22 May 2009

Green Day And Wal-mart: "There's Nothing Dirty About Our Record"

News that Wal-mart has been using its immense commercial power in an attempt to influence or control popular culture shouldn't come as a shock; the giant retail chain has been doing that all along. Nor should it come as a surprise that Green Day feel confident enough in their ability to move copies of their new album that they can afford to tell Wal-mart to go do something unprintable with themselves.

While I commend Green Day for sticking to their guns and insisting that their album be sold as it was intended to be heard, I don't go along with the notion that Wal-mart has some sort of obligation to sell records that deviate from their company policy. No matter how big and powerful they are, after all, they're still a private business, and as such, it's their privilege to sell or not sell whatever products they want. It's a shame that many people who live in the American hinterlands where Wal-mart is often the only record shopping option will have greater difficulty obtaining the new record, but hey, that's why God invented the internet.

No, what really bugs me about this brouhaha is the notion that somehow there is something wrong or obscene about Green Day's record whereas Wal-mart is, while perhaps a little old-fashioned, merely acting as the guardian of "decent" American values. Singer Billie Joe Armstrong put it best: "There's nothing dirty about our record," despite Wal-mart's attempts to brand it as such.

What exactly is wrong with 21st Century Breakdown in Wal-mart's view? Presumably, it's that it uses vulgar language, i.e., swear words, i.e., the exact same language that practically every American - no, wait, every human being - including, most likely, Wal-mart executives, uses from time to time. Swearing may not always be the most elegant or effective use of language, but it's nearly universal and sometimes the most powerful if not the only way to get a certain point of view across. To pretend otherwise is either blinkered or hypocritical.

America has a funny relationship with language: while most modern countries have little problem television programs or movies that portray people talking and acting as they normally talk and act, in this country a broadcaster can be removed from the airwaves or forced out of business by enormous fines for letting an errant expletive or nipple be heard or seen by the public. Yet most of those same countries would never dream of routinely executing criminals or allowing poor people to die for want of health insurance. Different strokes, you might say, but which, if any, is the greater obscenity?

I might be a bit more sympathetic to Wal-mart if their lyrical oversight were limited to those records - and there are quite a few - that promote or glorify violence or sexism or rape - but Green Day records don't even remotely fit that description. The sole objection to their content is that they use real language to talk about real feelings and situations. Some of their punk rock fans might bristle at the description, but it's art, just as surely as anything that hangs on the walls of a museum, and any attempt to bowdlerize the lyrical content is just as stupid as those religious fanatics who at one time insisted on fig leaves being placed over the "dirty" bits of classic paintings.

No, if anyone involved in this controversy is obscene - and I use that word in its true sense (from the dictionary: "disgusting to the senses, abhorrent to morality or virtue"), it's Wal-mart itself. This is a company that has laid waste to the economies and cultures of hundreds, if not thousands of American towns, forcing long-established local businesses into bankruptcy, turning downtowns into dead zones and promoting a suburban-sprawl, automobile-based design model that has littered the landscape surrounding nearly every town with mile upon mile of garish neon strip malls and fast food franchises.

No, of course Wal-mart is not solely responsible for this development, but its entire business model is one that promotes its continued spread. If, instead of its big box stores surrounded by hundreds of acres of parking, Wal-mart would locate new stores in the heart of town, accessible on foot and by public transit, it could single-handedly revitalize many moribund cities, but because that might slightly diminish profit margins, executives continue to insist on gobbling up farmland, creating endless traffic nightmares, and perpetuating the way of life that virtually guarantees continued oil shortages (and the wars that they provoke), destruction of the environment, and disastrous climate change. Compare that to a punk rocker saying a naughty word on a record and then tell me who's the real dirty bastard here.

I don't even need to get into the devastating effect Wal-mart's horribly hypocritical and phony "Buy American" policies have had on our economy; suffice it to say that by "Buy American," Wal-mart means, "Spend your money in our stores." They certainly don't mean it to apply to themselves, since even a cursory examination will reveal that almost everything Wal-mart sells is made in China or some other developing country. Yes, it produces cheap prices for the American consumer, but simultaneously destroys the industries that used to employ those consumers. Obscene, disgusting, or just not very nice? Do you think the guy who has been outsourced out of a job and can't earn a living wage or provide health insurance for his family is more upset about that, or the fact that Billie Joe said a "bad" word on a record album?

Perspective, people, perspective! We got the same crap that Wal-mart is dishing out all through the Bush years: obsessive concern with private morality, riling up the rubes over stem cells or birth control, while at the same time destroying our economy, waging idiotic and mindlessly destructive wars, and giving bankers and corporate executives carte blanche to loot our wealth and resources on a scale probably unprecedented in history. Oh, but at least our precious little children didn't hear anybody say "shit" on TV. No, for that they'd have to walk into the next room where Daddy is looking at his unpaid credit card bills, reading his pink slip, or just watching the home team blow another lead. As Yakov Smirnoff used to say, what a country!

21 May 2009

Maybe The Best Show I've Ever Seen

Not words to be tossed around lightly, especially by someone who's been going to shows for almost 45 years now, and has been lucky enough to see, oh, just for starters, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, the Ramones, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Dead Kennedys, Avengers, the Stooges, the MC5, Alice Cooper, Operation Ivy, Screeching Weasel and dozens - hell, probably hundreds - more, either in their prime or when they were just starting out, or both.

But having arrived home a couple hours ago from seeing Green Day at Webster Hall and still unable to sleep because of the sheer euphoria of it all, I may just have to elevate this show from my top 5 right into the all-time best show ever spot. I'd thought last night at the Bowery Ballroom was as spectacular as I was likely to see in a relatively small club, and indeed, Billie had told me ahead of time that the Bowery show was the one to watch if I had to pick one or the other.

But this time his normally unerring show business instincts weren't as finely attuned as usual, because as good at the Bowery show was, Webster Hall blew it right out of the water. It might have been the superior sound system, or the bigger, more enthusiastic crowd, or the set list that expanded just enough to allow room for a couple more classics from the early days, but whatever it was, the Green Day that we saw Tuesday night was Green Day at their absolute finest, and I think it's been pretty well established by now that it doesn't get much better than that.

A couple purists - well, Grumpy Chris Grivet, for one - were complaining that the crowd didn't get sufficiently excited when the band dug into their back - way back - catalog for such Lookout-era gems as "At The Library" and "80", but I don't know what he expected; although the audience was almost elderly by Green Day standards - average age might have been late 20s/early 30s - most of them were still children when those records were released. This was a Dookie/American Idiot generation, and naturally songs from those albums got the biggest response (still no "Holiday", however, darn it!).

But there was plenty of singing along to the brand new songs from 21st Century Breakdown, despite their only having officially been released four days earlier. A couple more weeks and they'll already be classics, as was more or less predicted in this very space a week or two ago!

I didn't stick around nearly as long at the requisite after-party as I'd done the night before, partly because I was tired, partly because this "party" was mostly a bunch of people standing around (and two or three, including, most notably, Brooklyn's own Jackie O. and Cristy Road, doing some crazy dancing). There was also the usual open bar, but to a non-drinker like myself, that rates little more than a big meh (except of course that it ensures plenty of sloppy drunks to keep me entertained and amused).

Even more so, though, I was pretty exhausted by the time the show was over - a good kind of exhaustion, I should note, the kind that comes from total physical and emotional involvement... Oh, wait, all I did was watch; it was the band who did the total physical and emotional thing, and came off stage practically glowing with the knowledge that the night had been one of those very rare and special ones.

It might have had at least something to do with the fact that keyboardist/saxophonist/accordionist/vocalist Jason Freese had received the news just before showtime that he was a father; on Monday night he was practically beside himself with worry because his wife had gone into labor, but on Tuesday, the worry was replaced by a beatific smile and a performance that had jaws dropping even among his bandmates.

But most of all, I think, it was just one of those nights when everything gelled. The band was relaxed without being sloppy, adventurous without overextending themselves, finding the perfect middle ground between promoting the new record and having a great time with a bunch of old friends. One of the many images that will stay with me was that of Billie, having borrowed a pair of outsized pink sunglasses from an audience member ("What, you're from Oklahoma? My mom's from Oklahoma!") and wrapped a white silk scarf (no idea where that came from) around his neck that left him looking like Snoopy vs. the Red Baron by way of Edith Piaf. I really do hope there's video of that somewhere out on the interweb.

Although they'll still be in town for a couple more days, it was the last I'll see of Green Day for a while, as I'm headed out to the seaside first thing in the morning. Those of you in the New York area still have a chance to see them play, provided you're willing to get up early enough (or stay up late enough) to be in Central Park by 6 am Friday when they'll be performing for Good Morning America. I know I promised to find out whether they would be playing a full set or just a song or two, but, well, I forgot. My offhand guess is that while only one or two songs will be broadcast, they'll probably play more than that. Sue me if I'm wrong. Anyway, it's supposed to be a beautiful, warm, early summer morning, so it'll do you good to be out in the park regardless.

There will also be appearances on the Letterman and Colbert shows, so don't come crying to me if you end up not seeing Green Day at all, because if you didn't, you weren't even half trying. And with that I'll bid adieu to a pretty amazing week, in which I learned what it's like to be, as it were, king for a day. Okay, maybe not king, but at least a fairly advanced prince. It's really fascinating to see how life operates inside the inner circle: I'm tempted to say I could get used to that kind of treatment, but I'm note sure I could. It's great for a few days, but I seriously have to wonder if I would like it if my life were like that all the time, or at least all the time that I was on tour.

On the plus side, you get to eat and drink very well, attend all the best parties, and meet some truly fascinating people (more than I could possibly list here, but some of my favorites were Bob Gruen, who's been photographing rock royalty for more than 40 years, and Tony-winning director Michael Mayer, whose next big project is the stage version of American Idiot, premiering in Berkeley this September. And set designer (and crazy dancer) Christine and musical arranger Carmel, both awesome!). On the not so plus side, it's difficult to step outside the bubble without people swarming on you demanding, well, just about anything. There was a tense moment on the Lower East Side Monday night when some autograph-hunters who were clearly in it for the money rather than love of the band got kind of abusive when they didn't get what they wanted. And as pleasant and fun as it is hanging out every night with what ultimately feels like a great big extended family, I wonder if sometimes you wouldn't wish that you could just go hop on the subway or wander around the East Village like a regular person.

Well, I don't know. We all make accommodations to suit the demands of our particular jobs or lifestyles, and despite its various drawbacks, there are probably worse jobs to be had than that of rock star. I will say that Billie, Mike and Tre seem to be having every bit as much fun - albeit of a slightly different nature - as they did back in the days of driving around the country in a rattletrap old van and playing any basement, garage, two-bit bar or living room that presented itself. And anyway, it's not as though they could easily resign their positions: as long as they keep making the best music of their lives, fame and fortune are going to keep piling on, invited or not. It's a tough job, but they seem to be handling it better than anyone else I know could.

Shoutouts also to Jason White, who I've known almost as long as the Big Three, and Jeff Matika, who I just met. This is Jeff's first tour with Green Day, and he represents the latest in a long line of Little Rock-East Bay connections. I drove through that town in 1970, liked it so much that I swore I'd come back one day for a proper visit, and never have. If nothing else, I'd like to find out why everyone I've ever met from there seems so goshdarned nice. Well, almost everyone. I'm still not completely sure about that Bill Clinton guy.

Okay, bedtime now, and I realize that even though I'm having my first quiet night at home in a while, it's late enough that I could have just as well been at another after-show party instead of sitting in this quiet room with only the clack-clack of the computer keys keeping me company. But that's just how it should be; writing is this thing I do, and even though it's frequently a great big pain in the ass (I imagine some of you have similar feelings about having to read it), if I don't do it, I get pretty crazy. So that's it for now. As soon as the sun comes up, I'm off to the beach.

19 May 2009

Small, Rabbitlike, Eyelinered

That's what the critic from the New York Times had to say about Billie Joe Armstrong, who last night led Green Day through a triumphant return to New York City in the more or less intimate surroundings of the Bowery Ballroom. My first reaction on reading that description was to say, "Oh, good, I'm going to torment Billie mercilessly about being rabbitlike," until I remembered that I had turned over a new leaf after my bad behavior with Tre on Saturday (I apologized profusely, because I really did feel bad about it) and was not going to tease people anymore, even when they deserved it, which Billie, after his stunning performance of last night, certainly does not.

On top of that, I recalled that there was a period in my own life when I was frequently described as resembling a rabbit, not that this has anything at all to do with the subject at hand, but when did I ever let that stop me? It was in the 60s, when I somehow emerged as the first among equals (I think because I had the biggest mouth and was the least incoherent) in this particularly demented and vaguely Mansonian (fortunately for the local villagers, our pursuits ran more along the lines of sex, drugs, and deconstructing the latest Donovan album than the ritual slaughter and evisceration of the bourgeoisie) Midwestern hippie commune.

Having remarked often enough on my alleged leporinity (okay, rabbit-ness), my colleagues took it upon themselves to cut out a picture of a rabbit and paste it above my bed (okay, my mat and/or pile of rags) with the legend, "Our Leader." As it happened, however, they were so stoned that all they could come up with was a National Geographic photo of a kangaroo. And if you can see where I'm going with this, you have a more incisive mind than I.

Oh yes, the Bowery Ballroom. Well, as it happens, I was fortunate enough to be there (my first full-fledged Green Day show in almost five years!), and if this is any indication of what the summer tour is going to be like, audiences have something pretty spectacular to look forward to. It's not always easy to extrapolate from a club-sized show to an arena or stadium-sized one, and it's also quite challenging to shrink the sound and performance geared to Madison Square Garden into a 550-capacity Lower East Side club, but apart from a few mid-show glitches with the guitar sound, the band and their astonishingly adept crew pulled it off seamlessly.

For the first 10 or 15 minutes and the last 20 or 25 minutes I'm just about prepared to say it was the best show I've ever seen (some competitors for that title: the Supremes at the Michigan State Fair in 1965, the GoGos in San Francisco in 1980, and the Ramones at UC's Pauley Ballroom that same year). In fact, about 10 minutes in I loudly declared that to be fact, which might have been premature, since one of the most vital criteria for "best show ever" is that all through the show there's never a doubt in your mind, not even for a millisecond, that what you are witnessing/participating in is perfection itself. Never once do you stop to think, "I wonder how much longer they're going to play," or "Oh, I wish they'd play such-and-such song instead of this one."

And while Green Day never played any songs I didn't want to hear, I could compile a substantial list of the songs I wish they did. I know, hideously ungrateful of me, especially since they'd already torn through a dazzling set that would have left most bands gasping for air by the midway point. The trouble is that when you've been a band for as long as Green Day have (21 years, as Billie proudly pointed out), and have written so many of outstanding songs, it's just not possible to play them all in one show.

That's what the more reasonable part of me says. The unreasonable part says, yeah, but if only I could have heard "Holiday", "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams", "Whatshername", and maybe a couple more from "the old days." But hey, we did get to hear "Going to Pasalacqua" (!), (and with a personal dedication to me, no less; if I hadn't been so startled, I would have been able to scream a lot louder), "Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?", and "Dominated Love Slave". "No!" I shouted "Don't let him play guitar," thinking back to Lookouts practices when Tre would abandon his drums and start jamming on my guitar the minute I left it unguarded. When Billie had to remind Tre of how the chords went, the girl next to me said, "I see what you mean," but actually, I had to admit to her, Tre's a very good guitarist. Probably better than me, which was the real reason I didn't like him playing mine.

Oof. There's much more to tell, but I've got to be off to the city. Here, read Bill Moon's review on the PPMB for the set list and some further mostly cogent ravings about how awesome it all was, and I'll be back later with (hopefully) some more stories about last night's show and maybe tonight's as well.

17 May 2009

Saturday Night Live

Most of you who have mothers have probably at one time or another heard some version of "Wear clean underwear because you never know when you might get hit by a car and taken to the hospital." I can't remember if my mother also told me about not letting the laundry pile up because you never know when you might need clean clothes, but if she didn't, she should have. When I got back from London last week (who am I kidding, it's getting closer to two weeks now), it was my intention to go down to the laundromat my first night back, but being pleasantly surprised to find several clean t-shirts and an extra pair of jeans in my dresser drawer, I decided it could wait.

The result being that when I unexpectedly got an invitation to come watch Green Day appearing on Saturday Night Live, I had almost nothing to wear except some ratty old things that made me look even more than usual like some bewildered tramp who'd wandered in off the street. If I'd only been sitting in the audience, this wouldn't have been the worst thing in the world (and, on reflection, it's still pretty far from the worst thing in the world regardless of how you slice it), but as it happened, I spent most of the night backstage, cheek-by-jowl with more TV and movie stars than I could shake a stick at (or name, for that matter; I kept having encounters with people where'd I'd be like, "Oh yeah, it's that wacky guy from Forgetting Sarah Marshall), but even weirder was running into people who seemed so familiar that I was sure I'd known them half my life before realizing that while I had indeed known them half my life, it was from the movies, not real life.

Which is better than I did with Tom Hanks: standing right next to him and didn't even recognize him. Wait, it gets worse: I didn't even realize he was there, let alone on the show, until someone else mentioned having a conversation with him. At least I recognized Will Ferrell, but then I must have seen a dozen of his films and I'll admit I'm kind of a fan. Did I meet him? No, not really, but he came bounding into Green Day's dressing room (his was next door) after the show to discuss the song he'd jammed on with the band (more about that in a minute), and then a bit later reappeared wearing a rather astounding two-piece orange velour lounging suit that in color and texture was straight out of a 70s blaxploitation flick and munching on a banana. He easily got the award for most costume changes over the course of the evening, and that's without counting the show itself.

Speaking of which: not only was it the first time I'd ever visited an SNL broadcast; it was also the first time I'd even watched it in quite a few years (nothing against it, just that I'm usually out on Saturday nights, and then there were the 10 years I spent in England where, if it was shown at all, was generally only in reruns). So I was pretty unaware as to who most of the cast members were, and many of the in jokes sailed right over my head. But most of it seemed pretty hilarious to me, and SNL connoisseurs seemed to concur that it was an especially good episode, particularly in terms of Will Ferrell's contribution.

Having the best band in the world (sorry if you disagree, but I'm sticking with it) as musical guests couldn't have hurt, either, and it was only when Billie started strumming his acoustic guitar during the rehearsal of "21 Guns" that I realized just how long it had been since I'd seen the band close up in a small room (the SNL studio is not even as big as many bars and clubs where I've watched bands play), which was exciting enough, but when the whole band kicked in with sound quality that would have been at home in an enormous arena, it gave me shivers. I must have seen Green Day, oh, I don't know, 100 times? Probably more than that, but most of them were many years ago, often in basements or backyards where pro sound quality - or any sound quality - was, shall we say, not the first priority. If it was even an issue at all. Hey, there were shows where the entire production crew was yours truly, in that I plugged their microphones into my Peavey 600 Mixer and cranked it as loud as it would go without feeding back.

Today they have production values that are as good as if not better than any band in the world - no, more than that, that are simply breathtaking, and that's before you even get to the music itself. On one hand it's staggering to see how far they've come these past couple decades - I continue to maintain that they're making the best music of their career right now - but backstage, you can sometimes forget that anything has changed at all: the goofing around, the jokes, the conversations that spin from silly to deadly serious and back again in the blink of an eyelid could make you think 1989 never went away at all.

Or maybe it's just me. Especially with Tre, who I've known seven years longer than Billie and Mike, i.e., since he was a small child - I'm likely to regress to old behavior, and at one point - I feel really bad about this now - I started picking on him by making fun of a painting he'd bought and which he was very proud of. He got me back pretty good, however, by accusing me of "blogging with 12 year olds," and though I'd swear at least some of you reading this are a bit older, I didn't have a decent comeback. I thought of a couple good ones once I got home; isn't that always the way it is? On the other hand, at a party the night before, Tre kept trying to wrestle me and I'm pleased to report that after all this time, and with me only a few years away from Social Security, he STILL can't take me down. And he's got some serious muscles now, folks. I assumed he must have been hitting the gym, but he swears he never sets foot in one. It's all just from drumming, but from the way he hits (the drums, not me), it shouldn't be surprising.

I got to the NBC studios when the pre-show rehearsal was about halfway through, and we watched that on a TV monitor in the dressing room, except for when Green Day played, when we went out into the studio and watched from the side of the stage. Then when the actual show started, I, along with the WAGS (English football-speak for "Wives And Girlfriends") went up into the balcony to watch. They weren't ideal seats, but at least they were seats; next to us a huge knot of celebrities, including what looked like half the cast of 30 Rock, had to stand for the whole show.

It was surprising how much of the show was cut out or changed between the rehearsal and the actual broadcast. The swear words, for example, but one thing I wished they'd kept was Amy Poeler and Seth Myers trading (well, actually it was mostly Amy) Chewbacca imitations during the Weekend Update. And the part where Green Day joined in on the Saigon singalong was thrown in at the last minute and hadn't been rehearsed at all.

But possibly the very best segment of the whole show came after the finale and was not broadcast at all: Green Day came back out and played two more songs, "She" and "East Jesus Nowhere." A minute or so into EJN, Will Ferrell suddenly appeared on stage banging on a cowbell (in reasonably good time with the music, it must be said), and generally hamming it up to hilarious effect. At first the band were kind of unsure what was going on, but then they rolled with it, even when Ferrell took up a position behind Billie for a shameless bit of monkey-faced mugging that while putting the audience in danger of falling out of their chairs with laughter, somehow didn't detract from the song at all.

When the song went into a kind of breakdown, Ferrell was temporarily at a loss for what to do, since there was no clear cut rhythm to bang his cowbell to, but he recovered any lost aplomb and then some when the band went back into the power finale by sticking his head in front of Billie at the microphone and inquiring loudly, "Is this song still going on?"

After it was all over, the party started, and I'm not just talking some little intimate encounter where the cast sits around and hashes over the episode concluded, but some pretty glitzy do (recession? not here?) for one or two thousand people on the ground floor of the building and spilling out into what I just now realized was the Rockefeller Center ice rink (which explains all those puddles of water I found myself wading through). But mostly we just sat and talked about, well, stuff, until I realized it was getting on toward 4 am. I hopped aboard my pumpkin to Brooklyn, in the form of the F and the L trains, and returned to normal life, or at least the life where my shabby old clothes would fit right in. That being said, I swear I'm doing laundry tonight, and maybe even finally breaking down and buying a new jacket. Just in case, because as Mom may or should have said, you never know.

15 May 2009

Attention All Geeks

I've been thinking about doing this for a while, but like most things I think about, it never quite got done. This particular project involves developing a full-fledged website instead of just a blog, where I could host not only these occasional words of wisdom (or words of occasional wisdom), but also a selection of my past writing (columns from MRR, Punk Planet, Lookout, Zippo, Cometbus, Homocore, etc.), music and photos.

I've got the domain name, I even bought a couple books about how to write html and build websites, etc., but this has been dragging on for years now and either I'm just too thick or too lazy (or both and more) to make any progress. So, I'm putting out the call for anyone who might be interested in helping me get this thing up and going. Preferably it would be someone in the New York City area, and someone with some patience, since I'm not always the brightest guy in the room when it comes to understanding technical stuff. Although once I figure it out, I'm usually pretty good at building on that knowledge, so basically all I'm asking is that you get me started and show me how to upload new items, and I think from then on I'd probably be all right on my own. Together we could make internet history! Or pile a few more bundles of drivel onto the great sprawling heap of banality that is the Worldwide Web (do people still call it that? I was going to make an information superhighway traffic jam metaphor, but that seemed even more dated). Oh yeah, Web 2.0, that's the ticket, whatever it is. We'll be, like, interactive! Let me know if you think you might be able to help. Thanks!

Band Practice!

It's been a long time - way too long, I realize now - since I could write about band practice. But this past Sunday all the current members of SUCIDIE got together for the first time in a tastefully appointed (well, you should see some of the places I'm used to practicing in!) rehearsal studio in Astoria to prepare for our appearance at Baltimore's Insubordination Fest next month.

I'm actually pretty serious about the studio being a nice place. It was clean, for starters, which right away sets it apart from nearly every rehearsal studio I've set foot in. Most of my practice days were spent in this dive on 19th or 20th Street in downtown Oakland. It's not that the place didn't have some ambiance and history - practically all the East Bay bands practiced there at one time or another. Actually, I'm not sure if Green Day ever did, but Operation Ivy, Crimpshrine... I don't even want to start naming bands because I'll leave somebody out or claim someone who wasn't really there. But man, that place was filthy. Or maybe that was just our individual practice space? We shared with about four other bands, so I'm sure it was all their fault, but I can remember when you almost needed a shovel to clear a path through the beer cans and other assorted garbage just to get to your amps.

But I digress, as usual. The place in Astoria was nothing like that; we just walked in, plugged in, and started rocking! To be honest, I was pretty nervous, not having played with a band in quite a few years, and having only just learned the songs in the past couple weeks. All the songs except one, or did I tell you about this? It seems I've been prevailed upon to sing an old Lookouts song, which hasn't been played performed since, well, July 10, 1990, to be exact, which was the date of the last Lookouts recording session and show (we went straight to the show, which was in Jake Filth's basement, from recording at Andy Ernst's Art of Ears, which was then located in Frisco, near the Haight.

And again I'm in danger of digressing, but here's the deal: although I wasn't worried about remembering how to play my own song, I was concerned about how well it would fit in with the SUCIDIE songs (they're, um, kind of different) and also about how the band would handle playing a song that I'd never heard played by anyone but the Lookouts.

Well, I needn't have worried. It went great, right from the start, maybe because we have such an outstanding lineup of seasoned musicians (Matt Lame, Atom Lame, Carla Monoxide, Ace (from Houseboat! and the Steinways!) and yours truly). I didn't even make that many mistakes, even though I could barely sing (what's new about that, you ask?) thanks to having come down with the swine flu over the weekend.

So, I'm pretty excited about playing a show again, and especially in the slot where we're scheduled: right in between Pansy Division and the Steinways! (This may very well be the Steinways' last show ever, I'm very sad to say.) And while we're only playing a very short set (hey, our songs are fast, and at least you're virtually guaranteed not to get bored), I hope you'll all come out and see us and about 729 other bands. If you want to buy tickets to the Fest and haven't done so already, you can do it here, and while you're at it, don't forget the Thursday night pre-show, which is usually kind of an afterthought (okay, a pre-thought) to the Fest itself, but this year features one of the best lineups of all three nights, including appearances by both the Max Levine Ensemble and Delay, two of my very favorite (and therefore two of the very best) bands in the country today. Pre-show tickets are available here, and I look forward to seeing all of you, yes, all ten million or however many people are reading this, on all three nights. Oh, and make sure to check out the snazzy new guitar I'll be playing! It's not mine, sadly; it's sort of like I'm being sponsored except I don't get to keep the guitar. But it sure looks and sounds cool. Pics to follow (maybe)!

14 May 2009

Information In

When I first moved here, I used to make fun of my friend Michael for the way he almost religiously read The New Yorker, and vowed never to fall prey to what I saw as the cliché of being the new guy in town who immediately took out a subscription to it.

And I resisted for a while, just as I resisted the incessant pledge drive imprecations of WNYC, the local NPR outlet. But seeing as how I listened pretty much exclusively to WNYC (all the while complaining how pathetic it was when compared with my beloved BBC), I finally started feeling guilty about being a mooch. When I realized that you could get a "free" New Yorker subscription for donating to WNYC, I said what the hell; as long as I was getting two things for the price of one (I could have done them both separately for less money, but never mind), and I bit the bullet.

Now I'd had a New Yorker subscription once before, way back in the 70s, during that brief interval between glam rock and punk rock when, for want of any other way to justify my existence, tried to re-invent myself as a tortured intellectual. But I found that I couldn't keep up with it; there was just too much to read, and the issues would pile up on the cabinet in my bathroom until they seemed to begin leering at me for being such a lazy, inattentive bastard, and I'd toss another batch out into... well, I don't think they had recycling yet, so probably into the trash, which adds to the shame. About the time the Dead Kennedys formed I let my subscription lapse and never gave the magazine much more thought until, as I say, my friend Michael began annoying me with it.

But something had apparently changed over the years (okay, decades), because I now found The New Yorker much more interesting, and was even able to make my way - on occasion - through an entire issue before next week's copy showed up. Until, that is, I began receiving offers from other magazines who apparently inferred from my presence on the New Yorker subscription list that I was their type of reader. You know, thoughtful, concerned, intellectual, involved (they actually said things in their pitches; I didn't make them up).

Well, let me admit right here: I was flattered. Perhaps my re-invention as an intellectual had taken hold after all, a mere 30-some years after the fact. And before I knew it, I had also become a subscriber to the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. And of course I still had my weekly copy of the good old Anderson Valley Advertiser to keep me apprised of the goings-on in Boonville and Mendocino County.

Result: on one hand, I feel rather clever most days. Reading this sort of publication on a regular basis, especially the New York and London Reviews, is a bit like being enrolled in university, maybe even at the graduate level. I'm constantly being exposed to people, events and concepts whose existence (or reason for existing) had never occurred to me. On the other hand, I also felt like a university student because of the way I could never get caught up with my reading assignments. I could maybe get through one of the magazines in a week, plus my AVA, but that's about it, leaving me to wonder, in the case of the New York or London Review of Books, who, by the time they'd read all the reviews, could possibly have any time to read any actual books? I further wondered how anyone who had an actual job could even come close to absorbing this much reading material, but then the question of how people with jobs find time to do anything at all is a frequent source of perplexity to me.

I think a big part of my problem is my approach to reading, however. I suspect normal people leaf through these magazines until they find articles that interest them and then read them. Not me. No, I have to start at the beginning and read it cover to cover, including the small ads at the back. Doesn't matter if it's a 12-page article on the provenance of the thread used in medieval wall hangings in western Belgium, I feel it's my duty to absorb all this information that's being proffered up to me. And, I note, that I've paid cold, hard cash for, even though all my subscriptions are relatively cheap.

This, I fear, is the result of being raised by a couple of Depression-era parents, who instilled in from infancy a horror of wasting anything. No, it's more than horror, it's a sense of enormous moral failure if I don't happily and gratefully consume everything that is put in front of me. Those children starving in China and Africa, should they have somehow managed to survive, will be grateful to know that I seldom let a pea or a carrot go astray, gag as I may have done while forcing them down so I could join "The Clean Plate Club" and earn my dessert, and if today somewhere there are children desperate for the knowledge to be gleaned from upper-middlebrow periodicals, I hope they'll rest comfortably tonight knowing that I'm making a valiant effort to absorb it for them.

But while doing some housecleaning today, I finally had to toss out a few issues dating back to December or January that appeared to have some unread articles (sometimes it's hard to tell, as I've certain pieces so dense that by the time I've finished them I have no idea what I've just learned, except that it feels really heavy). Believe me, it was painful, and I'm still not convinced I won't do time in literary purgatory for having done so. In the meantime, I've got to get to the city, which means stuffing a some recent issues into my backpack and frantically trying to get through an article or two in the seven stops from my house to 6th Avenue. Yes, I have also become that other New York cliché, the guy who does all his reading on the subway. But boy will I have a lot of interesting stuff to talk about if I ever find a spare minute to talk to somebody.

Two Hours Of My Life That I'll Never Get Back

One of the few negative effects of living in England for as long as I did was an irrational antipathy toward the French. I'd never thought badly of the French before; in fact, I'd been quite fond of both them and their country before I moved to London, where contempt for les grenouilles is almost universal. It's the one form of ethnic prejudice that's still considered completely respectable in most circles, and I must shamefully admit that to some extent I succumbed to it as well.

Granted, that whole cheese-eating surrender monkeys business in the wake of 9-11 didn't help either, but the net result was that during the 10 years I lived in London, I never once bothered to make the quick (2 1/2 hours by Eurostar) journey over to Paris, which, now that I'm quite a few more hours removed, even by plane, seems absolutely mental.

Never mind, though; now that I've started visiting Paris again, I've warmed right up to the French, come to appreciate their way of life, their food, even their manners, which I don't find anywhere near as atrocious as some people would have you believe. In fact, apart from being more soft-spoken (generally) and better at holding their liquor (or not drinking nearly so much of it in the first place), they're actually quite similar to the English, which might in itself explain a lot of the hostility.

But my recently declared entente cordiale with the French was put into serious jeopardy tonight when I was invited over to a warehouse by some friends for an informal "movie night." A little pizza, some laughs and conversation, a movie projected onto a bedsheet on the wall, what could possibly go wrong with a scenario like that?

I'll tell you what: La cité des enfants perdu (The City Of Lost Children), that's what. Almost two hours (I would have sworn it was at least two and a half) of pure French, pseudo-artsy gobbledygook, replete with corny costumes, nonsensical plot, and agonizing longeurs during which nothing seems so sweet as falling into a deep, deep sleep or, alternatively, having a bullet put through one's head.

Maybe, just maybe I could find this sort of melodramatic crapola interesting were I on the right combination of psychedelic drugs. During the 70s I watched a wide variety of French films while on LSD, marijuana, and a few less salubrious substances, none of which I can recall a single salient feature about apart from the fact that they seemed profound at the time. But it's been a long, long time since I've taken drugs, and as a result, I found The City Of Lost Children nothing short of torturous. Before we were half an hour into the movie I found myself regularly checking the time to see how much more of it I'd have to endure, and contemplating how I might be able to sneak out of there without anyone noticing.

Unfortunately, with there being only one door and its being located so that I'd have to walk through or in front of all the other guests to make my escape, I resigned myself to sitting through the whole dismal spectacle. When it (finally) ended I nearly ran out of there, not even waiting for the ride I could have had, just so I could avoid having to offer an opinion about the movie.

Because, you see, everyone else was raving about it. "So beautiful," "amazing," "gets better every time I see it," were some of the capsule reviews. Hang on, I said to myself; these are my friends. Have they taken leave of their senses? Or am I just that far removed from Brooklyn's artistic gestalt?

Since none of my friends were on drugs either, it's probably the latter. And I'm all right with that, I guess. My recent experiences in the City of Light have shown me that the vast majority of French people have no interest in such merde de chien, and if a few of my Brooklyn friends do, well, God bless their artsy little souls. I'm sure they feel similarly about my love for Green Day and Lady Gaga.

12 May 2009

Then Again, What Do I Know?

It was suggested by a couple PPMB carpers that I was kind of over the top in my review of 21st Century Breakdown, or that I was giving the band special treatment because they were friends of mine.

I'll take the second charge first: anyone who's known me very long will be aware that I'm absolutely hopeless when it comes to schmoozing with musicians, because I can't help letting my opinions be known, no matter how positive or negative they might be. Doesn't matter if the band in question are close friends or if I've just met them. I learned long ago that when bands ask you, "So, what did you think of the album (or show)?", most of them are not looking for or expecting a detailed critique. Nine times out of ten they want to hear some version of "Awesome, man, you guys are geniuses."

Even when the band are very close friends and genuinely care about your opinions or your criticisms, it can be pretty awkward if you actually come right out and say what they are. Which I know because I've done it. Many, many times. It's actually a miracle that many musicians still want to talk to me at all. Assuming they do, of course.

After all, these guys have been working for months or years to create the record or performance you're commenting on, and they wouldn't have put it before the public if they didn't in their heart of hearts think it was just about as good as it can be. And chances are, especially if they've got a record label or a manager or a fan club telling them how great they are, they've come to at least partly believe it. So when someone, even if it's someone like me, with considerable experience in the music business, starts explaining how the song's too long and they should have left off that second chorus or how they missed a golden opportunity to insert an extra harmony on the bridge, they're not usually that thrilled.

And I've tried, believe me, I've tried, to keep my opinions to myself, especially when I haven't been asked for them, but hey, old habits die hard. During the years I ran a record label, at least part of my job was to tell bands what I thought was good and bad about the music they were producing, and even though I wasn't always right, I was right enough of the time to compile a pretty enviable track record when it came to picking bands and albums that would be popular.

All well and good, as long as it was my job (and even then, some of the bands were known to get pretty irritated with me), but once it stopped being my job, I unfortunately didn't lose the habit. It's been over 12 years since I released a record, and yet I still have to bite my tongue to keep from unleashing a full-scale deconstruction of the band who just played at a local bar show.

So if you should ask me what I thought of your band and I get this strange, screwed-up look on my face (more than usual, I mean), chances are that I'm striving manfully not to tell you that your band either sucked, delivered a bad show, or should seriously consider shifting to a career in carpet installation. If I tell you that you were good, you almost certainly are good (at least in my opinion), and if I start offering detailed advice about arrangements, harmonies, tempos, etc., it probably means that I'm taking your music quite seriously and am encouraging you to do the necessary work to make it as good as it can possibly be.

But never mind, because you'll probably just be annoyed, so I'll shut up about that now. As for my extremely enthusiastic review of the new Green Day album, well, I've also had a lot of experience in predicting great success (or lack thereof) for a band or a record and being laughed at for it. My favorite example (and sorry to those of you who've heard this story before) was when in 1988 I predicted that Operation Ivy would be one of those bands who would become punk rock classics, who would continue to grow more popular for years and decades after they ceased to be a band. Like Minor Threat and the Dead Kennedys, I said, those being the classic punk rock bands of that era.

When I said that to Tommy Strange, who was in charge of the warehouse at Mordam Records (our distributor), he laughed and laughed, and then insisted on going around to every other person in the warehouse to tell them the ridiculous thing that Larry had just said. For the next few years of his life, he would spend an ever-increasing amount of his time piling crates upon crates of Op Ivy CDs onto trucks for shipment around the world; I don't know for sure, but I would guess that Op Ivy have long since outsold the Dead Kennedys, and probably Minor Threat as well.

I was reminded of that the other day when being interviewed by a British magazine about the history of Lookout Records. Asked if I had any idea of how big Green Day would become when I first saw them, I said, very truthfully, that I'd almost instantly thought they could be as big as the Beatles. Note: I didn't say I expected that to happen, but I saw them as being good enough that it could happen.

If you've been around the music biz very long in any capacity, even if only as a fan, you'll know that many bands who have the potential to make it really big don't end up doing so. This happens for a variety of reasons, most involving some form of self-sabotage. Drugs and/or alcohol are a perennial favorite, but so is giving up too soon, or changing your sound because some promoter or manager convinced you "that's what all the kids are listening to this year." Often, too, a band will fail to take care of some of the boring fundamentals: getting good people and labels to work with, signing favorable contracts, in short, just taking care of business. Result: they get ripped off or at least feel ripped off, become disheartened and cynical, and either give up altogether or start focusing on transparent cash grabs instead of whatever it was that made their music special in the first place.

That's why, as I've said several times, it's a miracle when a band manages to hold it together long enough to make more than two or three really good albums. It might also help explain why thoroughly mediocre bands seem to be able to stick around at the top of the charts longer than the truly great bands: if all you're producing is formulaic pap, the pressure is considerably less.

UPDATE: Back at the PPMB, resident curmudgeon Chris Grivet just called me "a raving lunatic" for my 21st Century Breakdown review and goes on to claim that if any Green Day record goes down in history for its social/cultural impact, it will be Dookie. Bear in mind, of course, that Mr. Grivet is the same gentleman who, in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, claimed to have seen "Longview", the first video from Dookie, in 1993, before it had even been made, let alone shown on TV. His "proof" of this assertion: well, in the video, the band were all wearing summer clothes, so it must have been made in the summer of 93, and that when he, Chris Grivet, saw it, he was wearing fall clothes, so it must have been the fall of 93.

Not that I want to bag on Grivet, who is generally, despite his personality quirks, an all-around great guy. But, it needs to be said, an all-around great guy who is frequently, even belligerently wrong about certain musical issues. Like his frequently propounded theory that Nirvana were largely responsible for Green Day's success. Evidence for this? Well, he, Chris Grivet, liked Nirvana a lot when he was 12, and after that he liked Green Day, so obviously one thing led to another, and he, Chris Grivet, turned out to be the bellwether of a generation!

Well, looks like we've come full circle here. 20 years ago it was Tommy Strange calling me a raving lunatic for my musical predictions, and now it's Chris Grivet, who is undeniably strange in his own lovable fashion. We already know who was right the last time. Why not bookmark this page and come back in 20 more years to see if yet another carping critic has bitten the dust?

Talent Borrows, Genius Steals?

Not everyone is raving about the new Green Day album; at least some of the folks over at the perennially cooler-than-everything (though they would go as one to their graves denying it) PPMB have some downright snarky and even hostile comments, complaining in this rapidly growing thread about everything from the album's length to its classic rock influences to the band's alleged tendency to borrow or "rip off" riffs and melodies from everyone who's made a record in the past 30 years, including themselves.

Personally, I don't take the rip off claims seriously at all. The majority of them involve someone claiming that the new album "sounds like" (insert name of famous and/or obscure band/rock star from the past). Are their echoes of sounds, themes, even melodies that others have previously worked with? Of course; that's the nature of popular music, of all music, in fact. Many of the most widely known bits from classical symphonies and operas had their origins in some popular but unrecorded peasant melody that the composer happened to overhear being whistled by the gardener or the washerwoman.

It's always tempting to drag out the old "Talent borrows, genius steals" refrain in discussions of this nature, but it would only muddy the issue. To suggest that Green Day, after a couple decades of producing hit records powered by incredibly infectious melodies and harmonies, would suddenly feel the need to rely for inspiration on the output of other, mostly less successful bands, kind of beggars belief. One also wonders why, if it's so "obvious" (at least according to some of the PPMB critics) that Green Day have stolen songs from other writers, nobody has ever successfully sued them for this alleged plagiarism. It's not as though superstars are invulnerable to this sort of thing; even the Beatles' George Harrison got nailed for plundering the "My Sweet Lord" riff from the earlier Chiffons hit, "He's So Fine." But apart from some English guy claiming (and failing) to prove that the song "Warning" (from the album of the same name) was copied from something he wrote, nobody has even tried it with Green Day.

In an era where practically everything that's ever been recorded is becoming easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection, it would seem crazy for songwriters even to try and get away with ripping off someone else's work, especially songwriters so famous that everything they create is under the public microscope. That's not to say that there aren't going to be inevitable similarities, whether conscious or not, between new songs and existing ones. The very nature of the medium, the finite number of chords, notes and lyrical themes virtually guarantees it. In my own songwriting, I've several times surprised myself by finding melodic or lyrical bits in one of my songs that would seem to have come straight out of someone else's song, in most cases one that I grew up listening to. Did I intend to borrow or steal that riff? Not at all; it's just that it was so ingrained in me that it had become part of my musical consciousness. And, to be fair, nobody else ever noticed it unless I pointed it out to them.

There have also been times that I deliberately tried to write a song in the style of a particular artist or genre. Again, not to rip anyone off, but for artistic purposes: typically I wanted to evoke something from that era, as in the case of a song called "1973", where I was telling a story of something that had happened to me in the fading days of the glam-rock era, or to tip my hat and pay some homage, as with what some deemed my excessive Smiths-worship in the later Potatomen era.

Speaking of the Potatomen, I just remembered a time when I was working on a new song while driving up north to Arcata to meet Green Day, and when I got there, I quite excitedly said, "Hey, guys, listen to this riff I made up." Within about 20 seconds, Mike said, "Dude, that's 'Freebird'."

And it was, if you only looked at the chords from the first couple lines. The thing was, I barely knew the song "Freebird" (I mean, sure, I'd heard it, but I was more familiar with wiseasses shouting out requests for it at concerts than with actually listening to it), didn't know how the chords went (at least not until Mike pointed this out), and had absolutely no intention of copying it for my song, which in any event was a totally different type of song ("The Loneliest Boy In The World", which only real Potatomen connoisseurs will recognize, since it was never released on a record).

So was I guilty of ripping off "Freebird"? Should I have changed something about the chords or the arrangement? No, of course not, and we played the song for the next several years without a single person apart from Mike ever commenting on the similarity. Which should prove at least two things: as long as you're working in the field of three or four-chord pop songs, there's going to be a certain amount of duplication (and triplication and quadruplication), and that you shouldn't try to slip any purloined melodies or riffs past Mike from Green Day.

08 May 2009

21st Century Breakdown

The first time I ever saw Green Day (then called Sweet Children), somewhere around September or October of 1988, I thought to myself, "These guys could be the next Beatles."

Of course I'm dating myself by saying that; even in 1988 the Beatles were awfully old news, and most teenage punk rock bands (Billie Joe and Mike were 16 at the time) wouldn't have taken kindly to being compared in any way to the music their parents or grandparents had listened to.

But the fact that early Green Day not only had a more than passing resemblance to the early Fab Four, but also wouldn't at all have minded hearing that comparison made, was one of the things that set them apart from (and head and shoulders above) their contemporaries. Even though their subject matter on the early albums seldom ventured far afield from perennial favorites like girls and teenage boredom, you knew within minutes of meeting them that this was a band that wasn't half-assing it. Their songs might have been light-hearted, even a little silly at times, but they were dead serious about them in the ways that mattered: craftsmanship, artistry, respect for themselves and their audiences. And while every other teenager in America at one time or another harbors dreams of being some kind of pop star, you knew that it wasn't some sort of phase or rite of passage for these guys. They were down for life. Billie described the feeling of those early days in a 2001 interview:

There's a side of you that feels you're kind of dying or something, and you're scared of that, but then there's the question of what's going to happen with this music, this work we're gonna do? Is it only going to be cool right now to the punk rock scene, or uncool to the punk rock scene at the time, depending who you talk to? Or is it just going to be forgotten, and another group of guys is going to come along and take our place? You really start to think about your potential as a musician and an artist and as a human being, for that matter. You don't want it to be all for nothing, and I think that's one thing that was different with us than with other bands, that we lived for our music a lot more than other bands did. Other bands seemed more set on things like going to school and playing music on the side, or having a job and playing music on the side, where we wanted to fully live and breathe our music...
Fair enough, but most bands give at least lip service to an idea like that; most bands don't, on the other hand, ascend from humble origins to become the biggest band in the world, something which Green Day have now undeniably accomplished. As one of their Gilman Street compatriots put it, "Man, no premonition could have seen this."

And if there were any doubts that Green Day were now the biggest and most important band on the planet - I've been saying it for years, but there were those who stubbornly insisted on holding contrary views - the release of their latest album, 21st Century Breakdown, will have swept them away. Very few bands manage to maintain much of an edge past their second or third record; eight albums (not counting compilations and B-side collections) and 21 years into their career, and Green Day are still getting stronger, more creative, and, well, more vital.

This is an epoch-defining record, the kind you could be forgiven for thinking they didn't make anymore. Despite my early prognostications about Green Day, by the turn of the century I'd pretty much given up on the idea that there'd ever be another Beatles or band of similar importance. It wasn't just that pretenders to the throne - U2? Oasis?? - were so laughably inadequate, it was, more importantly, that there was no longer a monolithic culture centered around guitar rock. For kids growing up in my era, it was impossible to escape the influence of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc.; children of the 90s and 00s could and often did locate their experience in hip hop or dance pop and dismiss rock and roll as something exclusively for the oldsters.

I don't think that Green Day are going to single-handedly restore guitar rock to the position of pre-eminence it once enjoyed, but at the very least, they've ensured that neither is it going to fade away into the irrelevance gleefully predicted by some commentators. Whatever else you might think of it, 21st Century Breakdown is not just a collection of catchy tunes with some stunningly artistic interludes; it's a very important document of our times and our culture, one to which people will still be referring to tens and hundreds of years from now. It's not just going to provide the soundtrack for the summer and autumn of 2009, it's going to color how people perceive and remember this time in history. And I'm not just talking about weedy teenagers or nostalgic 20-somethings; I wouldn't be at all surprised at some point to hear President Obama bust out with a quote or reference from this album.

I say all this while freely admitting that I'm not normally a classic rock kind of guy while this album is unmistakably classic rock in the conventional as well as the literal sense. People are falling all over themselves to point out the influences and in some cases accuse Green Day of outright theft of riffs and sounds from the 60s, 70s and 80s, but as is usually the case with genius, nobody can point to what or where exactly the band has supposedly been stealing from. "It sounds like, you know, that song by Queen, or Pink Floyd, or the Beatles, you know which one I mean," but are never able to get much more precise than that. Personally, I heard one bit that put me in mind of Neil Young's "Heart Of Gold" and another where I was almost certain Billie Joe was going to bust out with "All The Young Dudes," but for the most part it's impossible to point out just where you've heard that song before, because however familiar it may sound, you haven't.

That's part of what being a classical - as opposed to a classic - rock band is about. This is music for the ages. People who bemoan the distance Green Day have traveled from their East Bay pop punk roots are missing the point: all the songs about girls are still out there, and will be as thrilling and enjoyable to listen to as they always were, but this is a band who have grown up without growing old, who positively inspire me with their ability to transcend all the depressing and corrupting influences of pop culture in general and the music business in particular to produce far and away the best work of their career.


In all my griping about hipster snobs yesterday, I might have lost sight of the fact that ultimately the failure to sell a book proposal has to fall on the guy who wrote it, namely me. Yes, maybe it's not right or fair that a band like Operation Ivy isn't as widely known or appreciated as they should be, but ultimately it's not up to people to accept that simply because I say so. If I want recognition for a band, an idea, a political philosophy, even for a laundry detergent, I have to make the case. Apparently when it comes to this Operation Ivy proposal, I didn't do it well enough, and for that, well, there's no one else to blame but me.

Damn it.

07 May 2009


I haven't mentioned it here before because I didn't want to jinx anything, but last year I put in a proposal to do a book for the 33 1/3 series. My subject was to be Operation Ivy's Energy, and my proposal made it to the last stage of the selection process before finally getting a thumbs down (they started out with some 650 proposals, of which 12 to 15 will ultimately be published).

Naturally I'm disappointed, not just for myself (I think I would have done a very good job on it, and could have used the work), but also for the band, who deserve to have their story told, and even, oddly enough, for the publisher, who I think would have been pleasantly surprised at how many copies this book would sell.

Because of current economic conditions, I think they were picking titles with a bit more of an eye on potential sales figures than they might normally, and I suspect this was at least part of the reason Operation Ivy didn't make the cut. To those of us familiar with the band, this might seem bizarre: having sold, almost purely by word of mouth, around a million copies of their album (and done it all posthumously, i.e., after the band broke up in May 1989, it's obvious that there'd be a market for anything written about them. Especially when you consider that there's never been one, and that the band's members have been notoriously close-mouthed when it comes to talking to journalists about their history.

But in the course of reading the 33 1/3 message board comments as the various proposals worked their way through the selection process, it gradually sank in that however massive Op Ivy were in our East Bay/pop-punk scene, they were very nearly off the radar for many indie music fans, and that those who were aware of them often dismissed them with characteristic hipster snobbery for being too "popular" or for having an insufficient number of minor or diminished chords in their songs.

It took me back to the mid to late 80s, around the time when Lookout Records and Operation Ivy were both getting started, and the denizens of what was then an extremely insular punk and indie scene turned their noses up at us because, well, because a) they'd never heard of us; b) we weren't by any stretch of the conventional imagination "cool"; and c) we were liked by all those annoying young teenagers.

I'll admit it was childish of me, but seeing our scene and our label completely eclipse the 1980s naysayers was one of the more satisfying aspects of the runaway success we enjoyed in the 1990s. Not that the snarky comments from 20-somethings desperate to distance themselves from the music listened to by their younger siblings (or themselves in the not so remote past) ever died down, as illustrated by the comments posted in response to Brooklyn Vegan's announcement of an upcoming Green Day show. Some of them were at least witty ("Excellent news, now to restart my Myspace account after years of inactivity"), but others were just sad, like, "1995 called and said NOBODY CARES ABOUT POP PUNK ANYMORE."

Sad because of the ignorance (Green Day's ability to fill Giants Stadium or Madison Square Garden must indicate that somebody is at least mildly interested in pop punk, though obviously not the sort of people who count in this little hipster's world), but even sadder, I think, because this kid (I'd bet dollars to donuts that he - almost certainly a "he" - was an enthralled little teenybopper in the Dookie) is already so stupidly old.

Far be it from me to suggest that someone should go on listening to the same music throughout their lives. I certainly don't listen to some of the hippie music I thought was so brilliant back in the 60s. But Green Day didn't stop being a brilliant band because you got 10 or 15 years older and started reading Pitchfork, and you didn't get any cleverer by disdainfully dismissing any form of music that has more than a couple hundred painfully pretentious fans.

Before I say anything else, I should make it clear that I'm not by any means accusing the publishers who chose not to accept the Op Ivy book of this sort of hipsterish know-nothingism; they treated me with complete respect and professionalism, and, as I say, the proposal did make it to the final round. No, I'm talking exclusively about the sort of indie snobs who sneered all along at the idea that Operation Ivy even deserved a book, apparently on the grounds that they were simultaneously too "mainstream" and "obscure."

I'm not sure where to go from here. It's already been suggested to me that I publish the book elsewhere, but I would really prefer to see it as part of the 33 1/3 series. However, that might entail waiting a couple years or more for the next round of selections. In the meantime, I've got a couple other projects in mind, one non-fiction and one fiction, which, in hindsight, I should have been working on these past six months while waiting for an answer on the Op Ivy book. But any excuse for procrastination, right?

In the long run, I'm sure something better will come up; I'm just too busy being disappointed right now to see it. I think I'll give it a day or two to sink in and then get started in earnest on Plans B and/or C.

More London and Paris

What else happened in Paris? Lots of stuff, or maybe nothing. All I seem to remember at the moment was a fair bit of eating French food, which they seem to serve in quite a few of the restaurants, though not nearly as many as you'd imagine.

Oh! I went to, of all places, the Louvre. Yes, I know this is a fairly common tourist destination, and indeed a large number of fairly common tourists were already there when I arrived. But it was my first time in the old joint since the 1980s, as I generally avoid such places, especially when there's an admission charge involved.

It's not that I'm against museums; in fact, I love them, at least in principle, and in practice as well, when, as in Britain, they're free to enter and you can just stroll in randomly when you happen to be passing by and take in a few pictures or statues or simply get a coffee in surroundings more salubrious than your local Starbucks.

But when you have to pay a hefty fee, you're inclined to want to take in the whole museum in an afternoon (in the case of the Louvre, a reasonably thorough tour would probably require a couple weeks), which, as a friend pointed out, is like gorging yourself on wedding cake. There's only so much culture a guy can take in one sitting - or standing - and by the time I'd been there three hours, my eyes had either glazed over completely or rolled upward in their sockets, because I just wasn't seeing it or feeling it any longer.

I did get into one rumination piqued by the ancient (or apparently so) stone floor tiles in one section of the museum. They'd obviously been walked on quite a bit, to the point where there'd been some significant wear and tear on them, and that prompted me to wonder how many sets of feet over how many centuries would be required to reduce these stone tiles to a dusty oblivion. And if, at some point, people should be stopped from walking on them in order to preserve some portion of their original appearance for posterity.

That in turn set me off on another train of thought about the value of culture per se. What if, for example, an invading army threatened to destroy a museum like the Louvre? Should armies be deployed to protect it, even though it has no strategic military value? How many human lives could you justify losing in order to protect an ultimately ephemeral (even if we're talking about millennia, ultimately all the earth's museums will be reduced to rubble by nature and time) repository of culture? I was tempted to say quite a few, until I realized I was only referring to generic lives of unseen and unknown people, not those of people I know personally, or, for that matter, my own.

Well, so much for art. My last day in Paris, May 1, was a holiday, marked by a huge protest march culminating at the Hotel de Ville, where it was met by the largest riot squad deployment I have ever seen in any time or country. Criminals all over the rest of the capital could have had a field day if they'd been prepared. The following morning I set off for London, arriving just in time to follow our beloved Fulham over to neighboring Stamford Bridge, where they were rather systematically demolished by an awe-inspiring Chelsea team. With several of our players out injured, and almost no ready-for-prime-time substitutes on the bench, our best hope was that Chelsea, in between legs of a bruising Champions League battle with Barcelona, would rest some of their top players and field an average-strength team.

It was not to be; Chelsea, who we've had some luck against in the past, and who are still dreaming - dreaming of being the operative word - of catching up to league-leading Man United - brought out the same players they'd put out for a Cup final, and one of them, Nicolas Anelka, put the first ball into the Fulham net with only 56 seconds on the clock. Pessimists - another word for "Fulham supporters" - would have given up then and there, as visiting teams have a notoriously difficult time scoring against Chelsea on their home ground, but before ten minutes Erik Nevland had put Fulham level, and hopes rose anew.

But though the lads fought valiantly, there was no repelling the Chelsea onslaught, and, once the scorer Nevland had been hauled off injured, hope pretty much vanished. The Fulham predicament was best illustrated when Chelsea brought on two substitutes who, as my seatmate Dave pointed out, "cost more than the entire Fulham starting team."

We had enjoyed our week-long stay in 7th place, but the defeat knocked us back down to 9th, still a respectable finish for Fulham, and anyway, it was time for Dave and I to be off to Camden to see the Classics Of Love, the new band featuring Operation Ivy singer Jesse Michaels. It was inspiring to see Jesse up on stage again, and looking as though he were thoroughly enjoying it. The crowd was enthusiastic all the way through, but absolute mayhem ensued when the band broke into an Operation Ivy cover ("The Crowd," probably my - and apparently a lot of other people's - favorite Op Ivy song ever).

Post-show schmoozing ensued, featuring the likes of Sebby Zatopek and Tahoe Jeff, Germany-based denizen of the famous PPMB, over for his first visit ever to London. Sunday I mostly stayed in, and on Monday, Green Day, who were over to do some recording and some publicity for their upcoming new album, invited me out to dinner with them. We had a great old time at the restaurant and back at the hotel, where we were joined by Jesse Michaels after his West London (Kingston, actually) gig. It was Mike's birthday, and Tre's girlfriend's birthday as well, prompting many musings and recollections about "the old days" (it's amazing what we choose to remember, and perhaps even more amazing what we choose to forget). The party looked as though it might carry on well into the morning, but with an early flight to New York to catch, I had no choice but to, after a bit of posing for pictures and hugs all around, disappear into the misty London night.

06 May 2009

Home Again

Sitting here in Brooklyn practicing my guitar riffs for the SUCIDIE concert coming up in, oh, only about six or seven weeks from now. For those of you not familiar with their work, SUCIDIE employ very complex musical structures, and learning their songs has proved quite demanding. Demanding enough, in fact, that I've decided I have to take a break from this arduous work and fill you in on recent events, including my semi-whirlwind trip to London and Paris. Yes, a repeat, albeit with slightly better weather, of last autumn's adventure, and this time containing 50% more football, French stuff, and consorting with rock royalty.

First things first: I arrived in London in time for a visit to Craven Cottage where I witnessed Fulham, by dint of a hard-fought but not especially suspenseful victory over Stoke City, ascend to the vertiginous and unprecedented heights of 7th place in the Premiership. Champions League, here we come! Well, not quite, but the UEFA Cup remains a slight possibility.

The night before I'd been out till 3 am - actually later, now that I think about it, once you count the Night Bus ride from the West End out to Bayswater, where I was staying. It had started out as simply a night of dancing but turned rather unexpectedly into, well, I guess, a date, something with which I've had no familiarity whatsoever for lo, these many years. I felt like a teenager again - okay, maybe a twenty-something, that being the prevailing demographic of the club we were at - and hearing Lady Gaga on a mega-club-style sound system removed any doubts I might have had about her awesomeness. The new Madonna, people have been saying about her, and apparently Madonna herself has heard the buzz, because she turned up at Gaga's New York show last week to see for herself what the fuss was about. She looked slightly grim and discomfited, witnesses report.

It's true that my interest in Lady Gaga was initially stimulated by little more than the fact that so many otherwise reasonable people seemed to hate her - any performer capable of alienating large swathes of the population is off to a good start, especially if the irked ones come disproportionately from the bien-pensant classes among whom I so often find myself. But after seeing her videos a few times and dancing to her songs a few more, not to mention reading Sasha Frere-Jones's mini-profile in the New Yorker - the first time I have ever agreed with Frere-Jones about anything, I've become convinced the woman is a genius. Or at least a lot smarter than me, anyway. I'm also appreciative of how her wigs grow more brazenly opulent and expensive with each successive video, surely as reliable an indicator as any of her rapid ascent up the ladder of artistic and commercial success.

Then it was off to Paris. Only hours after arriving, I attended a dinner party where I knew almost no one, but where nearly everyone spoke English (increasingly true all over Paris, which is why I despair of ever improving my French beyond the rudimentary level where it's been for the past 30 years). I had a nice time chatting to various Canadians, Americans, Colombians and the like, all of whom seemed to have lived in all the same places where I've tended to knock about, basically San Francisco/Los Angeles, New York, London. I mean seriously, we'd mostly lived not just in the same neighborhoods, but often on the same streets. Ever feel like you're living in a cliché? Or are one?

Then at some point I got introduced to a pleasant, similarly pedigreed woman in her 40s or 50s who, almost before we'd exchanged pleasantries like our names asked whether I was married or in a relationship. When I said that I was neither, she beamed. "Excellent! I told our host to introduce me to single men!" she said, and then set about planning our week together in Paris. I swear I gave her no encouragement whatsoever, and in fact any of you who know me in real life or tried to hit me up for a record deal will be aware of just how noncommittal I can be. But I got the impression that my opinions and/or feelings were not the issue here, as she adroitly steered me away from the crowd and into a back corner of the garden.

The maddening thing - apart from losing the opportunity to talk to any of the other interesting people there - was that while I didn't want to marry her or go canoodling down some romantic Parisian backstreet in the manner she apparently envisioned, I found her company interesting and was even able to muster some sympathy for her recent breakup with old Whatshisface, who apparently had been no fun at all and never once took her out dancing in the five years they'd been together.

But while I knew that was as far as this relationship was going, my opinion seemed of little import in the matter, and I finally took the coward's way out. In fact, I'm almost - I say almost, because longtime readers will be aware that I'll say practically anything here and that discretion and decorum are not always my strong suits - ashamed to recount how I dealt with the situation: when word went out that dessert was being served in the kitchen and she made a beeline for it (see, there are some advantages to my no-sweets diet plan), I simply slipped away into the night.

Yes, I know, disgraceful behavior. I didn't even say goodbye or thanks to the host or to any of the other people I'd met, and felt about as mature as a 12 year old trying to figure out how to deal with overly aggressive girls at his first school dance, but when I made it out the gate and onto the street without being spotted, what a wave of relief washed over me. Only downside: well, there were two, actually. One was that I genuinely did feel bad about my disappearance might have left her feeling; I have been ditched myself on a few occasions, so I have some idea of what it's like. The other was that with Paris - the part that matters, anyway - being ultimately such a small town, I had to keep my eyes peeled constantly for the next six days lest I run into her on the streets and have to come up on the spot with a plausible explanation for my vanishing act. Oh yes, I forgot to mention she was rich, too, so I may have done incalculable damage to my hopes of starting a new career as an international gigolo.