10:45am. “Amy Winehouse died,” someone’s posted on Facebook. What? Well, have to check it out anyway. Quick Google: Daily Mail is saying so. Really? Really? Within a matter of seconds, Guardian and Telegraph and BBC have it up too. Fuck. Fuck. Really? This can’t be true. Give it ten minutes. But the news keeps coming in. “London police have confirmed the death of a 27-year-old female…”
11:15am. A stomach knot and all I can think is that the media killed Amy Winehouse. With its salivating predatory need for photos, the more grotesque the better, and stories fabricated or not, who cares, post it up now and get those clicks! That concert in Belgrade—even I clicked on the link, and after about ten seconds of the video I couldn’t watch anymore. But I clicked on the link. Another click means another vote that tells the media AMY WINEHOUSE DISASTER = SITE TRAFFIC VICTORY, and I cast it, and you cast it, and we all cast it. The result is more posts about Amy Winehouse, the ugly, wandering, makeupless falling down trainwreck, to satiate the public hunger and boost the Alexa rating and the advertising rate card. See? The media killed Amy Winehouse. Or if it didn’t, it certainly obliterated any chances she may have had at getting better. This, I know: When the media places your life in a certain frame, over and over, you cannot grow out of that frame. Here is the narrative since 2008: “Amy Winehouse: Hopeless Addict.” Over and over. How could she be anything but? Jesus, we all killed Amy Winehouse.
12:30pm. Someone calls and tells me they saw the thing in the paper about my mom, and I tell them I’m actually kind of more beat up about Amy Winehouse. And: I never saw her perform. She only played San Francisco once, at Popscene right after the record came out. It was completely sold out, and I’d’ve tried to buy a scalped ticked, but she’d already canceled a bunch of shows already and I didn’t want to take chances. Later, she canceled two shows at the Warfield. Man.
1:10pm. Denial. Was Back to Black really even anything special? The soul revival had been on full blast since 1999, with Brainfreeze and Alice Russell and Tru Thoughts and Dap-Tone and Sharon Jones and Sister Funk and Keb Darge, and all Amy Winehouse did was come along and do the same thing but be skinny, and white, and pretty, and have a bloggable hairdo. Hers was a double steal: she wasn’t just hijacking the Shirelles, she was plundering a rich underground club scene. Remembering a pitch to an editor about the Dap-Kings, and how they deserved more credit for making Amy Winehouse who she was. A friend tweets: “Not to downplay the loss of another human life but can we admit that Ronson was the brains behind the operation?” Yeah, like what did Amy Winehouse even do anyway, but what people told her to do?
2:13pm. That’s crazy. I know I really liked Back to Black, played the hell out of it. Didn’t I write something about it when it came out? Oh, look, here it is:
…Winehouse has got a goddamn voice to shake the T-cells out of your bloodstream, replace them with a revamping toxin of shudder and sway and exit your system, laughing, while you walk in perfect rhythm for the next two weeks. By any estimation, it comes from a place deeper and larger than her lanky frame could possibly contain, and it evokes both Dusty Springfield and Gil Scott-Heron, with one part come-hither and two parts gettda-fuck-outta-here. On her sophomore album, Back to Black, she’s backed by a stellar band (aided themselves by the welcome trend of retro-soul recording techniques), sounding thoroughly fresher than the processed sugar fix of most U.K. buzz-girls. The songs are all from Winehouse’s own pen, and they read like a series of esoteric MySpace comments: “What kind of fuckery is this? / You made me miss the Slick Rick gig.”
Yes, it seems, I liked it. (Ha ha, MySpace.) I remember now that it made me feel like a teenager in love, in Detroit, in 1968. And all the songs were written by Amy herself? Okay. I have to listen to this record again. I know death makes music sound different; I’m going into this with my guard up.
2:45pm. My guard is down. Jesus, how does she do it? Those elongated vowels that turn into two, that husk, that phrasing. That phrasing, most of all! No one else on Earth would sing these songs the same way. You know those girls who get up and sing the National Anthem at baseball games, and warble all over the notes in an attempt to be pyrotechnic but just wind up shitting all over the song? You know those girls on American Idol? You know Christina Aguilera? This is nothing like that pyrotechnic warble. This is pure inspiration. And did she really write the songs? Insert sleeve credit check: yes. And those lyrics! “Nowadays you don’t mean dick to me.” Ha! Adele would never sing shit like that. God, I hate Adele.
3:15pm. Even the non-hits are good, like all of Side Two, after “Tears Dry On Their Own.” Listen to it again. How could this have happened? I guess I’ll watch her last performance ever, with her goddaughter or whoever this person is. Some kinda iTunes promotion. They’re singing “Mama Said” together but… wait, they don’t have a microphone for Amy Winehouse?! What? Amy makes the best of it and dances along while looking repeatedly in the wings for a microphone. This translates into “looking confused and out of it” by media reports. Goddamn it all to hell. The media killed Amy Winehouse.
3:36pm. Just sad, for hours and hours.
I finally got on board with the Replacements in 1995 with a cassette of Let It Be, which I played over and over in dual rotation with the Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow. (Westerberg and Morrissey had different filters, but the weary ennui was still there.) I’d remembered seeing their name on the Luther Burbank Center marquee, because any unusual band name sticks out on the Luther Burbank Center marquee when you’re 12. I was too young to go to shows, but I vividly remember that the Psychedelic Furs, the Violent Femmes, X and the Replacements all played there. Who was their booker back then and where are they now?
Anyway, back to 1995—after I’d bought every Replacements record, memorized all the songs and even booked a show for my band in Duluth simply because Duluth is mentioned as an aside in the ‘Hootenanny’ closer “Treatment Bound,” I never could say exactly how, or when, the Replacements broke up. I only knew they were gone; that’s all that mattered. But this here review by Greg Kot, for the Chicago Tribune, happens to be a review of the band’s final show. It’s outside, in Grant Park, and full of about as much enthusiasm as a morning-after bottle is with beer: “Here’s another one you don’t wanna hear,” Westerberg says at one point, “and, frankly, neither do I.”
The show was exactly 20 years ago this week. Time flies.
The Flaming Lips play this weekend at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa, and when I chatted with Wayne Coyne for the Bohemian, he professed that “It’s better to be honest and be true if you’re gonna try to make art and music your life.” Which is something that I could very easily imagine Zone Music’s Frank Hayhurst saying, too.
Has anyone seen the two in a room together? Just sayin’.
(Wayne Coyne photo by Pooneh Ghana, who takes incredibly awesome band Polaroids.)
One of the biggest influences in my listening, but one that I barely ever think about anymore, is The Bobs.
Right alongside Huey Lewis, the Pointer Sisters and Paul Carrack (yes, really), the Bobs serenaded my sisters and I on many a long family car trip on the Blaupunkt stereo—and live at the Luther Burbank Center. If you’ve never heard them, above is some vintage footage of “Art for Art’s Sake,” one of their more accessible tunes; most of their stuff, both lyrics and music, was far sillier. Imagine if Captain Beefheart and Monty Python started a band with no instruments, and titles like “Mopping, Mopping, Mopping” and “Bus Plunge.”
Lead madman Gunnar Madsen was the first to leave the band, and we Melines were a depressed lot over it. I’d hear about Madsen’s solo CDs from my Dad, who kept the Bobs torch aflame while the rest of us moved on, but I was about as interested in a solo CD from Gunnar Madsen as I’d have been in, say, a solo Dorothy Wiggin LP after she left the Shaggs.
So imagine my surprise when I’m reading today’s NYT review of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, a new off-Broadway musical production about the greatest horrible group from the 1960s, and there it is, fourth paragraph: “Music by Gunnar Madsen.”
It’s doubtful that a major record company will release the soundtrack to the Shaggs musical anytime soon, but my imagination can vouch for its importance. My curiosity, meanwhile, can vouch for Madsen sharing the Meline ennui upon leaving the Bobs. In his official bio, he outlines the era: “Life after The Bobs was miserable. I’d grown quite used to having hundreds of fans making me feel good one out of every three nights, and I had nothing to replace it. . . Life was not empty, but it felt like it. I was depressed and couldn’t find a way out. Things were dark.”
Ouch! Even in the seemingly carefree world of goofy a capella, the crush of despair hovers menacingly. Anyway, Gunnar Madsen, if you’ve got a Google Alert on your name, know that you’re not forgotten for enlivening the years 1985-1989, and glad you made it out of the dark pit. Congratulations on the Shaggs job, too—my ability to appreciate Philosophy of the World was likely planted, in one way or another, by your work with the Bobs in the first place.
Yes, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? I feel like I should explain.
A month and a half ago, my wife’s mother collapsed at work. Later, at the hospital, they found multiple tumors—inoperable. She stayed in her hospital room for a few more days, and then she went home, where it was our job to stay with her full-time to make her as comfortable as possible while the cancer took its toll.
I cleared almost everything off my slate, including this blog, in order to take care of things. Now that she’s gone, I’m very, very glad I spent my evenings holding her hand and listening to Iris DeMent’s Infamous Angel with her instead of sitting in my boxers and blogging about festival lineups. Five years ago, when my own mom died suddenly, I didn’t get that chance. So with Susan, I cherished sitting on the bed and eating chocolate shakes with her; listening to tapes she liked, like the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack; letting her granddaughter kiss her hands and play with her necklaces; running my hands through her thinning hair; reminding her to drink water; and at least once a day or so, reminding her how wonderful she was.
She died yesterday. I drove there to say goodbye, and then the people from the mortuary came and took her away. We spent the rest of the day handling some things, and then walking around downtown, and then talking and talking and talking and talking. Susan Seward—riding high in April, shot down in May—raised four kids, lived on The Farm in Tennessee, worked at the Petaluma Library for 25 years and didn’t deserve any of this.
I’ll be back in business here, and playing catch-up. Thanks for waiting.
By now, chances are you’re one of the 100,000 people who today have ratcheted up a ton of views on the completely Bonkersville video for Rebecca Black, “Friday.” Where to begin? The way Autotune makes her pronounce the word “Fraah EE Daayee”? The existential question of which car seat to take? The segment in the bridge where it is very explicitly explained exactly where in the rotation of days of the week Friday falls?
See for yourself:
So yes, you are blown away. My friend Trevor puts it best: “It’s like everyone involved was given cat tranquilizers and then forced at gunpoint to make a video. The expression on her face when she’s saying the “fun fun fun fun” line is somewhere between ‘I’m saying “fun” but that word means something different on our world’ and ‘Help me I am being held hostage by Kim Jong Il and forced to do this.'”
Who the hell made this video?
The answer is Ark Music Factory, a Los Angeles-based company operating as an industry hybrid of Maurice Starr and John Bennett Ramsey. Their casting calls are perfect bait for starry-eyed parents: “If you are a great singer without any material and you want to get discovered,” one reads, “then Ark Music Factory is looking for you.” [It’s now been removed; screen grab here.]
The formula is simple: They’ll fly your child between the specified ages of 13-17 to Los Angeles, write her a “hit,” record it in super-compressed Autotuned production, shoot an edge detection-overlay video and BAM! Maybe your kid can notch up a couple thousand YouTube views while you watch your dreams of being a pop-star parent percolate.
Ark Music Factory was launched last month by Patrice Wilson and Clarence Jey—pictured here with one of their pop stars-in-training, J’Rose. Clarence Jey has a MySpace with songs like “Nasty Boi” and “Party Like the Rich Kids.” The biggest name he’s worked with so far is Richie Kotzen, a guitar player from the 1980s hair-glam band Poison. He’s made a “chillax album,” and apparently has studied his Giorgio Moroder. He’s worked with girls as young as nine years old.
In fact, young girls seem to be Jey and Wilson’s preference, looking at Ark Music Factory’s roster. Here’s CJ Fam, a girl who usually sings at Ronald McDonald fundraisers and County Fairs, starring in “Five Days With Ark Music Factory.” It’s supposed be a commercial for Clarence Jey and Patrice Wilson’s company, but it just looks plain depressing, creepy and horrible:
Ark Music Factory obviously has put a lot of effort into promoting a girl from Madison named Kaya Rosenthal, whose “Can’t Get You Out of My Mind” video was heavily promoted but has already been surpassed in views by Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video since I started typing this post:
Kaya at least understands the music video game—she took part in this spoof of music videos—but most of Ark’s clients appear oblivious to the realities of the music industry. In the comments of another video filmed by Ark Music Factory’s in-house producers, Sarah Maugaotega’s friends ask questions like “howd you make this !?” and “amazing howd you do it?” Sarah’s probably the most natural-sounding and looking singer on Ark’s roster, and her official YouTube channel has only seven subscribers. Nevertheless, this video got made:
The Ark Music Factory video team of Chris Lowe and Ian Hotchkins has some pretty standard teenage boy-girl ideas revolving around breakups, like this video by Ashley Rose, or this dippy, semi-charming video by Britt Rutter…
…both of which trade pretty heavily in teenage tropes like texting and video chat. Then there’s the truly unexplainable videos, like “Crazy” by Darla Beaux, which shows the teenage singer in a straitjacket on a survelliance camera, interspersed with hipstamatic shots. Most of the others are just as formless in concept.
You’ve got to wonder: What if all these Ark Music Factory girls hung out together, for one night? What would happen? Would the space-time continuum rupture? Behold, the Ark Music Factory launch party, which has to be seen to be believed:
Now look—I’m not going to say that Jey or Wilson are pedophiles, like a lot of internet commenters are doing. That’s a really rash conclusion to reach with no evidence, especially when we all know that the music industry thrives on young girls. They’re just doing what every shuckster in L.A. is doing, with the knowledge that short shorts on skinny legs will never go out of style.
But I will point out that their company obviously needs a lot of money to rent Rolls-Royces; pay studio time; shoot videos and rent venues and musicians and soundmen for launch parties. That money ain’t coming from record sales or publishing royalties. It’s coming pretty obviously from rich parents, buying a chunk of the L.A. myth a few days at a time so their kids can brag about it at school and continue to inflate their own vanity.
Is it sad? That depends on your point of view. Is it hilarious that “Friday,” Ark Music Factory’s biggest hit, has gotten famous for being mercilessly made fun of on the internet? You bet it is.
Anyone who watched the Grammys on Sunday night has probably been thinking about fame all week: both the instant fame of people like Justin Beiber, and the slow rise to fame of bands like Arcade Fire. And between the chatter about Mumford & Sons; and “The Song Otherwise Known as ‘Forget You'”; and that idiotic egg and even more idiotic song of Lady Gaga’s, there were two glimmers of what cynical viewers referred to repeatedly around the water cooler the next day as “hope.” Namely, the Grammys awarded to Esperanza Spalding, for Best New Artist, and Arcade Fire, for Album of the Year.
Whether or not Esperanza Spalding’s win over Beiber will signal a true shift away from pop stardom and toward artistry is dubious. But the funny thing about it is what’s usually pretty funny about the Best New Artist category: Esperanza Spalding is nothing new. Nor is she unknown, much as the legions of betrayed Beiber fans want to believe. Spalding’s 2008 album was distributed through Starbucks, and as such was sold, promoted and piped into every outlet of the most ubiquitous worldwide chain since McDonald’s. Locals know her from playing sold-out shows at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival for the last two years, but she’s also been a huge-selling jazz artist worldwide. Lately, she’s sometimes made statements implying a predilection towards playing commercial pop, and chances are this Grammy win will render her next album very, very palatable. But the bottom line: Best New Artist. Spalding fits the description. Beiber? Not a chance.
The Arcade Fire win is a different matter. Within hours of their win, a Tumblr called “Who Is Arcade Fire” popped up, which offers really hilarious catharsis for those who have loved the band since 2004 and who have hated the Grammys for longer. The indignation on display, the utter frustration, the permeating theme that “Nobody Has Ever Heard Of Them“: it’s good for a laugh. The truth, of course, is that Arcade Fire has been destined for worldwide recognition since Pitchfork’s 9.7 review of Funeral in 2004. At that point, Pitchfork had already replaced Rolling Stone or Spin or any other outlet as the go-to for prescient reviews and relevant music news, so the writing was on the wall. Record stores were sold out of the album for three weeks straight.
(For the true nerd, there’s a great little bit by Christgau here about that historic Pitchfork review of Funeral, and the writer who penned it, David Moore. Moore is now into teen bubblegum pop and loves Ashlee Simpson.)
It’s too bad that The Suburbs is the band’s worst album, but that’s how these awards things work. What it means is a whole new generation of music-loving kids are going to be feeling really, really confused, and possibly feel like Arcade Fire are no longer “their” band. I’ve seen Arcade Fire twice since 2005, and one of my favorite things to read in the aftermath this week has been Carles’ take on it at Hipster Runoff, which is trying to be funny but evinces constant traces of real emotional uprising over their new mainstream status. This band meant something to me, he says, dammit, and now this. What now?
All diehard music fans have this moment. Mine came when Green Day signed. I learned swiftly that you can’t own a band—that, in fact, it’s best if the band belongs to the world, messy and superficial and under corporate domination though the world may be. Even though Green Day was no longer on an independent label like Arcade Fire (and yes, their Grammy win is as big a deal for independent labels as everyone is making it out to be), the underground scene that nurtured Green Day still felt a huge sense of ownership in the band. That was a wrong move, or at least a losing one.
Last week I hung out with Mike Dirnt on Steve Jaxon’s show on KSRO. He was up in Santa Rosa do to some interviews for his “other” band, the Frustrators, who play the Phoenix tomorrow. As pointed out in my music column in this week’s Bohemian, the last time Dirnt played the Phoenix with Green Day, right after signing to Warner Bros., there was a group of protesters out front calling themselves the “punk police.”
I wasn’t one of them. Instead, I was hanging around behind the theater with Billie Joe, playing one of Green Day’s new songs I’d taped from the Gilman soundboard back to him on a borrowed guitar. Except I’d written new lyrics for the entire song: “I’m not bein’ punk / I’m just sellin’ out,” I sang to him, to the tune of “Burnout.” He winced. And laughed, sorta, when I finished the song. I was only trying to exaggerate and thus mock the ire of the “punk police”—and later that night, while playing “Burnout” at the Phoenix, he got to the chorus and sang the same lines, about not bein’ punk and just sellin’ out. I knew he still had a sense of humor.
But just like Carles with the Arcade Fire, just like teenagers before him with Death Cab For Cutie, just like a million teenagers and their beloved bands that get huge, one can’t help but get emotional. Aaron Cometbus has produced by far one of the best pieces of rock writing ever with his latest issue of Cometbus, which is a journal of his adventures while touring China with Green Day last year. But moreso, it’s a trip through the complicated feelings one endures while watching something once pure and special and intimate sell thousands of $30 T-shirts in one night to even more thousands of kids in Singapore. There’s laughter, tears, kisses, and an overall sense of reunion—not just between people, but between long-conflicted emotions brought on by the ascension to fame.
As for me, the funny thing is that after letting Green Day go and accepting that they belong to the big wide world all those years ago, hanging out with Mike last week was a reminder that they hadn’t let me go. Mike instantly remembered playing a show I booked for them at Piner High School, and driving around Santa Rosa with me in their van after playing another ridiculous lunchtime show I’d booked at Santa Rosa High School, and the old bands I’d played in, and just about every show they played up here in Santa Rosa. It’s doubtful he remembers much from his third-to-last show on their latest tour of Japan, but there’s something about the early days—of a band, of a relationship, of life itself—that sticks with each and every one of us. I was surprised at first he remembered those times so well, but then again I wasn’t surprised at all: I remember the first few shows I played like they were yesterday.
It might just all come down to the old adage that when you’re least looking for something, it falls in your lap. Esperanza Spalding, Arcade Fire and Green Day weren’t ever looking primarily to be famous, but they were great, and it happened. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga’s obsessed with fame on every level, and might be destined to see her influence on other artists (Minaj, Cee-Lo, etc.) outlive her own artistic relevance. I mean come on. That horrible song? That useless tangent on the organ? “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen”?! Really?
Many of you are familiar with the Hubbub Club Marching Band, the renegade troupe that marches through the streets playing everything from Herbie Hancock to traditional Hungarian folk melodies. They’ve been a splash at the Handcar Regatta, and are a perfect example of why Santa Rosa’s new street performer ordinance is a good idea. They may not have the approval of David Byrne like the Extra Action Marching Band, or the novelty clout of the March Fourth Marching Band, but they’re ours and we love them.
I should let you know that the Hubbub Club gang are trying to raise funds to go to this thing in Austin called Honk TX, which is a Lone Star replica of similar events in Seattle and Boston—basically, a soiree of community street bands from around the country raising hijinks in the street. Their benefit is scheduled for Feb. 13 at Aubergine in Sebastopol, with the Easy Leaves and DJ Broken Record warming up for the brass, drums and xylophones of the Hubbub Club.
But what’s really fascinated me lately is that Jesse Olsen, founder of the Hubbub Club Marching Band, rather quietly released this record called Flightpatterns that was recorded in a giant two-million gallon cistern in Washington state. I bought it off him a month or so ago and each time I listen to it, I like it more. It’s essentially a high-concept sound experiment—there are no “songs,” just sparse melodies played on invented instruments, found objects and what sounds like a trombone. Why it works so well is that the Dan Harpole Cistern (read about it here) has an incredible, natural 45-second reverb. (To put that in perspective, Grace Cathedral has a 7-second reverb.) You can listen to a segment of the recording in the video below.
So what gets me is this: Olsen starts a band that marches wildly out in the streets, causing a ruckus and grabbing people’s attention, and then goes into a quiet space and records an album of meditative sonic reverence. If music is a language, Olsen is speaking it well.
This week’s Bohemian column is on Conlon Nancarrow, the communist expatriate composer who manipulated piano rolls to create ridiculously impossible-to-play sonatas. In poking around to find further information about his life, I found this lovely 1987 interview with Nancarrow by Bruce Duffie. I say “lovely” only because of personal reasons; by most measurements it’s a disappointing interview, because while Duffie probes Nancarrow on any deeper meaning about his music, he keeps deflecting his inquiries.
BD: So where is music going today?
CN: I have no idea. I don’t think anyone else does.
BD: Well, what direction is it heading?
CN: I don’t know.
I should, as someone who interviews people for a living, feel uncomfortable reading this interview. But on the contrary, I applaud Nancarrow’s reluctance to join in the game and settle for giving pap, bullshit answers. Another gem is the mention of the Columbia Records release Studies for Player Piano, which is the subject of my column. In Nancarrow’s own words on the album that introduced him to the public at large: “Incidentally, it’s a very bad recording.”
Here’s a good example of Nancarrow’s music—the Study No. 5:
(Click through for reviews)