Thursday, March 31, 2005

Censorship- It's the American and Russian way!

A recent article in Reason magazine, Cathy Young's Religion in Art? Nyet!, chronicles the troubling return of art censorship in Russia. The government is looking to pass laws to harshly punish these supposed miscreants while a court case looms over their head. The article concludes:

"The absurd witch-hunt in Russia is a cautionary tale for the United States as well. If nothing else, it should show us the true worth of President Vladimir Putin's protestations that Russia is firmly on the road to democracy. It is also a demonstration of the dangers of hate speech laws, of criminalizing expression that offends people's sensibilities, and of equating criticism of religion with bigotry. These are relevant issues we face at home, too. "

All of which might seem a little harsh if it wasn't for current events. A New York Times article, Under New Chief, F.C.C. Considers Widening Its Reach, explains how new honcho Kevin J. Martin wants to extend the amorphous indecency fines to apply to cable, satellite and the Internet. Anything that's deemed 'offensive' by their ever-changing standards is going to face stiffer penalties than ever. Congress is gung-ho as it can be about this and Dubya is just ducky with the idea. Which is pretty funny as we were supposed to be lecturing Mr. Putin on the benefits of a free, open society recently. In Young's article above, talk of how certain art 'offends people's sensibilities' sounds chillingly familiar. Jail time isn't a option here yet but how smug can we get when we're ready to use six figure fines and threaten to take away broadcasters' licenses?

What this means is that ANY form of mass entertainment may become subject to these rules. Right now, the focus is on TV and radio but that's sure to also include music and movies, two of the favorite scapegoats/bogeymen of Washington when they need to point to reasons why American society is drowning in a cesspool of immorality. A government dictating morality doesn't sound very democratic and if we're really trying to teach the Russians anything (shining example that we are), we're teaching them the wrong lesson here.

Part of Putin's recent crackdowns has also included the press. So far our own government has decided to plant their own people in the 4th estate's ranks and I don't think their goal is to arrest any unwanted elements there (though I'm sure they'd be happy to if they could) but instead to discredit the profession so that their own 'news' will get out the way that they want it: Beat the Press from the San Antonio Current is a excellent survey of this problem.

And again, to anyone in the entertainment world who thinks that this messy political stuff has nothing to do with you, then you're just burying your head in the sand. As we have less and less outlets for our writing and the ones that remain get more and more neutered, except that you'll have to be doing a lot more online writing if you want to get your words out there in a way that you can live with. As such, I'm so damn grateful that I have a day job that has nothing to do with this industry.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Who's gonna miss CGBG's (or any other New York club)?

I'd never seen Tonic so packed but that shouldn't be surprising when you squeeze in a band who's audience has long outgrown the small club scene. Yo La Tengo (who usually plays the likes of much larger spaces like Town Hall) was playing a benefit there, raising hundreds of dollars that one night for a club that was in financial peril. Tonic has been struggling to keep itself open, troubled by rent increases, insurance, maintenance problems and the usual fun that a club has to contend with. Instead of being resigned to such a sad fate, they actually did something about it and organized fund-raisers like the YLT show, took PayPal donations. And you know what? They've almost reached their financial goal. I donated and wrote a testimonial for Tonic because I believe in the club.

Tonic is unique because it has character, soul. There's an intangible quality to it. The kind of cutting edge jazz and modern classical music that used to be the staple of the Knitting Factory thrives there. The Knit is essentially an indie rock haven now (though they have a good mix of indie rap too) but Tonic itself doesn't turn its nose up at such a thing (I saw a good Silkworm show there recently). Actually, the Knit itself is unique in the way it's laid out- it's got an main level bar, a main space, a lower level bar/performance space and a lower, lower level bar/performance space. You have three sets of shows there every night and could float from space to space if you like (paying to get into each place though). The problem is that what unlike Tonic, it doesn't have a special character to it- you could conceivably see a lot of the shows there at other places around the city. The booker there is a remarkably open person who always asks me who are good bands to sign up for shows (I like to recommend the Churchills who will be huge one day if they play their cards right and the Tall Boys). If you could combine a space like the Knit with the booking policy of Tonic, you'd have a killer club indeed (still, the lower level Sub Tonic does have huge hollowed-out wine caskets to sit in and smoky DJ ambiance to soak up).

And there in a nutshell is the problem with most clubs in Gotham- they're usually either characterless in terms of the space itself or booking policy (or both sometimes). As much as I love Irving Plaza for making sure that bands actually go on when they're supposed and not overcrowding for sold out shows, I doubt that I'd go to the mat for them if they faced the same problems as Tonic. The Anchorage in Brooklyn is no more becuase of post 9/11 security concerns but when it was open, it was a hell of space: based inside the Brooklyn bridge itself, they had brief summer concert series with a variety of experiment artists and installations held throughout its huge, cavernous spaces. It was one of the few places I'd try to go to regularly not just because I trusted their booking policy but because the space itself was something to marvel at. When Holger Czukay saw it, he remarked "this is where I must play my next New York show." Sadly, it closed before he got the chance to do that but how many New York clubs would a performer say the same thing about?

Unfortunately, you have a lot of clubs at the other end of the spectrum where you only go to see a band you really like. Coney Island High was like that- I'd been there night when it was so packed that people would pass out and have to be carried outside. Similarly, I don't anyone who gets exited about going to Roseland Ballroom or Mercury Lounge (quite the opposite, actually). The Knit and Webster Hall (which does have a charming ballroom design) are also notorious for being sweatboxes, even in the middle of winter.

Some people would tell you the same thing about another club in financial trouble, CBGB's. But supporters would point to one thing it has in its favor that these other clubs don't have going for them: history. This was the birthplace of punk but that was over a quarter-century ago. Owner Hilly Kristal is seen as hero but Terry Ork should be knighted also- he was the one who twisted Kristal's arm to let Television and the Ramones play there (both of whom Kristal hated at first) to open the doors for the punk scene there. On the site's history column written by Kristal, his last entry ends like this: "1977 was the beginning of a tumultuous period for punk and CBGBs." That's very poignant because anything he could document after that would be tough to match the club's former glories.

And so it's been for the last few decades. Fans and bands get excited about being there because of what had happened there in the mid/late 70's. Once in a while, you'd see a great show of strength though. One anniversary show had Dictators, Marshall Crenshaw, Arto Lindsay and Lenny Kaye and I'd also caught Camper Van Beethoven (mid 80's) and Burnt Sugar there a few years ago. But those were exceptions and not the rule there. Nowadays, they're ready to book any band that can bring in 15-20 people. Once in a while, an old band or artist would do a nostalgia gig there but would anyone show it up was just a place called the Puss Palace? To their credit, the next door furniture-strewn CBGB Lounge (where Dee Pop has hosted a fascinating series of outre jazz bills) and the cozy 313 Gallery (a cleaner, more intimate setting where they had a wonderful punk-era photo exhibit) are worth seeing but the main club itself? On the girlgroup mailing list (for femme music journos), Time Out editor Elisabeth Vincentelli rightly wondered how many people were regularly going to CB's anymore- she wasn't. Even New York Rock columnist Jeanne Fury (a booster for underground punk/rock if there ever was one) had to admit there that she herself wasn't making the rounds there much now.

Though it would normally be easy to point to some greedy landlord, the villain in this case is Bowery Residents Committee, an organization that helps the homeless. CB's has maintained that BRC has skyrocketed the rent but they maintain that this is an issue of back-rent owed- see this letter forward from writer Deborah Frost for more information.

Along with finances, I think this also goes back to the problem of unique (and not so unique) spaces. A number of news reports like to cluster the trouble that CB's, Tonic, Fez and other NYC clubs are having now but as much as I like to see more not less options for music here, you have to wonder if some of these places really should survive. CB's demands that it should be around because of what happened there decades ago and unlike Tonic, they haven't mounted any serious fundraisers to save themselves, instead rely on an upcoming summer court battle to resolve this.

The graveyard of New York clubs is an extensive one. Other than Coney Island High, some other ones that went down in the last few years were Wetlands, Brownies, the Bottom Line and Luxx. BL and Wetlands each had character to them in terms of booking policy but the former suffered the same problem as CB's with antiquated bookings and strongarming from New York University- Blender editor Rob Tannenbaum wrote a powerful letter to NYU, telling them that if they closed BL, then the university should take the words "New York" out of their name. Socially conscious Wetlands (with its wonderful carpeted, theatre seated downstairs) had its rent skyrocket to make way for more lucrative tenants though the classical rock/soul roster found its way to BB King's. The Cooler was another regrettable casualty as it combined the eerie ambiance of the meat packing place it once was with all manner of music from krautrock legend Michael Rother to DJ Afrika Bambaataa to Sleater-Kinney in their early days.

When you go further back, you see many more club corpses. You had wonderful clubs with character (the rootsy Lone Star Roadhouse), friendly space (Tramps) and neither (the Ritz, where I nevertheless did see My Bloody Valentine, Pavement and Superchunk all in one show in the early 90's), most of them going down in the 90's. Going back even further to the 80's, Max Kansas City (a rival to CB's), Peppermint Lounge and the Great Gildersleeves (which YLT toasted at their Tonic show) all took the fall. Even before that, the 70's counted the Electric Circus, Fillmore East and the Mercer Arts Center as casualties. All of which is to note that clubs come and go quite a bit here or in any big city, no matter how much patronage or history they have. You get the feeling that if some kind of horrible fate was about to fall to say Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, the NYC government would bend over backwards to stop this from happening for obvious reasons- these institutions speak more to the 'quality of life' shtick that they're always trying to push (which is usually an excuse to give it up to a big-shot developer or open another chain store).

And just as all of this was rolling around in my brain, I spied a Time Out New York cover with a headline of "Clubs That Don't Suck." Admittedly, that's more eye-catching that "Clubs We Like" but you get the feeling that the semantics there speak to the obvious fact that people are weary of many late night spots. While pumping up an upcoming hipster hang-out, they also apologetically admit up front that most of the clubs are nothing special in terms of layout- what makes these places worthwhile are the DJ's that call them home. TONY goes on to toast "Night Visionaries," promoters and DJ's that light up the nightlife though the dance/DJ focus makes them regrettably forget about rock impresarios like Dan Selzer and Todd P. I can also attest to the power of Motherfucker's party machine- they held a Valentine's show in Chelsea a few years ago with Radio 4 in the middle of a blizzard and still had a strong turnout (it was there than I finally understood the White Stripes' "Fell In Love With A Girl," seeing three topless dancers grind to it after being tin-eared to the tune for weeks before that). As much as the clubs themselves, it's these people that do truly make the club scene worthwhile. They don't necessarily pledge allegiance to any particular venue but their names are quality enough to ensure a memorable show where-ever they go.

In the end, it's not just greedy landlords that make life-or-death decisions about whether any club out there is going to make it. It's you the consumer who also makes the decision based on your patronage. If there's any venue that you adore and would miss if it disappeared, you could perform a bold act of support just by merely showing up there when you can and maybe even taking some friends there or talking up the place. I've tried to do that with Tonic and here's hoping that you can do the same with your favorite late-night haunt. For me, that is a central issue in my own quality of life.

Even better, if you're ambitious and have some entrepreneurial spirit, be like John Zorn and open your own place (his club, the Stone is opening this Friday, corner of 2nd St. & Avenue C). The recent TONY issue has good advice on doing this: Figure Out Your Figures, Develop A Solid Plan, REALLY Know Your Investors, Get a Good Architect, Don't Be A Stranger (to the neighborhood) and Don't Hire Rookies. It'll be tough but it'll be fun and you'll be helping to make your town a better place to be in. And if you chose an interesting space and have an adventurous, unique series of shows, I promise to frequent it myself and bring along friends too.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

BNB's ("Blogs" not blogs) will be the real threat to trad media

I've just read my 5000th story about how blogs won't take over Mainstream Media (or MSM as it's derisively known now). When any new medium pops up, the automatic reaction is fear and loathing from old mediums. Radio was supposed to destroy print while print and movies were supposed to be destroyed by TV and VCR's were supposed to destroy movies, P2P was going to destroy music, etc.. Nevertheless, all of these are still around and ubiquitous. As many print editorials note, the stories that they report on allow many bloggers to exist and survive because they can then comment on the stories on their site. That won't last for long though.

Usually, when we see stories about blogs and MSM, it's just a set-up. It's always written by someone from MSM who's usually defensive and thus, the answer is always that blogs are not a real threat. But they're right about it nevertheless, at least so far. When they make this unfair, slanted match-up, they're always referring to how blogs fare against news reporting- invariably, blogs come up short. If there's a story about a warehouse fire for example, a TV or print reporter will find it easier to get resources to cover the story than any blogger who would jump in a car and drive out to the scene (maybe having to leave a day job or something else they're doing). The reporter on the scene could then do a blog to expand on what they've reported but we've seen little of that except in Iraq (and less and less of that now). The best a blogger can then do is to link to an article about the event or comment about it.

But in the world of entertainment, it's a much more level playing field. Here, all you need is a computer, a fertile mind and access to the movie or CD or book or museum or play. What's to stop you from writing your own review otherwise? Since blogging is becoming more commonly seen and read, the biggest names and most linked sites can likely get labels or studios or publishers to front them advances so that their write-up's can appear simultaneously with a release date. And there you have the whole promise of the egalitarian nature of the Net in all of its glory.

The reason that the arts are more accommodating for a blogger is the reason that the field doesn't really threaten MSM: by nature, blogs are off-the-cuff opinion pieces and usually not 'hard news.' At least for now.

Blogs are being used a lot of different ways for a lot of different purposes. Usually, we just think that they're places for people to let their thoughts roam free. But because it's a hot new medium, it's also seen as something that can be exploited for other means. Many companies are now putting up blogs, having their senior management keep their own public journals. Believe me, they're mostly not anything that you'd want to read- they're basically very, very thinly veiled PR (i.e. Google, Yahoo).

The idea here is that since this has become such a booming area of the Net that's generating such interest, these companies can get in on it and become 'bloggers' without really being bloggers per se. They tout new initiatives by their company but do it in the style of a blog (personalized) so that it doesn't totally look like a press release. The best company blogs out there actually provide some useful information that doesn't constantly push the organization: Security Awareness, Forbes (no kidding), ZDNet, Webmail. It's actually pretty wise of them to do this as you're sucked into their realm and finding useful things there. You can also bet your gluteus maximus that they have a lawyer to vet what's there- despite all of the warning language, those sites are still technically part of the company's online presence and representing them in some sense.

You'll also notice that a number of entries at these sites look like articles and that's no accident. In the blogsphere, many of the biggest names are already known entities in the print world (i.e. Andrew Sullivan) but you notice that many times, their blogs look like blogs (i.e. random thoughts and sightings) and not full blown articles. It's not just time that limits them from doing such but the fact that they already have readily-available outlets for their longer, more in-depth work. For them, the blogsphere is another place to get the word out about themselves and their work and for their employers, it's a good way to break into the blogsphere, using proven entities that are tied to them. Since companies don't have the same luxury of regular print columns and have to rely on dry press releases to get their word out, they use the blog medium to also get the word out about their work but in a more humanized way that will hopefully reflect well on their image.

The idea of "blogs" that aren't really blogs per se is something that you'll see more of and not just as corporate promos. You can set up a blog that looks like one (logo on top, previous postings and links on the side, main section with entries by day, archive of previous postings) and reads like a blog (again, the personalized, spontaneous style) but it's not really a blog beneath the surface. If you have an editor reviewing the material and having it vetted by other people, then it's not really a blog but a regular piece of journalism.

The idea of the blog-not-blog (BNB's, if you like acronyms) is too appealing just for corporations- I guarantee you that news organizations are working on the same model for themselves. For the traditional newsgathers, this is a way to do their usual job but like the company blogs, they can present it in this fresh way to attract online eyeballs. For upstart news companies, this same BNB model can work well- you do your usual job of covering a story with a team of people BUT you present it as a blog to make it look cooler. The additional effort in doing this is minimal and can get additional clout for your business. You could even do your regular report in print (or TV or radio) and then put up any additional info with some personalized touches as a BNB- many print writers do this legitimately for stories that were cut or edited.

By extension, even less scrupulous BNB's can come about too. If your station or publication doesn't want to be too tied to blogs that look official, there's nothing to stop them from having their own employees start fake blogs that look to be just your average person out there but actually works under their wing. They can have links and banners back to the company and give the occasional, subtle shout-out to the org and maybe some digs at rivals.

News companies may have something to fear from BNB's because unlike your regular blogger, they have the goods to actually compete with them on news as opposed to opinion pieces. The simple solution is to man yourself with your own BNB to compete. Consider this for a minute and you can see how dizzying this can become.

In the end, some of the more artful, thoughtful BNB's will succeed and some will bomb as they'll look like obvious mouthpieces and fronts. As with the company blogs, the secret is always providing useful, unique information that people want and need. I'm not entirely thrilled with the idea of these things populating webspace but if they feed my brain with a good meal of news, I won't avoid them either. I'm sure it'll be fun to see yet other blogs who try to out them as phony blog sites but as always in the media/entertainment world, content is king- if it's useful enough to people out there, they'll succeed and become the real threat to many parts of the MSM kingdom.

ADDENDA: In my example of regular bloggers (not affiliated with anyone company) vs. traditional media, I forgot all about what's called Participatory Journalism, as heralded by American Press Institute's We Media project. The idea is very appealing: online communities of new-gathers that spring up and report on what's going on in their area. The only draw back initially would seem to be the filter process: how do you keep fake news, nutballs and such from taking over the process and making the whole thing into garbage? Even in this case, there are some form of moderators at work and the rest of the group (who are all registered members of the particular group) can comment and grade information that each member provides so that certain participants gain credibility- they call this 'reputation systems.'

As long as you have one central site and system to login to, you have a forum ready to work for a project like this. Already in South Korea, twenty-thousand people have signed up for a project like this called OhMyNews. No reason that you couldn't see the same thing happen elsewhere. Even though some of media outlets have embraced this idea, hiring their "citizen media editors" to gather and distribute this information, independent participatory journalism projects could be healthy competition not just for BNB's but also traditional media.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Politics and art- why they can't get it on, Part 2

In a post last month, Can art fornicate peacefully with mammon?, I was wondering why it was so difficult to convince local and state governments in America that it was in their best interest to support the arts. Granted, it doesn't fit into a neat overall agenda and falls way behind issues like crime, education and such with most people but doesn't this speak to the occasional mantra we hear from above about "quality of life?"

Richard Eyre's Ballot-Box Blues gives us an insightful look at this problem from a British perspective, quoting author Philip Roth.

"Politics is the great generaliser and literature the great particulariser, and not only are they in an inverse relationship to each other - they are in an antagonistic relationship. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrongheaded, dull, something that makes no sense and really oughtn't to be. Why? Because the particularising influence is literature. How can you be an artist and renounce the nuance? How can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify ... Allow for the chaos, let it in ... "

Insert any other type of art in there for literature and it's still pretty applicable.

Another thing that I'd add is that American politics seems more and more to pander to fear (not that it's exclusive to this country). One side is telling you about the doom that we're headed for if the other side makes it into office. The last presidential election was a textbook example of this- both Democrats and Republicans played up the fear factor to scare voters to their side rather than try to win them over by touting positive qualities. Art is certainly known to tantalize thrill-seekers with illicit pleasures but scare tactics only work in horror movies and it's a different kind of frightening that they're doing- it's a thrill sensation like a good amusement park ride. Trying to scare you to buy a CD or see a movie versus your other supposedly detrimental entertainment choices is not a strategy that works.

One common trait that art and politics share many times is pandering, trying to appeal to a certain audience. In the world of entertainment, this doesn't necessarily mean that you're not going to have a totally unappealing product sometimes (unless you're an indie snob). Politics is a little different as someone who promises you anything is really promising you nothing- their be-all and end-all is elected office. In contrast, the empty pop song or action movie can be appealing in spite of itself but they're only supposed to provide visceral thrills. Elected officials are supposed to make decisions about our lives so it's a little more grave.

One other connection occurs to me. In both art and politics, we receive a nuanced version of reality. It's somewhat idealized to match the concept of the creator, be it congressman, director or producer. It doesn't exactly match what we know but we recognize it and we can buy into it- even in great fantasy tales, we see a measure of what we know already. We support the art or political figures that best meshes with our own concept of how things are or how they should be.

So if there are so many similarities, what does each side have to be scared of? Roth is right to note that politicians many times distrust art but maybe it's also because it's seen as unseemly competition. It's not unreasonable to think that the opposite is true- artists distrust politicians partly because they think they're above such things. Neither side would want to admit that they're not so far apart since one is supposed to deal with concrete matters of society while the other aspires to loftier goals to enrich society. Then again, each side would like to think that they're able to accomplish both things. And each of them definitely doesn't like the other side trying to tell them how it's supposed to be done.

Blogging? Who has time?

One reason that I was reluctant to blog in the first place was that I didn't think I'd have time for it. Now, as I go from daily chronicles to doing something bi- or tri-weekly at best, I can see the problem up close.

It's not that I don't have any ideas I'd like to set down here. It's actually the opposite- I have about a dozen sitting in my Drafts folder, waiting for me to say something.

I warn other potential bloggers that I'm a bad example to follow- usually blog entries are a few sentences and a link that you can toss off in minutes. For some reason, my brain clogs with ideas and then I write out the equivalent of articles here and even though I do these things off the cuff, that still takes time and thought- as a rule, I never publish something just after I've written it. I like to instead let it sit for a night and then look it over again to see if I'm really happy with what I said. Maybe that goes against the whole ethic of the spontaneous, uncensored writing that blogging is supposed to be about but it's still personalized writing that goes up online for everyone to see.

One difficulty that I find is that as soon as I get an idea, if I don't immediately try to turn that into an article, the time window on it quickly passes and no one would be interested in publishing it. Basically, if you realistically want to write an article for publication, you have to be set on it and ready to do it and finish it weeks (or sometimes months) beforehand. It's a constant race and you can get winded pretty quickly doing that. Hesitating for a few hours (or even minutes) might mean that the opportunity has passed already. Blogging helps to solve that problem because you then can let your thoughts flow at their own pace. Unfortunately, you then face the opposite problem- with no discernible deadline hanging over your head, you have to push yourself to finish writing.

Another blogging strength and weakness I find is the whole spontaneous nature of it. Originally, everything that you're reading here right now was supposed to be a few sentences to prelude a follow-up to the politics vs. art thread I started last month. As I kept thinking about this and typing this out, I obviously had a lot more to say than I thought so here you have it. As you see, this kind of thing can also sidetrack your work, not just in terms of writing other blog entries but also thinking "is this something I just want to put in my blog or can I turn this into a real article?" For that last point, I don't see any reason that one can lead to the other- certainly many writers have used their blogs to expand on or post edited info from published articles so why can't a blog entry also turn into an expanded article later on?

Maybe I'm a little self-conscious but I'd like to be happy and proud of what flies off my fingers, onto my keyboard and then onto this site. Even worse, you can see how circular this can become- I'm actually writing out a blog about how I don't have time to write this in the first place! Very sad indeed...

Not to worry though- I plan on posting another entry here today. And I swear that it won't be about blogging.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Holger Czukay- The Merry Prankster

Today marks the 67th birthday of a great German composer. Not Beethoven, Bach or Brahms. Not even Stockhausen but it is one of his students.

Most know him for his contributions to krautrock legends Can but even as the band was starting up, Holger Czukay was making his own innovative solo record, Canaxis (1969) where he was blending tapes of unknown Vietnamese singers into a dreamy, surreal aural landscape- this is rightfully noted as a precursor to sampling, some 15-20 years before it became ubiquitous. Other than editing the mammoth band jams into the Can records we know, he was also abandoning his bass to use radio and tapes as his instruments.

Though pioneers like composer Edgard Varese and pop icon John Lennon ("I Am The Walrus") preceded him here, it was Czukay who turned radio collages into a complete art form. It wasn't just important that this allowed pieces of pop culture to be appropriated and reimagined much the same way that Warhol and Rauschenberg did. It was also that instead of remaining as a passive medium that we casually receive, radio could now become an active part of our musical landscape- I don't know if Marshall McLuhan knew about Czukay's work but if he did, he definitely would have been fascinated.

How many IDM and electronica artists would name Czukay as a source of inspiration? Too many to name here (most recently, Sun City Girls' Sublime Frequencies series) but also to his credit, he embraced the movement back (i.e. his collaborations with techno producer Dr. Walker), finding kindred spirits there and still making fascinating music, even today.

Years before web broadcasts were the rage, he was already toying with this technology on his website. After I give him some tips on creating a good online presence, he called me early one morning to wake me up, insisting that I look at his website. It listed my name as webmaster there. Even before I had a chance to ask him what this was about, he announced that I was going to run his website and gave me a list of instructions of what kind of interactive things he wanted to have there to interface with musicians and fans. I was honored to help but had to soon pass the duties onto a less harried programmer to meet his ambitious needs.

Other than being a supreme gadget freak, there's another, more mischievous side of Czukay. Shortly after a 1997 New York concert, I interviewed him about his career and he mentioned an idea he had about some kind of musical competitions that he wanted to stage where bands and performers who were polar opposites would engage in heated debates against each other. Out of curiosity, I wondered who he himself would take on. He thought for moment and said "Peter Gabriel!" Why him? "He's much too SERIOUS!"

Later, I quizzed him on some second-hand stories I heard about pranks that he pulled. He gleefully recounted the details. At one point, he was driving the Can van to a gig and had to go through a Soviet Eastern block checkpoint. A guard made him get out to search the vehicle. Czukay looked on bemused and let him finish his work. As the guard returned to tell him to move on, Czukay smiled and playfully asked him what he was looking for. The guard shrugged so Czukay responded, "You were looking for something illegal perhaps?" He then dug into his pocket a produced a huge marijuana joint. He proudly told the guard, "THIS is what you were looking for!" He then slapped the joint into the guard's hand and told him "You take this home to your wife and you both enjoy it and you will thank me!" With that, he climbed back into the van and drove away as the guard stood there frozen in amazement.

Another time, he was in a cafe with a friend, speaking rather boisterously when the management came by to ask them to leave. Though they complied, they later returned wearing dark glasses and using walking sticks. As they stumbled through the restaurant with their canes, they knocked over carts and relieved the tables of the meals sitting on top of them, thus earning another hastened exit from the restaurant.

Yet another time, he and a friend prepared a ketchup marinade which they used to lightly coat a red phone in a public booth. As they hid to watch, a woman entered the booth and struggled to find the right change. Bracing the receiver between her shoulder and jaw as she dug through her purse, she unknowingly smeared some of the red marinade on her cheek. Another phone user in the next booth saw this and panicked- thinking she was bleeding, he called for assistance. An ambulance soon arrived as two attendants dragged the women out of the booth and strapped her to a stretcher. She was in hysterics, demanding to know what they were doing but it was too late as they drove off. Czukay and his friend enjoyed the fruits of their labor as they stood back to observe this.

"You were a pretty precocious teenager," I remarked.

"No," he shrugged. "I did that last year!"

No politics please, we're bloggers...

As much as I admire the McCain-Feingold legislation's attempts to clean up campaign funding, I wasn't thrilled to learn that this might be used to shut up bloggers that dip their toes into politics. This L.A. Weekly article explains a court case that could make this a reality, where blogs that prop up or tear down a candidate or political viewpoint could come under M-F and thus be curtailed and/or regulated. A pretty chilling prospect to say the least.

Ah, but you say "That's for the politicos to worry about, I just dig pop culture..." Oh, you naive fool. In case you haven't read the papers, everything's political. FCC regulations about obscenity fines, media ownership/consolidation concern you whether you like it or not. Congress is now proposing to get into the act, threatening to regulate cable, satellite and the Net itself (again, see the same L.A. Weekly article above). Not entirely pleased about that and what to complain about the people in Washington perpetrating this on your site or blog? You might not be able to.

For the time being, if you do want to complain about this state of affairs, there are options. One is contacting your member of Congress directly and tell them to get the hell out of your computer- Electronic Frontier Foundation provides an easy way to find and contact your representative. You can also get news from the McCain-Feingold Insurrection blog featuring a lovely graphic of a machine gun and computer keyboard with the caption "you can have them when you pry them from my cold dead hands" (surely the NRA would approve). You can also add your name to a petition at The Online Coalition. I'm number 3116 on the list- hope you can add your name there too.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

SXSW Report II: I went to Austin and all I got was this lousy tinnitus

Here's what I wandered about to see for a few days in downtown Austin this year. I'm sure I forgot some things but hey, I think I saw (or missed) enough...

WEDNESDAY, March 16th
Jason Moran - Heard some great wailing guitar going by this club and stopped expecting to find some blues player but instead there was this jazz wunderkind. Wish they made more use of the guitarist but the band sure knew how to rock Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock"
Bottle Rockets - Don't know that I'd play their latest album to convert agnostics but their live show should make a believer out of anyone. Their new guitarist is great and they've always written prime song. Still the best Southern Rock today this side of Drive-By Truckers.
Jetscreamer - Initially they sounded like Sonic Youth doing hoedowns to me (which is great, I think) but sad to say, they didn't maintain that momentum.
Boyskout - Didn't even know about them but heard them walking by and had to see them for myself. Guess I just have a soft-spot for tense femme new wave.
David Singer - Hadn't heard of him before but wish I did. He has a great way with songs that reaches back to mid-60's UK acts too Brit for us Yanks (Kinks, Small Faces)
Jawbone - A one-band white blues band is a tough sell but this guy makes it work 'cause he's so raw. His slide sounds like a weapon he's wielding at you.
Devin Davis - He's a talented power-pop-smith for sure but I gotta say that David Singer had it all over him.
The Octopus Project - Genuine oddballs, mixing Le Tigre beats, post-rock climaxes and no vocals. They definitely deserve to break out of Austin.
Manikin - If you haven't guessed by now, I'm a post-punk fiend and these guys were pretty good for revivalists.

missed
Album - Hip-pop (or pop electronica) from Mexico that sounds like it could have been bred in the States.
The Winks - Femme punk, more UK than grrl.
Tift Merritt - Think she overdoes it with the tambourine conceit but next to Kathleen Edwards, she's one of the finest femme singer-songwriters out there.

big names missed
Sleater-Kinney - only because I managed to catch them a week before. I'm not always moved by their records the way I should be but they're one of the best live bands out there.
Elvis Costello - would have more liked to see the career-capping interview he did at an earlier panel though I'm always interested in what he's doing
Billy Idol - walking by, I first heard "Dancing With Myself" and then also passing heard him do a bad Simple Minds imitation.

THURSDAY, March 17th
Afternoon
Buddy Miller - A veteran singer/songwriter who's seen and been threw a lot and sounds like it- a little ragged but also potent. His version of "You Win Again" was heart-breaking.
Nic Armstrong and the Thieves - Greasy, grungy rock, just like the R&B fiends in Swinging London used to make.

Evening
Nathan Hamilton - Pretty good country-rock singer-songwriter.
Mary Lou Lord - It just wouldn't be SXSW without the diminutive singer parked on the street at 6th and Brazos, playing for passers-by (even though she had a showcase the next night). Armed with a guitar and a battery-powered amp, she charmed anyone in ear shot, and was just grateful that the cops didn't tell her to move on...
The Reputation - I thought that this group ran mostly on Elizabeth Elmore's songs but boy, was I wrong. These cats rock mightily live, even more than I remember after seeing them before.
The Adored - Young and loud is good by me but they're too snotty. If they ever get over themselves, they could be a great band.
Grabrass Charlestons with Billy Reese Peters - A good catchy hardcore band from Florida that doesn't carry the stink of mall-punk? Yep, it's true.
Radio 4 - Not a fan of their latest record (they're 'progressing' in time from late 70's bent art-funk to early 80's over-sensitive new wave now) but they've always fun to see live, putting out well.
Shellshag - This guitar/drum duo calls themselves "noise punk minimalists" and that they are. At the end, drummer Jan ran over to the roof of the club (next to the patio they were playing on) and finished her set there, while her partner played on the other side of us on the stage. Gimmicky but boy, did we all eat it up.
Best Fwends - A San Fran rap duo dressed as preppies but screeching like teenage girls. They drove out a good part of the small crowd that was there but I thought they were a hoot.
Heartless Bastards - Great name and a singer that sounds like Bonnie Raitt, albeit fronting a garage band. Some folks aren't moved by their latest album but their live show is undeniable. The Black Keys should take note.
A Gun Called Tension - Maybe the goofy name should have been warning but I was expecting and hoping for more sampling madness than 2nd hand new wave but didn't get it.
The Hold Steady - Craig Finn is a great ranter in the tradition of Joe Strummer. I was worried that a keyboard player would lighten them up but their show quickly dispelled that.

missed
The Moaners - Melissa Swingle returns from the ashes of Trailer Bride to head this garage duo.
22-Pistepirkko - fun Finnish popsters
Edie Sedgwick - A weird concept album build on a dozen celebrities, probably has an equally freaky act to go along with it.
Seyi Solagbade & the Blackface Band - Nigerian band which a lot of people regretted missing because they didn't want to be with throngs waiting for Mr. Plant there later.

big names missed
Robert Plant - Did a great panel interview earlier in the day. When the latest Zep box came out, he was circling the Arctic, entertaining Eskimos. What a careerist guy...
M.I.A. - I know, shame on me but I can wait until she plays in clubs that are larger than a shoebox.
Fatboy Slim - I still like him but I wanted to catch a few acts I didn't know before.

FRIDAY, March 18th
Afternoon
Bloc Party - Like the EP better than the album and I hate to say this but I think part of the buzz is that like TV on the Radio, the whole band isn't white.
Futureheads - They're one of my favorite new bands. I feel like I'm falling in love with XTC all over again.
Louis XIV - Usually, I approve of sleazy rock but something's missing here.
New York Dolls - There's only two of 'em left but David Jo's still got it.

Evening
Exene Cervanka and the Original Sinners - I was surprised and delighted how this Ex-X sounded with this other group (including her hubby). Rockabilly madness which would have been only eclipsed by her former/current band.
Erase Errata - Just caught the end of their set but they still sound unhinged as a trio, doing their post-post-punk thing.
Mommy and Daddy - For a band that billed itself as a mix of B-52's and Motorhead, these guys sounded pretty plain. I didn't stay long though so if you're still curious, check out their site for songs.
Blowfly - Such a dirty old man. This old soul sang "Shittin' On the Dock Of the Bay" and "You're Too Fat To Fuck" and made filth out of "Hold On, I'm Coming," decked out in a superhero costume. What a showman!
The Longcut - A next-big-thing coming from England, their lyrics might make you wince but the way that they worked themselves into a frenzy after finishing off the verses was really impressive (especially as the singer would run behind a drum kit to drive it home).
Busdriver - I'm amazed that this rapper's tongue doesn't fly out of his mouth- forget BPM's, his WPM (word per minute) count would beat any secretary and he's got wonderful stream-of-conscious pop culture references to go with it.
Ida - Yet another band I just catch the end of but even in the brief moments I witnessed, there was still plenty of the sweet folkie sound that I loved from their latest album.
Oxes - Slim Moon thinks of Hella as a less visceral Lightning Bolt. I think of these guys as a less visceral Hella but that's still a compliment in my book.
The Martini Henry Rifles - A Cardiff trio with a drum machine and shredding guitars. Don't know what they were yelling about but I loved their Big Black buzz.
The Go! Team - And yet another tail-end one-song set I caught thanks to long, buzz-driven lines. Love their album but wondered what it was like live. From what little I saw, it seemed that Daphne Carr was right- pop calisthenics that come across better on record. Still wouldn't mind catching a whole show though.

missed
Guitar Wolf - Japanese garagesters.
Ruthie Foster - Gospel soul deserving more ink or online space (which reminds me that I also missed Mavis Staples there!).
Back Porch Vipers - They claim to be in a time warp about 80 years ago but they sound better than most old timey revivalists.
Viva K - Drone rock-dance, kind of like a down-tempo Garbage.
Gorch Foch - Polyrhythmic psych-noise with a touch of Magma. What's not to love?

SATURDAY, March 19th
Afternoon
Savvy - A multi-racial mix of pre-teens doing dance-pop. Hilarious at first to see but they actually have catchy tunes. Recommended to anyone sick(ened) of teen pop.
Roky Erickson - Since I'm writing about this for Harp, I'll just say WOW for now. Didn't think I'd live to see this.
Dalek - nice to see that isolationism (dark ambient music) has finally made its way to hip-hop.
Death From Above 1979 - Someone called them a pop version of Lightning Bolt but that's not fair.

Evening
K/R Featuring Rosie Flores and Katy Moffatt - And yet again, another set that I just caught the end of... I do like Rosie quite a bit- she's the real deal when it comes to country crooners with a heart to match. She sounded in good voice with Katy and I hope there's some record to go along with this soon (she does have a live record out now, if you're interested).
Matisyahu - Granted that a Hassidic rapper/toaster sounds like a silly gimmick but this guy ain't fooling around. As a lapsed Jew, I don't follow all the lyrics but he's got serious rhyming skills.
Tammy Faye Starlight - This way-over-the-top country chanteuse gives it up for Jesus and AC/DC and then prays for her Jewish friends from New York (like me).
Faceless Werewolves - Just caught the end of their set but I liked this grrl punk band better the last time I'd seen them. Still, they're definitely one to something and a very under-rated band.
Yuppie Pricks - Think Dead Milkmen gone preppie. The best way to see them is live where singer Trevor Middleton provides you with hilariously condescending banter about how they're better off than YOU'LL ever be, you blue-state loser...
Perceptionists - Love these guys. This rap duo rocked just as well last SXSW where rhymed over Beethoven and Black Sabbath. The rest of the crowd loved 'em too.
Read Yellow - I'm sure it was fatigue by then but I couldn't really appreciate this Oi-meets-Husker band as much as I know I probably should have.

missed
Bloodshot Records showcase - The Meat Purveyors, Jim & Jennie, Bobby Bare Jr., The Waco Brothers- Ouch... I'll need to see this revue another time.
George W Bush Singers - A pop-choir using lyrics from the President's speeches. Really. Might have been really bad or really good and probably good for a laugh. Also probably one of those interesting balancing acts that Dubya's fans and enemies could both take solace in, just like Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack book.
Otis Taylor - A great blues/drone guitarist that John Morthland turned me on to. I'd seen him here last year but he's definitely worth catching again.
Ariel Pink - I've had a bad taste in my mouth for psychotic folkies since Animal Collective but this weirdo might be a good tonic for that.
Feable Weiner - Bowling for Soup, only they sound like they're actually funny. They could likely blow up, which is probably why there was a long line to see 'em (and why I didn't wait).
Cruiserweight - Emo pop which might be more palatable since it's not done by guys.
Vanilla Ice - OK, I had much better things to do with my time but I was morbidly curious about what the hell he was doing now. Maybe not but my girlfriend said that she was at least sympathetic to him after seeing The Surreal Life. Since I'd seen Matisyahu, I guess I didn't feel too bad for missing him, especially since Ice could never rap as well as him.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

SXSW: The Great Caste-System Smorgasbord

Writer Dan O'Conor calls it 'adult spring break.' My girlfriend calls it 'a theme park for musicians.' I like to think of it as indie land. It’s all of these things and none of them are meant as insults because we all agree that whatever it is, we like it and we're in awe of it. Since the mid 80’s, South By Southwest (SXSW) has been a music industry phenomenon, growing from two hotel ballrooms to eat up the entire downtown Austin, Texas area. Other than soaking in the warm weather, good BBQ and smooshing with musicians and other tradespeople, scribes feel compelled (usually by their editors) to file the ubiquitous “SXSW report,” with a sum up of all the good and bad, known and unknown groups they managed to see in a span of a few days along with a nice zeitgeist tie-up to put everything in perspective. Hope you don’t mind if I do a bit of that here but after attending for five years straight, some things have sunk in about this little big fest.

I know I’ll sound like a sycophantic cheerleader but I love SXSW. I cajole and drag people down there to attend and even try to push bands that I know and like to be part of it. Not just for the reasons above but also because it is so damn well organized, not to mention convenient- most of the clubs are all clustered together. Bands actually go on when they’re supposed to (unheard of in New York except at Irving Plaza) and the panels are always interesting and worth attending. You can’t say either of those things about CMJ. Granted that they’ve had financial problems for years and everyone is always amazed when they make it through another year but it’s kind of embarrassing to have that be the biggest music festival that New York is known for.

Don’t even get me started on about how Gotham government does everything it can to discourage a music scene there- despite the constant presence of fire marshals, Austin LOVES music and nurtures it like a young one. It’s only sensible since it means a lot of revenue for out-of-towners. Every year I’ve been to Austin, I find people there to be friendly but I can’t help but think that there has to be some resentment to the hoard of people who descend on the town for 2 weeks in the middle of March each year. From person experience, I can tell you that NYC isn’t fun during CMJ, especially if you happen to want to go to a concert that’s part of a showcase.

Another thing I wondered about in terms of resentment was the whole badge system. Like any fest, anyone signed up for SXSW will get a badge provided that you’re an approved member of the press, a band, a label or promo person, a panel speaker, etc.. Otherwise, you’re going to pay somewhere between $200-$400 for the badge, which gets you into any club for free (except the private parties) or the panels. If that’s a little too much, the fest also offers wristbands ranging from $100-$150 (like the badges, the price goes up as the time nears). If that’s still too pricey, you can take your chances and show up at a venue and hope that they’ll let you pay to get in. Many times, you’ll be SOL because the badge and ‘band crew will fill up a place and you’ll be greeted by a hastily-written sign telling you so. Thus, a caste system is established.

Even when the clubs are filled to capacity, you’d be amazed about how long people will wait (sometimes in vain) to get in. I’ve had people report standing on line for over an hour for the chance to squeeze into a small club, usually for the hot item du jour like dancehall sensation M.I.A.. And that’s just the badge people. The w-band people will be set aside into another line, having to wait until all of the badge people who show up get in. After (or if) the ‘banders are let in, then the other poor souls who’ll actually pay will get the chance to enter. If I was waiting in lines for hours even after paying for a ‘band, I would not be a happy camper but surprisingly, most of those folks were pretty calm and resigned to their fate.

For anyone lucky enough to brandish a badge, the world was your oyster in Austin. You’d get waved ahead in after they’d check the photo on your badge and maybe an I.D. to make sure and also see if you’re drinking age. The problem you then face is you have a musical smorgasbord ahead of you. You know what happens when you encounter a buffet- though you’re perfectly willing to have a normal meal in a restaurant, when you encounter a seemingly endless selection of treats, you tend to try to take advantage of it. You pig out. You gorge yourself. You might be sorry you did later but damned if you won’t do it again when you find yourself in the same situation.

At SXSW, there are 54 venues, each having about six acts a night which comes out to about 324 acts playing each night. The music portion of SXSW runs 4 nights so that comes out to about 1300 bands to see if you like. Because most of the venues are close together on Sixth Street and Red River, it’s easy to club hop (much more so than in New York). Obviously, you’re not going to see everything and you’ll even find that you have to chose which band to see at a certain night because two or three bands you want to see are playing at different places. Do you try to see the first half of one set and then try to run out to another? Will you try to get to a venue early to make sure you can get in to catch a hot must-see band later? Again, since the clubs are so close, you're tempting to chance it. I’m still in the pig-out stage but I try to pace myself, planning out which bands are playing at clubs near each other so I have a chance to catch some of them (having a plan B as a back up always if lines are too long for a first choice). Now you know why I warn people to bring a good pair of walking shoes with them to SXSW.

That’s not even mentioning the day shows and private parties that go on during the fest. I thought it was just me but other people there confirmed that they don’t remember when there had been so many non-evening shows. Eager to show off their goods in front of an industry crowd, bands and labels rightfully see this as a prime opportunity. Musicians are rewarded for their efforts usually with a badge- it used to be a fee of $50-$100 for a gig as an alternative also and maybe still is. Again, if you’re a band, you’re thinking exposure. That’s why this is indie land mostly. Many acts are looking for bigger labels, management, PR, etc..

Seeing how so many of these bands were looking for attention and guidance, I had lobbied SXSW for years to have band clinics to help with advice- everything from signing contracts to finding good places to eat on tour. Hopefully, bands will think they got something out of the convention then, including practical wisdom. How hungry are they? When there were one-on-one mentoring sessions that writers led a few years ago, many of the attendees were actually musicians asking them “what do I have to do to get noticed?” (to which Chris Culter replied, “if it’s that bad for them, they should find another line of work with better guaranteed income”).

And then you have some big fish in this small pond, the old stand-by’s (this year, it was `Elvis Costello and Robert Plant) who are guaranteed attention as stand-outs- they don’t necessarily need exposure but it definitely helps them to be a highlight in an industry event.

The private parties there are mostly magazine-sponsored events, usually showcasing hot newcomers. The Spin shindig had the Hold Steady, Louis XIV, Bloc Party, Futureheads and newly reunited legends New York Dolls. One of the Vice parties also had Bloc Party as well as Go! Team while M.I.A. was at yet another Vice event. Which is great, if you get an invite. The prestige of association goes two ways, both for the bands and publications obviously.

I don’t say any of that with bitterness personally because I managed to get to some of these parties but I know that not everyone was happy about the exclusiveness. Part of the allure of these things are their exclusiveness but that’s cold comfort for the many people outside the gate who would have loved to have been there. One place I did see some resentment about this was the Unofficial SXSW mailing list at Yahoo. In the weeks before, there was a lot of good inside information floating around about what to see or do as everyone filled with excitement and anticipation but as the time approached, panic set in. The first batch of wristbands were sold out so now people were begging for them even before the second/last batch went on sale. Some posters on the list were already theorizing that SXSW was intentionally driving up the price of ‘bands to near badge level in the hope of just having badges only eventually. Then there were furious cross-talk of a possible smoking ban in Austin- I choked on enough second-hand smoke to tell you that it didn’t happen this year. And then there were numerous posts asked if anyone had a connection for the Spin or Vice party.

Be careful what you wish for though. The problem with gorging is that it eventually catches up with you. During the fest, people wander the streets of Austin at night in a day, gazing at their pocket-size Media Guides with band listings, wondering "who's going on at 11 o'clock?" After four days of running around, even the most eager attendee gets winded. At Saturday night around 10PM, I definitely felt it. I heard it too when I asked friends what they did the night before. It was becoming a blur. As such, one reason I think some of the crowds weren’t as appreciate of the bands as they should have been wasn’t because the music was bad or that many people were spoiled from not paying for shows but because they could only clap so much after seeing all these bands, night after night.

In the end, would I go back and encourage others to go to SXSW? Damn straight. For writers and musicians, it's a good place and time to get wired into the thick of things. Maybe you'll make connections, maybe you won't but you'll have good food and good weather and you can write the whole thing off on your taxes. Isn't that the least you can ask for from a working vacation?

Coming Soon: SXSW Report Part 2, where I actually talk about some bands I saw there...

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Grime ain't noise pollution- UK rap invades the States

If about five or ten years ago, you told any hipster that English rap would be the next hot (not big) thing, you would have been ostracized for sure. Mind you, there were precedents that are mostly forgotten today (anyone remember Derek B?) but it wasn't until the Streets, Nirvana fan Dizzee Rascal and Wiley arrived recently that the style seemed legit. That wasn't just because they didn't sound like knock-off's of the American product but also because they were just as closely aligned with 2-Step/garage music, which meant that they could also tie into a club crowd- this potent mix gets tagged as Grime. Simon Reynolds lays out the M.O. of the style neatly as such: "grime really comes out of the rave tradition where the mc's job was to hype
the crowd and big up the dj but not really say much." As soon as all the "grime doesn't pay" headlines started piling up in music mags, you knew that the style had arrived.

Though it came out late last year in its homeland, the Run the Road compilation just came out here in the States on a major label (Atlantic), which shows you something about its clout now. Featuring the stars of the style, it only suffers in comparison to their own individual albums. I'd also recommend DJ Woody's Bangers and Mash collection on Woodwurk as a good sampler of the style.

The Streets and Dizzee had already made it to these shores (they did a great double bill at Irving Plaza a few months ago) but the rest of the herd followed up this Friday at Rothko in New York for "Grime Presents: Bangers & Mash 3." Though it was pretty leisurely and uncrowded for the DJ set at first, as the witching hour approached, the packed can't-move-your-arms aura set in when the MC's appeared. Reynolds also notes that back home, the shows weren't party event exactly, more populated by roughnecks. Here, the small crowd was hyped from the beginning, even when the first MC (Deadly Crisis) was being outpaced by the record he was throwing rhymes over- he sounded like Lil Jon tossing out occasional "yeah's." Though I couldn't pick out who was Jammer D, Double E or Ears, I wasn't alone. They're not household names yet, you know. When I did catch Double E later, his rapping sounded off. He'd go through a few rhymes rap fire, let someone else take over or let the DJ rewind or start another song. What the hell was happening? Was he winded or out of material? Maybe he was just teasing. As it went on, another impression set in. Just like Dizzee on his debut, he sounded claustrophobic, boxed in, yelling for space. He wasn't faking or pulling punches- just like Tricky at his best, he made a landscape out of a collapsing world.

One distressing thing I noticed was that although there was a good gender mix in the crowd, it was still very lilywhite. Not that I hadn't seen this before- at a New York Public Enemy show in '93, there were more black people on stage than in the crowd. I saw the same thing at Rothko for the Grime show. And that kind of thing really puzzles me. Why should these rap shows, of all places, be for whites only? I know, I know- white suburban kids are the biggest audience but still...

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Revolution Ain't A Dinner Party- Fear and Loathing in Prague and Pretoria

John Leland's Hip: The History tracks that elusive aura that makes up the essence of 'cool.' Not an easy task to document this but he finds some fascinating precedents. Writing a biography is one thing but how much more difficult is it to track a slippery, extremely subjective idea like 'hip.' And I thought that bios I've seen of salt and cocaine were far out...

Jay Walljasper's article The Coast of Bohemia is an interesting critique of Leland's book, wondering about the political connection to hipsters and why this isn't given more credence in the tome. Wondering about that myself, I thought the source would provide some good answers. So...

Leland: "In the book I try to do justice to the politics of John Reed's bohemian set, but I also give equal place to the set that inhabited the Village after them, of whom Fitzgerald said, "The events of 1919 left us cynical rather than revolutionary. It was characteristic of the Jazz Age that it had no interest in politics at all."

My take is that hip is a transformative force, but that it works as culture and romance, not as politics. As William Burroughs said, revolution in America begins in books and music, then waits for political operatives to "implement change after the fact." Hipsters do radical individualism very well, but may need someone else to make the compromises and sacrifices associated with collective action."

Also in the "Bohemia" article, there's this provocative passage:

"Politics and the whole business of making the world a better place comes across as distinctly "square" in Leland's vision of hip and as a tad dull and not fabulous enough in Stover's manual on becoming a bohemian. But that's not always the case. The generation of 1968 in Europe and most anti-Vietnam War protesters in the U.S. were social as well as political rebels. So were the intellectuals and rock musicians who ignited the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and many of the millions worldwide who stood up against apartheid in South Africa."

I wondered about that also, particularly the last two examples he gave, not just in terms of well-meaning Westerners who tried to hasten the end of the repressive regimes in each country but the artists themselves in each place. Prague and Pretoria seemed like special cases that couldn't be generalized. In the case of Czechoslovakia, The Velvet Revolution was indeed started up by bohemians (and why not? it's their native land!) but it wasn't a simple matter of them taking up arms against injustice out of an ingrained sense of freedom.

When asked if the Plastic People would prefer a democratic government to the Communist one they lived up the threat of for years, here is what their former manager Olga Zahorbenska had to say: "The Plastics were young guys who wanted to have fun, get girls and play their music. They never wanted to get political, it was just circumstances that got them engaged with politics, dissident movement, etc.. I'm not sure about (Plastics leader) Mejla not liking the U.S. democracy at the time. Of course, it would be another matter to discuss it these days, but we still have a long way to go with our "democracy" here."

Which isn't to say that they didn't like or care about their freedom but you can't expect a group of peaceful anarchists to embrace any form of government.

In the case of South Africa, the freedom movement was very different. The African National Congress, who took bolder steps to fight the government, were never thought of as artists primarily: they were a political party dating back to 1912. In fact, once the ANC took over the country, there weren't always sympathetic to all types of artists: witness the mixed signals about patronage as evidenced in this story about the North Sea Jazz Festival.

But even when apartheid was in effect, the racist white government had a confused relationship to the arts, as I witnessed in 1988. Traveling there to visit friends, I saw some things that didn't make any sense. At a record shop in Johannesburg, there was copy of Max Roach's We Insist: Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite (an explicit expression of black pride) for sale. The last song on the album is "Tears for Johannesburg." In the capital Pretoria, another record store had a large window display for Stevie Wonder's Characters. One of the songs there is explicitly anti-apartheid, "Dark 'N' Lovely," pointedly referring to the head of the South African government, warning him 'Hey there Botha! Yes, we are watchin' you!' Compare that with a screening of Pink Floyd's The Wall that I saw there. All of the violent and anti-authority scenes had been chopped out: Pink shaving his eyebrows, the facist rally and its aftermath. I caught up with the projectionist afterwards and he admitted that the theatre was forced to show the movie in that version because the government thought that it 'might incite riots' otherwise. The lesson was that the real-life facist censors obviously weren't consistent in their attempted moral cleansing of society.

Obviously, that didn't mean that artists had free reign under apartheid. As in Czechoslovakia, some artists would couch pointed messages and criticism in universalist moral stories and songs: a great example is the work of Mzwakhe Mbuli (who still experiences prosecution to this day). This method was also used effectively in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) with artists like Thomas Mapfumo. And now when we find in America that we had better 'watch what we say' and that many media outlets are under attack and worrying about any potential indecency infraction, we could definitely learn a lesson from them.

Thinking back to Walljasper's article, I know specifically what he means when he refers to the boho's "who stood up against apartheid in South Africa." When I was in college (mid 80's), I saw many other students try to press the school administration to divest from companies who had financial interests in South Africa. I didn't participate but it wasn't because I didn't agree with them but maybe because I was more of a wide-eyed thrill-seeker then, maybe the sort of boho that Walljasper chides for picking up on the right music/films/art but not seeing a wider connection to the world, not realizing that other people couldn't enjoy these same priveleges or voice their opinions if they didn't mesh with an official, dictated stance.

That didn't necessarily let the do-gooders on campus off the hook for promoting freedom of expression consistently. When I visited the school before starting there, a janitor gave me a mini-tour, showing me a speakers' auditorium. This very nice blue collar guy was appalled though that the student league had insisted that Ian Smith (former president of Rhodesia) shouldn't be allowed to come there to talk because of his own country's racist oppression. "Why would they do that?" the janitor fumed. "Isn't this supposed to be a college, where you get to hear different ideas, maybe even some you don't agree with?"

Years later, when I met an ANC member during SA's apartheid period, it occured to me that his life and work had little to do with 'hip' and everything to do with necessity. Though I was embarassed to ask him at first, I had to know one thing. How could he and other ANC member struggle and live every day in perpetual danger and possible death? "When you're backed into a corner, you don't have many choices," he explained.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

50 Cent & the Game: the politics and price of war and peace

Here I was, ready to write about the 50 Cent-Game war going on and then they themselves had the nerve to call a truce! I mean, don't they realize how much moralizing all of us in the media were gearing up to do over this? Can you imagine all the scolding and hand-wringing that you won't be able to read about now? Do they really think that peace is more important than the media's outrage over their actions? Won't some brave soul from the 4th estate start a rumor that their truce is just another publicity stunt?

But seriously, folks...

Note two good articles about the whole ruckus: this Village Voice story written before the truce and this Daily News story written after it. Jarrett Murphy's thoughtful Voice story does a good job with looking into all angles of the story but noticeably spends a lot of time bashing and blaming the media, radio in particular, for the whole thing. As we've seen with previous East/West coast rivalries, there are other parts of the media where these battles can be waged- i.e. print, TV- so that even if the radio stations behaved, don't believe that would carry weight elsewhere.

In the Lil Kim trial that's happening now, one of the witnesses expressed disbelief that two rivaling sides were scheduled at radio station Hot 97 at the same time, leading up to another incident. With 50/Game, they weren't scheduled at the same time but you have to wonder why the Game's crew happened to pick Hot 97 as the place to settle a score, as if a precedent had been set. "Come to Hot 97 to settle your differences!" Basically, it's sounding like the Jerry Springer show, only more violent.

Since the timing of 50/Game incident was so close to the release of 50's new album (which just topped sales of 1 million), no one needs to scratch their head wondering about another coincidence. That's why I don't buy how some people in the Voice story (i.e. Russell Simmons) are so quick to let the rappers off the hook and just blame the media for all of the problems there. They flamed some flames here for sure but these guys have backgrounds where beefs are not always settled peacefully. To make them out to be innocents who are just manipulated by the media is not only totally disrespectful to them but also pretty damn condescending. I'm almost go so far to say that some of their defenders might be so worried that this would taint the whole genre and that they want to deflect blame. I don't want rap to get a bad rap but I also don't want knuckleheads who make it bad for everyone else getting a free ride for their misbehavior- that doesn't help the style at all.

Which is why the words of XXL editor Elliott Wilson are so interesting in the Daily News story. He notes that the reasons that the two sides came together are not the most altruistic ones (i.e. setting a good example): "I think the press conference (where they declared a truce) was forced by the mainstream media's reaction to the incident. They don't benefit on a business level to be associated with violence." In other words, this time the media forced their hands again but this time making them realize that they had to cool it. Also, the rappers saw that it was going to hurt their bottom line. I don't know if I'm as cynical about this- I really would like to think that both of them saw how stupid and pointless this was- but at the same time, I'm not ready to fully discount Wilson's take on this.

But what I wonder now is this: if Wilson's theory about being bad for business is right though, how does that jibe with the cynics who say that this whole conflict was done to boost 50's sales? On one hand, you have album sales boosted by the feud but then you have both sides coming together to say it was the wrong thing to do. In the end, it's going to take time to see which of these lessons becomes more persuasive.

I actually worry about this so much that I seriously thought that this little war was the reason that Toyota pulled out of sponsorship for De La Soul's college tour/symposium, maybe worrying that being associated with ANY rap wasn't good PR right now. Writer Jon Caramanica assures me that they pulled the plug on the tour long before that- I'd still like to know why though.

Still, I wondered why it was hard to generate interest in coverage of a story about this unique, provocative tour De La was planning, where they would have a dialog with college students around the country about hip hop- many publications just weren't interested in it, mainly it seems because the band hadn't been hot for a while, have been around too long and won't do anything as revolutionary as 3 Feet High and Rising again. If it had been 50 or the Game doing the college rounds, you know it would be a different story and any music pub would fall over itself to send people to cover it. I guess De La's problem is that they don't start any violence rivalries with other rap groups. That's some pretty sad priorities but it's true. Maybe the media is to blame after all...

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

More on Rwanda

There's an excellent article from the Guardian (Rebirth of A Nation) which details attempts in the Western media to frame the 1994 massacre in Rwanda and why these efforts are both helpful and harmful. This includes not just the film Hotel Rwanda but also other recent films (one of which was shot in Rwanda itself) and books.

Monday, March 07, 2005

We are the Whirled- the spin on "world music"

As the World Music awards are presented in England, Telegraph writer Mark Hudson rightfully wonders What on earth is happening to world music? All manner of question of culture and imperialism can get swirled around here but the heart of the matter is a worthwhile point to ponder: what actually is 'world music' and who determines what it is?

As Hudson explains, the crux of what we consider 'world music' falls into a marketing term that we are in the West cultivate. Obviously, what we lump into this category had existed long before it was on our radar. The States was a hotbed for this as immigrants carried over folk ballads and Church hymns from England or gypsy songs from Eastern Europe or classical suites from all over the continent. Even though Bach and Beethoven were both German, we hardly consider their works to be "world music."

"World music" would seem to actually cover music from the Third World. As such, Cuban music had made a mark in jazz during the 1940's and Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji had a hit record in the 1950's. Then there were scattered hits and breaches into Western consciousness by artists like Mariam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Manu Dibango, King Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti (and later, Youssou N'Dour, Salif Keita). But it became an official movement around 1986 with the release of Paul Simon's Graceland. It wasn't just the South African music that he embraced (and according to guitarist Ray Phiri, ripped off) but also the music of the whole continent that became a fresh source of exploration for Western ears. All Music Guide speculates that when a certain style (Latin pop, reggae) grows enough in and of itself, it gains its own moniker outside of "world music" but I'd say instead that the popularity of these styles predate the term "world music" so that they earned their own section in a record shop as such.

As many artists now had more of a commercial outlet and a greater potential audience, this was an obvious boon. Imagine that many of these people had trouble finding places to play in their own countries (many times, it just didn't exist) and were now able to mount tours across America and Europe. Unfortunately, in our post-9/11 world, the American government has decided to get stingy with giving out travel visas, even to long-time musicians, meaning in some cases that award-winning artists couldn't even come here. An Arabic promoter lamented "How could I now get visas for a 10 piece band from Egypt to fly over to the States and play? They won't let a large group like that in."

Even if the U.S. State department doesn't see cultural exchange as an important form of diplomacy, the opportunity is potentially there for these 'world' musicians in the West nevertheless. Hudson's argument boils down to the old theory about 'gate-keepers': editors and writers decide about which small fraction of the 1000's of releases come out each year we get to hear about. This applies to not just 'world music' but also any other style, be it rap, rock, country, blues, jazz, classical, etc.. Some artists will have advantages with previous track records and recognition while other newer artists will have the advantage of good marketing campaigns by their record company.

The problem for world music artists (no need for quotes anymore, right?) is that they often don't have the opportunities that their Western counterparts do. Even though there are stalwart labels like Sterns or Shanachie (or Original Music, RIP) to chronicle these acts, many of them won't get on these labels' radar. Media in their countries is not the same in the States or Western Europe where micro-trends make their way to their mainstream press sometimes as quickly as they reach the underground/indie press. Economics also make it difficult to sustain a musical career- in the States, you can hold down a white or blue collar job and do music on the side for years but such luxuries are not prevalent in Africa. For these reasons, the gate-keeper model is much more important for this music because it determines not just how can sustain a music career but also who can or will be playing music at all.

What usually happens then is the tourist effect. Just as merchandising industries pop up around the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty or Big Ben or Mount Rushmore to give visitors some memento or taste of local culture, the same happens with music in Third World countries. Visitors come expecting to hear 'authentic, local indigenous music' and there will be people there to provide it. Whether the music is actually what's being enjoyed otherwise by local residents is another question. It comes down to a strange, removed cycle where the local musicians try to play what they perceive to be the music that visitors think is local music. It would be like tourists coming to the Lower East Side of New York expecting to hear 70's punk groups or Seattle visitors looking for grunge. Sure enough, even in those instances, there will be musicians to comply with the demand.

But then, what choices do we have about what gets supported and sustained in the universe of world music? We're much better off having the world music gate-keepers exist because they do help us learn about a lot of music we probably wouldn't otherwise but by the same token, we shouldn't leave it at that. Luckily, there's this thing called the Internet that provides additional and alternative ways to hear more about music. Complaining about a problem is easy but trying to do something about it is much better if you truly care about the situation. So, I'd like to offer a few online resources for anyone who's curious to hear more about world music than they've been able to elsewhere:

- World Music Institute
- Fly- Global Music Culture magazine
- Stern's Music- record label
- World Music Charts Europe
- Benn Luxo Du Taccu- Mp3 blog
- Songlines Magazine
- World Music at Rootsworld
- FRoots Magazine

And here's a group of useful world music MP3 blogs, courtesy of Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog:

- Fruits of Chaos - all contemporary Asian pop
- Akwaaba Sound System - more African music
- Red Lotus Radio - miscellaneous international music
- Tikun Olam - misc folk and world music

MP goes on to say: "In a lot of ways, mp3 blogs are one of the best things to happen to "world music' in ages, since it allows easy access to a broad range of rare material that western labels might not touch/be able to market and thus keep out of the western dialogue entirely. Bloggers can present the music along with context, which is often necessary. It's a better format than radio in than respect and it isn't anonymous and context-less like most p2p experiences."

(Savor that last line- it's worth a blog entry in and of itself)

I'm sure I forgot plenty of other resources. If you know of any, please post the information in the comments section here so it can be shared with the online world. In the meantime, seek and ye shall find world music.

Hip Hop Chronicle- Four Korners Monthly Newspaper

At the Public Enemy conference at NYU, I noticed a slim newspaper called Four Korners. I hadn't heard about it before but looking through the issue I got, it looks like a stalwart hip-hop publication. It comes out as a monthly and has a staff that obviously cares about the music and the people who make it. The January issue that I picked up had info about film festivals, college courses, scores on various rap feuds (real and imagined), the NBA's I-Pod ban, Common on HIV plus hip-hop horoscopes and crossword puzzles. Wish they would cover more underground action though (i.e. Anticon).

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Aw, Sheet- NYPL posts the hits of the 1890's

As part of the incredible project that the New York Public Library is undertaking of scanning and posting online thousands of documents, they've made available over 100 scans of sheet music from the 1890's: American Popular Song Sheet Covers, 1890-1900. Before there were record players or jukeboxes, the sales of these pieces of paper helped to indicate what was on the hit parade at the time. Amazing that in this age of squeamishness about copyright that these historical treasures are available for the online world to see. It's too bad that we only see the covers here- don't you think there are plenty of musicians out there who would like to play some of these old hits?

Mario Brothers and the Met?

Video game entering the level of classical music. Yes, it's a classical music performance covering video game music. It's either a pathetic, desperate commercial sop to drag in a younger audience that's almost non-existant in the classical world today or it's a brilliant marketing strategy to do the same. Or it's an Warhol-like moment realizing that pop culture is important enough to be taken seriously and viewed as high art. My guess is that it's probably driven by financial desperation even if it is a great marketing ploy. And yes, it definitely is a wonderful high-brow meets low-brow moment that stands to enrich both sides. Since it's such a good idea, when is it going to migrate out of San Francisco to other major and not-major cities?

And what can a recital cover next? Music from commercials? Themes from TV shows? I'm ready for it. Hope you are too.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Meat the Beatles- to mash or not to mash?

You never forget your first mash-up (aka bootleg remix). For me, it was in late '01 when I heard Freelance Hellraiser's "A Stroke of Genius," taken as a snippet of British radio program with DJ patter in tact. Even though I didn't know the Christine Aguilera song, I did know the Strokes song ("Hard to Explain") it took off from and now I can't hear it without thinking of this version.

What I later realized is that I had done this myself a few years before that. I remember reading how Mutabaruka's accapella "Dis Poem" was played over backing tracks and had the same thought when I heard Sub Rosa's wonderful Lunapark compilation which Mike McGonigle accurately described as your library coming to life. So in May '99, after rigging up my stereo and my computer, I took a reading from author Brion Gysin from 1962 and laid it over some King Tubby tracks. I thought it sounded good (hear an excerpt- 442KB, WAV file) but I foolishly never bothered to take it anywhere off my computer, thinking it was just a trifle that no one would be interested in. Which is not to brag but to say how easy it is to do this and what an appealing idea it is.

Mash-up's got mixed reactions though. Village Voice editor Chuck Eddy contended that they were almost never better than the original versions they take off from. And then you have defenders like Seattle Weekly editor Michelangelo Matos who once filled his Pazz and Jop ballot mostly with these remixes. When Eddy made the mistake of joking to Matos that mash-up's wouldn't be allowed in future Pazz voting, there was almost bloodshed. As what should be more than a side-note, another passionate defender of the mashers is Vulgar Boatmens' Dale Lawrence (who should write more about the subject) and the best resource to find mashes online always seems to be Boom Selection.

After the initial thrill of 2 Many DJ's and the bootleg of the bootleg remixes The Best Bootlegs In The World Ever.., I admit that my interest starting to wane. There were too many volumes of 2 Many DJ's (it's up to volume 20 now...?) and maybe the novelty was wearing off and maybe it was because it was now co-opted and being done now by majors very badly (i.e. Jay-Z and Linkin Park).

Then along came DJ BC Presents the Beastles, which is sure to come down soon once Sony finds out about it so listen up now. The premise is obviously taken from DJ Dangermouse's The Grey Album which not only shot his own career into the mainstream world but also revived the art of mash and may have forwarded it along with an album-length concept- even now, it's a piece of musical history. BC's idea got barely any of the press that Dangermouse did and that's a shame because it's a much better album. Once again, the Fab Four are used for music but this time, the Beastie Boys are on top. Sometimes, it's too awkward to work at all ("Mother Nature's Rump" where "Shake Your Rump" meets "Mother Nature's Son") but many times, it sounds like the wonderful fun the best of the mashes are: "Tripper Trouble" with "Day Tripper" hooked up to "Triple Trouble" or "Mad World Forever" where "In A World Gone Mad" meets the psychedelica of "Strawberry Fields Forever." Though I doubt it's the case, I like to think this is a swipe at Michael Jackson (owner of the Beatles' catalog) who back in the 80's denied the Beasties the right to cover "I'm Down."

What got me thinking about this again though was a mash-up of a different sort, again involving the Beatles. Though it sounds funny on paper, I always thought the idea of joke bands like Dread Zeppelin that tried to make light of two different musical styles (you remember, they did Zep songs as reggae, headed by an Elvis impersonation) was just too damn stupid to think a second thought about. Though they wouldn't consider themselves Fab fans, Beatallica decided to wed the Brits to another famous metal group. This time, Sony did catch wind of it and they were not amused, threatening lawsuits and seeking payment for any music that the group sold. Though this site will also come down soon, some of their music can be heard at Metafilter. Musically, the band sounds like what you'd expect- a joke meta-cover band. But you have to hand it to them for some of the titles: "...And Justice For All My Loving" or "Sgt. Hetfield's Motorbreath Pub Band."

As with the Kazaa lawsuits that the RIAA carries out against home users, Sony's beef with this band isn't really about money lost directly. Again, the issue is sending a signal to anyone who's looking to do something similar without paying the toll. If the band had only offered the songs as free downloads (as DJ BC does), Sony would have still tried to stop them but would have had less legal footing. The problem is that they have high-priced lawyers to back up their threats while the likes of BC or the Beatallica wouldn't. That's the same reason that the RIAA lawsuits continue also- some of the judges in the cases have actually expressed frustration that the legality involved is not being truly tested because the defendants have to settle out of financial considerations.

One solution to this muddy legal/artistic battleground is Creative Commons's flexible licensing program, which replaces the old, outdated schemes with terms that are beneficial for both the original artists and also anyone who would utilize their works (not just professional DJ's but any home user who's got a computer and an imagination). Though the Beatles haven't signed up for it (they haven't even licensing their work to LEGAL downloading services!), one major label rap group, among others, did. Hint: they're three white rappers from New York mentioned above. Nice to see that they know what time it is.