Me and Merle

by on Apr.15, 2012, under Books, music

It occurs to me that not everyone follows me on Facebook or Twitter, so I should mention this here too: a couple weeks back Richard Fulco asked me to write something for his blog about music in Soap and Water, so I did, and here it is. It was fun to write and is about how Merle Haggard is a big, awesome asshole.

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The National at the Hollywood Bowl, 9/11/11

by on Sep.13, 2011, under music

“Normally, this is the point in the set where we’d leave the stage, go pee, come out and play an encore,” said Matt Berninger, the singer of The National. “But we’re not going to do that tonight.” A smattering of applause. Thank god, I’m not the only one who hates ritualized rock show encores. “We have to get out of here in twenty minutes. There’s even a clock.”

He picked it up and turned it around for us to see, and there it was. A big red LED rectangle, like a bedside alarm clock. Counting down the minutes left in the set.

We all cheered. I think we got it. It was a little tug at the thread, at the lie of rock and roll. The Dionysiac infinities that have to end on schedule, get rolled up and loaded out to accommodate the long-suffering Hollywood Hills neighbors who can never be transported away from the traffic and the noise, no matter how expansive the moment, how much reverb on the guitars.

I looked at the display, running backwards, and I said to my wife, “Someone better defuse that bomb.” It was the tenth anniversary of 9/11, so it was funny.

She said, “What?” She was in it. So was I, in my way.

I listened to the National from the beginning. My friend Alec started their first label, Brassland, with guitarist Bryce Dessner. I would have friendly conversations with Bryce when I ran into him at Alec’s house or saw them play, and I bought everything they put out on Brassland. The first time I saw them play live was in the smallest, shittiest room at the Hollywood Knitting Factory, in an audience that might have numbered 25. I was surprised to see how skinny a body Berninger’s deep, sad voice lived in.

My favorite song up until that point was “Slipping Husband” off of their second album, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. At the end of the song, Berninger repeats to the title character, “Dear we’d better get a drink in you before you start to bore us.” (Rivers of booze run through National songs.) Three times through, Berninger half-mutters, half-sings the line in his gloomy baritone. Then he unleashes it one final time in a painful, unsustainable scream. The scream is disproportionately powerful, revising every other measure of the song, claiming a vaster, darker musical space than the daylit rock and alt-country gestures that made up the rest of the corpus.

In concert, Berninger couldn’t wait to get to the scream – he let it loose on almost every song. It lost some of its power through overuse, which I mentioned to Alec. He told me to tell the singer. I chickened out.

The next time I saw them was at Spaceland, with easily ten times the crowd, after they had left Brassland and had released Alligator on Beggars Banquet. It’s still one of the best shows I ever saw in Los Angeles, or ever. Their sound was already way too large for the venue. The Dessner twins had figured out the spacious grandeur of the guitar arrangements, swirling around surprises in the rhythms and delicate orchestrations by Padma Newsome, Bryce’s partner in the indie chamber ensemble Clogs. I asked Alec if they were trying to be U2. “I don’t think that’s it,” he said. I had a limited body of musical references, but there was something in there – the majestic sweep, the inviting seriousness.

Not long after, the National went on another tour, supported by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Following a Pitchfork endorsement, buzz-drunk fans filled clubs, only to empty out after Clap Your Hands Say Yeah finished their set and leave the ostensible headliners haplessly playing to thinned-out rooms.

I read about this, with sympathetic dismay, from a beach house in Massachusetts, where my first wife and I had retreated together to get out of Los Angeles and to try and make art. I was writing and recording songs on a laptop and making my first attempt at building a screenplay. She was writing a novel and a long piece of art criticism. The beach house, empty and exposed in October, was our second stop on the sabbatical. The first stop was a commune in southern Colorado, not far from the Great Sand Dunes, where I played Alligator for her for the first time and we mostly managed never to run out of red wine.

We get possessive about bands. When they get too big, when they go from small clubs to big rooms to Saturday Night Live to Staples Center, we get jealous. “I knew them first,” we say, to no one who cares. It’s unseemly that all those new people think they’re having the same pleasure that we had when we first encountered them. It’s ridiculous. We had a personal relationship to occult knowledge; they’re nodding along to the latest hit.

For the most part, this isn’t my problem – I’m happy for my favorite bands’ success, and mostly I don’t catch on until they’re popular anyhow. (They Might Be Giants might qualify as an exception.) I would have been happy to share The National with the world. But I wasn’t entirely ready to share them with my wife.

In Massachusetts, she fell under her writing, became pained and withdrawn. I thought I could help but my emotional arsenal was limited, at the time, to a range of clownish cheer-up routines. She took a final month away from me back in Colorado, and drove back and forth between the commune and town, listening to Alligator on repeat, enduring the CD skips from the rough dirt roads. When she came back to Los Angeles, the album was all hers. My voice is similar in timbre to Matt Berninger’s baritone, but everything I said pushed her a little bit farther away, while his songs invited her deep under the folds of his black veil, into their own dark, lonely bedroom fort.

It was blindingly obvious that her experience of The National was more profound than mine. I could no longer listen to it in the same space as her. Before long, I could do little of anything in the same space as her. She moved out of our apartment. The National came through town, and I asked Alec to hold her a spot at the door when they played the Troubadour. He put me down for a plus one, and I had to explain to him that I wasn’t going.

I have a new wife now, and, happily, as far as I know, my ex has a new partner. I keep a playlist for my wife called “Ruined Songs for Heather Joy” – the tracks that I want her to have, but I can’t really give her, because they’ve been too much a part of my life up until now, too much played on the soundtrack to the last love’s end, too much placed on seducer’s mixes during the brief, manic months before I met her. She, also, is alert to Berninger’s invitation to crawl in under the black veil (and I finally understand that antic cheer is not an invitation to crawl back out). When he sings, “Sorrow found me, sorrow won,” she says that’s as accurate a picture of depression as any she’s ever heard painted. When I took her to see The National perform at The Wiltern, she fell all the way in love. I was happy to introduce her to the band. It had already been taken from me once. I barely even noticed the second time.

On the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, Berninger had left the clock to face the crowd. We all knew the show had to end. But he picked it up once more, and threw it over backwards, and time stopped so they could keep playing. They played “Terrible Love” off of High Violet. Repeating “It takes an ocean not to break,” singing and screaming, perfectly screaming, Berninger wandered out along the outer lip of the Bowl stage and into the crowd, clasping outstretched hands, surfing on the warm sea of his making. He pulled us all down towards him, through the colossal hillside amphitheater, into a room smaller than Spaceland, where we all fit.

We all crawled into the fortress together, where I remembered that the sound contained blackness but wasn’t contained by it. There was light under there. There was profound, ordinary sadness. There was triumph – not U2-sized triumph, but something more human-sized, the kind of thing you could take along with you without having to pretend all the time you were in a movie. There was tenderness, there was communion, and there were all the notes I’d heard there before I let others, lovers, listen for me. At some point, the clock must have reached zero, the bomb must have gone off, and we all got to be there forever.

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CAGEMATCH: Hector vs. Hrishi

by on May.30, 2011, under Los Angeles, music

I think Hector Tobar is right about this:

Don’t ever say: “L.A. doesn’t have any seasons.” Our seasons just don’t look like New England seasons. Instead, we have a season when the jacarandas bloom (right now) and a season when ash falls from the sky. We have a season of gloomy mornings (which isn’t in winter) and a season of Technicolor sunsets. We have a season when Mt. Baldy is covered in snow — and a season when you can’t see Mt. Baldy at all.

But I love The One AM Radio’s song “In A City Without Seasons.”

Contradictions! We haz ’em. The new album, Heaven Is Attached By A Slender Thread, is my first real ear crush of 2011. It’s ambivalent about L.A. through and through — in “Plans” Hrishi sings, “Fuck this town and all the things I have been / I am leaving here as fast as I can” — and I’m not. But I love driving the streets to his despair at them.

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Dork Test

by on Feb.23, 2011, under music

Help me out here, commenters and co-guest-bloggers. I am a bit puzzled.

Via Ann Friedman’s Lady Journos! tumblr (which come to think of it is also how I found my way to Molly Lambert), I just read Sady Doyle’s Birth of the Uncool.

Sady argues that Tori Amos was mocked for the powerful feminine qualities of her music. I get the argument. I love the Helene Cixous shout-out: “The gender binary also tended to perpetuate itself in other divisions, such as ‘Head/Heart,’ ‘Intelligible/Palpable,’ and ‘Logos/Pathos.’ The music of Tori Amos asks its fans to stand on the wrong side, the female side, of all those dichotomies.” Makes perfect sense to me.

Here’s the thing, though — I don’t remember ever feeling uncool for liking Tori Amos. I played the hell out of Little Earthquakes at my all-male school, to no resistance. I can still get through most of “Leather” on the piano. I loved her take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (it was before everybody did that). I never saw her play live and I didn’t stick around for the rest of her career, but she was in heavy rotation when I was a young man.

“But it’s hard to underestimate the role that homophobia and gender policing have played in the assessment of her fans.” Really? I get why that might have happened. I just never noticed it. Tori took me from senior year of high school into college, and I never noticed any policing around here. And it’s not as if I didn’t pass under the gaze of music snobs. Trust me, I knew better than to admit how deep a groove I wore into my CD of “Pocketful of Kryptonite.”

Maybe it’s because my time with Tori was at the dawn of the Internet, before correct positions could be circulated with vicious speed. But I really didn’t sense that the invisible hand of masculine cosmopolitanism had consigned Tori to the yonic kitschyard. Did you?

x-posted at Alyssa Rosenberg

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Omnivore’s Dilemma

by on Feb.23, 2011, under music

I am falling bloghead over blogheels in love with Molly Lambert and her website (blog? magazine?) This Recording. She’s sly and epigrammatic and has a mix of irony and sympathy that feels contemporary but elevated. The stuff that is rough at Gawker and refined in The Awl gets even better as you go towards her.

Her tribute to Latina Rap has an assertion which is extremely contemporary:

There are no more “I listen to everything but rap and country” people left, because the mp3 economy and widely free access to all kinds of music has rendered that stance and all similar genre-excluding stances irrelevant.

This is true in the manner that “God is dead” (speaking of epigrams) is true. It’s an emerging subject position with an impressive cultural influence, but tell it to Osama Bin Laden. (That incorrigible rockist.)

Scratch an eclecticist, find an “I listen to everything but rap and country” person. My MP3 collection includes songs by each of the Highwaymen, and an eclectic-appropriate smattering of last year’s and 90’s hip-hop, but its bones are pretty easy to identify.

I enjoy leading pronouncements and the-future-is-here declarations. But I also want to know how everyone else is receiving the now now. (It’s one of the things I find Alyssa’s writing attuned to.)

x-posted at Alyssa Rosenberg

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Apparently, a Tumblr Wasn’t Enough…

by on Feb.20, 2011, under music

…because Steve Stoute took out a full-page ad in the New York Times asking “Who is Arcade Fire????”

Who Is Arcade Fire Tumblr

Steve Stoute’s Ad Text at HuffPo

(Yes, I read the Sunday New York Times dead-tree edition. And yes, I read Sunday Styles. After the front page, before Week In Review.)

x-posted at Alyssa Rosenberg.

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A Jewel in the Crowd

by on Jul.15, 2010, under music

“If I was not who I say I am, I could have easily overpowered you already. You have just seen how I willingly gave the Ring back to your master. In fact, if I wanted to kill you all, I could do it — NOW!”

He stood up, and suddenly seemed to grow taller and well-muscled. In his eyes gleamed a light, keen and feral. Throwing back his cloak, he laid his hand on the hilt of a long sword that had hung concealed by his side. Sam stared at it, horrified.

“But I am the real Strider, fortunately,” he said, looking down at them with a suddenly kinder eye. He smiled. “I am already betrothed to an elf-maid, and I have no need for the power of the Ring. I am Aragon son of Arathon; and if I can save you from your own stupid mistakes, then I will.”

There was a long silence. Pipsqueak and Morrie stared at Strider with new-found respect at this revelation of his state.

The Fellowship of The Ring, J.R.R. Tolkein

In this Funny or Die video, Jewel dresses up as a Woman in a Grey Flannel Suit named Karen and, shyly persuaded to sing by her fellow “conventioneers” (“She only sings at the Christmas party”), blows the crowd away with a couple of Jewel songs.

She then comes back out and does an encore as herself.

This is terrible. Karaoke is the exact wrong place to stage what calls a King Incognito moment. That works in two situations: where the king needs information that he won’t get if he asks people who know who he is (consider Henry V walking among his troops on the eve of the attack, or, for a variation, Zeus rewarding mortals who treat him kindly not knowing his identity), or when, as in the excerpt above, the king must travel for his own safety.

Karaoke has an exact opposite mythopoetic gesture. We’ve all been to the bar where amid the drunk jocks and party girls (bless them) moaning through “Light My Fire” or “Lady Marmalade” there’s a shy, old man, talking to no one, who reveals as golden a throat as ever ran with the Rat Pack. Karaoke is a scene where an ordinary person can reveal talent that only celebrities are suspected to have.

By mixing with the rabble and then revealing her powers, Jewel sucks the fun out of karaoke. The message of this video is that, actually, most people can’t do the things celebrities do, that privilege follows a natural order, and there’s no point in trying to join the elect if you’re not already in it.

Jewel’s own life story is one of rags to riches. What an awful revision this gives it.

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I Am Trying To Break Your Soul

by on May.08, 2010, under music

FB coughed up this retro-soul version of Wilco’s “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” by J.C. Brooks & the Uptown Sound. Watch & let’s discuss:

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I Left the House

by on Mar.22, 2010, under music

Girlfriend’s out of town, which tends to mean I get off my ass and go do things. Last night I went to see these guys for a really fun, upbeat, dancy show.

They’re playing the 9 pm show Sunday night at Nublu the next few weeks. Recommended.

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Best Of The Decade; or, The Imperfect Transition

by on Mar.05, 2010, under music

Over at Come In Threes, America’s Favorite Kiwi B-Diddy Disco passed on a request from the Dan Schwartz Blog for contributors’ favorite albums of the decade.

I peered into my iTunes stats, wandered over to my CD shelves in the other room, and put together this list:

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