Monday, July 13, 2009

Will the Ukulele save us

I was 
listening to the radio this afternoon, and this quote came up 
"art is a hammer to beat the world, not a mirror to reflect it" 
I looked it up, and it's credited to  either Vladimir Majakovsky (the esperantist and assassinated poet) or Nikolai Vladimirovich Nekrasov (the suicidal Russian Futurist) depending who you trust (trust no one). 

The discussion was on the emergence of the avant guard
 artists in Europe  (late 19th early 20th centuries) who sought to challenge the democratization of culture made possible through the mechanism of the mass market. This has become a timely issue once again due to the growing ubiquity of the web. We worship technology.  Each day we try a new widget, get an upgrade on our x or our y and z.  It helps us run faster, smarter if we are already smart, or make it possible to live our science fiction lives in a more science fiction way. CGI  makes for new forms of entertainment.  Internet browsers make restaurant choices for us as we drive to dinner.  And if we look back, this utilization of technology has always been an engine for radical change. For example, the Impressionists sprang from the spread of photography, changing the economic model of portraiture.  Or that Art Nouveau arose as increased industrialization making it possible to create less expensive object of art, and  a burgeoning middle class able to afford them.  The Gatling gun started the
 road away from mounted calvary and frontal wave assaults .

I always looked on these phenomena in a positive light (perhaps not the Gatling gun),  "Oh, now we can do this instead", not "this repressive homogenization of the vitality of human culture".

I am obviously a bit slow,  After all, for Majakovsky and Nekrasov the industrial revolution and mercantile imperialism  had been in full swing for over a century, How could they have failed to view the seeds of cultural homogeny as a threat.  Our historical counterparts were no more slouches, and perhaps less so, than our current crop of radical thinkers.  The Luddites may have arose from concern with the loss of their livelihoods.  Yet there were far reaching negative effect from the changes in their industries.  In 1812 the average person had real need of  more affordable rugs, trousers, and coats.   Unfortunately we long ago passed the point w
here we can produce all that everyone needs at a price everyone can afford, and have moved on to a world almost solely about possessions and economic relations.

Majakovsky and Nekrasov are active at what I consider the tipping point, In my groovy 21st century mindset, I always thought the emergence of phonographs, nickelodeons , and radio to be exciting.  The ability to transport cultural artifacts made for many lively new mixes.  Jazz found it's way around the world. Tango swept the globe, and on and on.  I had failed to see that, much like my own issues with the army of one ubiquity of culture generating and distributing technology, that the flood of modernity might be seen askance by those who wished to not be buried under an avalanche of bakelite and steel. 

So here we are in 2009.  We are nearing a possible artistic endgame of one big culture controlled by whoever owns the filter (buy your ad words here, now with extra zilch), there is less and less to be excited about, and more and more reason to pull at the bit.  One can wish to turn back the clock, but how many clicks. Prior to Democracy Now podcasts.  Before Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy.  Earlier than mass produced penicillin.  I think not   We can't go back, so we have to move forward wisely and with a great more vigor than we used  to get on the road we want to get off.  Shorter showers, and composting won't get us there.  The basic precepts we live by need to shift.   The lie is that we all need to continue to consume at faster and greater rates or the world will end.  Maybe the house of cards of centralize corporatism will end, but life will go on, just with less stuff.  We don't need a 762 Billion dollar a year US military, to defend the strategic interests of the riches 500 people on the planet. Nor do we need $150 concer

t tickets, or 8 dollar blouses. The quality of either is questionable.

But, let us get back to the origination of this post, as it got me thinking about what does re
flect our current culture, and how little there is that might smash through societies apathy.

One could say that reality TV, like Real Housewives of New Jersey or American Idol are more than metaphoric mirrors.  I am not so sure, as i have come to distrust my thinking on mass culture, due to my total distain and snobbishness (yet I can't look away from the 100 million car pile up).  

The hammer is also an oddity.  I think it's the Ukulele. A very gentle hammer indeed, but

look at how subversive it is.  It is small, and can be carried everywhere on foot.  It is intimate, meant for small gatherings (perhaps your living room), unlike most of our VERY LOUD AND OBVIOUS corporate culture that needs REALLY BIG SOUND SYSTEMS in GIANT STADIUMS.  It makes a gentle sound, unlike the aggressive aggro of most common fare.  It is amazingly simple (four strings) in an increasingly complicated world. It's made of wood (that alone is a dangerous idea), so can be made with fairly primitive tools.  

Now everyone doesn't need to take up the Uke.  That would just lead to flagship Uke stores on Union Square, and KTELL Uke hits sold on late night TV.  A Uke in every hand, a chicken in every pot, not a  world for vegetarians or Bobos.

 What we do need is that which enliven us, that which brings us together in celebration.  With or without Ukes, REALLY BIG SOUND SYSTEMS, or consideration if you are a mirror or a hammer (I am smashing, I spent a lot of time smashed). Thats why I will be spending this Saturday night at Cafe International.  Go Van Gogh (no Ukes), whether mirror or a hammer, are people sharing their love and efforts with who ever cares to know. I for one can never get enough of such a kind offer. So there I will be, to dance and frolic.  I will have my life energies recharged.  I will relate to my existing friends, who I have real, not virtual connections with. And I will have the opportunity to meet new people, and forge new relationships in an environment that is neither alienating nor hostile. 



Thursday, July 9, 2009

Purists are really annoying


As I am always willing to put my money where my mouth is, I am sharing with you some of our recent work. In this case it is a tune written in the late 19th century by my great grand father Israel Isaac Shamfrof. I have taken a great deal of liberty with the tune, adding whole sections, and the band has gone off the dub end as well. While there were no recordings made by old Izzy Isaac, there is sheet music which we used to infer his intent. For us, this was a point of departure. Looking at this Klezmer tune as part of my folk tradition, I did what any good folk artist does, and used the tune as a vehicle to move through the musical world we inhabit. That world encompasses Lee Scratch Perry, Tiny Tim, John Coltrane, The Thrills, and legions more.

Within Go Van Gogh we have had disagreements about this process. The fact that I almost always write a new section for the songs we cover is contentious. Everyone is not always down with how I take the song somewhere that the original composer would never have considered. I have different knowledge in my head than they did. As most of them are long dead, I doubt they mind. However one still must contend with the living.
So if anyone is interested, take a listen.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Professional Gear, No talent.

I was watching On The Rhumba River which could be considered a Congolese Buena Vista Social Club.  Papa Wendo (Antoine Kolosoy), a Singer and band leader now deceased, but then in his late 70's, is asked to put the band back together.  Not in any Blues Brother way (as this is real life) but to earn some cash. It's 2004 Kinshasa, the war and the final Mobutu years having taken their toll.
Wendo sets about finding as many of the old group as possible while being trailed by a French film crew.  In themselves, these slice of life scenes would make the film worth seeing, but the music, what little we get, is amazing. Filmed over the course of a few rehearsals, we are let into a world populated by his aging crew of players and dancers. Everyone already knows the material, so songs seem to emerge from the either, set off by a rhythm, or a snatch of melody.  The dancers, who's performance role is never clarified, glide beautifully around the rehearsal room, which made Go Van Gogh rehearsals seem so utilitarian and dull in comparison (who are a lively crew).
There were many stand out scenes, but one specific moment inspired this post.  I have included it here. 
This is the first rehearsal shown. The band is just fooling around. They glide into a tune, the dancers and various people are sitting  around chatting, and we are treated to the live take of what is happening in the room.  They are sounding great. They are coaxing beautiful tones out of their instruments,  but please note the instruments themselves. The saxophones are in need of re-corking, mouth pieces held in place with tape.  In later scenes you see the guitar is going through a tiny amp, and at the end of this cut, check out the hand percussionist.  He is playing on an old box missing half it's top.  Yet his rhythm and tone are spot on.
These old cats are making world class music in a concrete and tin rehearsal room, with gear that they have nursed through the privation of war and kleptocratic poverty.  They are well past the bloom of the rose, have not been a functioning group for quite some time, yet they hit the sweet spot.
Let us now venture back to the bay area.  Here one often sees posts
for musicians claiming to have, or demanding you have "PRO GEAR".  It's an absolute must for the aspiring metal head, or hard ROCKIN dude and dudette.  I did a simple search for this illusive "pro gear" in the current CL, and  the first one I came across was posted by a fellow who says "I smoke weed when I play. I’m psychedelic friendly, but not opiate or amphetamine friendly".  Following the link, we discover  his choice of drugs has not enhanced his first tune, which goes on and on, sounds like fuzzy shit, and held my interest for less than a millisecond.   He does include pretty pictures of his instruments.  Unfortunately lacking a clue, or much in the way of musicality, they are wasted on his 29 year old conception of use.  Perhaps when he is in his 70's he may be able to play a balsa-wood box to as great effect as our Congolese friend.  One can hope.
So the point is obvious.  We have become a society all about stuff, and the importance that brings to the process, rather than being all about intrinsic value and the quality of the craft. All about the show, and  not about the substance. 
In the two cases before us, the music says it all. One could say "a great mic makes a better recording".  But in whose hands.  Mr. "pro gear" has a current studio recording. He had the time to go back endlessly to make each note perfect.  Even if you love his music (which I did not), the actual sound quality could not hold a candle to the live recording  made in a cement and corrugated tin room back in 2004 Kinshasa. In fairness, not all the "pro gear" posts were made by people lacking skill (many were, not all)
We have become degraded by the consumerist culture. By the worship of bigger better, fast and faster.  Appearance has taken precedence, all form over function.  Part and parcel in the crisis capitalism we have bought into.
I for one, will endeavor to do more with what I have. My skills and WHATEVER falls to hand. It's the people and what they create that count.  Don't buy the lie.

Thats all for now.



Saturday, June 27, 2009

Revisiting the death of regionalism ( t)

OK maybe I am a Luddite after all.  While flush toilets, and central heating are wonderful, there are some things 19th century I will be sad to never know. Specifically I am on about the lack of local flavor due to the  ever consolidating forces leading to mono culture.

Just to annoy myself, I will dredge up a few boring well known ideas, to enable the getting on with it of todays issue.

1. 99% of all people have contact with some form of neighbors.  Thus no culture exists in a vacuum, as even that 1% will eventually meet someone in the 6 degrees of separation world. 

2, Cultures have been in constant flux for thousands of years.  Sometimes due to political factors, or more likely from the battle between the traditional/digestible, and the weird thing that just came over from next door.

3. Starting well before Alexander, kicked ahead by the Islamic conquest, and them amped up by European imperialism  this process has been gaining speed for thousands of years.  The world shrinks, our neighbors grow more diverse, and the politics of culture become more of an issue as we are subjugating, or fighting off subjugation.

 4. In the early 20th century with the new technologies of waxed cylinders, radio, and Motion Pictures,  "CULTURE" has been portable to the masses to greater effect. Subsequent technologic developments has increased this potential cultural interaction exponentially.

On to the bone I am currently gnawing.

In the post cold war period, the consolidation of all distribution of culture into fewer hands has almost strangled the spread of ideas to the masses, even while the availability of all cultural ideas has become possible to every individual.

Thus the war between the new and the old has taken on a more sinister tone. With the new being introduced from the outside, often simultaneously worldwide, instead of popping out of the imagination of an initiate, or idiosyncratically arrive from down river as an artifact selectively included in the baggage (intellectual or otherwise) of some stranger. The old jettisoned in a race for the perceived benefits of modernity.

This has brought us a wealth of dance floor favorites, and my personal tastes have always been more about the clash of cultures, than the purity of any given milieu.  Yet n
ow I worry that we will soon have no source material to work from at all.  The constant updating and further iterations through the perpetual influx of the same data globally will mean the stew in the pot in Cameroon will have all the same ingredients as the stew in the pot in Boston. Essentially making all our music,literature, film, etc one more BIG MAC experience.

On the flip side of this argument, as my friend Connie from Go Van Gogh expounds, this access to all things, both the latest, as well as all material ever recorded in any form, means that we each have the opportunity to use all source material in our individually odd way.  That creativity is not dependent on milieu, and comes from a much deeper place.  She claims that some artists will always be able to step outside the given box, and bring forth something new and valid.  No doubt thinking of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and "Interstellar Space".

I do not agree. Yes some people will pull from this deeper place.  But a writer will write using a language.  A language will have an underpinning of basic concepts about the world.  Even if you throw grammatical rules out the window.  Even if you make up new words for your new concepts, your writing utilizes some portion of the existing set of ideas, and your innovations still have a connection to all the knowledge you acquired related to that language and the underlying concepts it grew from.

Similarly, Coltrane, while transcending the bop and modal mediums, was directly influenced by contemporaries laboring in similar territory.  That he could take the ball and run so far ahead is a testament to his own brilliance and craft, but not a sign that he made the whole thing himself, unconnected to that which shaped him.

I hear great work every day.  Someone somewhere is always on the ball.  We are an endlessly creative species.  Some of the credit is due to technology.  Clem from Watchaclan throws some tracks together with the band.  He pops them onto his myspace page.  If I am linked, I get a notice the next time I login.  If I don't know Watchaclan, maybe I hear their tune Balkan Qoulou
on Eastblok Records Balkan Beats #3 which I happened upon somewhere else on the web.  So here is a tune I totally dig.  It's an old Algerian Berber song Qoulou L Ch'hilet LaĆ¢yani (it plays as the second song on the preceding link),  but redone as a Balkan brass tune as played by this very eclectic band from Marseilles.  It is a blessing to live in a time where so much cultural fecundity is possible.  

But I have to consider what happens next.  

What happens when the last Berber village gives up it's last song for repackaging. What happens when the last un-mined 60's era funk drum part is finally utilized as some pop songs break beat.  What happens, when hollywood has remade their last old sit com.  If all the new sitcoms were based on material from the old sitcoms, and all the new berber songs are based on Casio beats, or Michael Jackson melodies, how fast does the feed back loop descend into one bland piece of shit noise.

Thats all for now.



Wednesday, June 17, 2009

That dangerous step down the road to socialism

Well, there we were last night at a dance preview.  A friend of a friend, choreographer Todd Courage   lacked financial backing, but with a lot of friends, put on a preview of the work he is set to put up at the JCC later this year.  Needing cash to compleat the thing (costumes, lighting tech, publicity, and what not), he threw a preview party, and showed portions of the work in progress, made sure everyone had plenty of wine and sugar to get the checkbbooks lossened up, and hustle hustle hustled. 
I had never been to such a thing, but thought it a brilliant move on Todd's part.  Plenty of people in this town who still have the green, and if they can feel connected to what's going on, all the better.  They are just patrons, so they give support, but have no say in the shape the work takes.

Todd, like myself, has many years put in as a creative force, so his gathering really got me thinking about what it means to be an aging artist in this world. One who has not achieved a lucrative full time career in their chosen field.  The young are solidly  connected with a profusion of peers all hooked together in the rituals of mating.  Not yet firmly established, they are all too willing to dive in, in order to gain a reputation, or to build their portfolio. For the most talented, or the most aggressive, support networks coalesce into professional networks. Few continue their work into mid adulthood who are either late bloomers, or who are too far out front of what is common in the marketplace.

For the performing artist, especially for those in the director role, the choice of continuing to undertake ensemble projects requires either riches or madness. Not only must one come up with the space to create and the venue for performance. but a troop of musicians, actors, or dancers (for a musical, all three) are either expensive to hire, or a monster to organize (often both).  Our new friend Todd needs costumes for his troop, being a choreographer, not a clothing designer, he then needs to collaborate with someone to realize his sartorial vision, and while materials can break the bank by themselves, serious design talent costs.  The same is true of having a score written, lighting designed.... and the list can get very long.

Even in the microcosm of Go Van Gogh  there are many moving parts.  In a "Group" as opposed to a "Project", one can often find the skills within the team. Go Van Gogh creates all its own promotional material, does its own graphics and web design.  But who is to say that the group would not fare better in the marketplace if all these tasks we
re handed over to a full time pro.  Some one who can devote far more amassed skill than any part timer in that role. 

Those who have made that difficult step into full time professionals of their creative crafts, must marshal their time in financially lucrative ways.  While thats great for their craft, it  may in some cases, be less wonderful for their art.  A work for hire, after all is not a true collaboration.  It is an effort fully subjugated to the requirements of capital.  

This opens the door for those who are not so encumbered to jump ahead creatively, and snatch opportunities of a different sort.  I personally know dozens of very skilled and creative people who are laboring at jobs that either don't fly high enough, or have little to do with their aspirations.  They have spent years acquiring skills and experience, and now when asked for their time, wish to be payed at the same rate as full time professionals in that line.

Who can blame them.   

I can.  Through ego, or the wish not to be seen as a lesser light, they are throwing opportunity on the scrap heap. It is a marketplace after all.  To be taken seriously you must show your track record.  Rehearsing your band for 10 years may make for a tight set, but the club needs to know how many drinks they will sell.   This is demonstrated by how many drinks you sold at the last place.  The same is true in every discipline.  If you are a fine graphic artist, who has published your work.  What campaigns have you created as a marketer.  What copy have you published as a journalist.

You see how it is.  By insisting that the world bend to our ideas of the marketplace, we cut ourselves off from synergistic opportunities.  The very work that could gets you out into the publics eye.  The very affirmation that the marketplace demands.

So I call on my fellow creatives to create together.  Not selflessly, not as charity, not without objective. Look around you.  Who in your network, your community, is doing great but under appreciated work.  Who could benefit from what you do, but can't afford to pay your asking price.  Is there a possible trade off of visibility, or even the exchange of services.  The musician who writes a piece for a dance troop may end up with a paid commission down the line.  A visual artist who designs and paints a set for a play might have their other work displayed for sale in the theatre lobby.  The possibilities are huge.  And if you must be paid for your time, consider working on a sliding scale for projects that might take flight, or that allows you to more fully realize the work you prefer to do.

Or you can keep trying to claw your way in to the "dog eat dog" world that passes for art, intellectual property, and commerce.  Personally I would rather inhabit a scene where the operating principle is "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their need".

Thats all for now.




Thursday, June 11, 2009

But that means your giving it away for free!!!!

I love the internet.  Never has something so trivial come to mean so much to so many people.  When I tell people I don't believe in the internet, it's like I was telling Tomas de Torquemada that Jesus was just my ancestral cousin who spent too much time in the desert.  And the web is considered akin to Santa.  Presents appear, but I am telling you "no guy in a red suite is involved".  Everyone is bamboozled, holding the false belief that all commerce and cultural life will benefit from everyone spending large chunks of their day sitting alone staring at a screen while life goes on without them.

Yet the web is hysterically funny, and bizarre flotsam of ages past washes up on the cyber shore to amuse and consternate. There are a number of lessons about technology in this story, so I will meander a bit in hopes of sparing some of you a lifetime of painful memories and lasting regrets.  

Long long ago, in a far away land that used to be called San Francisco (bearing little resemblance to the San Francisco post double bubble) there was a band called Comic Book Opera.  This band was a crazy power trio of Sax Bass and Drums, the pre Go Van Gogh project by the Walkershaws.   This spunky little band played regularly in all the likely, and unlikely places, and being made up of young people, was always looking for the main chance.  Back in the 80's, pre internet, for a band that usually entailed some sort of record 
deal.  CBO had a lot of get up and go, and not the most radio friendly sound (as they predated the Jazz and World music revivals). Check out their tune Dragon, and then compare it to The Top Hits of 1987  ,the year the band decided to forge ahead and record an Album on their own.  
Their pal Eric Cope had a small label Insight Records which put out interesting music. Eric was seriously into DIY punk enterprise.  He agreed to help get the record out, as long as it only cost him time and information, so the band(and their financial backer Bobo Bubalisky) co released their one record as Insignt/The Laryngitis Label as a LP (long playing record. In other words vinyl).

CDs were first brought to public attention at a press conference called "Philips Introduce Compact Disc" on March 8, 1979.   While technologies are making their way from the lab to the store shelf at ever increasing rapidity, in 1987 when CBO was deciding how to release their magus opus, they knew exactly one person with a CD player (Mark, you always were ahead of the curve).  The compact disc selections in record st
ores were meager at best.  Yes a clear case of "Coulda Shoulda Woulda".

A difficult disc put out by a difficult band might have done exceedingly well. After all, who were these CD owners.  Monied, educated, and young.  The very people who would in a few short years, be filling the Up & Down Club, and hanging onto every note from Charlie Hunters guitar. But yet another self made record by some weird band could not get distribution beyond where the band could reach in their 1970 Toyota station wagon.  So like many other great groups, finding the way forward to be tripped up by the decisions of the past they eventually moved on, and their record after selling 80% of the 1000 pressed, faded away to an undeserved obscurity.

But the internet, as I was saying above, knows nothing of obscurity.  It's all about niche.  And if you have filled a niche anytime in the past 10,000 years, someone somewhere is looking for you.  In this case, due to the excellent taste of Mr Cope, there is a far flung tribe of dark rock post punk aficionados who value his releases, and consider them all the more valuable per their obscurity.  As Comic Book Opera bares the Insight imprint, Curious Guy who writes the Phoenix Hairpins blog  posted not only a review of the Comic Book Opera record on his February 14th (Valentines day, how apt) blog, but also put the complete LP up as a zip file for any and all to download.

So what does this all mean.  Nothing to most people, who due to the vastness of information/garbage available, will never become aware of this twist in the fabric of history.  A few of those post punk fans have found a new flavor due to this (new to them) Insight.  The band can have a chuckle.  Oh look dear, our old LP on the internet.  Weren't those solos cute. 

But what of the great lie.  That the internet is where not only culture is going, but where commerce is going.  Curious Guy looks at this old CBO LP as a quaint find from musics colorful past.  Similar to archivist putting out the early 20th century Rembetico records of Rita Abadzi I so adore.  Yet Eric Cope from Insight, and Bobo from The Laryngitis Label are still alive.  The Walkershaw, as rights holders, still own the music.  Yet no royalty or sales dollar will be forthcoming from this micro activity.  Just considered to be another user generated content in the web 2.0 world. So the commerce being created here is advertising revenue from Google and selling eyebal or clickthroughs .

Don't get me wrong.  I am overjoyed on a personal level that Curious Guy has reviewed and posted this gem from Bobo's past.  I do not fault him, or wish to hinder him in any way.  In fact, I did not have a digital copy of the record I financed, so due to Curious Guy's efforts, I have the tracks in my itunes, available to share with whomever.   But the fact remains, the model doesn't work, if we all labor like slaves, alone in front of our screens, spending our intellectual capital, while the chains tighten, and our real world opportunities shrink away.  Content isn't free.  The CBO LP cost money to record, and to press.  Curious Guy spent money to buy it.  His time  was spent putting up his blog, just as mine is spent telling this story.  

Who gets paid ?

Thats all for now.



Saturday, June 6, 2009

Is this the "golden age" or the shape of things to come.

I was reading a post on Bruce Houghton blog "Why Am I Still Optimistic About The Music Industry?"  wherein he first lays out the gloom and the doom, but is then uplifted by the emergence of  an independent musical middle class.  Those who are either self released promoted and represented, or who do so through smaller labels which are "all about the music" (my quotes not his).

While this is certainly a true phenomenon, one your own Bobo is looking to join, I cant blithely skip along down indi utopia road, as I have little faith that our corporate masters will leave us to our own devices long enough to have a lasting impact.   I posted the following to Gary's blog 

"I know deep in my heart that technology alone will not shift the fundamentals of our culture and economy. We are at a very interesting time, where many things are possible, but unfortunately what is most probable is an inevitable reshuffling back to the status quo. Albeit with a new face. Google/Apple instead of EMI/Sony Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Wealth and power are too consolidated for any new system to truly emerge on a mass scale. Try accessing forbidden web sites in China if you doubt it."
Pessimistic ain't I.

So dear reader, am I off the mark.  Has the tide turned. Has the standard level of/and access to technology gotten out front of the corporate state.  Are we on the cusp of a new age of reason, where each of us is endlessly connected to our 6 degree's of separation.  The web cam in place in every Tuareg village, so we can dig to the grooving of the local youths guitar culture, while in Bukhara the few remaining Bukhari Jews will be dancing to dollar downloads from our fave Klez Ska band Go Van Gogh.

Or will we see these days as the lost golden age of the global internet culture, before it was swallowed up as an extension of Sam Waltons empire.  Sam may be dead, but his family lives on.  They have a lot of wealth and power.  They know how to hire bright people to get bigger and bigger (A Thneed's a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need), but it's only Walton world if we let it be.

So my dears shake off that indifference.  Forget Bobo's pessimism.  Rush down to the small local bar, and buy a drink, buy the CD straight from the band.  Shop at local designers like Walkershaw for your dresses, coats, pants, and blouses. Get your food from local people who care what they sell.  And don't forget to vote for people you trust, not just the ones your told you must.

Thats all for now



Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why I want to be a POP star

It's all about the money, isn't it.  POP stars get to sleep late.  They have FAB GEAR.  They are driven, or drive SUPER cars in CANARY YELLOW, or FIRE ENGINE RED.  They get LOTS OF SEX, and everyone wants to know them.

But thats not why I want to be a POP star, well not entirely.  I want to do the work.  The writing of the tunes. The rehearsing the band. The long days and nights in the recording studio.  The ecstatic audiences dancing wildly in the darkened ball room.  Thats where the real fun is. If you want to sleep late everyday, wait tables at night. Want a fancy car, be a stock broker.  Fab Gear, open a boutique.  Lots of sex, not usually a positive job attribute.

But to work on your own music all the time, that is a rare career.  Most working musicians spend their nights playing other peoples music, whether a band leaders, or in a cover band.  They are certainly honing their chops, and getting their stage legs under them, but what about the creative muscle. One you need to flex if you hope to work through all of your ideas to find the 2% worth sharing with the world.

Unlike the "art" world, where they prefer their painters DEAD and BURIED, the POP star industry want's fresh young meat.  The myth is your at your best when you are young.  But the truth is you are at your most marketable as a slab of beef, or a ready made commodity.  Is Bob Dylan putting out work as great as he did in the mid sixties, when he was at his peak.  How can we judge.  Dylan continues to reinvent himself time after time, but based on his own interests not that of the market.  So if Bob doesn't speak to you as strongly as he did on Highway 61 Revisited, it may just be that either his work doesn't appear as new and exciting based on past experience and familiarity with that set of concepts and sounds, or that his vision has become more and more personal as he has matured, and the two of you have moved apart.  While it is true that his voice (never the greatest of his attributes) has lost  a bit of its elasticity, his delivery has gained in character.

A better example is our dead friend Serge Gainsbourg.  He did manage to stay as fresh as a decaying alcoholic junky could through out his 30 year career.  He moved from his start in the traditional chanson style, into whatever took his fancy over the years. In the early 60's he discovered brazilian, congolese, and afro cuban sounds.  His 1971 psychedelic masterpiece Histoire de Melody Nelson is the most listen-able recording I own from that period. By the time I saw him in Brussels 1985 on his Love on the
Beat tour, he had already moved through a number of Reggae sounds into a up to the second hot dance sound, and as always scandalizing the media with his video of Lemon Incest staring his daughter Charlotte. The audience at his show was the most age diverse audience I had seen before or since. 

So while visually old Serge and old Bob are not as appealing as some lean scantily clad POP Prince or Princess, they may still have the goods, perhaps in greater depth than they did (or the PP's will ever have).  And, it is my assumption the same may be true of any of us, given a chance to work entirely on ones craft and creativity.  

We are living longer, and while the overall population is growing younger, those of us still kicking it as mature producers of culture are also becoming a larger audience.  Just one that is routinely ignored as irrelevant to the arts and nightlife industry.  

I say they do so at their own peril. 

As the youth move more and more into home bound solitary interaction with machines.  Getting more of their software and entertainment for free through P2P networks (they didn't go away), do you think anyone over the drinking age will actually buy French   flavor of the month Plastiscines "Barcelona" based on the music and the sound all by itself.  The sound is so dated, it's slept with the grandfather of every sound in town, and the song itself is pure dross.  Now the band looks great. The right haircuts (long), skirt length (short), and boot style (tall).  They appeared to be skilled, and if they can rise above the mediocrity of the market they are fighting tooth and nail to enter, I am sure they will hit it big with teens.

But can you picture yourself buying their downloads on Itunes, or carrying their CD up to the counter at Amoeba Records.   I think not.  I have yet to catch myself humming along, or singing "Lets get down in Barcelona" no matter how many times my daughter subjects me to this song.  And I am subjected. The Plastiscines are suddenly everywhere teens exist.  Put out by Nylon records the new label from the teen magazine of the same name, the band is being leveraged through Nylons existing marketing into hoped for multi channel disposable consumption profits.

In light of the current implosion of capitalism, to assume these people know what their doing is laughable.  The band may hit it big for years, or zip they are gone.  But do not think I am bitter to not get my Nylon chance like those fresh faced mademoiselles.  My haircut, after all is strictly Joy Division 1979.  My skirt length is pants only (not even a utility kilt). My boots are a very 1964 ankle height.  My Label, Laryngitis, is not so loud.  And my magazine is strictly ones and zeros, so  here I am amongst the many.  My dreams of POP stardom however  are still alive.  As I work on this great puzzle of inspiration and experience, I am finding more and more of the pieces making up the picture I seek.  So who knows, it ain't over till the fat lady sits on your cat.  And then it's only over for the cat.

Thats all for now.



Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Now your a has been at 20

Thankfully, having never been, I can never be a has been.  I have no plummeting sales, or decline in venue size to worry about.  All these years at the bottom have been the happiest of my life, and as it's all up from here, as my old friend Alfred E Newman would say "what me worry".

But what about the instant celebs of our youtube global internet culture.  Today I came across Desiree Bassett,  who at 13
 year of age was already being touted as the worlds greatest female guitarist.  While I doubt the veracity of that claim, being pals with Ms Carmen Getit, who plays with far more verve and pinache (cause shredding isn't everything my dears), Ms Bassett by age 15 was sharing the stage of the MGM Grand with Sammy Hagar. What peaks will she have left to climb by the time she reaches voting age.   Or will this be a case of arrested development, as a merciless industry pumps up the volume on this smiling goddess of the guitar.  Flaming out early from the grind necessitated by building a career large enough to satisfy the gatekeepers of the "professional music business".  

No doubt Mom and Pop Bassett are sane people, socking away the concert and CD dough. Making sure Desiree keeps her grades up, and has plenty of time for a teenage life.  Looking out for their kid like all good parents would by supplying the guidance for a more varied life than onstage adulation, and back stage emotional taxation. 

Perhaps my cant is just one of sour grapes.  having never reached the stage of the 
MGM Grand, or been sponsored by Fletcher Limousines.  After all at 15 I was not much of a musician, spending my time pursuing other interests.  So here is a poem about a life lived.

In my 20's I thought I was the greatest
But I can now see that my ideas were just the latest.  
Clues, hadn't the vaguest.   
By my 30's I was starting to really cook. 
But couldn't get the public to give me a look.  
In my 40's I didn't give a dam.
Played for myself, thought the business a scam.  
Now that I hit 50.
I think my music's uplifting. 
With a bit of depth.
Not too much riffing.
I'd like to have had an easier life.
But then I should not have made music my wife.

Thats all for now



Sunday, May 31, 2009

Don't be more about money than music (You can still make a living)

I was reading John Zorn's introduction to Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture series where he states 

" There have been occasions when the jewish content of the music delivered has been unclear, or even non-existent. My role as executive producer in these instances has been to question the artist. If the
 answer is simply "I'm jewish—this is what I'm doing—that makes it jewish music"—the project is rejected, returned to the artist to do with as they wish. If they can articulate a well thought out response and their sincerity and honesty is clear and unquestionable—I go with it—even if I don’t entirely go with the program."

I find Mr Zorn's attitude exemplary, to be lauded, as it shows  a commitment to a specific vision, one about the content itself, rather than as a catch all gimmick, or a purely economic driven model.   Unfortunately few share this predilection.  More often than not what begins as a labor of love (and a very specific love at that) bogs down in the day to day battle to stay afloat.  And once the money starts rolling in, god help your soul. 

I know it's the music business, but cutting corners is not where it's at.  The externalities are not as obvious as in fabric dying, or oil drilling.  No one is getting cancer because a label is dealing in sub standard esthetics.  But we all suffer from the cheapening of our life experience.

I guess what I am really on about is living a right life, and so setting a good example through right deeds.  You may say "choose your battles, the ones that really matter".  And yes switching to Mass Transit, increasing  local organic farming, reducing carcinogens, and upholding freedom of assembly are all more important.  But where does the slippery slope start.  

The powers that be show us how to live like sharks.  How to be predators, consuming whatever is in your path, and leave nothing but your waste behind. Just enough to feed the hungriest of the little fish.  It is the message we get on the news,  in the movies, in the history we are taught.  I find it to be a false message leading us further down a dead end road.  

So I am starting with our own actions on a daily basis.  The ones we actually control, like Mr Zorn, who makes conscious choices based on his ideas, rather than what his community or his accountant says.   You do what you can find in your heart to do.  I just hope your expectations for life, yours, your circle, and all of us, are large enough to take the road less traveled, instead of being herded down that dead end. 

Thats it for now