16 February 2009

Leaving Lookout

Over at the PPMB somebody started a thread asking people to name the five best Lookout Records releases. It's actually part of a spate of "Five best..." silliness, but it elicited quite a few comments to the effect of, "There's no way I could name just 5" and "What a great label this used to be," and I felt, well, kind of touched.

And then reading through the lists of records set off a wave of nostalgia as well. Could it really have been true that we unleashed so many great records (yes, I know there were a few turkeys too, but that's not really the point here) in such a fleeting handful of years? The thing is, you're never fully aware of the magnitude of what you're doing when you're right in the middle of it, whether it be a business or artistic enterprise, a love affair, or even something seemingly mundane like going to college or moving to a new city.

In fact most things we do, even the ones we most remember or are remembered by, are pretty mundane at the time. I know that during what some people, myself included, now refer to as Lookout's "golden years," I didn't jump out of bed brimming over with excitement at the prospect of making punk rock history or releasing classic records by the most exciting young artists of the day. On the contrary, I was more likely to drag myself out of bed (or, more accurately, the crumpled morass of blankets on the floor in the corner of our "office") thinking, "Hoo boy, another day of adding up interminable rows of numbers and arguing with people over whose names go first on the album credits."

And no, it wasn't all like that, either, and yes, there were moments of genuine magic and excitement, instances where it suddenly occurred to me that I was going to remember this show or conversation or recording session for the rest of my life. But they were just moments, too, interspersed with yawning gaps of tedium and time-killing, and, not quite occasionally enough, redemptive bits of leavening: a new, non-jaded band, a heart-quickening (or heart-stopping) crush, the sudden, albeit ephemeral release from care as we hit the road at the beginning of a new tour.

I hardly ever meet anyone from the music scene who doesn't ask me some version of "Why did you leave Lookout?" and I don't think I've yet succeeded in delivering a reasonable answer, either to them or myself. At times it represent one of the greatest regrets of my life, especially in light of what was to happen to the label and especially to the bands who were left holding the bag. On the other hand, I've often thought that if I hadn't left when I did, I probably wouldn't be here today.

That might sound a little melodramatic, even - at this remove - to myself. There's no denying that I was morbidly depressed and stressed out at the time I jumped ship, but really, what was the problem? We were making money hand over fist, virtually every record we put out was successful enough to make a profit just on the strength of being a Lookout release, I could go to just about any party or show I wanted to, anywhere in North America or Europe, just for the asking, and hardly a day went by without somebody or several somebodies telling me how wonderful I was.

Yet it wasn't enough. Or it was too much. Or it was something: all I knew was that I could no longer cope with it, and I felt deeply ashamed to have to admit it. In retrospect, there were other, less drastic measures I could have taken. Quitting drinking, for example - which I would ultimately do anyway - or seeking some kind of therapy or counseling. I could - and should - also have taken more responsibility for dealing with people and situations, both inside and outside the label, who were causing me grief.

But talk is cheap and hindsight 20-20 all these years after the fact. Just as I had no idea how big and how rapidly Lookout would grow when we started it in 1987, I had no idea how quickly those magic moments would pass and how much I would miss them when they were gone. I have no idea if I'll ever be involved with anything again that's that successful or that exciting, but I'd like to imagine that if it should come to pass, I'll be better prepared to both safeguard and savor my good fortune. On the other hand, I can't help remembering the plaque my grandfather had on his wall: "We grow too soon old and too late smart." Hegel more famously opined that it was only in the gathering twilight that the owl of wisdom began its flight, but either way you slice it, we live and learn, too quickly in the first instance, and far too slowly in the latter.

Mad Max In Suburbia

How times change. Only a couple decades ago people had all but written off the city as a viable living arrangement. The prevailing view was typified by films like Escape From New York, which portrayed New York City as having so far descended the ladder of human depravity that the only solution was to seal it off and turn the entire place into a maximum security prison.

Today, astronomical rents and financial crises notwithstanding, people are queuing up at the gates, or at least the bridges and tunnels, to live in New York, and it's the suburbs that we're afraid are going to rack and ruin. This article in the Atlantic laid out the scenario a year ago, and that was before sky-high energy prices followed by collapsing housing values made it plain just how unsustainable the once rampant suburban mindset was becoming.

Now comes a spate of stories about the virtual abandonment of some of suburbia's farther-flung outcroppings, including this Times piece, complete with a slide show of yesterday's massively overpriced tract homes, now virtually unsalable and being rapidly reclaimed by Florida's subtropical version of the jungle, or the more in-depth treatment of the issue by George Packer in the February 9 New Yorker (unfortunately available online only to subscribers, and I left my copy on the train yesterday, or I'd invite you over to read it).

Of course people have always fled into the cities during times of decline and disorder, whether we're talking about pioneers on the prairie when there was an upsurge of Indian attacks, or the ancient British gentry abandoning their villas and retreating into what proved to be the illusory safety of Londinium when Roman troops were no longer able to keep a handle on rampaging bands of Saxons. Isn't is possible a similar fate could await emptied-out suburban communities once they're no longer able to raise enough tax revenue to maintain an effective police force or other basic service?

Apocalyptic fantasies are all the rage these days anyway, but America's shabbier suburbs had a Mad Max edge to them even before the current troubles kicked in. There's something particularly unsettling about abandoned buildings and cracked, overgrown pavements in the wide open spaces of suburbia; they feel more portentous and doom-laden than in big city slums, where we expect to encounter such things. And while a couple conscientious beat cops can keep a lid on a densely populated urban neighborhood, the same two cops, no matter how well equipped or mobile, are going to be hard pressed to maintain any meaningful order on several square miles of suburban wasteland.

The big problem facing suburban communities is money, i.e., the lack thereof, a problem which is only likely to get worse in at least the near term. Declining property values and rising unemployment will wreak havoc on tax revenues, and both these conditions will only be exacerbated by the suburbs' biggest long term problem: transportation. Or again, the lack thereof.

As long as a booming economy and cheap energy made it possible for even poorly paid working people to own their own cars and travel many miles to earn a living, the suburban lifestyle made a certain perverse sense. But as money and jobs dry up, and with little economic infrastructure accessible via walking or public transportation, those no longer able to afford cars will increasingly be cut off from society, leaving them with little choice but to either abandon the suburbs or go feral.

On the (perhaps too hopeful) assumption that our current economic troubles don't morph into the Great Depression II (or worse), we'll still get a chance to redesign and reconfigure our suburbs into a more realistic living environment. This will require increased density, greatly improved public transportation, and a diminution of the role played by the private automobile; one such scenario is outlined here. It will also require time and money, which, depending on the success or failure of Obama's stimulus program, we may or may not have.

12 February 2009

Tight Pants

When I first was old enough to pick out my own clothes, the style was, at least for the "bad" kids that I aspired to run with, to wear skintight jeans, sometimes, depending how much flair you were prepared to show (this was a delicate matter, since there was no hard and fast rule against flamboyance, but if you didn't edge it just so, you'd be forever branded as a sexual and social deviant), with the cuffs turned up slightly.

The following year the blue jeans gave way to black ones, and then to my favorites, sharkskin iridescent trousers that were mainly available in the "colored" (yes, they still said that in those days) sections of Detroit, but one factor remained constant: they were always as tight as was humanly possible, the better to shock parents and teachers and offend the bourgeoisie.

Ever since then, I've always preferred my trousers to be on the tight side. It just seemed natural. I thought the late 60s fad for bell bottoms was both heinous and vile, even though I briefly succumbed to it after discovering that people from my psychedelic crowd were wary of getting too close to me - or sometimes even talking to me - as long as I persisted in wearing my old school greaser jeans.

Then in the 70s things really went awry, with wacky wide lapels, bizarrely cut jackets, all seemingly meant to disguise rather than highlight the shape of one's body. But what really did it for me, as in put me over the edge, was when Levi's started deliberately marketing their jeans for fatasses.

Well, that's not exactly how they put it; the commercial, as I recall it, was touting "Levi's for men, with just a skosh (thank God that word didn't catch on) more room where it counts." In other words, I railed to anyone who would listen, they were equating being "a man" with acquiring a middle-aged paunch. Let the fatties graduate into pleated-front polyester slacks, I fumed, but don't tamper with my beloved Levi's.

Well, as you probably know, my pleadings were in vain. Not only did Levi's spend the next couple decades making and selling ever more enormous jeans to accommodate ever more enormous rear ends, but they also farmed the manufacturing out to the Third World and started using cheap, flimsy denim that turned their once-rugged jeans into disposable crap.

And it wasn't just Levi's, anyway, it was all pants. Even if you didn't want to be a rapper, unless you were willing to spend endless hours trolling the retro shops for recycled 50s and 60s stuff, you were pretty much condemned to go around with enormous parachute-like garments flapping embarrassingly about your nether regions.

So at last, as the new century dawned, tight pants began to come back into style. The hipsters and emo freaks, bless their souls, were the first to embrace them, at the cost of being scorned as "sissies" and "wearing girls' clothes," but now the trend has spread to where even the benighted Levi's corporation has resumed manufacturing skinny, old-school jeans again (out of shitty, new-school denim that wears out after a few months, true, but you can't have everything).

So naturally I rushed right out and bought a couple pairs, but now I'm faced with a dilemma: unlike most men of my age I can still fit into the same tight jeans I wore several decades ago, but the question remains, should I? I'm sure there'd be quite a bit of sentiment to the effect that nobody my age, regardless of what kind of physical shape he's in, should be wearing skintight jeans, but does that seem fair? Especially when nobody seems to complain about the overweight 20-something who stuffs himself into the same sort of jeans and compound the crime by wearing a too-short t-shirt, thus revealing a highly unsightly muffin top spilling over his belt.

And to be fair, although I can still comfortably wear the tightest jeans being sold, I don't have exactly the same figure I did as a teenager, and I do have to do a little extra work if I want to avoid developing my own muffin top. But that's a good thing, right? At least a much better thing than what most people my age do, which is to buy everything a size or two too large and then not worry at all about what they look like underneath their clothes.

Or maybe I'm reading too much into this. I still like my tight pants, and I think I'm going to keep wearing them. If, however, you the readers feel strongly enough against this, you're free to write in and tell me so, attaching your explanations if necessary. I mean, I'll probably ignore you and keep wearing them anyway, but it's always good to know what's on the public's mind, I guess. Though I think I'm already past the age where I should have to give a damn.

Tropical Island

As I think I mentioned in my lengthy inauguration report, a few years ago I went to see a well-known psychic. I was acting as an undercover agent for my friend Danny, the journalist, and I remember being a bit nervous at the time, thinking that if she really was psychic, she'd know right away that I was not who I claimed to be. What might then ensue - being thrown out of her house, having evil spells cast upon me, possibly being sold into slavery - was the subject of some fevered speculation.

As it was, if she could tell that I was anything other than a typical customer, she never let on, and one of the predictions she made for me was that within a few years I would find myself living on an island. "As in Manhattan?" I asked, since at the time I was just beginning to contemplate leaving London for New York.

No, she said, she saw me in a somewhat more tropical setting, near a beach where I could swim every day, and since I was also vaguely considering emigrating to Australia, I figured that must be what she meant. But when it came time to fill in my papers for Australia, I chickened out, missed the deadline, and since then the program under which I would have been accepted has expired, probably never to be reinstated. So instead of languishing on the beach in the Australian mid-summer, here I am on one of the New York islands - not Manhattan after all, as it turned out - in the depths of February.

Except that today was, while not quite tropical yet, warmer than almost everywhere else I might have been. Warmer, I gleefully noted, than even Los Angeles, where this morning it was 36 (4C) degrees while here in New York it was 63 (17C). Much, much warmer than San Francisco or London, of course, but even, for a few moments, a degree or two ahead of Sydney!

There's something disorienting but also delightful about seeing New Yorkers lounging at sidewalk cafes on a mild February night, and equally odd about walking into the gym to find all the windows thrown open to let the fresh air in. I'm sure it won't last much longer - some rain has already started to move in, and they're predicting snow by the weekend - but it's also not the first day this month that's been like this. I know that one needs to be careful what one wishes for, and that if the earth warmed up enough to turn New York into the tropical island I secretly would love it to be, we actually wouldn't be an island, because we'd be underwater. But still, I can't help having visions of Brighton Beach lined with palm trees and a year-round summertime in which down jackets and hats and scarves and gloves, not to mention coughs and sniffles and frostbitten faces, would be a thing of the past.

Hey, it could happen, right?

09 February 2009

Jersey And The Steinways

Over to Hoboken yet again the other night, the journey this time made less onerous by MATT FAME's inimitable chauffeur service, which took us from Brooklyn to New Jersey in no time at all, which was good, because we then needed all the time we had saved (and more) to find a place to park. Man, Hoboken is a mess that way, though to be fair, we got what we deserved for not taking the train.

The occasion was a massive (and sold out) show at MAXWELL'S put on by the DON GIOVANNI record label and featuring the last ever FOR SCIENCE show and the possibly next to last ever STEINWAYS show. Although For Science were a good band and much loved by most of my friends, they never quite caught on with me. Well, they did once I heard their recorded material, but by that time my impression of them had already been colored by their shambolic live performances, which, unless they were putting on a Dean Martin-style (way to date myself, eh, kids?!) burlesque, were usually occasioned by at least some of them being drunk off their asses.

When they finally played a show stone cold sober at the Cake Shop last year, I realized just how good they could be, but by then it was hard to undo my earlier impressions, so I just kind of didn't bother to get too excited about them one way or the other. They seemed to be in relatively good shape for Saturday night's valedictory show, although the performance was a bit desultory, especially the ending, when, rather than engage in the usual sentimental mucking about and endless encores that characterize a band's farewell show, they just sort of shuffled off stage with barely a "so long," let alone an encore. Actually, one of the highlights came before their set, when all three members of the also-defunct ERGS took the stage, began pottering around as if they might be about to play an impromptu reunion show, and then said, "Hi, we're the Ergs, and we'd like to introduce you to For Science."

But for me at least, this show was mainly about the Steinways, and they were in rare form, especially for New Jersey, or more particularly, Maxwell's, where, as boy genius GRATH McGRATH confided later, "We always sucked before." The sound was unusually good, but so was the playing, helped along in no small part by CHRIS PIERCE, who sat in on drums for the ailing CHRIS GRIVET. Chris, whose own band, the GROUCHO MARXISTS, also played, has engineered most of the Steinways' recorded stuff and made it sound awesome, did much the same for their live performance, and though there was a festive crowd of friends in the pit loving every minute of it, there was a real bittersweet feeling to the proceedings as well. Of all the bands that have been breaking up lately, this is the one that really got to me. In fact, I almost never get sentimental about band breakups, and I'm not sure I am about the Steinways, either. No, my feelings are more like... well, I'm mad. Angry. Resentful. Not at anybody in particular, just at the cruel heartlessness of a world that would take away the Steinways and leave us with ten kajillion downright crappy bands.

It's also frustrating that they're breaking up just as they're really hitting their stride and starting to get some widespread (and well-deserved) recognition. There's still (most likely) a Steinways set in the offing for this summer's Baltimore Fest, and very possibly one more official goodbye show in New York, but if there's any justice, some deus ex machina will intervene and make the Steinways whole again.

In other news, I made it back from Hoboken without incident (thanks again to Matt Fame!) and without catching Jersey cooties! I'm beginning to become an old hand at this interstate travel thing. Next time I might even dare to venture as far afield as Jersey City or Weehawken!

A Walk In The Park

This weekend has provided a little foretaste of spring, with temperatures briefly reaching close to 60F (15C) today. It didn't take long for New Yorkers to prove they could be just as nutty as Californians by stripping down to t-shirts and shorts and prancing around in the unusually bright sunshine.

But by the time I got out of the house (there was English football to be watched and something else which seemed important at the time, though I can no longer remember what it was), the temperature was dropping and I thought it best to wear my winter jacket, a decision that turned out to have been a wise one, as it was back down in the 30s by the time I got home.

It may have been that the unusual weather inspired me with some sort of wanderlust, because I ventured far north of my usual downtown haunts, all the way to 72nd Street, in fact, though once I was there I immediately found myself suffering from what might be thought of as existential vertigo and had to jump on a train, any train, as long as it was headed in the general direction of 14th Street.

But en route I made some useful discoveries, among them being:
1) The financial crisis may be grim indeed in most parts of the country and indeed in many parts of the city, but it seems to have had little if any impact on the Apple Store at 5th Avenue and 59th Street. You could hardly walk around in the place, it was so crowded, and it wasn't just gawkers; the line of people waiting to pay for the largely overpriced merchandise was at least 20 or 30 deep.
2) Central Park looks a lot smaller in the winter when you can see through the bare trees and realize that no matter where you are, there are buildings and streets not all that far away.
3) Although I've never been a fan of roller blades (don't ask me why; it's just one of those irrational, instinctive loathings that crop up from time to time, like mustaches or smelly chewing gum), it was really nice to see (and hear) the DJ sound system playing for a couple dozen roller disco types (and quite a few dancing in their street shoes as well) and the crowd of spectators they attracted. If I hadn't been wearing my winter jacket and carrying a fairly heavy backpack, I might have joined in.
4) I always thought "Strawberry Fields," the section of the park set aside to memorialize John Lennon, was a bit hokey, but while passing through I happened upon a group of people playing and singing nothing but Beatles songs with a proficiency that leads one to believe they have been out there for a long time doing the same thing for a couple decades' worth of Sundays.
5) While stopping to listen for a while, I made a shocking yet gratifying discovery: the first flowers of spring! With February barely a week old! They weren't fully in bloom yet, in fact, weren't really in bloom at all, but you could distinctly see the white flowers-to-be protruding from the unmistakably green shoots. I believe they were snowdrops. Definitely not crocuses, which are usually the first spring flowers I notice around here.
6) Central Park is sure an awful lot nicer when it's closed to automobile traffic.
7) No matter how beautiful a day it's been, or how springlike, a stiff north wind kicking up just as darkness begins to settle over the city can drag you right back into winter and make you not only glad you wore your winter coat, but also a little sorry you didn't wear you hoodie as well.
8) I've heard many negative critiques of the Time Warner Building at Columbus Circle, but every time I visit the shops there, even if (as is usually the case) I'm just doing so to get out of the cold, I find some new perspective or point of view to be fascinated by. Plus they have better quality restrooms than most shopping centers.
9) Times Square seems unnaturally quiet these days, and I don't think it's just the weather.
10) The building that used to house Barnes and Noble on 6th Ave around 21st Street is still vacant after a couple years. A bookstore and cafe were a nicer accoutrement to that part of town than an empty storefront.
11) There are more empty storefronts in New York than I've seen at any time in the last 10 or 15 years. But things still look more prosperous than most of the rest of the country.
12) If nobody can afford anything, why don't they lower the prices and rents already?
13) It was a good day. And soon it really will be spring.

07 February 2009

How Bad Are Things In Oakland?

Bad enough that in addition to the hopelessly inept police chief taking a powder, the city manager has also pulled up stakes in search of a less stressful position in... wait for it... Detroit??

Why San Francisco Will Remain An Overpriced Slum

You don't need to be a fan of American Apparel to appreciate how bonkers this bunch of Frisco nutters sounds. Frankly, it's hard to imagine why anyone would care enough about American Apparel one way or the other to be exercised over the prospect of them moving into your neighborhood, especially if the neighborhood is a slightly dumpy borderline slum with a fair sprinkling of empty or underused storefronts.

This would seem to be even more true at a time when businesses and jobs are evaporating like what's left of the Sierra snowpack, but not in the kneejerk, reactionary world of the San Francisco "activist" community, which strives at any cost to preserve the status quo even when (especially when) the status quo is just plain crappy. And after all, why do they need new businesses in the Valencia Corridor when right around the corner on 16th Street there's already a thriving trade in heroin, stolen goods, and muggings? That's the "real" Frisco that these nutbags romanticize, and as long as they hold sway, it's the only Frisco you're ever likely to get.

P.S. Here's another example: a group of activists, many of whom don't even live in the neighborhood, fighting to maintain the Tenderloin as a containment area/wildlife preserve for crackheads, beggars and lunatics, despite the fervent protests of local residents, many of whom are hardworking immigrants trying to raise families in the area. Particularly obnoxious are the comments from rich bitch (rich by Tenderloin standards, anyway) lawyer Sue Hestor who dismissed local residents trying to improve the neighborhood as "yuppies" who "moved into a low-income area and want it to be a high-income area" and the actions of left-wing fratboy-cum-thug Chris Daly, who much to San Francisco's embarrassment is a City and County Supervisor who "represents" his constituents by stifling any efforts to enforce quality of life laws or to maintain minimal standards of civil behavior on the streets. An architect's proposal to plant 400 trees was shot down because, activists claimed, she was trying to "sanitize" the area.

06 February 2009

My Kind Of Corporate Executive

Reed Hastings, head of Netflix, contributes an op-ed piece to today's Times entitled "Please Raise My Taxes." His premise, in essence, is that limiting executive salaries at companies receiving federal bailout funds, while satisfying the public's understandable thirst for vengeance, is ultimately self-defeating, in that it puts those companies at a competitive disadvantage at just the time when their competitive ability, indeed their ability to survive at all, is already severely compromised.

Much more effective, Hastings argues, would be to let companies pay whatever they want, but to tax high earners - his suggestion is anyone earning over a million dollars a year - at 50% rather than the current rate of 33%. The logic behind this is so impeccable that I'm annoyed it hadn't previously occurred to me. At a time when the economic system is so imperiled and millions of people are being put out of work, we obviously can't raise taxes on ordinary workers, let alone the unemployed, yet at the same time, the government is going to need vast amounts of new income to even begin to cover the massive deficits we are now rolling up.

We are entering a period where anyone who's still employed will be counting him or herself lucky; how much more so the executive who's pulling down a few million? Only the most churlish or greed-crazed could complain about having to scrape by on five million instead of ten at a time of national crisis like this one, and at the same time, the public would get the satisfaction that of any bailout money being used to pay executive bonuses or salaries, at least half would be coming straight back to the Treasury.

I had an uncle, now deceased, who, at least until I came along, was the only member of our family to have ever made any significant amount of money. When Reagan cut taxes for the well-to-do, he was outraged, and wrote to his Congressman: "I don't want a tax cut. I don't need a tax cut. I've got plenty of money. Take my taxes and use them to help people who aren't as well off as me."

He was ignored, of course, and the dire straits in which our country now finds itself are at least partially the result of the massive deficits run by ideologically-driven tax cutters (the same sort of Congressional screwballs, incidentally, are busily attempting to sabotage the economic stimulus program even as we speak). "Where are the dollar a year men?" more than one commentator has asked, referring to the many corporate executives, already fabulously rich, who volunteered to work for the government for that princely sum during a previous time of national crisis, namely the Second World War. It's clear now where the era of greed and personal irresponsibility has led us; it's time that those who have benefited disproportionately from the boom years show their gratitude and civic-mindedness by giving something back, and for that I salute Mr. Hastings and hope that others will follow his example.

I Read The News Today, Oh Boy

When I was 19 or 20 I briefly lived above a drug store on one of the more heavily trafficked streets of Ypsilanti, Michigan. What exactly I was doing at the time or how I came to be living in that apartment - it was at one of those points in my life when I had little money and fewer prospects - I do not know, but I do remember my routine of stepping downstairs each morning and helping myself to a copy of the Detroit Free Press from the rack in front of the store.

In those halcyon days, newspapers were not sold in machines; there was simply a rack with a coin slot on the side. It operated completely on the honor system; there was nothing to stop you from carrying off all the papers, or, for that matter, the rack itself. Many people today would, I imagine, be touched by this vestige of a simpler, more trusting era, but to my callow late adolescent self, it meant only one thing: free newspapers.

I don't know how long it was, maybe a month or two at most, before I came downstairs on morning to find that the news rack had been replaced by one of the coin-operated machines which you still see in in use today. It hadn't previously occurred to me that others besides myself would have helped themselves to newspapers without paying; I assumed that the free papers had been provided for me alone, and that everyone else would continue to be bound by the honor system. I felt vaguely indignant about this, tut-tutting to myself over society's declining moral values, and at the same time, feeling a sense of power and personal significance for having been on the cutting edge of the Zeitgeist.

I felt something similar when I started reading stories about newspapers going out of business, or having to drastically cut back on staff and print runs to avoid doing so. I was raised in an inveterate newspaper-reading family, and literally taught myself to read at ages 3 and 4 by poring over pages of the Detroit News and asking (to the point where I'm grateful they didn't strangle me) my mom or dad to explain the meaning of every other word I encountered.

In all the years I lived in California, I seldom missed an issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, and one of my several reasons for wanting to live in England involved the profusion and quality of newspapers available there. During my first several years in London, I routinely purchased the Guardian, the Times and the Independent and harshly chastised myself for failing to get through all of them on a daily basis.

Before I lived in England full time, I spent a small fortune buying copies of those same papers that had been air freighted over to the USA (at $3 to $5 a pop, considerably more on Sundays), so you can imagine what a great idea I thought it was when they began publishing internet editions. Now I can and do on a daily basis look at least three British papers (I've replaced the Independent with the Daily Mail), the SF Chronicle, the New York Times and the Sydney Morning Herald, and look in somewhat less frequently on the Detroit Free Press and half a dozen freebies like the Berkeley Daily Planet, SF Bay Guardian, Village Voice, etc.

But how often do I actually pick up a physical copy of one of these papers, much less pay for one? Answer: almost never, and when I do, usually only under special circumstances, like having some time to kill in a cafe or an airport waiting lounge, and even then I'm usually more likely to have a book or magazine with me. So once again I see the results of my individual (in)action being writ large: if current trends continue, experts are predicting, most newspapers as we have known them will be extinct in a few years.

True, more people than ever are reading online editions of these same papers, but nobody has yet figured out a way to "monetize," as they put it, this readership. In the early days of online publishing, some papers tried charging subscription fees for digital access and got nowhere; almost all of them now offer free access. Advertising is in a tailspin already due to the economic crisis, but even if it weren't, I'd be dubious of the real value of online advertising. I know I personally take little or no notice of online ads unless they are of the obtrusive popup or rollover variety, and my reaction then is not so much one of "Hmm, that looks interesting, I should check it out" as "Damn it, I'm trying to read here, get that crap out of my way."

In short, I can't remember a single instance where I bought a product or service based on an online ad, but can remember several where I vowed never to deal with certain companies again because of the annoyance factor of their ads. So, what's the solution? And if subscription fees or advertising won't pay the bills, who's going to produce the content, staff the overseas bureaus, maintain the websites, etc.? In other words, it won't be just the physical newspaper that goes missing.

Others claim that the big news organizations are a thing of the past, and that their function will be taken over by smaller, more efficient units like, for example, blogs. Given, however, that most bloggers are hugely dependent on the mass media for their source material and that very few bloggers are in a position to devote themselves to fulltime news coverage or investigative reporting, I'm not sure I see how that could work.

So what's the answer? I don't have one. Somebody - hopefully - may think of one, but so far, at least, it's not me. Even though one of my ongoing daily struggles is finding enough time to read all the various media sources available to me, I'd feel greatly impoverished if they were no longer there. One of you geniuses out there, please sort this one out, and quickly.

03 February 2009

MCMYS Gilman Street

If you've been reading this blog very long, you'll have noticed that I do this with almost predictable regularity: make a trip back to Gilman Street and then proceed to sing the praises of what what, if it isn't the longest-lived volunteer-owned and operated music and cultural center in the world, most certainly has to be one of the best.

Much of the joy has gone out of seeing live music in recent years, at least at all but the most grass-roots and DIY levels. Even the undeniable talents of today's or yesterday's megastars are seldom sufficient to compensate for the double whammy of insult and injury dished up to fans: music is most often presented in a sterile, soulless environment, completely deracinated from the passions and cultures that gave it birth, and is packaged and resold at prices obscenely inflated by monopolies like Tickemaster and its imitators, whose rapacious tentacles may well end up choking the last remaining life from the "entertainment" they purport to traffic in.

I swore off corporate rock shows after my last experience seeing one of my longtime favorites, MORRISSEY. While the substantial gouge effected by Ticketmaster on my wallet was bad enough, I don't absolve Morrissey himself of blame for his part in this dispiriting spectacle. As many of you will know, the Mozzer inspires a level of adulation among his fans that verges on religious dementia. As a result, his shows have historically been nearly as remarkable for the performances of his audiences as for what transpired on stage.

But by the time Morrissey put in an appearance at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom in October 2007, commercial considerations - a factor the Mournful Manc has never been oblivious to, as witnessed by various lawsuits and bitter band infighting - had drained much of the life from the experience. An incompetent and unpleasant opening act, chosen, it's hard not to suspect, for no other reason than that they would work cheap, ticket prices high enough to ensure banks of empty seats and the absence of some of his most devoted fans, all combined to cast a pall over the proceedings that Morrissey's assiduous prancing and posturing could never completely dispel. A more reasonable ticket price and an exciting opening act would not only have filled the hall with an impassioned audience rather than a stultified one; it also, ironically, would most likely have produced just as much income for performer and promoters alike.

Since that time, I've been to a couple of what might be called corporate shows, but only as a guest, when friends' bands were playing, and only in small to mid-size venues. I've stuck to my resolution to never again pay a Ticketmaster "service" charge or to see rock and roll (or soul, hiphop, or for that matter, hillbilly) music in a venue dominated by tables and chairs. I've missed seeing some artists who at one time I very much would have liked to see, but the way I figure it, the songs they're singing these days say, as Morrissey himself once put it, nothing to me about my life.

Contrast that with the many small shows in bars and basements and living rooms that I've been privileged to attend the past couple years, and I feel as though I haven't missed anything at all. Only a handful - if that - of the musicians I've seen are likely ever to the fame and fortune attained by friends from "back in the day" at Gilman, but I just may have reached that point in life - reached long ago, it must be acknowledged, by kids half my age - that in the overall scheme of things, it just doesn't matter.

It might not be evident to those who weren't there that Gilman in its early days was very much the granddaddy to the vast network of independent shows, bands, labels and promoters that spans the globe today, while simultaneously burrowing deep within the decaying skeleton of the Ticketmaster/Live Nation octopus. What's even more remarkable is that Gilman itself is still going strong, after more than 22 years. For newer bands that grew up in its far-reaching shadow, a chance to play Gilman is akin to making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

And you know, I still feel a little like that myself even when I'm there only as a fan. This past Saturday night was especially meaningful for me because I took my 13 year old nephew to his first Gilman show. When we were constructing its hallowed walls back in 1986, I don't think any of us in our wildest imaginings would have thought that Gilman would still be there by the time a kid who wouldn't even be born for another ten years was old enough to go there.

The occasion was PUNK ROCK JOEL's annual birthday extravaganza, a two-day affair that has been one of the highlights of the Gilman calendar for quite a few years now. In hindsight, I kind of wish I'd taken my nephew on Friday night rather than Saturday; there were more kids his own age there, and while it was a very good crowd, there was still room to dance around and do all the goofy things kids have been doing at Gilman for a couple generations now.

But for reasons I can't remember now, I wanted him to see Gilman on a very big night, with a very big crowd, and that was what was in evidence Saturday for none other than THE THORNS OF LIFE, playing the kind of openly advertised show that they have yet to play in their home town of New York. Sure enough, people were lined up down the block - WAY down the block - long before the doors opened, but somehow everybody squeezed in. I don't know how crowded it was at the back of the club, but up front the density compared favorably with that of a New York City subway car at rush hour, albeit in the days before air conditioning.

Having previously only seen the band in a living room and with a rudimentary sound system, it was a revelation to hear the music and the vocals clearly. Also, since TTOL had been playing somewhere nearly every night that week, they'd approached a level of tightness that was, well, almost frightening in a band so young. Given the excitement level and expectations of the crowd, it would have been difficult for the band to be anything but great. And surprise, surprise; that's exactly what they were: great.

Gilman emptied out considerably after TTOL, which was a shame, because it left HUNX AND HIS PUNX playing to a half-empty house, not that that bothered the dance-crazed Hunx loyalists who quickly turned the old punk rock club into a cracked-out (referring to the magazine and the mental condition, NOT the drug) disco. Earlier in the evening we saw some inspired hardcore from a youngish band called COMADRE, who insisted on playing on the floor in front of the stage instead of on the stage, not that there's anything wrong with THAT (says the guy whose own band used to pull similar stunts), and for only their second time at Gilman, the rollicking Midwestern sea shanties of OFF WITH THEIR HEADS.

I'm liking this band more and more, and even though friends who know them better keep telling me that OWTH are all about gloom and despair and doom, something I'd understand if I'd only read their lyrics, I can't help thinking what a rollickingly happy band they seem like. And I still don't know the lyrics, but they're one of those bands you can always sing along to even if you don't know a single one of their words. Confession: even though I'd put out their records, I was doing this for YEARS with GREEN DAY. I was actually kind of surprised when I finally did get around to reading their lyrics. There was all sorts of stuff going on there that I had no idea about!

There was one other band called the RE-VOLTS. Quite a few people enjoyed them. I was not one of them. Which was all right, because it gave me time to run around the club and be mind-boggled by some of the people who'd crawled out from whatever they'd been hiding under to put in appearances at the club. There were people who I only see at Gilman every couple years, like the fabulous JANELLE and the equally fabulous KAMALA, people I haven't seen there in five or ten years, like PEPITO PEA, and people that I quite literally haven't seen in 20 years, like WALTER GLASER (co-creator, along with yours truly, of the legendary SPIKE ANARKIE) and SOUTH BAY WAYNE, who I think originally showed up with the STIKKY crew circa 1987.

This no doubt had something to do with The Thorns Of Life, all three of whom have Gilman pedigrees dating back to near or (in Aaron's case, anyway) before the beginning. But I think it was also just one of those nights when the stars aligned and people just somehow knew it was time for what in essence was a family reunion. I don't know if my nephew got the full impact of it - for all I know, it might have seemed like a lot of old people slapping each other on the back and talking about incomprehensible things - but wow, what a feeling it was for me to be able to say, "Here's this thing that my friends and I helped build, and now it's yours, too."

Don't want to give short shrift to the Friday night show, which, as I said, was in some ways even more fun. Perennial favorites PANSY DIVISION and KEPI put in their more or less annual (in PD's case) or semi-annual (Kepi) appearances and the crowd went wild. Kepi, who's been sans Ghoulies for a couple years now, has put together a new band with himself on (standup) drums as well as lead vocals. The guy is a pro, there's no denying that. He just loves the music, just loves working the crowd, and they love him right back. He'll still be doing this when he's 80, and be better than ever at, if I don't miss my bet.

And Pansy Division just might be sharing a bill with him, because they're getting pretty timeless themselves. 15 years and God only knows how many records later, and they're not only still getting better, they've also managed, despite the four members living in four totally different corners of the country, to put together a new album that will be coming out in a couple months, with tour to follow. AND a DVD documentary, AND a book, also with tour to follow, by lead singer JON GINOLI, documenting his life in Pansy Division.

San Francisco's legendary AVENGERS, who share two members with Pansy Division, finished off the night with a smaller but no less enthusiastic crowd, made up in no small part by a bunch of hyper-enthusiastic 10 to 14 year olds who were tearing around the pit as though this were the Mabuhay circa 1978. That's the part I think my nephew would have liked best. Friday night also featured THE SECRETIONS, who I enjoyed, and THE BOATS, who apparently were great but who finished playing about two minutes before I arrived. I think they're both from Sacramento, and I know I'll be quickly corrected if I'm wrong.

Ah well, Gilman. What more can I say. Except that as great as the weekend was, I'm sorry I missed the social event of the winter thus far, CHADD DERKINS' birthday party on the 29th floor of New Jersey. Everyone was still buzzing about it when I got back. I really need to figure out a way I can be more places at once.

02 February 2009

An Unmediated Inauguration Redux

The New Yorker's always witty and often erudite TV critic Nancy Franklin gives an account of watching the Obama inauguration from the comfort of her living room, and by the time I'd got halfway through it, I was feeling as though I'd missed out by traveling to Washington to see what (very little) I could in person. In fact I've seriously considered buying one of those DVDs of the coverage that all the networks are hawking.

But even though I missed seeing the event from every angle, in constant replays, and with copious commentary, I'm still convinced that there was no substitute for being there. True, if I'd had more wits about me, I could most likely have wangled my way more into the thick of things, like, for example, budding rock star Matt Fame (né Matt Lame), who at the Neighborhood Ball found himself close enough to both the Prez and Beyoncé to be heard telling the latter "Good job!" as she left the stage following her performance. He wisely refrained from reinforcing the point with a pat to her passing derrière (and even more wisely refrained from giving the President a similar treatment), but you know, he could have.

Several other friends parlayed work or family connections into spots that were at the very least within sight and sound of the swearing-in ceremonies, while I had to be content with an out-of-sync Jumbotron at the backside of the Washington Monument. Still, the memories of being caught up in that wave of exuberant humanity, of seeing flags waving in hands where I never before would have pictured them, of patriotic songs rising from the throats of those who'd presumably never before had much to be patriotic about, of tears streaming unashamedly down faces of all ages, classes and colors, leave me in no doubt that I was right where I needed to be, and will likely treasure for the rest of my days the fact of having been there.

Or as Ms. Franklin somewhat poignantly put it: "I should have put the remote down and got myself to Washington and stood in the crowd, freezing and cheering, maybe even, for the first time, waving a flag. January 20th might have been the greatest day in my lifetime. By watching it on TV, I’d missed it."

01 February 2009

Bad Habits

As mentioned a week or so ago, I picked up a copy of Cristy Road's new novel Bad Habits when I saw her reading at that fancypants Brooklyn literary event a week or two ago. I promised to report back once I read it, and here I am to say that it is very good indeed.

It's hard to say just how autobiographical the story is. It almost always is, especially since authors tend to get very touchy about this sort of thing, so I've pretty much given up trying, but let's just say there are some interesting parallels between the protagonist, who grew up in Florida of Cuban ancestry before moving to Brooklyn, and Cristy, who, well, yeah, who also sort of did that. But whether it's a straight-up memoir with some literary touches or a full-fledged novel that simply draws on some of her experiences, it's an outstanding story in every regard. I stand in awe.

I'm especially impressed because the book is shot through with drug scenes, to the point where drugs themselves practically become one of the characters, and while I normally don't enjoy that sort of literature - not least because I've already lived that scene myself - I was not only able to take it in stride, but actually got quite a bit out of it. Even if it did make me a bit queasy at times - or maybe because of it - I felt myself being transported back to the bleary hopelessness charged with ever-receding dreams and possibilities that I recall from my own drug days. Not with any trace of nostalgia, I might add; more with a shudder of recognition and a wave of gratitude that life on those terms no longer makes the slightest bit of sense to me.

If you're a fan of Cometbus, you'll probably find this book similarly enjoyable. Cometbus rarely gets this explicit, true, but there's the same fascinating interplay between external action (or sometimes the lack thereof) and internal reflection. I'd also say this book is a bit less romantic than Cometbus stories in general, in that I don't think it will inspire too many starry-eyed teenagers to move into a squat and shovel drugs into their system (though you never know how those teenagers will respond, do you?).

Another nice - and unique, at least in my experience - touch is the way that Cristy, who as you probably know is already a successful artist and illustrator - works drawings into the text. They're not just adornments, in the way that illustrations were typically used in novels in bygone days, but a brief (usually no more than a page or so) foray into the realm of the graphic novel. In other words, if you skip the pictures, you'll miss part of the plot. I wouldn't be shocked if somebody has done this before, but I don't recall ever seeing it.

Sum total: read this book. Tell your friends to read it. It's an inspiration.