Saturday, October 10, 2009
Well I Got a Good Price When I Sold My Soul
Velvet black Interstate is something to feel $5.99 and a stone cold meal And a bottle of wine I was feeling just fine And when I crossed the state line I was just in time To fall asleep at the wheel --The Refreshments, “Interstate” Why do I do this? I mean, really. It’s a question that I’ve asked myself a time or two. Two hundred miles last Saturday. Four hundred miles on Tuesday. Another three hundred miles tomorrow. Well, today, I guess, since it’s already past midnight as I write this. The world of music is passing me by while I drive a thousand miles to see a band I’ve already seen nine times. And, really, does anyone need to do that? How many times do I need to hear “Banditos” live before it all sounds the same? For that matter, how many times do I need to hear “Bound for the Floor,” “Straight as an Arrow,” or “N17” live? How many times did I really need to hear “Clarity” this year? If I tell people that I’m going to see Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, Local H, the Lovehammers, the Saw Doctors, or Seneca I’m more likely to get a, “Who?” than an, “Awesome.” Except for a disturbingly tiny segment of the population there’s really not much of anything cool about what I spend my time doing. And I think that’s exactly the point. I’ve increasingly moved in to a world where I have to explain myself whenever I talk about the music I listen to. Here in Chicago people are somewhat likely to know the Lovehammers and it’s shocking to hear someone who lived through the ‘90s who doesn’t know Local H. But Mike Doughty? Yeah, he was the lead singer of Soul Coughing. Yeah, Soul Coughing. You remember…oh, never mind. And Jessi Lynn? Seneca? I’ve had to develop a shorthand for them. I referred to the Saw Doctors as “the Irish Peacemakers,” to a guy at the show in Appleton on Tuesday. I could refer to the Lovehammers as “the Chicago version of the Peacemakers,” Idlewild as “Scotland’s Peacemakers,” and, hell, Jessi Lynn as “Madison/Nashville’s answer to the Peacemakers.”* Matt Nathanson is technically San Francisco’s Peacemakers, but he’s gotten a hell of a lot of support and exposure since last year’s Some Mad Hope, so people are far more likely to know about him. The thing that all of these people/bands have in common is not musical style. It’s that they’re independent. I have a strong appreciation for independent music, and I’m not talking about the whole “indie” thing that’s basically a genre in and of itself these days that’s comprised largely of ironic hipsters and the sort of people who worship a band until they get popular and sell more than twenty records, at which point that band “sold out” and totally sucks. Yeah, I get it. Modest Mouse sold out. Who the fuck cares? They sucked then and they suck now, so get over yourselves (did I really just write those last three sentences?). Besides, now that Radiohead went “indie” with In Rainbows and Pearl Jam went “indie” with Back Spacer, the term has absolutely no meaning. I mean, Pearl Jam negotiated an exclusive deal with Target to sell their CDs. That right there is leverage. I think there needs to be a new term for bands that don’t have a label but aren’t exactly scratching for business. There should also be a term for guys like the Dave Matthews that start their own label (seriously, the new Mike Doughty album is on ATO Records. That’s Dave Matthew’s label. He’s got a bunch of guys). Last Saturday I was talking to a couple of guys I met at the Peacemakers show at Joe’s on Weed Street back in May. One of them commented on how the Peacemakers totally deserved to play in a bigger place than Vnuk’s Lounge in Cudahy, WI. He doesn’t know this, but Vnuk’s is bigger than Mill Creek in Appleton. And the High Noon Saloon in Madison is about the size of Vnuk’s and Mill Creek put together. These are not large venues. I think you could get about seventy people in to Vnuk’s for a show. Maybe a hundo. Where am I going with all of this? I just watched Almost Famous (thanks a pantload, Bill Simmons). It’s a good movie. Cameron Crowe totally understands music and the relationship we have to music. Take Singles, for instance, and put it next to Swingers. Both are quintessential ‘90s movies from that genre where if you watch the movie, then actually think about it for a minute you realize, “Wait, absolutely nothing happened during that movie.” Swingers has had a longer shelf life. But Singles is the better movie, at least in my book, because what it did was capture a moment built around music. Almost Famous does the exact same thing and that’s totally a Cameron Crowe thing. Anyway, there’s a part in Almost Famous where Stillwater, the fictional band the movie revolves around, finds out their tour is on the verge of failure. They’re in debt and making stupid mistakes left and right. The record label sent over a big-time producer (played astonishingly well by Jimmy Fallon) to right the ship. His main plan is to ditch the tour bus and take a plane. Earlier in the movie the main character, William Miller, (who is, basically, Cameron Crowe at 15) met Lester Bangs, one of the rock critics he loved. Bangs informed Miller that he had arrived just in time to see the death of rock. Miller remembers those words later as Stillwater parks their tour bus on an airport tarmac and walks over to an airplane, lead by their new producer. All I could think of was this: There’s a manifesto in Almost Famous. It’s about the end of music as art and the rise of music as a corporate affair. The entire point is that as music becomes commercial the people who are completely left behind are the fans. Ultimately that’s why the Peacemakers, the Saw Doctors, Local H, Idlewild, the Lovehammers, Seneca, Jessi Lynn, and Sarah Peacock matter to me. And I guess it’s why I understand the indie fan’s heel turn against bands that “sell out.” Because music exists in this eternal tension between making money and making art and one is often sacrificed to serve the other. No matter which side loses out, though, the fans are usually the ones who lose the most. Ultimately the music industry doesn’t see the fans as people, just wallets. The death of rock has been loudly proclaimed time and again. The question comes up often, “Who can save rock?” I think we might be stumbling closer to an answer. It’s a good thing that Pearl Jam and Radiohead have gone “independent.” It’s a good thing that Dave Matthews has his own label. It’s a great thing that this revolution in communication called the internet exists so I can tell you about the Peacemakers on this blog or you can hear the Saw Doctors on Pandora. “So,” you ask, “Who can save rock?” I have several answers now. Pearl Jam Radiohead** Dave Matthews The Saw Doctors The Lovehammers Idlewild Scott Lucas It’s not about the music itself. And I think that’s the problem with the question as it’s usually framed. We want a rock Jesus, some transcendent personality who can make rock make sense again. But it’s not about fixing rock music. It’s about fixing the way rock music relates to the fans. So, ultimately, I think I know exactly who can save rock: Roger Clyne And the craziest thing about it is that there’s a distinct possibility no one will ever know. Because what Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers have done isn’t only about the music, not really. It’s about connecting with the fans. And they’ve created one hell of a fanbase that does everything it can to support them. Including driving a thousand miles in one week to see three shows because they’re kinda-sorta close by. Roger says it all right here, in the first forty seconds: And that’s not a platitude tossed out from the stage at the Grammy’s. That’s the toast of a band that absolutely needs its fans to keep showing up. That’s what rock should be about. -------------------------- *In one of those funny/I kinda feel bad moments, I sent Jessi an email with a theoretical Plan B for tomorrow and said I’d try to make it over to see her and Sarah after the Peacemakers. She replied and told me that a lot of people she’s heard from have the same plan. It actually doesn’t surprise me that there is overlap between her fanbase and the Peacemakers fanbase. But that requires a bit of explanation, which I’m quite good at. And I don’t give a shit if you actually care or not, since this is my blog, MINE. Oh, and I’ve probably shared this, like, a dozen times. But I’m doing it again… Okay, here’s how it works: within a certain segment of the music world, specifically the rock and country parts, there is a continuum. This is the part of the continuum where rock and country bleed in to and influence each other. The places where this is most obvious are in the alt.country segment and the part of the rock world that I call “dirt rock.” Lynryd Skynyrd is the granddaddy of dirt rock. Actually, it probably goes farther than that, since rock kinda-sorta came out of country and folk in the first place, but that’s neither here nor there. Skynryd is simply the easiest touchpoint, since by that point rock had firmly established itself as its own separate thing and you can hear what I’m talking about on “Sweet Home Alabama.” I mean, when it gets right down to it Elvis is probably the granddaddy of dirt rock, but there was enough of an evolution between Elvis and the ‘70s, then again to the bands that I refer to as “dirt rock” that the concept is too muddied. Also, if you want to see me get truly pointlessly semantic, there’s a noticeable difference between American rock and britrock. This was, primarily, the work of The Beatles. They did a pop-rock combo instead of the American country-rock combo that was later refined by the Stones. It’s almost impossible not to hear the Beatles influence on pretty much every band that comes from the UK and that influence is distinctly different from the influences that spread through American rock. But by now that has cross-pollinated to the point that the first time I heard the Strokes and a few other bands of that type from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s I thought they came from Britain. There’s probably another, deeper explanation than just The Beatles for this difference. It’s probably rooted in the differing folk traditions in the UK vs. the US (note, for instance, Flogging Molly, who are probably Ireland’s answer to dirt rock in philosophy if not form). But I don’t know enough to say. Meanwhile, where was I? Oh, yeah, Jessi Lynn. She hits the dirt rock part of the spectrum pretty well. However, while RCPM stays firmly on the rock side, Jessi tends to hit the country side more. I hesitate to call it alt.country, though. It’s almost something completely different. See, the first time I saw her I pretty much assumed she was a country artist. It took me a little while to realize that there was plenty of rock involved. Some of her songs basically play as straight dirt rock while some play almost like old school, Grand Ole Opry country. It’s really fascinating. Y’know, in that way that makes me step back, take a deep breath, and say, “Wow, I’m a massive nerd.” But I’m pretty sure this entire footnote has made that case quite eloquently. Oh, and, seriously, go buy some Jessi Lynn music or something. Assuage my random and completely undeserved guilt. Capturing a Moment is good stuff. Oh, yeah, and some Sarah Peacock, too, since she’ll be playing with Jessi at the same exact show I won’t be at tomorrow. But Sarah’s music doesn’t really break my brain, so I can’t really come up with the world’s longest (and most pointless!) footnote about her. Seriously, this thing’s a page and two lines long… **I hate Radiohead, but I've got to respect a band with that sort of clout that says, "We're going to go do our own thing..."