I’ve been working a nonstop string of 12-hour days doing construction on my house lately—building a bedroom for my first baby-to-be—and while nailing, sanding, wiring, sheetrocking, and plumbing, I’ve had lots of music-listening time. Construction work is traditionally affiliated with heavy doses of AC/DC, but because I would rather be placed in a vat full of rancid hamburger juice than listen to AC/DC for any extended period of time past, say, two and a half minutes, I’ve had to make do with less-macho tunes.
Okay, okay, I did listen to Thin Lizzy, but hey, it was their first album, which is meandering, sort of psychedelic, and totally cool. No one would mistake it for AC/DC. Its first song is “The Friendly Ranger at Clontarf Castle,” for cryin’ out loud, which is an anagram for “Defer Thinly a Fragrance Transect Toll.” Bon Scott would never come up with something like that.
Jack DeJohnette, who is the most bendable drummer I have ever seen, released a record earlier this year with Danilo Perez and John Pattitucci, both currently with Wayne Shorter’s group. It’s called Music We Are, and if you would like to hear jazz musicians who predate the Bad Plus by many years sound like the Bad Plus, it is the recording for you. Heavy left-hand pumping on the upbeat, drumming that sounds like egg beaters. Pattitucci, as always, is the Entwistle of jazz—anchored and regal.
It Still Moves is the album that sold me on My Morning Jacket, but Okonokos drained my proverbial bank account—I listened to the entire double live album every day for a complete month, if I recall. It’s always weird going back to the studio recording when you’re accustomed to the live versions, and part of me had been thinking about getting rid of all the My Morning Jacket albums besides Okonokos. Yesterday, while screwing drywall, I realized that would be a foolish maneuver.
Smokey Robinson plays a rather expensive concert this weekend at Robert Mondavi Winery, but I want you to consider how your life would be changed if Smokey Robinson had never been born. Think: No Motown as you know it. No “Ooo Baby Baby” or “Who’s Loving You,” or “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” or “I Second That Emotion,” or . . . ah, I could go on and on. And speaking of live versions that rival studio recordings, check out this footage of “Tracks of My Tears,” proving Smokey Robinson is still in top form. Wait for the bridge, and man, brother, that’s from 2008! Now dry your eyes, and let’s move on.
It is the fate of even the greatest DJ mix CDs to be listened to for a week, absorbed, loved, and discarded. For some reason, I’ve kept Andy Smith’s The Document around for years now, probably because of the presence of both Peggy Lee and the Jeru the Damaja on one mix. Paul Nice’s Soul on the Grill has stayed with me for years, too. Others, like Cut Chemist & DJ Shadow’s Brainfreeze or Z-Trip and Radar’s Future Primitive Soundsession, belong in a mixtape hall of fame of sorts; admired from behind glass, remembered for their achievements, and rarely listened to ever again.
Litany for the Whale has put out Dolores, an album I cannot help but compare to Converge’s Jane Doe. It begins with a couple terrifying minutes of noise courtesy of the Velvet Teen’s Judah Nagler—I think of it as a more ferocious, cracked-out stepsister of “Sartre Ringo,” from Elysium, and makes stronger the case for noise as composition. The rest of the album is like morphine for people raised on hardcore, which is not to say it’s wimpy. Just soothing.
Some nights are Lennon Sisters nights. Others, the Boswell Sisters. Lately I’ve been resting my bones to the McGuire Sisters and their collection Just For Old Times’ Sake. I can do without the honkey education of “The Birth of the Blues,” but give me signature songs by Jimmy Durante, Johnny Mathis, the Platters, April Stevens and Duke Ellington sung by some effervescent gals on a diet of Jesus and yellow corn, and I’m there.
I know nothing about Woods, except that they are unfortunately from Brooklyn. Making the discovery that a good band is from Brooklyn is a lot like discovering a good baseball player is on steroids. Therefore, I wish Woods were from Lexington, especially since they sound far more Kentuckian than Park Slopian. They also bear the distinction of being the first band in some months whose record I bought after hearing them on the radio. It’s messy, untied, and perpetual.
Speaking of the radio, 95.9 KRSH has been getting lots of construction airplay on the job site. I am always thrilled when the KRSH plays things like Spoon or M. Ward, which happens every so often, but even more glad when hear “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” as sung by Hayes Carll. Something about “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” always seemed corny to me, especially when the Ramones covered it. Hayes Carll turns the same words and chords into a completely believable treatise on eternal adolescence. It’s like the song was written just for him. Bill Bowker yesterday also dropped the needle on Jeff Buckley’s version of “I Know It’s Over,” which reminds me of two things: 1) Jeff Buckley is one of the fortunate few who could actually present a necessary Smiths cover, and 2) Bill Bowker has now been on the radio for 40 years. Way to go, Bill!
Also on the ghetto blaster, competing with the nailgun: the Majesticons’ Beauty Party, the Blasters’ Hard Time, The Queen is in the Closet, Los Lobos’ Good Morning Aztlan, Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, and quite a few spins of Drum Dance to the Motherland by the Khan Jamal Creative Arts Ensemble.
I’m gonna be a dad here in the next few days, and then I’ll see you again soon.
1. If Beyoncé were placed inside a time capsule and sent into space, aliens would immediately decide to become friends with Earthlings.
2. Every outfit Beyoncé wore last night at the Oracle Arena in Oakland showed off her legs.
3. Three cheers to the cameraman for putting a feverishly hugging gay couple on the jumbotron during “If I Was a Boy.”
4. Beyoncé is like every pop superstar before her wrapped up in one but without the narcissism. “Ave Maria” was pure Streisand, leather beefcake dancers pure Madonna, ever-increasingly noticeable doses of Michael throughout.
5. Beyoncé now has the most touching tribute to Michael Jackson yet. End of the show, during “Halo,” a canned but nonetheless incredibly moving speech about how he showed her the way—preceded by a video of her when she was a child, emulating his moves, and concluded with altered lyrics about his lasting influence. It beats any other token tribute I’ve seen.
6. Mid-show: bass solo, behind the head, to “Billie Jean.” Beyoncé’s band is all-female, a fact she has every right to point out three or four times throughout the show.
7. Sorry, took a break there. Did I mention Beyoncé is our Earth’s ambassador to space?
8. The feminism of Beyoncé is what the Spice Girls always promised but never delivered: the “Be sexy, but own it, be in control of yourselves and support each other” feminism. Snippets of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” and Alanis Morisette’s’ “You Oughta Know” proved she knows her Lilith Fair history, but she makes being a strong woman seem way more exciting than the Lilith Fair ever did. (My heart will actually stop if Beyoncé adds “Double Dare Ya” to her set on this tour.)
9. Beyoncé’s brand of feminism also leaves little room for women who don’t look like Beyoncé, so the point might be moot.
10. People-watching prize: the group of middle-aged women wearing matching custom T-shirts, reading “Fun and 50.”
11. I did not text my special message to the jumbotron before the show, but the girl who told the entire arena she was going to lose her virginity after the show definitely did.
12. There’s a go-to look of wonder that Beyoncé splashes across her face at a moment’s notice, like she’s seeing God or something. Most of the time, I believe her.
13. Okay, okay—walking down the aisle, singing directly to her fans. Oh shit, singing directly to a small child! Holding his hand, looking right into his eyes, singing straight to him—and the kid looks bored, like he’s in math class. 20,000 lbs. of envy in the room.
14. The only thing more exciting than “Crazy in Love” is taking a bathroom break and seeing the Giants’ no-hitter up on the lobby screen. SO CONFLICTED.
15. Scratch everything I’ve just said. The most important thing about Beyoncé is that she resurrects the pop music ideal of mass emotional oneness: everyone feeling like everyone else feels exactly the way they do at that precise moment. This is actually her greatest tribute to Michael Jackson, whether she knows it or not. Evidence during last night’s show included a YouTube collage of “Single Ladies” dances (Hey, we all did that!), footage of the Obamas dancing at the Neighborhood Ball, during “At Last” (Hey, we all watched that!) and allowing the entire crowd to sing “Irreplaceable”’s first verse and chorus (Hey, we’re all doing this, right now, here, together!). Michael had that effect in droves across the world; no one besides Beyoncé has had it to such a degree since.
16. (Side note: “Minute” does not rhyme with “minute.”)
17. Those in the $500 front-row “diva zone” seats were deservedly doted upon, with multiple sweat-towels thrown, hands touched repeatedly, and one guy from Hawaii with a sign that said “It’s My Birthday” who got “Happy Birthday” sung to him. We’d joked about the people who paid $500 for seats, but damn.
18. Second stage, in the middle of the floor, about 25’x25’. Crazy-intimate. Everyone standing on chairs, crowding in tight, taking videophone footage, especially during “Video Phone.” Beyoncé crouching down, talking to fans, reaching out, “seeing God” wonder-face in abundance, genuine gratitude, asking people to say her name. People 100 ft. away in “diva zone” bummed.
19. “She’s sexy, but she’s sexy like a man,” says Liz.
20. End of show, after child-serenading, after Michael tribute, after walking through the crowd flanked by security, after outpouring of love in both directions, the phrase “I Am…” flashes on the screen. “I Am.” Surely, “Sasha Fierce.” No? “I Am…” “YOURS.” “I am yours,” Beyoncé says. “I will give you 100% of everything I have.” Unfuckwithable, because even though in reality Beyoncé’s one of the most private celebrities in the world, she’s just created a sociological time-emotion-music-love vortex in Oakland. How is it possible, night after night? With absolutely pitch-perfect, non-lip-synched singing? Is she even from this planet? Someone please explain.
Just when I was thinking that over-the-top adventure metal had exhausted the last falsetto yowls from its already-limited substance–think Sonata Arctica, 3 Inches of Blood, Dragonforce—comes the Metal Shakespeare Co., a self-described “bardcore” band who turn to the ultimate source: William Shakespeare. Taking Hamlet’s famous speech from Act II, Scene I, and putting it to shredding hammer-on solos and pounding drums? Instant crush on all these dudes.
The video is below; look for the amazing hobby-horse. And don’t miss ‘em when they play at Gilman St. on July 25.
Easily the best thing on the internet today is Beck’s conversation with Tom Waits in a new series on his website he’s calling “irrelevant topics.” It’s not exactly an interview; the two talk loosely but engagingly about homemade submarines, the longevity of songs, the lost works of van Gogh and Euripides, the strength found in poor amplification and of course, Los Angeles, where they both grew up.
Not every town gets their song. Actually, Sinatra tried to do a song about Los Angeles. It was really lame. Really lame. It embarrassed the shit out of me.
For all the love Quincy Jones has been getting in the last week, it’s nice to hear someone point out a complete turkey that he produced: “L.A. Is My Lady.” I’m a huge Sinatra fan, and L.A. Is My Lady is absolute dreck.
Part Two is coming next week, but for the time being, Part One is essential reading and can be found here.
Dirty Projectors are a band from Brooklyn who’ve just released Bitte Orca, a highly rewarding and stylized piece of music that’s one of my favorite records right now, and unlike anything else I’ve heard—with the exception of other records by Dirty Projectors.
Rise Above, the band’s previous release, came promoted with a high-concept backstory, a fact I only lately discovered but to which I pay little heed. I became enamored with it not for any ostentatious artistic process (apparently, re-creating Black Flag’s Damaged album from memory) but for the highly unusual end result. After all, until that point, I had never heard a man desperately yowling about being beaten by police officers over Ali Farka Toure riffs while a chorus of girls sang timidly in the background.
A friend of mine recently remarked that Bitte Orca is “everything I wanted all the other Dirty Projectors’ stuff to sound like in my head,” and I know what he means. Sharper songwriting and structure are only two of the reasons I replayed Bitte Orca three times in a row when I first got it; it also has a needed variety, with backup singers Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian taking lead vocals on a handful of tracks with a gut-hitting sonic depth. (Suddenly, for example, you can hear the bass guitar.)
Recalling Talking Heads’ meteoric public impact, opinions on Dirty Projectors are extreme and disparate. So it’s no wonder that David Byrne is a fan, even appearing with the band at Radio City Music Hall earlier this year, or that Bjork, who joined them at Housing Works Bookstore Café in downtown Manhattan the same week, shares the fascination. Even the freeway gods have gotten involved—last month, the band’s tour van flipped over on the freeway outside Detroit—and a long line of people down Divisadero outside the Independent in San Francisco tonight hoping for last-minute tickets represented locally the worldwide craze for the Weird Little Band From Brooklyn That Could. I truly had no idea what to expect live. Are the girls on the record cover even in the band?
Longstreth and Deradoorian took the stage opening the show with “Two Doves,” a lovely ballad, before the full band came out for Orca opener “Cannibal Resource.” Yes, the girls on the record cover are in the band, and a third helped out with harmonies like pitter-pat hailstorms (“Remade Horizon“) or R&B jams (“Stillness is the Move“). Tight and polished from constant touring, the band was locked in and fluid. Liveliness is an asset; Longstreth, who plays his guitar backwards, left-handed and with no pick, doppelganged a hulking presence around the stage on the balls of his feet, and basically said nothing to the crowd other then a rote “Hey, how ya doin’? Awesome.”
The crowd stayed silent, adding to the weirdness, but probably they were just asking themselves: Is “Stillness is the Move” the motherfucking jam of the summer? Why do guitar players need to play with huge amps when tiny Fender practice amps get the job done? Do drummers ever worry about “the Battles effect” when they place their crash cymbals up high? Is the Salt Lake City look the new thing? What’s with people who buy New Age CDs when they could simply listen to “Rise Above” over and over for enlightenment? Remember that one girl? The one who always tucked her shirt in the back of her high-rise jeans but not the front? Whatever happened to her?
Here’s what happened to me: I played Bitte Orca so many times in the last couple weeks that the songs began to sound normal; I’d anticipate all the quirks and idiosyncracies of the songs, like a roller coaster I’d been on twenty times. But seeing the songs played live made them wonderfully mysterious and bizarre all over again—mystery that you can dance to, I might add. So bring on the fans. Here’s to Dirty Projectors’ flight out of their artistic nest and into the real world; especially since their world still contains Gary Moore and the Andrews Sisters.
Early last week at Yoshi’s Go Left Fest, drummer Sunny Murray—easily one of the most important stickmen in 1960s avant-garde jazz—came out on stage, sat down at his kit, and started calling out for a woman he once dated in San Francisco 40 years ago. No one answered.
“You’re just hiding because you got remarried,” he proposed, directing his next comments to the imaginary husband of the absent woman. “I was going to kill her first husband, you know. Sun Ra gave me a .38. I love guns, I’ll shoot your ass, boy.”
With this, he laughed. “I’m not gonna kill you,” Murray added. “I’ll just shoot your kneecaps off.”
Murray, who established his career by drumming on famous sessions alongside Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Alan Silva, Archie Shepp and a host of other breakneck pioneers, then picked up his sticks. He is 73, and his drumming has slowed but not entirely abandoned propulsion. His trio, Positive Knowledge, played one steady stream of music for over a half hour, combining reeds, gongs, poetry and noise. For an avant-garde festival, it felt strangely behaved.
At the end, Murray was still thinking about that beautiful woman from 40 years ago who got away. He approached the microphone. “She was half Filipino, from San Francisco,” he told the crowd. “My wife took one look at her and said ‘Why’d you leave her for me?!’”
“I told her, ‘Because I love you, motherfucker!’”
Then he walked off the stage.
2nd & D, Santa Rosa:
There are certain deaths whose sting of importance have always stayed with me. I heard about Kurt Cobain on TV, inside a Tower Records in London. Jerry Garcia, on tour driving through Kentucky, on the van radio. Joe Strummer, on a computer.
I was born in 1975, and Michael Jackson was the first superstar I ever loved. His was also the first death I watched unfold slowly online, in a sterile, digital environment made suddenly alive by speculation. During the purgatory of truth, when TMZ had the story but no reputable news sources could confirm, I, like the rest of the world, went to about 10 different news sites which had nothing—and then to Facebook, which had even less. A Twitter search for “Michael Jackson” turned up countless entries, and after a mere 30 seconds went by, the mind-boggling message: “There have been 5,675 new entries since your last search. Click here to refresh.”
Upon finding the L.A. Times confirmation, I swallowed a hard lump in my throat. I’d been joking about it with my co-worker, suspending just enough disbelief to make light of the situation, but I’ll admit it: I was sunk.
I lament the demise of the superstar from time to time, but what I’m really pining for, personally, is to have another Michael Jackson. To have another icon so completely capture the world’s attention, without any haters or snark. That such a thing will never happen is as much a statement on Michael Jackson’s greatness as it is on the changed landscape. The entertainment industry was far more consolidated in 1983, and one’s choices were either Michael Jackson or Black Flag, with not much in between. Now there’s a million options, and a million opinions, and an internet to dilute it all and to serve as a platform for information and negativity instead of knowledge and hope.
But also, sure. I was 8. At Mark West Elementary School, where I loyally wore a white sequined glove most days, Michael Jackson was king. No one questioned his superiority. It seems incredible to have once been in an environment where I agreed with everyone’s musical tastes, and perhaps this is part of the idyll of Michael Jackson. Nowadays, we pay $50 to share an experience with like-minded people; in 1983, we just had to go to the playground and there’d be a group of kids surrounding a flat piece of cardboard practicing the moonwalk.
But after a while, I woke up one day and Mark West Elementary had decided that Michael Jackson was a fag. The worst insult stopped being “You shop at Kmart” and instead became “You like Michael Jackson.” This was a sad and confusing day for me. I tried to tell everyone they were wrong, that Michael Jackson was the best. Thinking about it now, my campaign was worse than unsuccessful—it actually completely decimated what little social standing I’d managed to acquire.
“If you love Michael Jackson so much,” one particularly knuckleheaded bully demanded, “then why don’t you go out on a date with him?”
“I would go on a date with Michael Jackson,” I replied, and, further twisting the knife on my own suicide, added, for reasons unfathomable to me now, “In fact, if I had a piece of his poo I would keep it in a jar by my bed.”
I got beat up a lot in the next five years.
Why would I say such a thing? I’d like to think I was keenly reacting to unfair treatment of a genuine talent with theatre of the absurd, or that I was presaging the vicious cycle of celebrity at work and wanted to monkeywrench its purveyors. But basically I said it because it was the truth. I loved Michael Jackson’s music, but I loved even more what Michael Jackson gave me: a sense that I was really a lot cooler than I really was.
If I could just master the moonwalk, I‘d think to myself, incessantly rewinding the Motown 25 special we’d taped on the family VCR and scrutinizing Jackson’s every step in slow-motion. If I could just wear my pants high, or memorize all his songs, or play them on the piano, or get that red jacket, I could have a piece of what he has. Such innocence is as tragic on the outside as it is triumphant from the inside, but it wouldn’t have been right for someone to tell me that Michael Jackson couldn’t solve all my problems. Foolish innocence has to run its course naturally and brutally.
In the next year or so, I got into Herbie Hancock, the Force M.D.s and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam. Then Run DMC came along, and everything changed. Michael was still great, but he wasn’t the only great. In the shadow of rap music, his tough-guy act in the corny video for “Bad”—all eyes glued for the world television premiere—was unconvincing. The album was good, but it was 1987, I was 11, and I’d discovered other good music. How can a kid actually worship Michael Jackson after discovering the Smiths?
Dangerous was an afterthought; the party was over. Michael Jackson’s music entered that weird area occupied by the Beatles and Huey Lewis—music that I loved and memorized by heart and that I never needed to hear again. I discovered punk rock and criticized the corporate music industry and its sinister star system, and I turned my back on its most successful product. Plus, when Jackson started getting weirder and weirder, I was ashamed that all those years ago, Mark West Elementary was sort of right.
My story isn’t far different from anyone else’s. We all watched him slide, and we all groaned at the late night TV jokes, and we all shrugged our shoulders. What good would worrying about his well-being do? He lived on another planet, one where talent was processed by his lungs and where shame was used as currency. One where real money was used to recreate Graceland’s gaudiness and to buy the Beatles’ catalog from under McCartney’s nose, and where laughably unrealistic confidence in Invincible caused him to lose everything.
Watching the events unfold online yesterday, the quip I saw repeated most was that “the real Michael Jackson died a long time ago.” But the real us died a long time ago too. We all got so callous and sure and filled with judgment that the part of us once able to be spellbound by an intoxicating pop song and an unbeatable performer died, and we failed to realize the Dorian Gray effect of his deteriorating face reflecting the grotesque nature of the world.
And still, from inner-city nightclubs to suburban wedding receptions, his music never failed to fill the dance floor.
I don’t have my sequined glove anymore, or my sheet music to “Say Say Say,” or my demographic-assured allegiance to Pepsi. I have not listened to one note of his music since he died yesterday. Gravity tore us apart. But I cannot deny what he once meant to me, and how he once gave me hopes and dreams far beyond reality in a distant world completely different than the way we know it now.
As I write this, TMZ is reporting that Michael Jackson has died.
While I, like the rest of the world, keep refreshing the New York Times and CNN for a more reputable confirmation, I share a piece of my discussion with Kate, the Bohemian calendar editor.
“What if,” I posited, “he wasn’t actually dead? I think that’d be crazier than him actually dying—if TMZ jumped the gun and got it wrong.”
“Yeah, right,” Kate replied. “Like, wouldn’t it be awesome for Michael Jackson if he actually wasn’t dead?”
She paused. “I mean, other than he’d get to be alive?”
(Update: He’s Gone.)