Friday, April 29, 2005

Learning the Game- The external turmoil of Krystal Grow

Most writers who read Krystal Grow's article about her failed attempt at a Spin magazine internship (An intern's internal turmoil) had little sympathy for the fledgling writer with good reason, but to a limited extent. Many said that the North Adams Transcript article just proved that she was a immature whiner who was rightfully turned down for the position. "Look, we've all had this same experience at some time so just deal with it and grow up!" Writers and editors were also annoyed that she had to throw this little tantrum in public rather than try to work it out on her own.

Probably the sanest response came from Slate's Alex Heard (Krystal Mess), recognizing that not only had none of her critics actually spoken to Grow but also that she wasn't the only one involved in this story, as he explains here:

"...the guy who hired her (at NAT) ended up leaving, and on his way out he ran a couple of Grow's pieces- including the Spin lament—- without letting her know they were going into the paper."

And there's an important and forgotten piece of the puzzle: the editor.

Whenever I see a bad article in a publication, my first thought is that the writer is wasting everyone's time. But the article you're seeing isn't there just because of the writer. They probably pitched it to an editor (or were assigned to do it by an editor), who approved it and then it was probably sculpted to make it right for the particular publication. What you're seeing is mostly the work of the writer but also the hidden hand of the editor. As angry as I might get at a writer for a crappy piece of work, I recognize that it's really the editor who made the final decision to run that particular piece.

But you know what happens. Editors get letters sent to them but the complaints are always addressed to the writers themselves. Editors usually seem to get off the hook even though they were a willing and enabling accomplice. The next time you complain about a piece of writing, please don't forget that.

Speaking as an editor myself, I know some of these things to be true. When people complain about an article in my zine, they yell at the writer and almost never at me.

But the opposite can be true for articles also. When people write in to praise something in my zine, it's always directed to the writer of the particular piece. I pass along the fan mail to the writers and give them a pat on the back too. They deserve it. Honestly, I don't mind or even think about the fact that I myself don't always get thanked or praised even though I'm involved in choosing and editing articles. I just figure that's what I should be doing and that writers should get credit for their work. I know it's going to sound self-serving but I think that editors should get praise along with their writers when a good article comes out. The next time you praise a piece of writing, please don't forget that.

When you're an editor, even a zine editor, you meet people like Grow all the time and that's not a bad thing. As Heard points out in his article, we were all like that when we started out, whether we'd like to admit it or not. That's part of the process of how you learn the writing game and became better at it- not just the writing part but how you work with editors and potential employers.

Here's my favorite example. For many writers' first submission to my zine, I almost always get some variation of the "why music sucks now" article- it's usually pretty short and pretty vague. Although I'll tell the writer this, I'll do it in the most constructive way that I can and then suggest that they took a look at the zine again, think of some more specific ideas, contact me again and see if we can work something out. I'm a writer myself so I know what this is like for other writers. Many don't follow up- maybe they're busy or maybe a slight rejection breaks their spirit. But again, these things happen to all writers so you get used to that and move on if you want to keep doing this. If not, well... this kind of work isn't for everybody.

As for Grow herself, I wouldn't worry too much about her. She's already gotten plenty of recognition for this and even if many consider this bad publicity, you know the old saying about that. She will land journalism jobs, rest assured. And don't be too surprised if one day, it's at the place that she complains about in her article.

MTV Africa- ready for Western prime time?

Almost twenty-four years after MTV itself launched, the channel is ready to start up an African service called MTV Base on May 20th. For the occasion, they held a South African concert featuring Will Smith and Ludacris, which will be broadcast on MTV itself.

Needless to say, there are some skeptics about this. Foremost is this RELEVANT magazine editorial which chides the network for the small content of actual African music videos as opposed to Western (American) ones. MTV has made itself an easy target: critics love to point out how it's not about music anymore, that it's become a huge marketing firm to shove pop culture down teens' throats, representing everything swarmy about the entertainment industry. Though it definitely seems that way sometimes, the reality is that love or hate it, they're doing this service in a continent that's otherwise forgotten- think of it as another foot in the door for world music in the mass entertainment circuit.

But that shouldn't totally let the channel off the hook- this is a good start but they also need to support more world music. Even if channel just has small number of African videos, it's much better than zero there or elsewhere. Obviously, the ratio should be higher and maybe the thinking is that this approach will initially draw more viewers and advertisers.

But then what happens after the channel gets on its feet? Is the problem that there isn't enough local content yet? I wondered about that myself until I did a quick search and found African Music DVD listing, Pan African All-Stars and Amazon Listing of African Music DVD's just for starters. Granted, that's not a lot but when MTV started, there wasn't a lot of content for them to use either. Maybe the hope is that since there is this forum now, music videos will become a more widespread phenomenon in Africa now.

One adjustment that might need to be made deals with time. Since videos feed off of pop music, their standard length is usually 2-5 minutes, which is good for short-attention spans (you'd think that decades after the form became so ingrained in pop culture, we'd see more of that rule broken but no...). Many African songs are just getting warmed up after 2-5 minutes (though some superstars like Youssou N'Dour are making pop length songs on their albums). Standard single-length songs usually makes no sense here just as they would confound jam-band grand-daddies the Grateful Dead or techno grand-daddy Derrick May.

So how would you reconcile say a two minute video followed by a 15-20 minute song? An hour long show minute just have two songs total then. Individually directly videos would by necessity still fall under the pop-length format (the logistics to do an extended video is usually saved for the top stars who can get a budget for such a thing) but concert footage of a song would clock in at many minutes. Would you want to be a program director and try to figure that out? Then again, if there really is a paucity of material, then longer songs would definitely help to fill the time slots. If MTV Base does focus on the shorter songs, you have to wonder what kind of effect and expectations that's going to create for African music in the future.

When I spent time in Southern Africa in the late 80s, I noticed that many of the people there were fascinated and intrigued by Western culture but at the same time, they were loathe to give up their own culture. As such, I wonder how a channel like MTV Base will play for this demographic. Despite these obvious problems, I'm rooting for it, hoping that it becomes more ingrained with the locales that it hopes to reach.

But I also think it's reach should be beyond Africa: this channel should be to beam some or all of its content elsewhere. Think of it as a multi-million dollar cultural exchange program. If African viewers get to see a lot of our videos, why shouldn't we get to see theirs? If part of the schedule came on MTV or MTV2 or VH1, there would definitely be viewers who would pick up on this who have never seen African music before, not to mention people who are fans of it already. Is it too far-fetched to think that just as 9-11 was partly a horrible reminder for the West to take other regions of the world seriously, Paul Simon's Graceland was an infinitely gentler, kinder reminder for the West to take the rest of the musical world seriously? Africa may want its (own) MTV but we need theirs too. As an African professor told me before I left for his continent, "we live to share- what else is there?"

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Heedful Hip Hop- stomping the myth that all rap is evil

My letter to the Wall Street Journal, regarding Martha Bayles' Heedful Hip Hop opinion piece.

Martha Bayles' comments on rap music only prove that she wants to punish the whole style of music for the sins of some of its practitioners. While it's true that some of the best-selling artists like to exploit violence or misogyny, that isn't so for all rap musicians. Outkast was not only one of the most popular rap groups of the last few years but also made a huge pop crossover without trying to tantalize their audience with violent stories. What about rap artists like Jean Grae, Mos Def, Common, the Roots, Aesop Rock who all strive to promote a conscious within the rap community? I don't care for a lot of the gangster rap myself but to tar the whole style because of some artists who cash in on their wrongheaded personas is totally unfair. In this country, one way you can vote besides the ballot is with your wallet- if you don't agree with the rap music you hear, try to support the more positive artists and their message. If that happens, rest assured that the record labels will take note and start to support them also.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Robert Crumb returns

Robert Crumb interviewed by Robert Hughes- New York Public Library, April 14th

Now a French recluse, the comix whiz returned to his home country to celebrate a new anthology for a sold-out show. It was mostly an older crowd there who no doubt remembered him back when he was turning the world of illustration on its ear in the 60's, helping to elevate it to an art form (the NYPL has his work in its collection now). But like John Cassavettes, Crumb is a to-the-bone innovator with questionable relationship to women. To bolster this, the Village Voice listing announcing the show was read there, noting that Crumb was 1) sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny when he was a kid, 2) represented id in its pure form, 3) gets his issues/frustrations out in his art work.

Having an art critic interview Crumb doesn't sound like a good idea but when it's Robert Hughes and his desert dry British wit and unconventional views, it's a good match. Starting chronologically, Hughes wondered where it all began for the comix pioneer. "I was a child of popular culture- TV, comic books, Dick and Jane, watched TV a lot- it was a good babysitter. Howdy Doody, Lone Ranger, Felix the Cat, Donald Duck. My parents didn't have culture with a capital 'K'... My dad was a classic John Wayne American type of man who didn't think that reading comics was manly... His three sons were complete, defective weirdos (one of Crumb's brothers committed suicide and another lives in California hotel room, scrapping by with selling paintings).... My mom would buy us comics... When I started drawing, I tried to copy Donald Duck and I just tried to bend it into a crazy, perverted (thing) and just kept drawing... trying to make it past a silly teen thing to do. I've become part of a specific lineage where you're proud that you picked that up from this guy or that guy..."

"Comics are mostly for mainstream market- it's not seen as something personal..."

Hughes: One reason why you're popular...


Hughes: ... is that you're fearless, crazy...

Crumb: (manic laugh)

Hughes: ...unaffected by political correctness.

Crumb: Maybe I should be... With my headless women, jigaboos. I didn't realize how hurtful that all was. But I crave acceptance. I want to be loved.

Several audience members: WE LOVE YOU!

Crumb: OK, you love me. Now back off, you're killing me!

Hughes asked about accusations of racism in Crumb's work, which he readily recognized: "canned nigger hearts," Angelfood McSpade, etc.. "They were stereotypes, 1920's images, and I was playing around with them. It's hard to explain but it's not my job (to do)."

And what about his infamous drug experiences? "If everyone took LSD, we thought we'd have a better world..." he reasoned, back then at least. "It became clear, we perceived things wrong in industrialized civilization, we had to get back to nature... Our parents were wrong (and there was a) nuclear balance of terror..."

That pervasive sentiment was heard recently in Nick Bromell's book Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s. The same idea that the right mix of chemicals would free everyone to see things clearly and understand the facades that are presented to us as reality. This sweet naive reasoning didn't seem to be embraced by Crumb nowadays and even Bromell evokes it as nostalgia.

Crumb: "I'm 60's identified but I don't consider myself part of it... I consider myself outside of it even though I took LSD and said "Oh wow." I'm stuck with the label- it's annoying as hell. What about my stuff since then? Some people were struck by my work when they first saw it but they stay there... Some people do identify with me, other pitiful guys, that's my fan base. They'll say to me how much they loved 'you and Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan...' I think 'Oh Jesus... doesn't mean that much (now)...'"

Which leads to his other beef with the 60's- the music. "I hated all of that crap... the endless Dead solos... I liked early rock, when it was rough, working class. In the 20's, blues was done by the lowest bums, at the bottom, couldn't even get a job as a slave. Early rock reached back to the 20's and 30's folk and blues." Contrast that with Bromell who saw drugs and 60's rock at the time going hand in hand to potentially deliver listeners to a exalted plain.

From Marcus Boon's recent book The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs, there's this observation about Beat writers: "cannabis held the utopian promise of escape from White America... (According to Allen Ginsberg) when people actually tried the weed and discovered its real qualities, it led them to question the whole state apparatus and its ideology was also a fiction... Weed culture in the 1960s and 1970s was full of Rabelasian laughter: Paul Krassner's the Realist, The Fabulous Furry Freak brothers, Robert Crumb, Cheech and Chong.'"

Crumb's work didn't push the idea of transcendence, at least in the same sense that's usually thought of in the rock culture of the 60's. He engaged himself, maybe too much for his own good, pouring himself into his drawings and worked out all of his psychosexual issues there, seeking release that way and challenging anyone who would see past the surface sexism to wonder about their own libidos. "To do this... you really alienated from culture to conceive of this type of stuff. You've got to be at the point that you've got nothing to lose. You do Tom Wolfe's 'boho dance.' I lived my youth on paper- it was fun to draw that stuff. Then I learned how to cope with people. Otherwise, I'd be drawing those big butts on a prison wall. (Now) having a printed book is the biggest thrill... (In comics) many are called, few are chosen..."


"Comics was a subculture... High art sniffs at comics. They don't see it in same way as part of the 'isms' of art. Maybe because art prints are precious articles, comics are mass produced. I used to give away some of my prints- what a fool... I was later told "get into the art thing- that's where the money is!" And yet... "the great thing about comics is that it's a low medium. You can just draw any stupid thing you want, don't have to be deep."


"It helped but it can be hell... Fame is nothing without money but you need women... can't get beautiful lovers without fame. I became a celebrity since the documentary (Terry Zwigoff's 1998 film about him) and it's weird, it has its perks. I've wanted to withdraw but then ego pushes you forward. Recently, the London paparazzi made me want to quit. I think Madonna had it right- she said 'to me, the press is just shrubbery.'"

As he came out in the beginning of the lecture and the cameras flashed, he grabbed Hughes' walking cane and shook it playfully/threateningly at the NY paparazzi. After Hughes decided to let the audience in on the fun, Crumb stopped him because he had a question for the crowd. "How many of you believe that you'd really want to be a celebrity?" Few raised their hands. He looked somewhat satisfied that (some of) his fears and suspicions were confirmed.


Q: How do you compare your early works with your later works?

A: I don't like the early work to the exclusion of later (things). Most people just know me from Fritz the Cat, Keep on Truckin', the Cheap Thrills album cover and the documentary. The early stuff was spontaneous, wacky. Now, it's more trepid, careful.

Q: In your art work, you seemed miserable, but not in real life?

A: I got it good now, I can't complain- it's unattractive.

Q: How did it feel seeing an actor playing you in American Splendor?

A: It was eerie (to which his wife in the audience added "if you were really like that, I would have divorced you!")

Q: What did you think of the movie version of Fritz the Cat?

A: It was a terrible travesty but I didn't want to fight with those people.

Hughes (about dealing with Hollywood types): "When Louis B. Meyer offered Errol Flynn to play a game of golf, Flynn was said to respond 'the day I'll play with a prick, I'll play with my own.'"

Q: What kind of advice would you give to aspiring artists?

A: If you want to be an artist, you don't want to be happy and listen to pop music. Alienate yourself. It's hard to sustain focus and concentration in face of little money or recognition. There's really no venues- my books don't sell much, 10,000 maybe.

Q: You live in France now. Do you plan to die there?

A: I plan on dying in France. I went there to die.

Well, not quite yet Bob. You still have more obsessions to get out in your work obviously and some of us are grateful for it while some continue to be agitated about it. That's why you're still needed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Stop Sexual Discrimination at The Source

Stalwart hip hop journalists Joan Morgan, Elizabeth Mendez Berry and Jeff Chang created this online petition re sexual harassment suits leveled at editors of the Source magazine and the vile way that they've responded to this. I signed this less than a minute after reading it. Hope you can add your name there too.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Oprah- the most sought-after and hated book critic

When it comes to the world of literature, Oprah Winfrey is both loved and hated. It doesn't have anything to do with anything that the daytime host has written herself but the recommendations that she's made through her book club. A Rocky Mountain News article (Author covers prose, cons of Oprah's club) explains how titles that OW gives props to then manage to ratchet up huge sales advances not to mention how it's coincided with a growth spurt of other book clubs. And yet, not everyone's happy about her doing this. I'm willing to put aside suspicions of race or sex prejudice here.

There's a prejudice going on here but it's about something else: I agree with author Kathleen Rooney that "the question goes to the core of our perceptions about culture and art. Oprah... found herself caught in an ongoing unease in America between high-brow and low-brow culture." Along with Jonathan Frazen's snub of being picked as a club choice, how uneasy do you think book critics might feel that their years of devoted service is upended by a talk show host? And how about the authors? Wouldn't you think that they'd feel the same way about such an upstart making such waves in their industry?

Actually, some of the response is just the opposite. A Daily News article (Writers to Oprah: We need your help) has info about a women's' writer group called Word of Mouth who has an open letter to OW: "The American literary landscape is in distress... Readers have trouble finding contemporary books they'll like. They, the readers, need you. And we, the writers, need you."

Is it really that bad? You can judge for your from a New York Times article about the benefits and realities of self-publishing (How To Be Your Own Publisher): many bookstores and publications (including the Times) won't give these books the time of day and the major publishers see them as 'farm teams' where they can cherry pick the break-out successes. There's also a wonderful Poet and Writer's article about the benefits and realities of indie publishing (An Argument for Writers' Taking Charge), told by a veteran of the indie rock game who sees a lot of relevant connections between the two entertainment industries. In music and books, A&R in the big leagues is almost always reserved for the heavy hitters. Indies can promise more control over product though extended and creative self-promotion are part of the dues paying. As the P&W article points out, book sales of 5,000 for a title is considered good- many titles that are put out never even reach that level.

You can vilify Oprah all you want for not pushing say The Naked Lunch or Mona Lisa Overdrive or more recent edgy material to the masses but 1) they'd be instantly lose their cool cache because of the association and 2) that's not realistic anyway. After the NEA complained that less and less people are reading fiction, we should be grateful that there's any sustained interest in the form being generated. If a daytime talk show host wants to lead the way, more power to her.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Satellite may save and/or kill radio

The most surprising thing in a worthwhile article/interview about Elvis Costello (Costello's road traveled only by himself) wasn't the great songwriter's post-mortem for the record industry as we know it but his dire thoughts about the state of radio.

"What a desperate waste the way radio has gone since the day when the management of these different crooners were making recordings off the radio of the shows," he said. "It was so revolutionary what they were doing... When all of this music was close together, the great
strengths emerge. That's how you get Elvis Presley. That's how you get rock 'n' roll.

By putting things in boxes and competing them against each other, you kill the music's ability to become like a chemistry set. You can write reams and reams of musicological analysis of Elvis Presley, but all he did was combine things he loved. He grew up with gospel and the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers and Bill Monroe and Big Maybelle, and all these things get mixed up."

If you think he's being too dismal, take a peak at the Billboard Hot 100 chart and see you think. Thanks to the magic of the Net, radio is being upended as everything else is in the music industry. With the sad condition of continued payola scandals (decades after this was supposed to have been cleaned up), rampant consolidation, shrinking playlists and central broadcasts covering several areas, it's not hard to find fault with radio. Supposedly, the savior and alternative is satellite radio, which offers hundreds of specialized stations to suite any musical taste: country, Christian, jazz, latin, classical, world music is all here.

But how much of a good thing is that? Costello seems to be saying that all these choices might be more of a curse than a blessing. His namesake Elvis was able to experience a smorgasbord of styles all together and make something of it himself with his own music. Imagine how different things would have been if Presley wasn't able to have that experience. When we're given dozens or hundreds of choices that can cater to each person's specific taste, that's a boon to many as it satisfies their need to hear the music that they love.

But it's also the music that they know well and have experienced again and again. Once it gets to the point that these people will settle into their favorite stations and favorite music (as we all do), what happens to the other choices, the other stations and the other music? We might accidentally flip by them on the way to our own choice but more likely, that won't even happen as we program our own choices into our receivers. This isn't any more surprising than a conservative turning to a conservative publication for news or a liberal turning to a liberal publication for their news. The same principle is at work here: with so many choices available, you now have the luxury to narrow what you see and hear specific to your tastes and thinking.

When you go back to Costello's quote again, you realize what's missing in this scenario. We do become boxed in then with our tastes and our favorite music. We don't stumble across left field choices or music that's alien to us or many times, a particular song in another style that might appeal to us. We're frozen out from worlds of music and discovery by our own tastes then and we suffer for that.

That's not to say that at any time, the overall charts were not fixed and that many songs didn't make it there or on the radio that should have. In fact, only someone with the broadest kind of taste will tell you that they live everything that's on the charts now and I'd be pretty suspicious of their taste at that. What was there, and is still there to some extent, on these generalized charts that track the overall top sellers is this (semi) unpredictable variety and surprises. Once we settle into our favorite station covering our favorite style, that's gone from us.

The way out of this trap isn't just a hit music format but also free form radio itself, the likes of which used to be the property of college stations and the occasional renegade broadcaster. While I've often argued that these stations aren't truly freeform is they don't play current or past hits sometimes, they can and do provide a mind-boggling variety. Granted that I have a prejudice for being in the Northeast but WFMU and WCRT are two great examples of this. One recent FMU playlist has Bauhaus, Jimmy Smith, Ringo Starr, Buddy Holly, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Nellie McKay, Hugo Montenegro, The Rolling Stones, The Turtles, the Stylistics, Kurt Schwitters, a high school band, dub, ESG, Kid Koala, Beck, Brazilian funk and a bootleg remix. That sounds a lot closer in spirit to the music that both Elvis's enjoyed than most specialized stations. If trad radio ultimately loses out to satellite, that kind of open-ended format is something we might lose too. My own searches for freeform formats on XM or Sirius satellite stations provided pretty much nil (ED NOTE: if I'm wrong, please let me know).

Ultimately, that's the grave new world that technology is going to hand us and that Elvis C is worried about. If you'd like to challenged musically now and then, you might be concerned too. Since XM and Sirius are the only games in town for satellite radio right now, that's not going to change unless people start telling them that they're being cheated out of some real diversity.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Ying Yang Twins- as suggestive as they wanna be

As a fan of Atlanta rap duo Ying Yang Twins' hit last year "Salt Shaker," I was looking forward to their latest one, "Wait." Listening to it at first, it sound enticing not just because of the minimal rhythm track (rubber band bass plus finger snaps and that's it) but the way the whole song is whispered. Novel idea, eh? But then you listen to the words. There's a real thrill for the ladies ("wait'll you see my dick") and a promise to satisfy ("I'm gonna beat that pussy up") are both repeated again and again and again. Sounds like a nice, romantic evening. Yawn. Some guys will definitely pick up on the not-so-soft porn but the ladies probably wouldn't be chanting this.

Usually, we think of the "dirty" versions of a song as the "real" version, the one that hasn't been scrubbed down for radio and such. We want to get our thrills full throttle. Or do we? When we have "clean" versions of bawdy tunes, most of the time it's unintentionally funny as most of the lyrics become bleeps until it sounds like semaphore. Who wants to hear that?

In a case like this though, where the "dirty" part is so explicit that it's stupidly obscene, I was curious what the clean version would sound like. To my surprise, not only was it better than the "dirty" version, it was actually really good. Instead of the dirty words, we get echoed howls and moans that fit in nicely, especially considering the not-so-subtle come-on of the song.

But what also makes it a better version is the more open-ended context. By not naming their thing or her thing in detail, it leaves a little bit more to the imagination, even if we can pretty quickly guess what body parts they're referring to anyway. That doesn't necessarily make the song "clean" now- it's just suggestive now, which can be even 'worse' (dirtier) depending on the particular listeners' imagination.

Think of many black-and-white horror or gangster films. The violence that we see isn't very explicit (or even on screen sometimes) but that makes it no less gruesome or disturbing, even when we see it today. Slasher films make these seem pretty crude and old-fashioned on one level but they don't have the suggestive/imaginative power of these earlier films. Sometimes when art leaves us to fill into the blanks and we're made to think for ourselves, it can be much more powerful than cases where we see or hear everything in detail. What we may fill in may be much tamer than what was originally intended but many times, we find that when we're tested like this, we're usually up to the challenge of figuring out a startling scenario (much more than we'd like to think sometimes).

That's why I think of YYT's clean version of "Wait" is better. Not just because we don't have to sit through their own slimy sex fantasies but also because our own, we're left to think up something that might be more pleasurable. Or more realistic. Or weirder. Any way you look at it, that's more fun for you.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The continuing death of record companies

An Alternet article about the Grokster case coming to the Supreme Court (The Revolution Will Be Downloaded) goes through the intricate legal arguments to be made about P2P (peer-to-peer) downloading services. But this article also has this quote about the future of record companies from Mark Cooper of Consumer Federation of America:
Clearly [for] the label owners and the recording companies, their distribution model is based on a brick-and-mortar distribution model that they can control. That's over. That's going to disappear, no doubt about it. They will clearly try to use their labels and promotion to maintain a significant role in the middle of the industry, but that will diminish over time. There's no doubt that the creative industries are going to look very different in the near future. They've held on to the means of distribution for decades.

We're on the verge of a dramatic revolution in the production of cultural goods. It's important to remember just how expensive it is to market and distribute content the way the recording and film industries do now -- the production of CDs, the ad campaigns, the delivery of CDs to market, etc. Compare it with peer-to-peer, which is a direct transmission of content from producer to consumer. The recording companies as we know them will disappear.

To some this might sound pretty provocative but to others, it's old news. It's old in the sense that this predication has been made since Napster started up (way back in 1999) and that this still hasn't come to pass. It's that's so, why do people still repeat this theory and cheer it on? My guess is that they think of the record companies as "da man"- a powerful, greedy, ruthless force that has to be taken down. After that happens, great music will flourish and everyone will be able to enjoy it exactly as they please. At least, that's how it's supposed to happen...

Here on Earth, it's a little more complicated than that. This is obviously an appealing fantasy of the little people defeating the big corporations when we see the opposite happen most of the time. Finally, we can have control over part of our lives without worrying about whether we can find music and if we'll get jail time for doing so. The problem is that with all of this talk of slaying the beast, we don't have a clear idea of what will happen next. The assumption made is that artists will be able to take care of everything themselves with the power of the Net. At least, that's how it's supposed to happen...

David Day of Forced Exposure (one of the biggest indie distributors around) had these thoughts:

Labels, as collective of artists united under one banner and pooling their resources, developing a sound, a philosophy and getting someone to run their number and book their tours and upload their music? Those aren't going away. I mean, Neil Diamond doesn't need a record label. Sufjan Stevens needs a record label. Managers are one thing, but the collective power of a label (Paw Tracks comes to mind) cannot be denied.

When the Flaming Lips start doing their own accounting, taxes, rights negotiation, marketing, ad placement, contract writing, poster design, printing, etc. etc. then the dramatic revolution will take place.
And so it goes. But unless you think the gloom and doom talk about record companies' demise can easily be brushed away, here's some thoughts from Tony Kiewel, A&R rep at Sub Pop:
While I agree that people will always need banks (ED NOTE: compared to labels previously), I tend to disagree that artists will always need that in the degree they do today or in fact whether labels will be the ones to fill that roll. As recording technology gets cheaper (our biggest selling records were recorded for $200 and $3000 respectively) and distribution goes digital, a huge chunk of what we as labels are fronting for is rendered moot. We can't even claim to flex the muscle needed to get your music in to stores. Anybody can get their shit in itunes now through an aggregator. I-Tunes never has to worry about limited shelfspace or even concerning themselves with the level of push an artist has behind it. All that's left to us is marketing at the end. No small thing to be sure, but arguably a function that could be filled by any number of companies. Magazines, managers, online distributors, blogs, and a million things I haven't thought of could easily transform themselves into "labels." Many of them already have.
... which is also a good point and which is to say that no one can afford to be complacent nowadays. Day's point about labels being not only the ones who take care of the behind-the-scenes business but also trademarks of quality does make sense- I could imagine indie fans being enamored of many of the Sub Pop releases but how many people say "If it's on Warner Bros. or Sony, that's good enough for me"? Nevertheless, in an industry that's vexed by technology which makes hash of Moore's Law, in a market where complacency can mean death, there's no flow to go with- you have to stay on top of the curve.

What all these platitudes add up to is that these labels, both big and small, have to take very seriously the technology that's transforming the way that consumers access their music. I'm not cheering for any label to go under- I want them around so that we can still hear good music and if it means that it comes with a whole lot of bad music too, it's worth the risk (and there's people out there who'll buy music that you or I could consider crappy). Hopefully, some of the majors will realize by now that they can't sue their problems away and instead have to keep looking for new ways to keep reaching out to music heads out there.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

More promography and copy-wrong fun

In case you didn't think the other methods that labels use to lock down pre-release music were extreme (see previous post, Promography), there's this tasty little item from Billboard about the restrictions on hearing the upcoming Coldplay album: "Journalists are required to listen to the set on an iPod locked inside a clear case, with a security guard perched outside an open door." What, no cavity search?

But why bother if we can lock up everyone who might have an illegal file on their computer or MP3 player? CNET reports that a bill is about to be signed into law setting out stiff penalties for anyone who's got an illegal piece of entertainment on their computer, MP3 player or presumably anywhere in their possession. Before you flee the country, the article notes "Justice Department to date has typically reserved criminal charges for the most egregious cases" though technically you could get a six figure fine for having one naughty file "should have known the copyrighted work had not been commercially released."

So how would you know in all instances that you're following this law? Make sure you have a subscription to Billboard and all back issues to make sure that everything you have is legal. Oops but they don't typically list everything that's coming out or released so then what do you do? And what would happen if someone e-mail'ed a pre-release MP3 to the RIAA people- could you then turn them in to the Feds for being in possession of illegal material? I'm sure we could have an honest, frank discussion about this as we all serve our jail terms together with them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Is convergence good for entertainment?

For the moment, home entertainment includes plenty of choices for the type of distractions we're looking for- radio, TV, stereo, computer. More and more, we're moving to an era where these gadgets won't be part of your choices anymore. Instead of deciding which one to use, we'll have them all in one place. Ideally, that's what's supposed to happen but there's a lot of kinks to be worked in that model.

To start with, we already have our computers equipped to not just surf the Net or store data but also ready to play music, access video and stream radio stations. But the problem is that the other electronic gadgets in our lives are jealous and want to expand their range. In an article from Sfgate, Cable wants to be more, we learn about the promise of TV's reach outside of the usual channels and into the Net. This has been promising this for years and though it's coming in some way or shape, it won't be easy. Remember how easily the currency of the euro was accepted through Europe? The lesson there was that when you have lots of standards for lots of different places (or industries) to agree on, it ain't a smooth road. Any technological innovators also have to be careful about backwards compatibility- if it instantly renders all everything we've used before obsolete and unusable, you'll have an instant consumer revolt and backlash. Even if you can convince people that the new gizmos are better than your crappy old computer/TV/stereo/phone, the laws of technology are that any first generation of new products or software are going to be full of bugs and problems- that means you're gonna want to wait until they sort out all of the fun issues. That's not even mentioning all of the issues of security, rights and downloading that have stifled a lot of innovations in the tech industry from happening in the first place.

Not that this is stopping the phone companies from trying to hone in on the act. As we see from the article Wireless outfits will face the music (Business Week), the major providers see this as cash cow and they want in but the problem is to what extent can they get there. The advantage that the phone companies already have is the number of cell phones that are already out there but once you try to teach this tech dog some new tricks, the problems start. As it is, the phones aren't equipped with the memory or battery life to handle songs adequately and then there's the question of what do you do with all those songs on your phone. As small as the screen is on MP3 players, the cell phone face is even smaller so you can imagine how long it's going to take you to find or play a song there. Once you get past that problem, the phone companies then face the same problem that gives them a leg-up on the market- name recognition. Apple and to a lesser extent Napster have that for the MP3 market and they don't- these companies also have the advantage of running these systems and knowing the market pretty well while the phone companies don't. If these companies try and make their own music marketplace and screw it up, which is inevitable when you start out, then Apple and the rest will be glad to step in with other companies to provide better service and in all likelihood, take over a good part of the market.

One interesting observation from the Business Week model is the idea that consumers don't necessarily want their cell phones to be their whole entertainment center. In the L.A. Times article Will Your Music Hub Be a Phone? they note Motorola's iRadio program (note relation to the word "I-Pod") to connect your phone to your car or computer. But they also note also that some analysts are skeptical of convergence, especially with technical limits of cell phones and getting people used to new ways to utilize old devices. The popularity of Sony's Playstation Portable (P2P) might change that but so far, the few studies that have been done on multi-tasking devices like this are that users aren't comfortable with using them to access every type of media that's out there (music, movies, etc.). That's understandable not just because it's going to take some time for users to understand how to flip through all the different types of media all in one place but again, the viewing size is going to be a strain- are you really going to look at a palm-size monitor for two hours just to watch a movie? You probably won't.

There are more modest ideas like this: Infinity Plans to Broadcast to Cellphones in U.S. (Yahoo/Reuter). The idea here is to broadcast its programs to mobile phones in the United States, and include text data for subscribers "which would include "artists' names, check concert dates, buy tickets, ring tones and other content." Since we're already used to sending and reading text on our mobiles, this is a much more practical idea and more than you can get from an MP3 player right now.

Another L.A. Times article (iPod Killers?) also talks about telecomm rivals taking aim at portable entertainment market. Since phones are just as portable (and more ubiquitous) than MP3 players, it seems to make sense to exploit them more and try to get more out of them. Once they get over their tech hurdles (battery, storage) and offer music stations and the ability to share music with other users on the same system, you have a real challenge for Apple. But since this is a new market to these companies, they're still vexed over pricing. They're used to charging $2 for ringtones but that's double what online songs cost now. Ideally, they'd like a more flexible model that lets them bump up the price for hits and discount some of the back catalog. The question is how peachy will this be with consumers- other than having to shell out more for songs, having a supply/demand cost scale is confusing even if that model is used offline for discounting certain items to bump sales up. And maybe once you have a company like SK Telecom offering all-you-can-eat music for $5/month, how many consumers are going to pig out at their musical troth?

Other than salivating at the prospect of getting in on the online music market, the phone companies also have reservations about Apple, worrying about one company dominating the market: see Music moguls trumped by Steve Jobs? (CNET) While the major labels love him for helping to revitalize their sagging profits, they also hate him for being too big for his britches right now- not just dominating the market but also dictating terms to them, i.e. pricing. If the phone companies can offer better deals and bigger markets than he can, the majors might put their money and resources there instead, which would leave Apple high and dry. The majors aren't dumb enough to quickly abandon a cash cow like I-Tunes but they could also slowly shift themselves away, with new titles, promotions, etc.. As the CNET article also explains, Apple gets by now with sales of the I-Pod itself and not the songs on I-Tunes. Can the phone companies do the same? Maybe because as the Business Week article notes, the phone companies can live to tiny profit margins too.

So what kind of portable devices are going to be left after the dust settles? Obviously, we're still going to need cell phones but the question is how much more do consumers want them to expand. Though millions love the I-Pod now, it's survival is by no means as secure unless Apple branches out and makes a deal with one of the phone companies on a sleek and easy-to-use model that reflects the I-Pod. Adding games and movies to the mix is already happening but they're nowhere as popular as ringtones and that should tell you something- small and simple is the way that people want their bells and whistles on their phones. And you can't blame them for not wanting too many bells and whistles- how convenient is it going to be to switch between a movie you're watching and a phone call while you're traveling around? In the past, each medium that sprang up was seen as competition to existing media but now the push to put them all in one place is unprecedented. We'll soon find out if we can process all this stimulus in one place and keep track of it without losing our minds.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Darfur has millions murdered so let's dance our troubles away

When spring finally returned, it seemed like a good time to appreciate the nicer weather at an outdoor show. Columbia University was having a benefit show last Saturday so that seemed like one of the best ways to take advantage of some sun and warmth. I hadn't been there in a while and that seemed like another good excuse to go. The campus itself has a lovely outdoor area with classically designed buildings gracefully surrounding a large quad area with greeneries to lie on and long rows of steps to lounge on. The student body took advantage of this, showing up in force, with some even setting up hookas and sliding pools to celebrate the new season.

First up was The Dub Trio who nicely sum themselves up with their name and have a good feel for the music they play. Even live, they were able to mix the sound effects, drop-outs and echoes that makes up the style's richest music, even though they were compelled to start a few songs off with a blast of hardcore (to clear the decks maybe).

After their set was over, they started packing up and someone took the stage, presumably to make some sort of announcement about the show. Whatever mellow, spacey vibes that the band left, he was there for another reason. This was Simon Deng of American Anti-Slavery Group and he told the crowd about the situation in Darfur, Sudan today. It was a eye-opening, especially because most of the mainstream news outlets didn't cover this and didn't seem to care about this otherwise.

In my country, if you are not Muslim, you are not human... The ‘militias’ slaughter millions but we know they are just tools of the government there.... The United Nations does nothing about the torture, rape, crime happening there- they are guilty of silence and they condone what is taking place there.... Three and a half million people have been slaughtered now. The Arab world is part of the problem- Khartoum gets assistance from every single Arab country. They ask for resolutions
about Palestine all the time but they do nothing to stop this.

I am in a suit but I used to be a slave- I was owned by another human being. I am a victim... My young girl was raped right in front of my eyes. I am mad.

You couldn't listen to works like that and not be moved and horrified. I also felt cheated. I'm a news hawk but a lot of this was new to me: World News Tonight, Meet the Press, Face the Nation, Chris Matthews Show, CNN were all telling me more than what I needed to know about Pope John Paul but nothing about this genocide. Is it not in their interest because this is Africa, which they probably consider a perpetual mess? Is it not in our (American) government's interest because there's no oil there?

Even before there was time to contemplate, Antibalas were ready to perform. The dozen or so members of this Brooklyn band play Fela Kuti's Afrobeat music better than anyone else today. Granted that's not a large field but they beat Fela's son Femi as well as Fela drummer Tony Allen's recent bands. Singer Abraham Amayo is a good ranter and the band had the extended jams down but what was missing was the ego and vision of a leader like Fela himself to make this good band into a great band.

Dozens of people were dancing up front during their set but I still couldn't get Deng's words out of my head. Antibalas were there for the express purpose of supporting his cause but could that be pushed aside so quickly to celebrate? Maybe this was the only rational way to deal with stories of such horror. Maybe it's best to think of it as a celebration of life against the death and depths of human cruelty that Deng spoke of. Organizers went around to collect donations for Deng's group and I was glad to donate. Other than dancing our troubles away, I hoped that they could make the rest of the world listen since too few people were speaking up about this.

If you'd like to do your part to help, one place to start is Modiba Production's fine benefit CD ASAP: the Afrobeat Sudan Aid Project (which includes Antibalas and Tony Allen). Just like at the Columbia show, you can dance away your (and others') troubles away.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Do we have to drag kids at gunpoint to see classical music?

You have to hand it to classical writer Norman Lebrecht: you might not always go along with his ideas but he's still one of the best, most thoughtful scribes in the field. A recent column in La Scena Musicale wonders Who's Afraid of Classical Concerts? The specific concern once again is potential young fans. On one level, this is another article that asks "what's the magic cure for classical music?" or "how do we get audiences that are under 50?" I give Lebrecht credit for pondering novel solutions, in this case making the shows later in the evening to more realistically accommodate peoples' schedules. He brushes aside suggestions about cheaper tickets and he's right to a certain extent- it's part of the solution but that still won't get an audience that still has their hair or hasn't had it gray yet.

One of the reasons that you go to concerts is not just to witness a visual or musical spectacle but also because many times, you want to see some sort of reflection of yourself or what you'd hope to be. It identifies you, like it or not, and puts you literally and figuratively in a type of crowd. With that in mind, how easy is it to tell a teenager that they need to see dozens of seated people play for hours the songs of Europeans who died so long ago?

Lebrecht's reasoning is that this shouldn't be a issue because the same kids can sit through Lord of the Rings. That doesn't hold up though since they're two difference kinds of experiences. One is an epic visual experience with millions of dollars of computer-animated graphics filling a screen the size of a house. Never under-estimate the visual component: this is one of the main reasons that the World Wide Web became such a dominate part of the Internet.

Compare a classical concert to other types of shows and there's definitely a deficiency in terms of sights. Many other styles also have performers remaining stationary- jazz, blues, country in most cases. One thing that's different is that in those cases, the audience isn't sitting on its hands silently for the length of each song (especially significant because in the case of classical music, songs usually aren't 3-4 minutes as in pop). It's not just kids that have problems with attention deficits- a lot of adults find it hard to sit quietly for that length of time. In the case of pop/rock/rap, the performers on the stage usually aren't stationary either- even a little movement or the right gesture goes a long way. And unlike rock or freestyle rap or jazz, there's almost never any room for improvs in old-style classical music. That's not even mentioning the range of clothing style choices or props that a pop concert can bring into play.

Collectively, this is the real problem with trying to get a younger audience into classical music- they're wired to accept so many things from other types of music that classical seems like a cold bore in comparison. That's no reflection on the music itself which obviously can be uplifting, inspirational, maddening, breath-taking and all those other good things that you'd want a musical experience to be. The problem is that all of the extra-musical elements aren't there to draw the kiddies in.

Mind you, visuals don't have to be anything extravagant. When I saw an Austrian orchestra, the conductor did various kicks and waves during some of the musical flourishes and used small props like a gong and a (train) conductor's hat. The crowd ate it up. At a 'recital' at Columbia University, a Stockhausen piece was played and the visual supplied (as requested by Stocky himself) was a single photo of the moon's surface. Even that one image was striking enough to go along with the piece.

Likewise, the notion of having young, comely stars on stage upsets some of the old guard: say Lara St. John. If the end result is memorable music, then ideally, this shouldn't be an issue. How quickly they forget that some of the old masters themselves weren't always choir boys. Rosinni, one of my favorites, was an infamous womanizer- one story was that he liked to have the most delectable woman lined up front row at his concerts so he could pick out his favorites for later.

Another complaint is that anything that whiffs of 'crossover' is treacherous to the cause of classical music. In a New York Times article about the newly named Sony BMG Masterworks, Sony's C.O.O. (who admits that he knows shinola about classical) proudly proclaims "And in my view, getting rid of crossover allows people to be focused." Full steam ahead into the past then. For some reason, that doesn't include Yo-Yo Ma, whose collaborators have included the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Kalahari bushmen and the Cookie Monster (who gave the world the immortal "C is For Cookie").

Presumably, this kind of tunnel vision would also mean ignoring any sympathetic performer with a foot in the pop world: Sonic Youth, John Zorn, DJ Spooky, Coldcut, Spring Heel Jack among others. The main reason that they're probably distained is because they align themselves with the post-Stravinsky era of classical music. In turn, this makes outcasts out of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass among others. Each of them finds it much easier to coral sympathetic patrons outside the classical world than within its bosom, when it should be the other way around. Maybe the mistake that these composers also make is that they haven't been dead for a hundred years.

This isn't even mentioning younger generations of composers who will find it even harder for their works to enter the classical repertoire. Some of the more adventurous orchestras are experimenting with a mix of old classicals and more modern fare, trying to find the right balance that won't offend their old guard too much while also trying to rope in a presumably younger crowd. Unfortunately, when this happens, the composers they trot out are John Adams, Reich and Glass and sometimes Riley (not usually Young, sad to say) as if this represents the acceptible face of modern classical music, not mention a large part of institutional laziness- they're already known, proven names so there's not much risk invovled. As for the pop-associated artists who are sympathetic to modern classical, they're usually exiles from the grand concert hall even though they hold the promise to be maybe not its savior but as least part of the solution- as it is, they're welcome in smaller spaces that are already pre-disposed to modern classical (i.e. Roulette, Experimental Intermedia).

Unless the classical world is ready to address these deficiencies, it doesn't hold any hope of remaining anything other than a fringe style- week after week, there are horror stories of cut-backs or funding deficits for orchestras so obviously, this is a real crisis. Which isn't to say that all of these solutions will be the magical solution that Lebrecht and others have been looking for so long. But it will be a good start.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

EMP blues

Unless you're a music writer or an arts/sociology professor, you might not know that this weekend, Experience Music Project is holding its annual Pop Conference, where dozens of music essays/studies will be presented. Only a few years old, one of the purposes of this gathering was to bring together academics (who usually present their work at conferences) with journalists (who usually present their work in publications). In theory, it's a bold idea but also an idea that's not without its problem.

In the first year, the Conference, headed by editors/writers Eric Weisbard and Ann Powers (who are also EMP curators), had an unexpected flood of responses. Obviously, it was an attractive idea. Out of curiosity, I asked some of the participants to let me see what I was missing and some of them were nice enough to share them. Curiously, some of them didn't, frankly embarrassed by their work. For the papers I read, I thought they were good but frankly, not the strongest things I'd seen from these writers.

I tried out for the second year because I was interested in this enterprise. While I attempted to rope in a local musician as part of a show and tell, I was told that this would be too much of a chore or expense. Later, EMP came up with idea of charging attendees for the conference (reasoning that this was done at academic conferences). After such a stink rose about this, they had to reconsider this- not only because they realized that the attendees were adding worth to the conference by being there but also because a lot of the writers probably wouldn't flip the bill.

After I got through my presentation, I had an empty feeling. Since this was a conference, I took it very seriously and went through the process of interviewing about 20-3o people and spent weeks writing this up and now it was over, vanishing into the air. What I didn't know then was that many of the other journalists who participated wrote their paper on the plane ride to Seattle: someone later joked with me that I should have used the Randomly Generated Paper machine (which did get its paper into another conference). I felt pretty foolish, working extensively and diligently on it, often pushing away other projects. Feeling that all this information shouldn't just disappear after it's done, I took it upon myself to share it with the online world through my zine: Between A Rock and An Experimental Place is the end result of this.

Which is all good and well but what about all the other presentations? One published collection of the first year's conference came out (This is Pop) and that's been it so far. Caryn Brooks had written an excellent think piece last year on Liz Phair and the Dixie Chicks that I published but everything else that happened at EMP seemed to disappear.

I liked seeing the museum and some of Seattle but I didn't feel the dire need to come back again and again each year. It seemed that the best you could hope for is to turn your paper into an article or get an assignment to cover the conference itself, which unfortunately I found that there wasn't a lot of interest in.

Meeting up with and chatting up other writers and academics was good but it still felt that something was missing. When I was going around to listen to other presentations, one thing I noticed was that the non-academics were usually much more amusing that the scholastic folks but had less substance. That shouldn't be too surprising since they're usually from different worlds- one puts an emphasis on entertaining an audience while the other doesn't but leans more on research. One thing that would ideally happen is that when the two worlds would collide, each side would gain something from the encounter- the journos would gain some respect by the company while the academics would gain some measure of mainstream recognition and acceptance by rubbing elbows in Seattle. And both sides could also put this on their curriculum vitae.

But for the academic side, the conference made much more sense. Their bread and butter consists of the papers and theses that they work on for months and years- compare that with the time that many journos spend on their EMP papers. The prof's and PhD's attend other conferences and add these to their resume to bolster their standing in the academic world. EMP was something that they stood to benefit greatly from, just by being there.

Some of the other problems with the conference aren't easily handled. Part of it is that EMP has financial and staffing difficulties as chronicled in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article. This means that even when they want to help writers with expenses for the conference, they sadly can't. Also, the timing of the conference comes right around SXSW as well as conference in Miami and Detroit. Because these other events warrant coverage (and an excuse for something of a vacation), that draws people away too.

The theory might be that EMP is for the more serious-minded writers and that's true to an extent but that also what may be part of the problem. If you look on EMP site, you'll notice that information about the conference is pushed off to the side and further down to make room for a larger banner about a long-running Bob Dylan exhibit there. The implication is that conference holds much less interest for the outside public and to an extent, it does. Except for the hardcore music fan or academic, what would be the pull to attend? It's a much too rarefied atmosphere. When I was there, one of the only people outside the conference to see any of the panels was a friend from the area that I invited (and she didn't stay long). Otherwise, when I was walking around the museum, I saw people there admiring the exhibits but who didn't seem to have any interest in (or maybe even any knowledge of) the conference.

If the panels had briefer presentations and more interaction or if there were more local shows tied into the conference, that would certainly go a long way but the question then is would EMP actually want more outside interest or do they want to keep in the small realm that it occupies now. It's not as if the topics aren't of interest but wouldn't the outside world benefit more from gleaming some of this knowledge? And wouldn't the attendees benefit from something coming out of a conference like this? No, I don't mean a tax-write off...

Friday, April 15, 2005

What's the right balance of media filth?

Someday, many years from now, you might fondly recall with your kids or grandkids (if you can shout past all the logos swimming their brain) how much more interesting, lively and open the media landscape was before the FCC and Congress decided that they should be overlord nanny for us in the U.S.. By then, you might be so jadded or defeated that you won't be able to recall it anymore yourself.

Among the many warning signs now, fines for 'indecent' broadcasts have now been increased fifty-fold and now, the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 is making the rounds in the legislature- this proposes fines not just for the broadcaster but also for the people themsevles who perform any unacceptible acts (which would have included Janet Jackson and her breast). One of the few voices of reason, Representative Jerrold Nadler had this to say to his collegues: "I certainly don't propose to deliver a stirring defense of indecent programming. In fact, like many Americans, I exercise my right not to view programming I find offensive by using that miracle of modern technology: the remote control." But Nadler isn't optimist about reason taking hold of the Congress: Nadler: Indecency Bill Could Pass.

As if these pumped up fines aren't good enough, the specter of jail time is now also being considered for infractors, with the blessings of both Democrats and Republicans as we hear in Salon's Indecency wars article. If that wasn't bad enough, even the Democrats on the FCC were mad at former chairman Michael Powell (a flip-flopping, pandering wimp and coward) because he didn't punish media offenders enough. Even top rated shows like Friends aren't necessarily off the hook, leaving you to wonder what's going to be left to watch if all the fines get inforced as dictated by that the biggest complainers, the Parents Television Council (who seem to write FCC policy more and more nowadays). Maybe they're get what they want and we can not only arrests and jail time Janet and both of her breasts but also public flogging and stockades just to keep them happy and make sure that we're giving the right message to the kiddies.

How much of this will actually be necessarily is debatable not just because broadcasters self-censor themselves out of fear of indiscrimately imposed fines but also because they themselves have another kind of brickwall when it comes to decency issues. A fascinating article in the Chicago Tribune (Jackson case just too much of a trial) documents how some media outlets are squeamish about broadcasting some of the more lurid details about the Michael Jackson trial. It's not that there's some kind of overaching moralist policy in place but that they don't think their audience would dig the gory details. As the head of CNN put it: "It just gets a little too close to the bone and strips away all the celebrity and sensationalism and turns it into something grotesque." In English, that means that they're worried about the fine line they have to tread between feeding peoples' interest in celebrity scandal without totally grossing them out and turning them off.

Which is to say that other than seeing a political barrier which could cost them their licenese, broadcasters also see a financial barrier that could cost them ratings (and ad revenue). The question then is if this is enough to hem themselves in without any political pressure. Along with reading the tea leaves that they see in ratings, part of their job is to figure out what the viewer or listening public wants and in this case, what they don't want.

It would be interesting to find out what these perceived limits of decency are as seen by broadcasters and how they're applied but with the legislature proceeding as it is, we may never know or find out. We'll be told what they are and have to live with the consequences. Personally, if I had to chose between broadcasters and legislatures deciding what I watch or hear, I'd go with their former- their pandering to high-dollar companies is more palatable and their version of the lowest common denominator is much more respectable than what we're finding in Washington nowadays.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Promography- how labels fight piracy and writers

To balance their piracy paranoia and yet somehow get music out to reviewers, record companies perform an inelegant balancing act. A writer has to get in an article to their editor at least a month or so before a mag issue hits the streets so that the review comes out as close to the record's release date as possible. The fear is that during that time, other than praising or damning a record, the writer might also share the copy with a few friends or others and then have the music wind up all over the Net. To stop this from happening, labels then have to take some extraordinary steps. The problem is that, as you'll see, this also means a lot of inconveniences for writers and their ability to give a record the right amount of listening time.

- Anti Bootleg Drops: While you're listening to a CD, every minute or so, a voice will come on to say "This is a promotional copy..." or "...this is intended for promotional purposes only." You hear this for the whole length of a CD so imagine what that's like for 70 minutes. When trying to listen to a record, it pretty much interrupts the flow of the music and your listening experience. Hopefully, after hearing it forty or sixty or seventy times during an album, it becomes background noise but to me, it's just really annoying. The theory is that this is going to be even more annoying to any potential music fans who have to listen to it after finding the songs online and thus forcing them to seek out the commercial release when it comes out later. Also, this isn't going to endear anyone to buy a used copy of an album with these constant interruptions. A good deterrent, yes but also harder for a reviewer to appreciate the record which can then backfire in the label's face. Thankfully, I've never had to review one of these yet and have a feeling that I wouldn't be inclined to pitch a record like this to an editor, if only because I'd go nuts hearing that announcement again and again.

- Vinyl only copies: The theory here is that since so few people have turntables nowadays (you know, those things that spun around those black vinyl discs) that this is a pretty safe bet. Also, the trouble that someone would have to take to record each of the tracks into a computer and then convert the files into MP3's seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through (still, it can be done). As an example of this, a record company sent out a friendly promo release about an upcoming record, saying that they were "limited-edition numbered white labels"(and to make matters worse that these were only going to review editors so you had to hit them up for THEIR copy). Because you can't haul your turntable around with you though, this limits where and when you can listen to the album. Though the vinyl market is much smaller than the digital one, these babies could still become collector's items though with the numbering system, you'd presume that the labels could trace 'em back to the original magazine if they found the record out there in the market somewhere. One day, there's a knock on the door and then, "Mr. Gross, we found your copy of the Esoterics album for sale in a shop in Tampa. You're under arrest..."

- Anti-ripping CD: My favorite, just because it's so goddamn ridiculous. Ordinarily, I'd be flattered to see my name written on CD label but not when it's also numbered and traceable to me- it makes me feel like I've taken a mug shot without showing up at the police station. Yes, they have the technology to add little digital labels to the songs to see who tried to put the songs on the Net but you don't have to worry about that. That's because these same CD's can't be played on your computer. They just won't work- you'll get all sorts of funky error messages when you try (again, I'm sure there's ways around this but you have to wonder if it's worth the trouble). What this means is that you'll have use your stereo (remember what that is?) or haul around a portable player with you just to listen to the CD. Just as with the anti-bootleg drop CD's, if you the reviewer actually likes the album enough to want to listen to it some more after you've written about it, you'd either have to go back and beg the record company for a regular copy or just go out and spend your money on the record. I know that most people outside of the scribe field wouldn't feel very sympathetic about that but after instructed many other people to buy a particular CD, finding that you have to then buy it too is kind of disheartening.

Here's some jolly warnings that you get from one of the protected CD's:


WARNING- By opening this seal, you are agreeing to the terms below.


And so on. You get the idea. Again, do you see why so many people have trouble working up sympathy for the record companies? I'd like to suggest something a bit more honest and straight-forward like this:


- Password protected download sites: Granted that I haven't heard of too many of these that are being offered up for pre-releases. That's probably because the few times that this was tried, it didn't work very well- people had problems with accessing the sites and downloading the music (obviously, you'd need a high-speed connection to do this). Guess that all the technical headaches aren't worth it. Also, once you'd have access to the songs, they'd have to watermark (or stream) the music to try to stop anyone from then going ahead and sharing the songs with anyone else.

- Listening session: I can't say I'm sorry that I haven't attended any of these yet. The idea is that you show up at the label's offices or a studio and you get to sit there and listen to the record. Not exactly an ideal listening experience- you have to take notes on their time rather than listening to it at your own leisure and convenience. Want to hear it again? You need to arrange time to come back and do it then. It's not just that it takes all the fun out of the listening experience but I imagine that you'd also feel pretty constrained. Sometimes, the artists themselves will be there to promote their work while you're there to hear their record. Kind of intimidating, isn't it? If they ask you what you thought and you didn't like the record, what do you say to their face?

When I review a record, I like to listen at least five times or more so that I'm pretty familiar with it and can try to say something worthwhile and thoughtful about it. That means that I'll listen once to it as a blur, listen a few more times as background, listen more intently and then gather some notes together. Trying to do all of this well isn't easy and trying to do it in a listening session makes it much harder. The level of anti-piracy safety is pretty high (anyone want a muffled tape-recorded version?) but good luck trying to get a good review out of an experience like this.

Also, this shows off a kind of geographic prejudice. If you're a writer in New York (or probably Los Angeles or London), you'll have relatively easy access to come and listen. But what if you're a writer or publication in the Mid-west? Are you going to pay for yourself or someone else to fly out there just to hear one album? It's not too cost effective for a publication so you'll have to find a Gotham writer who will do it for you. As for the writers who work for themselves and don't live near specific media hubs, sorry but you're SOL...

Contract Agreements: Another great option, especially if you're into legal jargon. You're given a lengthy contract written in a language that only a barrister could translate, basically saying that you're not going to let anyone listen to this record and even in some cases, the CD is on loan to you and must be returned. Luckily, I've only had to do one of these- it definitely wasn't worth it. Someone else who got one of these contracts and consulted a lawyer said it had almost no basis and that their advice was to cross out any B.S. you don't agree with and send it back to them- usually, this will be fine. I haven't heard of any cases of a writer being dragged into court over this yet. You'll find these fun little contracts also attached to a listening session too.

Other Methods: Some other ideas are still in testing and not really ready for unleashing on the masses yet. Microchip implants, beaming radio waves, sheet music, cylinders, semaphore versions, karaoke, muzak versions, ad tie-ins, etc.. You get the idea.

Going through all these variations, you keep coming back to the idea of writer-as-criminal. This means that it's much more important to inconvenience a reviewer and hold them accountable for actions that they may or may not commit than to have them really HEAR an album and try to write a worthwhile review about it. So what's more cost-effective here and better for business?

Even though I couldn't give you a specific example here, my gut tells me that with this kind of situation, it's more than a little possible that this has led to some angry, lashing-out reviews that some records might not have deserved. The record companies need a better way to do this because all of these methods described above just plain suck- it's a textbook example of the fear and loathing that Doc Thompson told us about.

How thrilled if writers laid out a bunch of rules for record companies to get them to cover a certain album? Feel free to share your own requirements that you'd like for a CD sent to you- the winner will receive an extensive legal contract to sign off for a copy-protected CD which can't be played anywhere, offer only good in NY, L.A. or London.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

New York Dolls' third album, Knit news, plus...

While casually asking me about Alex Chilton lyrics, guitarist Steve Conte mentioned that he was also playing guitar in the New York Dolls now. After raving about great shows that I'd seen the band do last year at Little Steven's GarageFest and this March at SXSW (they're also playing at Irving Plaza at the end of this month), I told him to say hi to the boys for me. And then he dropped this bomb:

"Be seeing a lot of David & Syl as we're writing for a new album (we did one of my songs and one of sami's at sxsw - lyrics by david jo, of course!). Wanna hurry up and get the record done but there are all kinds of little speed bumps...we all live in nyc while syl lives in atlanta, sami & i have our own bands, david does his radio show at sirius satelitte, etc. seriously, we are just writing now. we've got 11 songs but need at least 25 to choose from to pick 10 or 12 for the record. it could be the fall by the time we get into a studio cuz hopefully we'll be touring this summer."

So yes, that means that we're talking about a 3rd New York Dolls studio album here, 30 years plus after the last one. And you thought Mission of Burma took a long time between their last two records? I'm sure that some people are going to sniff that without Johnny T or Jerry or Arthur, it won't be the same (and it wouldn't be if there were around anyway). But anyone who's seen the band recently can attest that David Jo's still got it so let's see what happens. Damn shame that there's no NYD website- someone should do something about that.

Though not quite as much of a miracle, following up on my complaints of the furnace-like temperatures in some New York clubs, I heard this bit of good news from a friend at the Knitting Factory: "we're planning to get enough money to fix the heating system and air conditioner in July." Now, you don't have to strip down to your undies there, even in the winter. Seriously though, this is a good move not just for the club but also something that's gonna make a big difference with music fans who show up there.

Totally unrelated note #1: Fannypack's "Seven One Eight" is easily one of the best dance singles I've heard this year. It's even more fun than their previous adorable single "Cameltoe," this time complete with a choppy reggae beat. Thankfully, they don't ham it up as rastas, celebrating instead their area code in true Brooklyn style.

Totally unrelated note #2: Avant-turntable wizard Yoshihide Otomo doing a brief performance on a Japanese kiddie site. I love this bit of explanation, saying that Otomo "used a turntable (record player) which is a device for playing records, in his performance. Think of records as old CDs. Place a needle over a record going around in circles, and all kinds of music can be heard." Don't you get the feeling that a lot of adults might need to hear that kind of explanation too? 'Turn-table? How do play MP3's on it...?'

Monday, April 11, 2005

Jazz as art form- disconnected from society?

Talking/Writing "Voices" series at New School in New York
Gary Giddins (author, Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century), interviewed by Robert Christgau, March 30th

Before covering the state of jazz journalism, one of its top practitioners had some good anecdotes:

  • Coleman Hawkins- his famous recording of “"Body and Soul"” was actually just an off-the-cuff session, meaning much more than the pain-staking recordings he did with string sections.
  • Benny Goodman in the Soviet Union- jazz was illegal there and fans didn’t want to be in trouble so they referred to singles and albums by their catalog numbers. When they had the chance to meet Goodman on a visit, they asked him questions about certain records, referring to them by catalog number. Needless to say, Goodman was baffled (though you had to hope that he was impressed in some way).
From there, Giddins went on to relate his own difficulty with finding sympathetic editors and how that was the general experience with jazz journalism now. He had left his Weather Bird column at the Village Voice because he didn't feel that was a place to pursue the essay format anymore (Christgau, a long-time editor there, agreed). Nevertheless, Giddins recounted that when he was first offered the column, he didn't like the idea of having to write 300 words about every show he saw. Nowadays, he's grateful to get good advances for his books: the usual is about$5000 but he managed to get more for his latest one.

He went on to lament the problems that he sees in music criticism now. One problem he notes is that critics themselves are weak on the history of criticism- Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Biographia Literaria), Dwight McDonald (Against the American Grain), Martin Williams (The Jazz Tradition) to name a few. This is important as he notes a quote from Albert Murray: a writer's ambition is reflected in what they read. That alone should give some people pause.

Giddins went on to say: "Music criticism is a writer's art, a form of literature... Your primary obligation should be to your readers, so you should be entertaining and enlightening as possible." But beyond these lofty things, he admitted, "even before I'm a writer, I'm a fan," which is good to know because enthusiasm does go a long way in this trade.

In terms of writing style, he explained "having an opinion is hard work," which may not seem like much at first but if you consider it to mean a real, defendable opinion, then you realize that it's not an easy task. As far as criticism being a 'dialog between writers and readers,' you can take that not just to mean the endless cycle of commentary that you can now find on the Net (i.e. blogs) but also the way that good critical writing can inspire the same in others. As for personal narrative, Giddins didn't have a problem with it as long as it served an illustrative function (i.e. it holds some purpose beyond pumping yourself up).

For jazz criticism in particular, he worried that this was a terrible time, especially as there are so few writers out there, especially compared to writers covering other musical styles. Particular problems he's seen in the field was how many writers would avoid writing about Louis Armstrong for a long time because he was seen as too pop and too minstrel. Also, a popular tirade in jazz circles was to dismiss cross-over music while at the same time, some of these same complainers would then go on to wonder why jazz isn't more popular. When someone in the audience asked if writers should have musical knowledge in order to write about a style, Giddins admitted that he had little and went on to quote a writer who was well-versed in music but also made numerous factual errors in some of his writing (initials D.M. I believe).

During some of the other Q&A period, Christgau chimed in about writing and editing experiences. Ideally, he hoped that his audience wouldn't need every little thing explained to them but unfortunately, many editors do need this and even then, they are confused. He recalled one of his least favorite writing assignments was also one of the best paying ones- he hoped to write for the publication again even though the editing experience had been like "being nibbled to death by ducks and date rapped" (ouch). Giddins went on to tell about an experience where another editor said that readers wouldn't know who Blake or Rossini were so he needed to give out their first names in a review. Giddins reluctantly agreed and then the editor went on to ask "And what ARE their first names...?" As for blogs, Christgau complained that he found them to be too self-referential and impenetrable (hopefully excluding present company).

The one quote that seemed to stand out was from Christgau: "jazz has less sociological context than pop." Could this be so? He later explained, "Currently, of course it does. It's almost a pure art music. Rock's not there yet." Yet. Giddins agreed with this: "He's right about it being less verbal--also, in his defense, jazz critics other than Marxists often avoided social context until long after the war." Even if it was true, it was one of those things that you DIDN'T want to believe. Can jazz be so far gone that it doesn't have any social context to it anymore? What would William Parker say or for that matter, Wynton Marsalis? The two probably don't agree on much but here, they surely would.


Sad to say, I'd have to disagree with them. If we're talking about American society at large, then jazz does seem to be missing a wider context today. Maybe you could say that it started once R&B splintered off from it in the 1940's. Even the days of freakish one-shot hits was as far back as the 1970's (technically, Herb Alpert's "Rise" or Chuck Mangione's "Feel So Good" were 'jazz' but they were really light dance fare). When Ken Burns tried to perform a revival act with his PBS series, the related CD compilations ate up the jazz charts, not the pop charts. Which isn't to say that the music is dead (even though it gets last rites on a constant basis) but that it isn't a cultural phenom as it was in the days of big bands.

But could it be again? As always, its practitioners today want to play their music, earn a living from it and thrive. Taking it to the next level requires not just boldness but also cunning, vision, some measure of respect (but hopefully not a whorish embrace) of pop culture, style, luck and (this is very important) good marketing. It could happen, really. Maybe a high-priced tag, multi-special-guest extravaganza that Clive Davis could cook up. Don't laugh- once upon a time, he helped push Miles Davis into some of his most daring and misunderstood music. It sold a lot in terms of the standards of jazz (though not as much as they had hoped) and shaped the whole frontier of 70's jazz (for worse and better).

This bold new leader today could be Greg Osby, Graham Haynes, Jason Moran or more likely, someone we don't know about yet. In the 90's, there was a stronger connection with hip-hop (i.e. Guru) and from then up to now, indie rock has embraced its edges (Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo). These kinds of foot-in-the-door moves could mean more mainstream attention and could provide a springboard. Granted that these are all pretty hypothetical longshots we're talking about here but even the promise of such a thing is intriguing. Many jazz fans would say that as long as it stays true to its essence, the style doesn't have to worry about lifting itself up in terms of mass media attention. But then, remember Giddins' words about the twisted hypocritical complaints leveled at cross-overs: they get lambasted constantly and then we go back to bemoaning its sad fate. We can't have it both ways and I'm all for the risk-takers. Many and most will fail but we should salute and cheer anyone who makes a go of it without trashing their roots. What would this then mean for jazz or for a society that embraces it with both arms? I'd love to find out.



Saturday, April 09, 2005

Yet another side of Bob Dylan

Thoughts on Greil Marcus' Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads

Marcus has always had an unique relationship to Dylan. One of his most famous reviews (of Self Portrait) began "What is this shit?" It got him canned from Rolling Stone and Dylan supposedly replied that he felt the same way about Marcus' review. Five years later, Marcus was writing liner notes for commercial release of the fabled The Basement Tapes. One of his recent books, Invisible Republic (1997) dealt specifically with that record. When asked about Dylan's response to the book, Marcus replied that he knew that Dylan had read it and he was satisfied with that. Just this year, he co-edit a book about American ballads (The Rose & The Briar) with Sean Wilentz, a Princeton professor and historian-in-residence at Dylan's official website.

Probably the most striking feature of Marcus' work is always how he can find disparate threads to tie together and make them seem like they weren't happy accidents but purposeful positionings- these include historical incidents, anecdotes, asides, social and political events. While his book Lipstick Traces surely confused some people, anyone who could get past the disjointed narrative found a wealth of intriguing details about the modern day history of extremist art dissent leading up to the Sex Pistols. Also, savor how he can take about a song and make it sound like the most thrilling experience you can have from a record- think Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner" in Lipstick Traces and the Drifters' "Money Honey" in this book, not to mention the song that's the subject of the book itself.

Bob Dylan is tougher terrain to focus on not just because so much has already been written about him but also because even after all of that's been said, he's still something of a mystery. Think of him as an onion- as you delve into layer upon layer, you find that each part is pretty much the same but also somewhat different too. His always-elusive quality is part of his appeal. Even his recent bio left as many questions as it answered. And just when you think he's used up all his aura, he amazes and confounds everyone by doing something like Victoria's Secret ad or putting out amazing records long after his muse was thought to have dried up. It's no wonder that he's a hero of old shape-shifting rockers like David Bowie (who named a song for him) and Bryan Ferry (whose first solo album began with a wonderfully campy version of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall").

Marcus chooses to focus on what is and isn't Dylan's signature song- one of his best known songs but as Marcus says, it won't wipe away "Blowin' In the Wind" or "Mr. Tambourine Man." One important difference is that unlike many of his other greatest hits, his original is still the definitive version so far: compare it to covers by Barry and the Remains, Michael Bolton, Glen Campbell, Cher, Sebastian Cabot, Dino, Desi & Billy, Flatt & Scruggs, John Hammond Jr, Hugo Montenegro, Robyn Hitchcock, The Rascals, Rolling Stones, Nancy Sinatra, Mick Ronson, the Sufaris, Johnny Thunders, Turtles and Johnny Winter where it's not even close. Marcus notes Hendrix's version at the Monterey Pop Festival as a great effort but it still doesn't wipe away the original. While his catalog has provided a lot of hit songs and memorable covers for other artists, that's not the case for "Stone." Why is it of such a piece? That's what Marcus tries to answer in the span of his book.

Even in the world of Highway 61 Revisited, "Stone" is still unique. Compare it to mournful, even more acidic "Ballad of A Thin Man" or the warmer "Queen Jane Approximately" or the epic "Desolation Row." The closest match might be "Positively Fourth Street" but that doesn't emit the rush of sound and emotion of "Stone" or have the gravity or assurance either. If there's anything about Dylan that pins him as unique, it's that assurance- even when he throws off duff lines (like "The sky's not yellow, it's CHICK-EN" on "Tombstone Blues"), his force of personality puts it over anyway, the same way that Groucho Marx can plow through a flurry of one-liner jokes before hitting a zinger that kills you or how Jackson Pollock literally used broad strokes that went everywhere on literally larger-than-life canvases.

Another close call for "Stone" might be Mouse and the Traps' "A Public Execution." This garage classic, collected on Nuggets, has the elements down: the whinny vocal, the sunny organ, the curly-cue guitar lines before the chorus. It likely fooled some people to think it was Dylan playing the song but other than being an obvious imitation, it also lacked the language (and clearer production) of "Stone." Even if that language was leaping and running past anything else that was on the radio at the time, Dylan's music was still grounded in the foundation of rock, as if to say that the style could evolve into something so complex yet so simple. Compare that to the urge that rock's other royalty was feeling to progress the music in the mid/late 6o's and you see what a bold statement Dylan's 'conservatism' was (i.e. Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding).

But if you look past "Stone"'s music and listen just to what the words promise or dare, there's even more at stake. While the verses berate an unknown/universal subject for being too big for their britches, the chorus goes on to lay out the promise and the horror of the open road ahead.

How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

One song where Marcus draws a parallel to "Stone" is the Pet Shop Boys' version of the Village People's "Go West." The Boys take up the promise of a utopia out there that won't or can't even happen now but their unwavering believe in this dream makes it all the more noble. But if this sums up the heart of "Stone," so does Talking Heads' "Road To Nowhere." As a chorus starts out:


Just like in the chorus of "Stone," you still have the same two conflicting feelings going on: a wide-eyed giddy sense of adventure and a naive read of a vast landscape that can and will eat you up, no matter how hip you might think you are. It's the same impulse that fuelled and destroyed the protagonists of the movie Easy Rider, whose title song was written by Roger McGuinn with some help from Dylan. But if "The Ballad of Easy Rider" laid out the singer's hope to travel and flow freely like a body of water, "Stone" also had that hope implied but also knew the dangers of it.

But even if it was the occasion of Dylan having a huge hit of his own, "Stone" went beyond that to cause shockwaves throughout the music world. As Marcus explains, Dylan's song terrified not just bands trying to keep up but also producers and songwriters trying to read tea leaves about what was happening and what was coming. It was almost a B.C.-A.D. time line in their lives as they were trying to figure out what the hell they were going to do now that "Stone" was haunting the airwaves.

Dylan himself never settled on it, not because he was sick of the song but more because he was curious about it. He covers "Stone" on numerous live records but he toys with it (as he does with many of his old songs), changing little things as if to say that it's still a work in progress as far as he's concerned and not written down permanently as many fans hope or believe. It's as if he's saying that it can't be pinned down.

And would we want to find out what "Stone" is 'really about'? Marcus knows better than to try to crack that nut- he spends pages delving into the essence of the music but much less time on the meaning of the words themselves so much as the sound of them and how they come out of Dylan's mouth. That fact is that we savor not just the sharp poetry but also the general ambiguity that Dylan refuses to nail down, which is at once striking and yet baffling.

It's that slippery and familiar quality that we love so much from the best prose, occupying our imagination. A recent Scotsman article declared Verse broadens the mind, the scientists find (much more so than novels) and indeed that's the stimulus we find in Dylan's greatest songs: back in the day, his work readily filled need of intellectuals who were already smitten by early Beatles, harping on flighty things like 'Aeolian cadence' (which the Fabs surely had a chuckle over).

But again, what we see in Marcus' book is the focus on the music and the event of "Stone" itself. While providing exhaustive detail for the true fan and also a demystifying of the process, the book's epilogue details all of the takes of "Stone," including flubbed takes, botched intros, etc.. Just as Godard's One Plus One took apart a Rolling Stones' recording session for "Sympathy For the Devil" to show how banal rock (even rock history) can become, we see the same for Dylan's song even if the details tell us revealing things about how this grand work came into being.

But the ground's been trod so much on "Stone" elsewhere too. In interviews, Al Kooper is sick of telling the story about how he played on that tune. In an otherwise boring 60 Minutes interview, Dylan himself just shrugged when asked what his reaction was to the song being chosen at the numero one rock tune of all-time by Rolling Stone.

I believe him too. As he went on to explain, that's what they say about him today but who knows what they'll say tomorrow. He'll reinvent himself and his song another day, not concerned if he or they live up to what people hoped they'd be. He's a traveler, a restless wanderer and we savor his journey.