse than empty–they are filled with negative space.

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Ten to 2013: Rethinking Pearl Jam

Is something wrong, she said
Well of course there is
You’re still alive, she said
Oh, and do I deserve to be
Is that the question

Pearl Jam, “Alive”

Recently a friend of ours, the marvelous and magnificent Moe, wrote a review of Pearl Jam’s latest release Lightning Bolt. The review isn’t tepid—it praises the album but concedes it is not the band’s greatest work—but it does inspire tepid feelings in me. And this is not because of the review; it is because of the band. A band that even my brother just took the time to consider more carefully.

I can’t think of many other bands that have been so successful for so long without impressing me (well, the Eagles, R.E.M.).

I cannot tell a lie: I owned this t-shirt

I cannot tell a lie: I owned this t-shirt

I can think of some pretty terrible bands that people seem to like regardless of all taste and reason (Maroon 5, Foo Fighters) but it is hard for me really to figure out the place that Pearl Jam should occupy. The band was huge in the early 1990s. It consciously and intentionally bowed out of MTV and its world but continued to release albums. I never listened to them. Was I wrong?

I am not completely alone in being confused about the attraction: LA Weekly lists Pearl Jam as one of the worst bands of all time describing the sound as “Boring, tepid, rehashed classic rock with a thin veneer of alt” . Now, while this declaration is in part meant just to raise some hackles and eyebrows, I have to add that it is rare that my brother and I completely agree in ignoring something. Generally, what I don’t care for, he will defend. And, generally, if we both ignore something, well…

But the litmus test for a band that transcends general mediocrity and confounds even those who would like to hate it is whether or not a majority of people who know of the band can identify a song they actually like by it despite whatever reservations or misgivings they have. I can think of at least five songs (maybe more) that I really do like (“Even Flow”, “Daughter”, “Better Man”, “Nothingman”, and Yellow Ledbetter”). So, I guess I need to revisit this.

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Target(ing) Profitability: Corporate (T-Shirt) Rock Whores

A few months back I was shopping for clothing for my toddler son at Target and I was immediately taken by a pint-sized Pink Floyd t-shirt. I know: I recognized immediately that this was a simple but effective ploy to play upon a combination of adult nostalgia and a parental desire to make children look ‘cool‘ (especially for those Gen Xers and younger who were always too cool to want to appear to try to be cool.)

Welcome to the corporate jungle, Axl. Is this what you were afraid of when you spent a decade working on Chinese Democracy?

My wife mocked me a little. I felt both less and more self-critical when I saw not one but two little boys at day care wearing the same t-shirt. I over-compensated by getting a science officer Star Trek (original series) shirt for my son and trying to squeeze him into a one-year old’s shirt emblazoned with Carthago Delenda Est.

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The Table: Moving Out and (Not Quite) Moving On

“Circle of Life”, The Lion King. My daughter doesn’t really like to eat. In order to entice her, I show her videos on youtube. She loves this song. It takes me back to my freshman year of high school when my girlfriend at the time was obsessed with Disney. We went to see this movie on opening weekend and I secretly loathed her for it. But now, every time I see Simba raised up in front of his father, I come near to tears. That I start this post with this song and memory will make sense, I promise

As my brother may have mentioned in an earlier post, I haven’t been posting as much for a few reasons. One is that I have gotten steadily busier with work; the other is that, after living in an apartment for a year (only after giving up a house we lived in for four years to move downtown in our adopted home city), we realized that even the spacious 1500 square feet was too little room for two toddlers and two organizationally challenged adults.

So, we house-shopped, made some offers, lost some houses and finally closed a few weeks ago. After some horrors, we moved last Friday. I took the kids to daycare, cleaned out the old apartment and took them home to our new house.

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Angry Music

“You guys should play more angry”

–The Mixtape Girl’s Brother

“Goddess, sing the Rage of Achilles, the son of Peleus / the destructive rage that sent thousands of Greeks to their doom”

Homer, Iliad 1.1-2

(We never took time on this blog to note the passing and commemorate the memory of the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch. It is always a loss when a good man dies young. Coverage of his passing made me think of this subject.)

When I was younger I had the peculiar experience of dating a girl a few years my senior. Now, as far as the dating goes, there was really nothing unexpected or abnormal (indeed, it was a formative and not atypical adolescent firestorm); the peculiar part was that her (the Mix Tape Girl’s) younger brother was my age and in my classes at school.

Perhaps that is not all that strange—it was, however, a bit awkward. At the beginning he and I were not friends or really all that friendly. (In fact, I am sure he was not all that happy to have me around.) But, by the end of the relationship, we were friendly enough—we actually ended up in a related network of friends. We went to at least one movie together. He farted around me openly.Where the Mix Tape Girl was a little ‘alternative’ (but still close enough to the in-crowd), her brother started out a little nerdy without being a geek—that is, he took AP Physics and Calculus, but definitely wasn’t into Dungeons & Dragons or They Might be Giants. He was a bit of a clown, atypically kind in private, and charmingly goofy outside of school.

One day, when the two of us were working together at a convenience store, I was inflicting another conversation about my band on him.  I am sure he heard me sing and play the guitar more than anyone not dating me or related by blood should have had to. But he never complained. Instead, he seemed to try to understand the maudlin lyrics, the prog-rock harmonies and the attempts to imitate TMBG on one day, Nirvana on the next, and bad folk music on the third.


I think I was complaining about how no one we knew would come see my band play. And then, he said it: “Why don’t you guys play more angry? You know, like Rage Against the Machine or something.” He impressed upon me the value of letting people feel pissed off, the adrenaline sparked by angry music.


In all honesty I have always been a little bewildered by the attraction of the heavier and angrier bands (to the extent that my own affinity for Fugazi is only half-hearted). Moshing, slam-dancing, intentional violence—all these things always seemed off to me. Of course, at the time, the alternatives were to be a full-fledged Lilith Fair supporter, or to dwell somewhere awkwardly between the extremes.


The angry, or aggressive side of rock was not a new phenomenon even then—the heavier sounds that arrived with Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath set the stage for the much later mainstream popularity of a band like Rage Against the Machine which drew on the Hard Core movement of the 1980’s. Punk, especially in its early days with the Sex Pistols, shared the same genes.



Of course, I did not think any of this that day behind the register as we sold 99 cent King Cobras to local drunks. Instead, I tried to figure out what such a kind, often quiet, and altogether ‘happy’ guy like my girlfriend’s brother found to identify with in the anger of Rage Against Machine and the mad noise of “Sabotage”?


The complicated answer I come to years later is that for most of us who lead normal lives, such flirtation with anger acts like an emotional release valve. On a cultural level, our raging musicians, artists (and sometimes crackpots) express the destructive emotions that might just destabilize society if they are given no release.


This is not to say that artists like Rage Against the Machine, Black Flag, or Fugazi have nothing to be angry about, but, rather, that their appeal to those who are not defined by protest and inspired to challenge authority confirms that they are filling a larger cultural need.
Or something like that.

But, when I think about this topic further, this explanation makes sense (although it needs nuance and support). Anger, or perhaps something more basic and animalistic like rage, appears as the central theme of one of the oldest narratives in the Western tradition, the Iliad, where the main character’s rage (Achilles) is so super-human that it not only destroys his enemies but it results in the deaths of his friends. In turn, as Achilles follows his anger to its (il)logical end, it secures his death as well. It is only when he gives up his rage to make common cause with Priam, the father of his enemy Hector, the man he kills and then whose body he disfigures in fury, that Achillles becomes something like a human. He re-enters society. To become a civilized man, he must foreswear his rage.

Led Zeppelin got angry. About a foot.
Yet, the society that tells his tale still ponders the dangers and effects of anger. Why? Because the sub-human, animalistic spirit resides within us—especially within men. I used to think that angry music was popular because anger is a simple emotion that often covers for more complex things. Now, I think that while anger may correlate with many other emotions—loss, frustration, jealousy, to name a few—it is more basic and profound than a mere cloak for tender feelings.

Anger, I could say, is that battle within as we negotiate the balance between our needs and the world that confounds us. Anger, on a larger scale, is the expression of fundamental disappointment in the way things are. Anger, when sampled even vicariously, must be tamed or released for us to live together in something like peace.

Or that’s the answer I have now for why a nice young man essentially implied that my band was too whiny and needed (as he put it later) “balls”. Perhaps this too may explain my brother’s disdain for ‘emo’. Who wants every day and self-pitying emotions  when stronger stuff is on offer, when angry music lets us feel something or express something that we don’t find every day?
Here’s some real angry stuff:

And what do you think my brother?  Does the theory pass the smell test? Did you ever think you’d read about Achilles and Black Flag in the same post?

(Songs for) Debt Servitude

My brother recently wrote about one of the influences on the pervasive depression–the seasonal affective disorder–in our hometown and similar regions. I think there is more to be said about it. But I want to warn you before you start reading: this post is one of those times when I am going to start ranting. I will definitely get political and personal.

Yeah, I am getting up on it

Yeah, I am getting up on it

I will talk about music, but I will mostly talk about something that should concern all of us: the widening gap in prosperity in our country, the broken promises of the American dream and a system that really can bear no better name than debt servitude.

(Ok, ok. I originally wrote “debt slavery” but the younger j thought that this was historically insensitive. In my mind, I countered that this is a big deal too, but words mean a lot. I’ll save the histrionics for the end.)

What does this have to with music? A relatively small amount, if you think about the issue directly—yet, it has to do with the hopes and fears that fuel our music and give it its themes (both high and low), the twisted values that dominate the commercial end of music in this country, and the real-life effects that send many of us rushing to our headphones for escape or with the fragile hope that someone else may communicate what we’re feeling in a better way.

Here’s the dramatic pitch. There is something really, really wrong about our system. We all buy into a series of values and promises that turn out to be worse than empty–they are filled with negative space.

Continue reading

Some more Political Songs

The Personal is Political, said Carol Hanisch. The guys in Fugazi know that

After I read my brother’s post about political songs, I knew that I couldn’t be silent. It is not that I do not like his list; in fact, I like it a whole lot. What I cannot leave untouched is his sense of disenchantment.  I think it is terrible that he feels so apolitical. I would call it tragic if it were not so common.

See, I feel  apolitical too. We live under a political system that is at best a plutocratic oligarchy where corporations are citizens. Our elections are so corrupted by money that we spend the GDP of some nations on elections. Even English speaking allies like the Canadians and British think our system is ridiculous.

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An Apology to Drummers

 

In the short-lived but classic show Freaks and Geeks, the character Nick Andropolis (Jason Segal) wants to be a drummer. He plays along to Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio” as his father looks on in disgust. Later on, when he leaves his house and stays briefly with the Weir family, Papa Weir takes his drumming passion seriously—he arranges for him to take lessons and blows his mind when he plays some big band and jazz records for him.

Nick cannot even conceive of how to make the sounds that the professional drummers are making. He is a self-taught drummer more interested in the spectacle and the noise. He does not follow through with the lessons. He eventually moves back home.

And there, in a nutshell, is a story too many of us may believe about drummers: amateur, talentless, noise-machines with the exception of a few real artists who are still merely backing musicians for great pianists, guitarists, horn players, etc.

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