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Elliott Smith died yesterday, apparently by his own hand. He was 34 years old.

Posted in General Musings |

The Other Matrix, Reloaded

Neuromancer, the new editionWhen Kurt Loder asked cyberpunk sci-fi writer William Gibson about file-sharing, this is what Gibson answered: “I suspect we’re at the end of an 80-year technological window during which it was possible for quite a lot of people to make quite a lot of money selling recorded music.” This bears some thinking about, and the more I wander around the thought of it, the more I think Gibson is right. Again.

If you’re not a sci-fi reader you won’t remember the jolt of Gibson’s first novel, 1984′s Neuromancer. Let’s not get into it now, but compare it favorably to the first time you heard REM’s Murmur, or U2′s War, or whatever Nirvana track it was that made you understand that Kurt Cobain wasn’t just another rock hack. Compare it favorably to the first time you saw the water lilies, or “Guernica.” It was that good. If you liked that kind of thing. A lot of people did, and Neuromancer became the first novel to win the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the Philip K. Dick Award, all together.

Gibson got a lot wrong, but it felt like he hit more than he missed with his future vision of the post-industrial Sprawl, the shady plug-in cyberworld of data jockeys, easy recreational dermal designer drugs, digital interface warfare and defending ICE in The Matrix, and the rest. So he’s a natural figure to ask about what the Internet is doing to us all.

For my part, I don’t think filesharing is killing the music business. Our company and the host of this blog, Home Office Records, was the first record label to work with Napster (the original Napster) way back when, and we believe now as we did then that filesharing is the new radio, more or less. We might not need it if the old radio hadn’t failed us so completely, but it did and we do, so here we are. CD burning and actual piracy – remember that downloading is neither piracy nor stealing, it’s copying, which is a different beast – are more problematic. But here’s an old rule of rhetoric: control the vocabulary and you’re halfway along to controlling the debate. So you’ll hear the words “piracy” and “stealing” bandied about endlessly, with utter disregard for their actual meanings.

In all the noise, we easily lose sight of some simple facts. Until Edison, music was something that could not be captured (“fixed,” as we say in the Industry, and suddenly I am reminded of neutered housepets, and maybe there’s something to that). If you wanted to hear a song again, you had to play it again yourself, or convince your local musician to play it for you. If you saw Caruso, you had a rare experience and a memory you could take with you to the grave. You could describe it, boast about it, write about it, tease with it, ply and seduce with it. But you couldn’t hear it again. Once it reached the air, it was there and then gone. A triumph of entropy.

Then there was a machine to snap up the sound, or a reasonable facsimile, and play it back at later leisure. It’s an amazing innovation, if you think about it, like freeze-drying time to live through when you’ve got a hunger on. And soon enough an industry arose to process, capture, and neuterfix sound for resale, later, to a hungry public.

It’s our birthright; we are masters of sound. We will have our personalized ringtones, our mp3′s on our iPods, our screensaver sound schemes, and our rude conversations in night clubs while the band is trying to do a ballad. (I hate you, I want you to know that, you with the big mouth, wherever you are.) As we crawl through the Noughties trying to make sense of the din, perhaps the din has come to own us rather than the other way around. Buying music is an economic transaction, not an act of love.

What we forget here is that we aren’t buying music at all. We’re buying a fixed product in a fixed game, something etched and scrawled by machines out of patterns in the air. It’s good – it’s really good, sometimes – but maybe, as Gibson says, the tech trick that made it happen is about played out. It’s like playing Pong on yesterday’s outmoded 286 when you could be playing Neverwinter Nights on a screamer of an Alienware AMD 64 FX box, or better. Maybe our ossified big music business, which does hardly any good for anyone, and knows it, and wilfully forges forward to fuck things up even worse, was squeezing everyone down for its own nefarious reasons (*cough* profit *cough*). Maybe we could have had more, and better, for cheaper, all along. And maybe, after eight decades in a cage, the music is getting out again, taking a huge industry down as it goes.

I think I’ll welcome that. And I know I’ll want to see what comes along to replace it.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – first line of Neuromancer, 1984

Posted in Music Theory |

Twist and Kral

Speaking of art: Friday afternoon, as the day Tut-Tutted and Looked Like Rain, I made it down to the La Mama Galleria for “In the Midst of the Firing Range,” the latest showing by my painter friend Wayne Kral. Wayne is a surrealist, both on and off canvas, and the show was a good one. His garden, a Miró-meets-Dalí thicket just a few years ago, is now sprouting into lusher, deeper, Max Ernst-y bushes, and it was great to see his canvasses stretched brightly around the long room in a narrow band of magic-lantern panes.

Wayne has reached the point where his painting is starting to self-reflect, with some old work coming back in new forms and some central ideas dropping into the background where they make complex and playful texture. A couple of years ago he was painting strange On Beyond Zebra hieroglyphic alphabet pieces in soothing or jazzy colors (a few of these are on his web site, where they’ve been deftly protected against blog-raiders like me). Now the “scat” of those pieces – his term, taken from the musical styling and not the gross sexual perversion – is present in new forms, submerging or decorating or masking some of the newer work. His old kite-like Day-of-the-Dead fish inform new animal shapes and a couple of whimsical skeletons. His color palette is maturing, and he’s confident saying more with less.

My favorites were a matched quad of four tiny “trimester” paintings, numbered first through fourth, each depicting a common twisty curvy pointy abstract form in a different color scheme with different backgrounds. Per the artist, they’re a musing measure of sexual frustration during pregnancy, starting in sandy carnal red and black and getting downright explosive by the end. By the fourth trimester, the urges are positively scientific.

Posted in General Musings |

They Only Come Out At Night, Except In Hoboken

Girl #3 by Mary Ann FarleyAfter the grueling session at Spuyten Duyvil just related by Linus, I did not wake up until well past noon. It was after 3 when I emerged from the PATH station at Hoboken, on my way to visit Mary Ann Farley‘s studio for the annual Artists Studio Tour. It was sunny, it was windy, it was already winter. In Mary Ann’s studio, in an old leather factory, there was a party going on and my chocolate-covered brandied cherries did not last very long while art lovers stripped the walls of many of the works that were for sale, and even tried –sometimes successfully– to buy some that weren’t even for sale. Afterward we adjourned to the free buffet dinner laid out for the artists and their friends by local restaurants –they do things in style in Hoboken– and it was time to head back home. No time for music, and not even for the Amateur Female Jello Wrestling, at Siberia.

Posted in About Last Night |

The Duyvil Made Me Do It

The new beer bar on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg (at #359, across from Black Betty and near the corner of Havemeyer) is called Spuyten Duyvil, and it’s a great new addition to the shortlist of New York’s finer beverage establishments. Not only do they have an unusual, delightful, and wacky and irreverent selection of beers, but you can also buy most of the furnishings and curios that deck the place, and do it in the company of fine cold cuts, cheeses, and patés. A vintage power drill in nostalgic clunky ’50s streamline nearly dislodged onto Pierre’s head last night in the midst of the festivities, and there was prosciutto crudo in the vicinity, so we know this is true.

But ours was biggerTogether with Pierre, and Bill and Warren of the Malted Barley Appreciation Society, I dispatched, lessee, a glass of Cantillon Iris (on tap) and big shared bottles of Achel Trappist, Drie Fonteinen, Jopen Koyt (small bottle pictured at right, unsuspecting courtesy of the Oxford Bottled Beer Database), and some Saison or another, before we finished up with a round of Kulmbacher Eisbok for all. Spuyten Duyvil is dog-friendly, if you swing that way, and Bill and Warren had brought along Ludwig and Mabel – dachshund and poodle – as a cunning way to meet girls. And dribble on them. Not us, the dogs. Dribble. You know. On the girls.

The jukebox at Spuyten Duyvil is one of those wonderful non-commercial propositions, packed with dusty old jazz tunes and crinkly obscure bluegrass and wilfully-obtuse avant rock. We sat at a tan Formica kitchen table ($180), and ex-smoker that I am I couldn’t help but flush over the collection of promotional ashtrays hung on a wall in the back (average price $8, my favorite was the Sanka one). We adjourned closer to 3 a.m. than I would have liked, and with the G train in some sort of shuttle-repair sublimation state (Lorimer to Bedford-Nostrand, Bedford-Nostrand to Hoyt-Schermerhorn, and I still wasn’t at Destination: Bergen Street) it ended up being a wee early bedtime.

Today was supposed to be the last boat trip of the season, since the Good Ship Ventura is bound for winter drydock next week. Rather, it was the last trip of the season, but I very much missed the boat. What with the cold late night before and the warm bundled up a.m., morning was just not happening today. Departure point was the 79th Street Boat Basin instead of the usual North Cove slip, which is just west of where the Towers used to be, and I left in what should have been just enough time to get uptown. But no; I got swoggled by the usual subway trouble, the time came and the time went, and I wasn’t even at 72nd Street yet. (“Alpha Team to Green Base, subject has entered the subway at Court Street, I repeat, subject has entered the subway at Court Street.” “Roger Alpha, we have your message. All trains, go backward immediately.”)

Instead I saw Mystic River. This was not very cheerful, but it was satisfying, and I love the Loews Lincoln Square theatre. The movie was playing in Auditorium 1, which is one of the big ones with curtain and balcony. It’s worth ten bucks in there.

Some of the late-season Ventura trips go through the swing bridge and in along the old Spuyten Duyvil Creek, these days a.k.a. the Harlem River Ship Canal. “Spuyten Duyvil,” from the Dutch, means either “Devil’s whirlpool” or “to spite the Devil,” depending on how much you have in your mouth when you’re trying to say it. It’s the channel that runs from the Hudson to the Harlem River at the tip of Manhattan Island, separating New York County from the rest of America, and when it was industriously relocated to its current course in 1895 it marooned one small bit of Manhattan, a neighborhood named Marble Hill, on the far side of the waterway, in the Bronx. Marble Hill is still up there, the one toehold Manhattan has on the mainland. But the beer is better in Billyburg.

Posted in About Last Night |

No Milk Today?

1,000 words easy

Mothers Against Genetic Engineering (MAdGE) are mounting a campaign against genetically engineered food and organisms in New Zealand. This is their billboard. About which may I simply say “Yikes.”

“New Zealanders are allowing a handful of corporate scientists and ill-informed politicians to make decisions on the ethics of GE. Our largest science company, AgResearch, is currently putting human genes into cows in the hope of creating new designer milks. The ethics of such experiments have not even been discussed by the wider public. How far will we allow them to go? Where is the line in the sand? Why is the government lifting the moratorium on GE when we have not even had a public debate on ethics?” said Alannah Currie, MAdGE founder and billboard designer.

Posted in General Musings |

American Vendor

In the course of editing yesterday’s post, I ran across the blog site of Harvey Pekar and family – Harvey, Joyce Brabner, and occasionally young Danielle post about public speaking, car repairs, accidentally eating before CAT scans, and getting Harvey to go dancing, over at From Off the Streets of Cleveland…. Harvey’s writing is as distinctive by Web as it is by comic; these few days after seeing the movie, I can’t escape his voice and cadence as I read the entries. Joyce’s writing is gorgeously sardonic. It should be no surprise that if you’d like to buy some Harvey Pekar merch, well, Harvey would like to sell you some. He’d also like to be a speaker at your event (the possibilities are endless: Harvey at the Board Meeting, Harvey at the Bris, Harvey Introduces Your Band). We’ll put up a permanent link to the site when we get our permanent links figgered out.

Posted in General Musings |

American, Tender

The Dream of Chuang-TseI hear some guys with plastic hats and wooden sticks hit some ball out of some stadium last night. Oh, all right, I know, I was watching it too, at d.b.a. over a couple of glasses of Delirium Tremens. I’m missing the baseball gene, is all. And the football gene. And the hockey gene. I’m just not a sports guy. When people talk sports to me it’s like that scene from The Mouse That Roared where Peter Sellers is talking to a guard who is speaking a babbling brook of French. “Oui oui oui,” quoth Peter, as the guard rattles on. “Mais non – Alors! Ce n’est pas possible! Non! Incroyable!” And so forth. The two finally come to some sort of resolution, and Peter returns to his friend. “What did he say?” asks the friend. “I do not know,” says Peter. “I don’t speak French.”

I think that was in The Mouse That Roared.

Me, I was down at the Jefferson Sunshine watching American Splendor. It’s a much meatier movie than I expected. I never followed Harvey Pekar very closely, so I was surprised to love the film as much as I did. My first reaction to the books way back when was pure horny high school adolescence – “Hey, there are no naked girls in this, what’s going on here?” – which didn’t leave room for apprehension of the plight of the common man, the truth of stories among the masses, or the unglorious cast of characters supplied by the extras department of market and age. No, I liked my underground comix fabulous, furry and freaky. Or with nekkid girls. Or both.

The movie is lovingly made, with patience and a big heart. In some ways it’s not much about Harvey Pekar, though Harvey & Co. are very beautifully featured in it (that’s the originals, as well as the actors playing them, which gives us a rare chance to watch actors abstract people into roles). It’s about reflections and the blinking public eye, and how the part you play in public is something that floats above your life as much as it may be a part of it. All of the moment, with no points of reference. And it’s about the toil and despair and frustration and humdrum behind the public life.

At one point the camera finds Harvey staring into a mirror, in mid-existential crisis and mid-treatment for cancer. He turns and wakes up his wife, Joyce Brabner. “Am I just playing the part of the guy in the comic book?” he asks her (I’m not actually quoting here). “When I die, does the character go on? Or does he just fade away?” Nice, nice. 2 points for good use of mirrors. 2 additional points for not actually making the reference to Chuang-Tse and his dream of being a butterfly.

I used to be in a theatre company, Arden Party, with James Urbaniak, who delightfully plays R. Crumb here; and back then I was also in a pretty odd production of Genet’s “The Balcony” at The Tunnel (is that place still open?) with Donal Logue, who plays an actor playing Harvey in a Cali stage production of American Splendor. So in a film about levels, there were strange levels aplenty for me, and they made the picture even more satisfying.

And the movie holds out good hope for crabby people with poor housekeeping skills, so that’s something.

Then to d.b.a. and the tail end of the Game – people, people, was there ever really any doubt? – and a nice long chat with the cute Aussie girl at the door. As I was heading up First Avenue to the bar, a police car came screaming around the corner of Second Street and pulled over a garbage truck. The cops leaped out, hands on guns, and they yanked the garbage truck door open and shouted the driver out, and searched him. Just when you think you’ve seen everything.

Posted in About Last Night |

The Dolly Ranchers at the Rodeo Bar

Santa Fe’s Dolly Ranchers are more folk than country, but their foot-stomping brand of folk music, which harks back to Woody Guthrie and Leo Kottke, is generously leavened with large helpings of country –Dolly Parton, naturally. What is there not to like in this travelling quartet of sometime circus performers? Well, I found the rough and grating quality that Sarah-Jane Moody’s voice takes when she has the lead and gets excited, to be highly detrimental. Not that it’s bad, think Tom Waits, after all… but it just does not fit. It does not fit with co-vocalist Amy Bertucci’s clean tone, nor with Marisa Anderson’s splendid guitar, and not either with Sarah-Jane’s own excellent harmonica breaks and background vocals.

Still, their enthusiasm and playfulness are infectious, the music is mostly fast, energetic, and highly danceable in a frenetic kind of way, they had fun on stage, and so did the audience in a nicely full Rodeo Bar.

Posted in About Last Night |

I have sinned

Remy ViciousLast night, I lost my credibility. It happened innocently at first, during the customary contest for audience members at the Lucky Stiff Burlesque at the Pussycat Lounge. They needed [s]victims[/s]volunteers; I was on the first row as is my wont, and when the elfin Remy Vicious made a beeline for me, I knew my fate was sealed. In short order, two more volunteers were roped in and we faced the daunting task of drinking each a bottle of Budweiser with our hands behind our backs. I did. I’m a trained professional. From the first dreg to the last dreg and all the dreck in between; meanwhile the other two sputtered and gagged, and had to call their hands to the rescue. And thus it came to pass that I, Senior Editor of the New York City Beer Guide and all-round beer geek, am now for ever tarred and sullied in the eyes of my peers. I drank a Bud. It could have been worse, of course; it could have been Rolling Rock!

Oh, and what did I win? I won a drink ticket (a whiskey sour soon rinsed off that nasty taste in my mouth) and a dozen fresh dollar bills that I recycled promptly on the various performers as they took the stage later on, especially on the aforementioned Remy and on Sister Ammo, the hot nun.

Posted in About Last Night |