Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rock and Roll: A Young Person's Game?

My least favorite lyric in the history of rock music is "Hope I die before I get old" from the Who's "My Generation." Not because it's particularly bad -- in fact, it's great. I admire Pete Townshend's hell-with-it nihilism and despite the fact that he obviously didn't die, I don't doubt that he meant it at the time, at least inasmuch as he intended his old-self-euthanasia as a gigantic, idealistic "fuck you" to the 50s pre-boomer generation and their closed-minded attitudes. It's punk, sure.

No -- I hate it because of its contribution to armchair criticism, especially as regards the notion of rock and roll musicians aging.

It goes like this:

• An older rock musician does something. I don't care what it is -- he played the SuperBowl, say, or released a new album. Doesn't matter what, he just did something.

• Somewhere on the internet, there's a message board or comment thread started about this older rock star event.

• People comment that they thought it was pretty good / great / life-changing.

• Some yahoo -- usually followed by a chorus of imitators -- arrives and starts shouting about how much it sucked, demands that the old rock star "hang it up," and inevitably -- inevitably -- quotes that lyric. Especially if the old rock star is, in fact, Pete Townshend.

Basically, "Hope I Die..." is the Godwin's Law of the "old rock star discussion" -- it prevents coherent discussion of something I find both interesting and utterly false; namely, the notion that rock and roll music is a "young man's game," by allowing the user to just jump to a false conclusion -- that Townshend, as a vital arbiter of cool, has declared for all time what is true regarding the allowable age / continued functionality of rock stars.

I'm here to posit that nothing is a young man's game, really, and that age and avarice are at least equal to youth and enthusiasm, as they say, or at least should be.

There are myriad reasons why rock music is viewed as a young man's game. Let's examine them, shall we?

1. We still canonize the 60s, and in the 60s, when rock was still relatively young, there were no old rock musicians yet. Rock, in the 60s, was 100% viewed as "young people's music" because that was the demographic that was buying the stuff and making the stuff. Because the 60s was rock's formative decade in terms of attitudes, a lot of the attitudes that were born during it carry over to today.

2. Punk rock cemented it: old people suck. This was the first time there was a real serious culture-clash in rock music -- the "youth" rebelled against the "dinosaurs" (who, ironically, were far younger on average than I am now) and the youth won -- Yes disappeared from teh charts (they didn't really) and punk ruled the earf (it didn't really, but for the sake of argument).

3. The 80s were rough for the 60s musicians. I think the way some of the 60s musicians attempted to adapt to the changing climate of the 80s -- by gracelessly trying to update their sound to "fit in," by writing songs about being old as if they were already 80 years old when they were only, like, forty, by churning out awful, formulaic tripe -- effected how we view old people in rock in general. Even though it was only one batch of musicians from one particular era, IN one particular era, which, frankly, was rough for everybody for technological reasons -- even some younger rock bands didn't know what to do or where to turn once MTV and synth-pop hit.

4. Our society doesn't exactly value older people to begin with. It's not just in terms of rock music, is it? I mean, we live in a "pretty young people" culture where youth and beauty are valued far above wisdom and intellect. It makes absolute sense that rock music, as with all arts, would follow along. We just think old people suck in general.

Let's take it out of an artistic context altogether for a moment. A surgeon. Who would you trust more: a guy fresh out of medical school, wet behind the ears, hasn't really done a lot of surgery? Or the older guy who's been a resident for 30 years? You would so clearly trust the guy with a ton of experience under his belt because he's had a chance to hone his skills over the years. You wouldn't think the recent graduate was somehow "closer to the source" because he just got out of school, would you?

Why do we have the opposite notion for artists? Why would the years not hone and season their craft songwriting-wise? Why do we assume that their wet-behind-the-ears work is somehow closer to the source than the later stuff, when the later stuff is done with the benefit of years of experience in songwriting/production/whatever? Do we assume that passion will eventually give way to a sort of genial workmanship? Habits will form that will remove spontaneity? Is that a bad thing, always? We associate a sort of energy/vitality with young people -- does that always vanish with older people? What does that say about our general attitude about age -- are we saying that at a certain age people stop mattering?

Do you think maybe preconceived notions regarding these ideas colors how you view the work of older artists rather than the other way around?

I'd argue that it does. I'd argue that people are more likely to negatively view the work of old people based on their own set of preconceived notions that the work will necessarily be inferior simply because it is done by an older person. I think this frequently leads to the underrating of lots of art, not only music but film and visual art as well.

Let's examine, but let's take it out of the context of pop music for a second. Let's look at the art world. One of my favorite artists is pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. You know his stuff -- he's the guy with the newspaper dots who paints comic strips. Here's a painting done when he was young.

It's full of his typical bright, bold colors, and there's no question it has an energy and a vitality born of youthful hubris -- he was one of the first guys to take comic strips and drag them over into the fine arts arena. It's about as exciting as a painting can get -- it's an explosion, fergodsake, in bright primary colors. It's iconic, it's pop, it's the same kind of destruct-o-art that the Who trafficked in musically.

Now let's look at Lichtenstein when he's older.

It's a far less iconic or explosive work, but what it loses in vitality, it absolutely gains in subtlety. Instead of using comic art as a means in itself, he's taken techniques from comic art -- the newspaper dots, primary colors, bold "ligne clair" -- and applied them instead to a work far more influenced by the cubists (Braque, Picasso) in terms of form and composition. In other words: this ain't pop art, but isn't it damn interesting?

Does somebody want to argue that Beethoven's Ninth ("Ode To Joy") is somehow less good than his First because he was younger and more vital when he write his First?

Let's bring it back to pop music -- specifically Pete Townshend.

Here's Pete when he's younger.

Great song, no? It has a lot of really desirable qualities. It has energy, grit, honesty. Youthful vitality. Power. Potency. It is, however, quite simple -- the chord progression is repetitive, the melody unsubtle, the lyric quite simplistic and blunt, and the structure by no means complex.

Now let's look at Old Pete, from what I think is an exceptional record, the Who's "Endless Wire" from a couple years back:

It is amazing, but for wholly different reasons. That youthful energy and vitality that almost wholly informs "Can't Explain" is no longer present. It is replaced instead by a melodic and chordal complexity and subtlety -- listen to the way the melody/harmony/counter-melody winds itself around one chord on the chorus, especially on the lovely "snowflakes falling" part. The lyrics are tremendously subtle and poetic. And most interestingly, the song uses a synthesizer theme from an older song, "Baba O'Reilly," in an attempt to bridge this album thematically with "Lifehouse," the album "Baba" was intended for. It's a work, I think, of tremendous power, and while it isn't as immediate or in-your-face -- visceral -- much like the work of Older Lichtenstein, it's good for other reasons, no less interesting or vital reasons.

That's all very interesting.

Of course that's not true of every piece of music by an older person, any more than it's true that all young people have youthful energy and vitality -- I could point you to a couple of Dave Matthews albums from when the guy was young where he sounds about as youthful and energetic as the most feeble geriatric. But in terms of development, I think it can safely be said that:

- People's songwriting develops as they get older, and as it evolves, particular qualities are replaced by other qualities, no less desirable.

- Society has been basically trained to prize the earlier qualities because they value youth, almost cultishly

- Therefore, as people's music evolves and youthful qualities are replaced by other qualities, people falsely undervalue this music as they falsely believe that these other qualities are less desirable aesthetically.

What you will find if you visit a Who message board, say, or really any place where music is discussed, is a lot of people quoting "My Generation" rather than examining these qualities. And a lot of discussion about how Pete should "hang it up."

And that's really my least favorite thing about the general prejudice against older people -- the notion that not only are they undervalued, that they should "go away," stop making art and stop contributing to the general cultural landscape when they reach a certain age (probably 40) where their "youthful vitality" starts to fade.

Think about that: This is essentially saying that what these people are saying no longer matters at all, simply by dint of their calendar age. This is ignoring the fact that artists, in general, are compelled to make art -- that they're doing it because they must; not, as in the case of many 9-to-fivers, because they have to. You're basically saying "I don't care if you make art because you love to, I have ceased to find it interesting, so please retire and do not do the thing you love because it makes me uncomfortable/irritated."

That's bloody awful, isn't it? And yet, otherwise intelligent people say this all the time.

Frankly, and I know I'm in the vast minority, I find songwriters more interesting when they get older. I like seeing how they evolve their songwriting skills, and how experience and a new and more intelligent set of feelings, plus a sense of mortality, of course, inform their songwriting. I am especially finding this true of some the boomer artists, who have gone through the 80s growing pains and come out the other side still alive, still making music, and, interestingly, still growing and developing as artists and pushing boundaries, at least within the confines of their own stylistic limitations. I'm also finding that the artists who began in the 80s are having an easier time staying true to themselves, and as they age and develop they're still making albums absolutely as vital as their prime-era work (see: The Cure, et al).

You all know I hate preconceived notions about rock and roll music, right? I hate hang-ups and bullshit and prejudices that keep people from enjoying stuff, because all of those hang-ups and prejudices have to do 100% with the observer and not one jot with the art itself. And as an artist, that bothers me -- that people are approaching my art with a whole mess of preconceived notions that will prevent people from enjoying or even understanding or even listening to what I'm trying to say.

After all, I failed to die before I got old. And I'm getting older, and so are we all. So, as oldie George Michael said, listen without prejudice, and give the old people a chance, will ya?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It's like the last 20 years of my life didn't happen

So first, watch this trailer for Rick Fuller's forthcoming documentary on First Avenue.

First off, a disclaimer: not to REMOTELY discredit what is obviously an excellent documentary that I have not seen yet. I know Rick Fuller is a great filmmaker, he's telling this from his point of view, and I'm sure it's going to be interesting, well-shot, well-edited and full of lots of great footage if you're a fan of that era or the various styles of music covered therein. And obviously there are lots of people IN the documentary and in the scene in general who are passionate about this music, and not to remotely discredit their passion.

It's just -- well, this.

Fauna, whom I wrote about yesterday, used to do a song called "Who Killed Flannel Rock?" The answer to the question is that nobody killed flannel rock. It keeps rising, zombie-like, from the grave every time anybody sits down in an editing suite or puts pen to paper to talk about First Avenue and what it "means" to "people." I have no problem with this on the surface: it's obvious to anybody who listens to music that punk rock and its offspring are an important thread in the development of rock music (duh) and that Minneapolis and First Avenue played an interesting and important part of that development (double-duh).

My problem is the notion that punk (and it's close buddy, alt-country) were the only things happening in that time.

Listen to Steve's voice over: He talks about how Jayhawks fans would sometimes listen to the Gear Daddies, and sometimes Gear Daddies fans would listen to the Jayhawks, and then there were Rifle Sport fans and whatever and whatever -- other punk rock bands I don't even know, really -- and then that's it, closed circle. Certainly everybody around at the time listened to some form of punk rock music because that's what the press wrote about lots and that's who the First Ave management loved and coddled and nurtured from the git-go, right?

Well, no.

I've never been a punk rock guy. I remember in college when I worked at WMMR (before there was a radio K) and the punk rock guys would sit in the room next to the control room and mouth the word "F-A-G" at me whenever I played Echo and the Bunnymen or whatever instead of the Descendants or Minor Threat. They hated me. They hated me so much, in fact, they actually formed a legit University group called the "I Hate Jon Hunt Fan Group" at the University of Minnesota because when I wrote for the Minnesota Daily, I ragged on punk music in my articles and columns just to piss them off.

You know why I did that? Because, to me at the time, punk rock was no kind of underground. They always set themselves up as this vital counterculture but to me, they seemed like a bunch of loudmouthed bullies who hated fags or people who looked like fags, and that sure wasn't discounted by the people I worked with. In other words: they were the popular kids within the counterculture. I'm sure, now that I'm older and wiser, that's absolutely untrue, or at least partially untrue, and I'm pretty sure I was unfair to punk at the time, just like they were unfair to me.

But I will say this: punk, in Minneapolis, is still no kind of underground, and this documentary proves it, because while trumpeting how Important! That! Stuff! Was! it completely ignores the existence of another scene that was happening parallel to punk that, I think, is ultimately just as important as an evolutionary thread and contains a lot of people you know if you're following local music. Did it have the sheer numbers? Packed Mainroom once a month? Maybe it didn't. But in terms of influence, it's a thread that started sometime in the mid-80s and continues unabated to this day, meaning that it self-perpetuated, meaning that as an influence it was probably just as important as punk rock.

I don't even know where it started, really, so I can't even quite exactly trace the history of it. I know that when I came into it, in about '89 or '90, it was already in an early full flower. I know that as a college kid madly in love with post-punk / psych groups like the Bunnymen or the Church and 60s psychedelic and garage records, it spoke directly to me in a way that punk never did. I know that groups like the 27 Various and the Blue Up! and the Funseekers and Something Fierce and the Sedgwicks and Fauna and the Hang-Ups weren't hung up on LOUDFASTRULES like the local punks were and actually gave a shit about things like melody and songwriting. I know that they looked cool and a little freaky and like maybe they bathed once in a while. I know that in retrospect, despite the retro trappings they wrapped themselves in, they were actually way more forward-looking than Soul Asylum were.

And I also know that, as an influence, that thread continues completely unabated to this day. A lot of the people who jumped into that scene during that time are still around, still doing stuff, still vital, not just reforming once every five years for a big mainroom show so everybody can pat themselves on the back about how cool they were back in the day but are actually still making new, forward-thinking records. It's not a closed circle, a "back when" thing, but a still-evolving, still alive thing, which is far more than I can say about flannel rock, which is the proverbial dead horse that's been flogged and flayed until its carcass is rotting and bleeding.

I'd love to try to trace things chronologically and thoroughly at some point to show how these bands sprung up, influenced the next generation, died out, reformed, evolved, joined up with the next generation, moved ahead, moved on. From the perspective of someone vaguely within the scene, it seemed to come in multiple waves. I'll try to draw up a loose outline, here, just so you can see what I mean. And please note: I will forget bands. Okay? Do not take offense if I momentarily forgot your band because, as you'll see, there are a lot of them.

PROTO-WAVE: This is the wave I know the least about, because it was a little before my time. I was still listening to Howard Jones and trying to make my hair go into a Flock of Seagulls poof. The only band I really know much about is The Dig, and I'm pretty sure there was an early version of the Blue Up! back then too, right? Someone needs to help me fill in the blanks for this stuff, 'cause I wasn't there.

FIRST WAVE: '86-ish through about '91 or '92, maybe '93 at the outset. This was bands like the 27 Various, the Funseekers, the Blue Up?, the Sedgwicks, and I know there were a bunch of others. This was where I started going to local shows, so again, there were tons more and I'd love to have someone fill in the gap.

SECOND WAVE: '92-ish through maybe '95-ish. This was where I jumped on. Bands included the later 27 Various, the Blue Up?, Colfax Abbey, Shapeshifter, Deep Shag, Polara, Fauna, Hovercraft/Shapeshifter, Green Machine, Overblue, the Romulans, and what my friend calls the "Elfin Magic Set" such as the Hang-Ups, Autumn Leaves, Dearly, Jim Ruiz etc. Lots of bands on the Prospective/Clean labels and then lots of bands associated with Minty Fresh.

THIRD WAVE: '96-ish through maybe '02-ish. Polara (still), Lunar 9, February, Myriad, the Makeshift, Landing Gear, Passage, Faux Jean, Ousia, Idle Hands, the Meg, 12 Rods, Bec Smith, Basement Apartment, I guess you could count Semisonic though they're kind of in a space of their own -- lots of others I'm forgetting. Astronaut wife probably represents the last burst of popularity of this particular scene, including as it did lots of people from these other bands -- the first scene "supergroup."

FOURTH WAVE: '03-ish through now. The Susstones bands like Two Harbors, Polara, Blue Sky Blackout (yes, that's us), Mercurial Rage, the Mood Swings, plus the still-very-vital Idle Hands, the Melismatics, the newly-regenerated Fauna, BNLX, StrangeLights, First Communion Afterparty, Sun In The Satellite, etc.

I know I'm forgetting a lot of bands, but that's still a pretty impressive list of groups, and that's more than 20 years worth of amazing music, and a long chain of influence that has continued unabated. So why do people keep forgetting about them? Why, whenever people write about First Avenue and the local scene, does this pop / psych / dream / whatever chain of groups constantly get forgotten about? I think there's several reasons.

1. The winners write the history. There were a few bands out of this group who flirted with national success -- Polara, certainly, Semisonic, definitely, plus groups like Shatterproof, Jim Ruiz, the Hang-Ups and others who came damn close -- but of course none of them got to where the Replacements and Husker Du and Soul Asylum and the Jayhawks and the Gear Daddies did, and so those groups and their friends and the people who worked with them and hung out with them and wrote about them -- i.e. the flannel rock set -- got to write the history, and I think a lotta those bands were so insular and close-circled they didn't even know that the pop scene kids existed. And if they did, they didn't much like 'em. I remember the look Tommy Stinson gave me when Shatterproof played Edge-Fest. Let's just say he didn't look happy we were there.

Of course, this is talking about sheer numbers popularity which isn't often a measure of a band's or scene's importance, see also: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND.

2. The music press likes to suckle at the teat of punk. It's so true, and has always been thus. If you read the content of this here blog, you know I'm agin' it for a lot of reasons. It's not always true -- I'd say one of the heights of this scene's popularity was when Simon-Peter Groebner or Danny Sigelman were writing about it and trumpeting the bands on Radio K. But it's mostly true.

3. For some reason, punk was far more documented than this scene. Which is odd, as there are so many media-geeks in our scene, but I don't think anybody ever filmed any of my old bands in action -- there's zero Deep Shag footage, zero Lunar 9 footage, zero Medication footage, almost no Shatterproof footage. I'm guessing I'm not alone, either, and I really have no idea why. I mean, I'd love it if there was a video out there of some packed-house Various/Shapeshifter/Deep Shag show from the early 90s or a Makeshift/Myriad/Lunar 9 show at Sursumcorda or something from the late 90s -- but that shit doesn't exist.

And a lot of our records are out of print, too -- the labels folded, or we got dumped from our major labels, and you just can't GET, say, a Hang-Ups retrospective, or "The Best Of Fauna." The 2nd Polara record, which I played two billion times, isn't on iTunes probably because Interscope doesn't see any reason for it to be. And it's not like reissue programs are imminent to allow people to rediscover this stuff or properly rank and rate it. And that's a god-damn shame.

4. The music press, and the scene in general, perpetually regenerates young and caters to the progressively younger folks. And if you combine numbers 1 through 3 with that fact, you get a music press and a music fandom who weren't aware of this stuff at all, and probably, thanks to #2, think it sucks anyway.

I have to disclaim right here: I am by no means saying that the punk/flannel scene wasnt important, okay? So before you blow up at me for not liking the Replacements enough, please understand: I love those bands. I really do. I was always a Husker Du guy over the 'Mats, mind, but no question I loved those bands lots. I would never denigrate the importance of that scene locally and nationally. Okay?

My point is just that there was other shit going on, and every few years the entire city has a bout of amnesia and it was like none of it happened at all and we (the people still in that scene) have to come along and remind them that yes, there is a pop scene in Minneapolis and yes, it's important and pretty popular and quite damn cool and you should probably, if you're a member of the local press, notice it and occasionally nod to it. And then two years later, you'll all forget about it again and the cycle will repeat itself. And I'll be here to remind you, promise.

NOTE: My friend Brian correctly points out that these documentaries/articles/whatever never, ever mention the electronic and dance music scenes either, which is even more ridiculous in a way, considering a) how many people WENT to dance music nights at First Ave, and b) I'm guessing that's how they made their money for a long time, moreso than flannel rock shows if you know what I mean. That's a topic for someone else's blog but let me just say: I totally hear ya, dance music scene, we're there too.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Fauna Should Matter To You

For some reason, the reunion of early-90s Minneapolis noise/dream/psych-pop band Fauna last week at a special Sussed! night at Sauce did not cause the local press to go apeshit, and this bothers me. There should have been a City Pages cover story, a profile piece in VitaMN, and a twittersplosion the size of a small thermonuclear device. But there wasn't, and I need to fix this. Dear local press: Fauna should be super-important to you, and here's why.

The early 90s in Minneapolis saw the rise of a group of noisy, gloriously psychedelic bands, inspired by the shoegaze movement in the UK and the slow explosion of noisy indie-rock in America. Equally in love with their copies of My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless" LP and obscure garage-pop of the 60s, groups like Shapeshifter, Colfax Abbey, Hovercraft (and your author's own Deep Shag) and more began plying their trade in Minneapolis, charming the local press and attracting crowds of Brit-noise-obsessed fans.

To me, two of the very best bands of the scene, its Beatles and Stones if you will, were Polara and Fauna* -- which makes sense since Ed Ackerson and Tommy Roberts were production partners and shared common influences and enthusiasms. When I went to write a song for my band, Deep Shag (we were like the Gerry and the Pacemakers of the scene, or something, to continue the analogy), I always spent a half an hour with either the first Polara record or Fauna's awesome "Feral" first, just to get in the mood -- Polara had the melodies, the earth-shattering hooks, the sense of structure and exploration, while Fauna had a darkness, a kind of on-the-verge thing that made 'em a little scary. And both had slatherings of awesome, beautiful noise that turned my head in a different direction every time I heard 'em.

Apparently you can still order "Feral" direct from Twin Tone here: http://www.tt.net/trg/projects/89266.html

...and better, you can listen to sound samples there, so you, too, can see how amazing the record was in 30-second chunks. How powerful and driving "Songone" was, or what a monster hook lived at the center of "Psychic Repeater," or how noisy and freaky and scary "Who Killed Flannel Rock" was. It's both a gorgeous, sonically amazing record and one that should give you a vague sense of unease or queasiness in the best possible way, the same way a record like "Their Satanic Majesties Request" does.

And they were a hell of a live band, too. I remember playing a gig with them at the Red Eye Theater (I wanna say Shapeshifter were the other band? I just don't remember) and being so bowled over by the layers of ever-shifting guitar noise that I wondered whether I'd gotten extremely high and just forgotten about it. 'Cause it was that brain-shifting and cool, really, and it seemed effortless, almost tossed-off, which was what infuriated me -- I was trying so fucking hard to be cool, and Tommy just reeled that shit off like it was easy.

The last Fauna song I remember hearing was a track called "Ultraviolet." You know how people describe having that moment of epiphany while they're driving and listening to a song where they have to pull the car over because they're so astonished? That's what happened to me with "Ultraviolet." I heard the song on Radio K -- I think it appeared on a benefit CD that you can't get anymore, so I only ever heard it that one time. And I had to pull the car over and just listen. I kept saying "That's the best song Tommy's written, I can't wait until the next album."

But the next album never came. Instead, Tommy Roberts became Zachary Vex (power letters -- it makes sense, yo) and morphed into one of the foremost producers of guitar pedals in the world that I can't afford:


He'd taken his love of gorgeous noise and went practical with it. Which was awesome, and just about everybody I know swears by 'em, and it's so great to see him succeed to such a large degree with a self-run business that's that cool and legendary. But I missed Z-Vex the songwriter and Z-Vex the producer. And when I moved back to Minneapolis from Los Angeles and noticed that he was out and about and hanging out, I thought "I bet ten bucks he returns to the live arena at some point, and I wonder if I can get a smegging copy of "Ultraviolet" from him finally??**"

And I was right -- he's back, and Fauna's back, and really, fifteen years has been far too long. They've got a proper gig coming up in June, and this time I had better see some local press falling over themselves, because they were one of the most important bands in town at one point, and were certainly one of the two or three seminal members of a scene that largely defined Minneapolis in the 90s.

Got it?

*...and the Hang Ups were the Hollies, and there's naught wrong with that.

** I couldn't. He doesn't have it, and nobody else does either. Does anybody here have it? Can you send it to me? Please?