The Worst Concert Ever

“Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.” Michael Bolton (Office Space)

While many of our comments on and anecdotes about music have to do with music merely as sound, as the score for charged moments in our lives or the cue to dial up vivid memories, music also surrounds us in tactile and physical ways. The Younger J and I have, at different points in our lives, attended many and varied concerts (and too few together). Seeing an artist live and as part of a community of listeners can drastically change the way you engage with music. The live performance returns music to the breathing pulse of the living from the frozen state of recorded sound.

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Hip Hop Hooray: Enter the Wu Tang

To piggy back on my brother’s post and due to an incredibly strict schedule this week of parent conferences, here is one I put out almost a year ago! WU TANG!

I made a resolution to write more about hip hop this year so I figured I’d start right off on it.

Although the Elder J and I grew up in the great white north, we both have been into very urban hip hop for some time. In fact, I would say that the predominate music choice of most people I know living in Maine between the ages of 18 and 35 is hip hop, and of course country music, which is a very interesting juxtaposition. Nowadays, rap is a lot more innocuous with no one really too hard core in the top 40. I got into rap in what I like to think is the heyday of  gangster rap, the one sub genre of the rap/hip hop category that I like the most. Although I loved Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog and the Notorious B.I.G., the group I liked the most is the Wu Tang Clan.

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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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Dazed and Confused: How can this be twenty years old?

This has always been one of my favorite driving songs and a very apt first song for this post. Dazed and Confused is about a lot of things but I feel like one of the big things is how much time was spent driving around aimlessly in cars while in high school. I think it’s a small town thing.  What else is there to do on a Friday night besides trying to find a party and driving around? I spent more time than I like to remember in this very pursuit and the film portrays this expertly.

One of the all time great films about teenagers came out twenty years ago this week, the excellent Dazed and Confused. I’d say it’s my favorite coming of age film actually, far exceeding Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Fast Times at Ridgemont High because it was far closer to my high school experience than those films or any other film I’ve seen in this genre. Even though I wasn’t even alive in the 70’s, the activities of a typical Friday night, the social circles and even the music were far closer to my adolescent years than even films of the 90’s and 00’s.

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Tupac: You Are Appreciated.

“God Bless the Dead” is certainly my favorite Tupac song and possibly my favorite rap song ever. It’s got bad-ass beats and, as an extremely white person from almost the most northern state of the United States, the lines “I was the last of G’s, pump the shit that make the white man bleed” really strike a chord with me. Although a much bigger fan of Biggy, I can say that Pac was definitely a mainstay of my high school class’s listening, he definitely wrote some more socially conscious lyrics and was definitely more publicly in trouble with the law which made me him scary to me as a youth. Tupac Shakur was one of the greatest rappers ever and like his Mama, he is appreciated.

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The Notorious B.I.G.: Amazing across all socio-economic divisions.

I can’t tell you how many times I joined in with about ten white kids yelling the lyrics to this song and almost every other Biggy track I mention in this post. Just last night, I got strange looks from the slide guitar player in my band when I threw this track on after we finished up working on our original music. Not everyone got into gangster rap out here.

I love gangster rap. I talked a while back about my affinity for this genre, starting with the work of the Wu Tang Clan and now moving to the unmatched and incomparable Notorious B.I.G. Of all the solo rappers out there, I can say with earnest that Biggy is my favorite. His combination of hard core gangster and lovable family man coupled with some of the dopest beats in hip hop and often highly introspective lyrical thoughts on street life and the rap game add up to make him the reigning king of gangster rap.

How does an upper-lower middle-class Scandinavian kid from the great white north end up being such a huge Biggy fan? I think that he was such an immense talent and personality, it doesn’t matter where you are from or what color you are to stand up and recognize that this shit is the bomb. And if you don’t know, now you will know.

I watched Casino a lot as a youth and I always loved the reference to the movie in this song. This song has one of the best beats in hip hop music ever while also making an incredibly viable point about mass media and death. Would The Doors be so big if Morrison had lived? What about Jimi Hendrix or Janice Joplin? You can never tell, but it’s a good topic to explore another day!

The closest thing we have to ‘the streets’ in rural Maine is the trailer park which is where I began my education in rap music. Everyone listened to Tupac, Eminem and a slew of other hip-hop artists of varying qualities. Biggy was always a mainstay, the baby-faced gangster from the urban warfare of  Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in the 1970’s where a 1977 power outage led to hundreds of stores being looted and many more burned to the ground. We are talking about a man who was equal parts court jester and bloodthirsty criminal. In hindsight, I think it’s this juxtaposition that makes him such an enigmatic character, thug and teddy bear. As he puts it in “Machine Gun Funk”, just because he joked and toked a lot doesn’t mean he doesn’t tote the Glock. Lyrically, not many rappers have ever come close to the eloquent and gritty nature of the Notorious.

The production on his tracks is always top notch and this is due in no small part to the skills of Mr. Sean “Puff Daddy”, aka “Diddy” or whatever the fuck he calls himself now. He was a mover and shaker in the NYC hip hop scene and brought on Easy Mo Bee to help produce this album, a genius producer who had worked with Wu Tang Clan’s GZA, Big Daddy Kane and was even behind  Miles Davis’ last album in 1992.

His lyrics  have a nice easy flow to them that allow you to actually hear them the first time and see how they fit into whatever narrative is happening in the song. This seems like an obvious trait for any rapper, but check out rap from today, such as some recent Lil’ Wayne tracks. I don’t know if I’m too sober,  but his tracks have been making less sense to me than ever before. With a recent trip to the hospital for allegedly overdosing on codeine cough syrup, it’s not surprising that his songs have made less sense.. My 8th grade students tell me he is doing painkillers too, but this is neither here nor there.

Biggie’s first album Ready to Die is one of the best rap albums ever, running a whole cycle of stories from party songs like “Big Poppa” and reflective songs like “Juicy” to a song about contemplating suicide and then doing it in “Suicidal Thoughts”. One thing I love about Biggy is the lack of celebrity guest rappers on this first album. The only one to really feature another rapper on the debut is “The What” with the incredibly talented Method Man dropping some serious rhymes. One can see why being such a fan of Wu Tang would also lend well to Biggy, but I can’t remember which I got into first. I am leaning towards the latter though. In the days of entire albums of guest stars, it’s nice to see an artist who only needs himself and a few good producers.

I have given a lot of thought as to what the appeal was to this music to me as a youth because let’s face it, I had a very easy upbringing with almost no elements of the street life. I think the answer is a multi-faceted response. First, the Notorious B.I.G. is an amazing performer regardless of the genre he makes his music in, from the lyrics to the production to the whole persona.  Biggy is the man and anyone who likes any type of music can see that. And he also pulled himself up from the streets, sold drugs and then used his experiences to pursue his greatest passion and change the rap genre forever. His gritty tales really do tell a story of a place that is scary and exciting to me, probably because I’ve never been held up at gunpoint or sold crack to feed my family. I’ve never held anyone else up either but I do love hearing Biggy rap about it.

So I don’t think it really matters where you are from, Biggy truly does pass above all socio-economic divisions. I can promise you that anyone who likes hip hop likes Biggy and even if they are rock and rollers, there is at least one song they can get into. This leads nicely to my final point. Like the Felice Brothers or Creedence Clearwater Revival doing genres of music that are not necessarily aligned with where they are from, music does not have geographic , racial, economic or any boundaries for that matter. It is perfectly ok for me to love the Notorious B.I.G. even though I am white and live in the woods, just as it’d be ok for Biggy to be into Lucky Tubb if he was alive and so inclined. Music is a universal language to be spoken wherever it wants to be. Socio-economic lines mean nothing for good music and if that’s the one thing you get out of this post then I’ll be happy. Oh yeah, and the fact that Biggy was probably the best rapper ever!

I think if Biggy had not been needlessly gunned down in the yet to be unsolved murder in Los Angeles, his music would have gone this more poppy direction. I will add that I am sure many of the violent and misogynistic lyrics are frowned upon by those who think song lyrics can push people to act out some of these terrible things. Like I’ve said before, no one has ever shot a man in Reno just to watch him die because of a song; they are surely already crazy. So, I am sorry if anyone is offended by some of this rap lyrics. The joy of the modern era is that  we all have the freedom to listen or not listen.

2001-Songs of the Year

Song of the Year: “Ima Thug” -Trick Daddy

Runners Up:  “Ms. Jackson” -Outkast,   “Last Nite” The Strokes,  “Chop Suey!” System of a Down

Best Dance Video ever: “Weapon of Choice” -Fatboy Slim

2001 was a crazy year. My brother wrote about it in pretty heavy fashion a few weeks ago and, besides the fact that I have not written a “songs of the year” post in some time, I felt I could add some things since I experienced the year much differently as a sophomore in high school. I distinctly remember hearing about the plane hitting the first building and thinking that I hoped my brother was ok. I knew from my frequent trips to the city that his NYU offices were not in close proximity to the towers, but who knows?

I was in Honors Algebra 2 listening to my teacher drone on about polynomials when someone with a laptop got the first headlines. I called my mom who tried calling my brother and she eventually got the message that he was alive/well and actually saw the second plane hit the other tower. That is extremely heavy and I commend him for writing about the experience. This was a dark period in the history of our country and the shadow looms today and probably forever after.

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Felonious Dion

(Fair Warning: this post is not that light-hearted)

Music, keyed in to moments, becomes the catalyst that bares open long pathways of memory. Music can recall that which is almost lost. The problem is that music can’t always be directed; it can open passages you wanted to keep closed. It can shed light on feelings and thoughts best left for the dark. Often, music you like can do this; but since memory is something we don’t control, it is as often that music you don’t like (or don’t like for cause) brings out the real pain.

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The Worst Concert Ever

“Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.” Michael Bolton (Office Space)

While many of our comments on and anecdotes about music have to do with music merely as sound, as the score for charged moments in our lives or the cue to dial up vivid memories, music also surrounds us in tactile and physical ways. The Younger J and I have, at different points in our lives, attended many and varied concerts (and too few together). Seeing an artist live and as part of a community of listeners can drastically change the way you engage with music. The live performance returns music to the breathing pulse of the living from the frozen state of recorded sound.

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What You Were (Not): Fugazi

“You’ve got your hands over your ears / you’ve got your mouth running on / you’ve got your eyes looking for something / that will never be found” from “Give Me the Cure”

When I was in high school in the overwhelmingly white backwoods region the Family J calls home, learning about music (outside of the few stations we could receive clearly which included double doses of top 40’s, easy listening, Oldies, Country and Classic Rock) was a task that both challenged and defined. Classic Rock came with acid washed jeans and cigarette smoking in elementary school. Country blared from pick-up trucks with gun racks. Most high school students were wired into MTV and/or Rick Dees’ weekly top 40.

Some of us tried to define ourselves against these stand-bys by gravitating towards the obscure (or not).  Why we did this is hard to explain without humility and self-deprecation. The choice to be ‘different’ is made for many reasons—some have it made for them, some accept it as a confirmation of long-felt dislocation, and others (probably me) embrace it because it is attractive. The mundane everydayness of the ‘mainstream’ pales in comparison to the drama of alienation, otherness, and imagined persecution.

So, in the days before the internet, when ‘alternative’ music began to seep into the top 40 and received heavy play on MTV, the new arms race of self-identification centered around obscurity. To be different one had to possess a musical sensibility and style that was unreplicated and that was, even if impossible so, ‘original’. For musical taste, the obscurity aesthetic is a bit of a paradox. Like conforming to non-conformism, espousing an exclusive taste in the obscure is a bit of a shell game. And here’s why: the pose of the obscurist also entails claiming superiority of product over the more popular examples. It is thus not obscurity that is highlighted but the excellence of the ‘original’ individual’s taste (and this works for most art forms as well as palette and eye).

For some, these poses came easier than others. Geography gave some a regular stream of instruction from a local college radio station. Others benefited from older siblings who initiated them into the mysteries of the underground. And, even others were industrious and daring—sneaking out to small gigs in near-by towns, scouring music magazines and hanging out at record stores. I, on the other hand, was the oldest, out in the sticks, with a mother who listened to Neil Diamond and a deaf father. I have an interview I did when I was in elementary school. I listed the Monkees as my favorite band. I liked Weird Al before a significant (and persistent) They Might Be Giants obsession. I was not, by any means, cool.

But that did not keep me from trying to play the game. The band that I advertised to others as the token of my ‘otherness’ and excellence in my darkest poseurship was Fugazi. You couldn’t find Fugazi on the radio or on MTV. Most music stores in the area did not sell Fugazi albums. This band was the ultimate for the bluffer’s pose. I had learned about Fugazi from an older artist-friend who was the epitome of an underground music connoisseur. (He made Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume look like a two-bit hack.) As I learned later, much of his pronouncements were also poses—they were just better than, cleverer than, and most important of all, prior to mine.

Fugazi’s  DIY ethic, anti-capitalist rhetoric and belligerence towards record companies made it, at least in theory, a perfect band for a quasi-idealistic non-conformist during the swan-song of hair bands and at the dawning of neutered rap and hip-hop (before suburban white kids were listening to Gansta Rap). Fugazi, as I learned, wouldn’t market through merchandise (hence the “This is not a Fugazi T-Shirt” t-shirt), charged an egalitarian 5 dollars for all shows and an affordable 5/8 dollars for each album.

Was I never this 'cool'?

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