Something’s Happening Here (But I Don’t Know What It Is)

Bass Line Dada

Bass Line Dada

Something odd has been going on in lacunamusic land over the past few days.  Something that has not occurred in the past several years of its existence.  Something that we have heard happens sometimes… This: a bunch of people all over this little blue planet read the words scribbled herein.  It was a little like those dreams where you suddenly realize that you are at work in your onesies, with those rhino slippers that your spouse got you for your birthday as a gag gift.  Or that feeling when someone opens your bedroom door while you are lip-synching and air-guitaring Born to Run in your underwear… in front of a mirror… with sunglasses.  Getting the picture?  I kind of thought I was doing this thing all by myself.  All of a sudden I look up and there’s 500 people gazing in my window.  Holy Mother of Baby Jesus, I thought, I am an overnight sensation!  I’d better step up my game; why, a Nobel Prize could be just around the corner.  As one of my hero’s uncle was quoted as saying, “With great power there must also come great responsibility.” (Uncle Ben)

So I began to ruminate upon possible topics with which I could solidify my newfound fame.  I tried at one point to write about philosophy but only other philosophers really give a crap and they don’t read blogs.  Climate change is important I think, but what a downer.  Space travel is a catchy subject but it always leads back to climate change. Government torture seems like a fruitful avenue but the last thing I need is the NSA crawling up my ass.  And then there’s the all the fuckin’ profanity I use!  How would I explain that to Oprah? I found myself in a real live bonafide quandary.  I must publish for READERSHIP.  God only knows what could be right around the corner: book deals, articles for People Magazine, spreads for GQ, Hollywood!  Suddenly, just this morning as a matter of fact, I realized – Holy flying fuck!  This is precisely what happened to me when I made a thousand copies of my cd!  Instead of simply being about the thing in itself, it becomes about other people’s reactions to the thing (see: Why I Quit Music). I was going along just fine, writing whatever the hell I wanted, maybe chuckling at my own juvenile sense of humor periodically, but really just writing for me – because I like the act of constructing a nice paragraph, playing around with this fine English language, being kind of flip.  Why? because I was in my underwear rockin’ out to Springsteen.

In my last post I prattled on most vehemently about the state of the music scene.  Apparently a LOT of people feel the same way, but if you are a musician you’d better not talk shit about the music scene or KAPOW! you are out on your skinny little ass.  Since, as I stated earlier, I quit music, I really couldn’t care less what people think.  Of course there was the lone butt-wipe who said something like,”Maybe if he put as much thought into his music and his audience, he wouldn’t be stuck with 800 cd’s.” This guy obviously missed the point completely. But as I said, hundreds of people resonated with the sentiments.  Back in the 90’s I was involved in a couple of different “bands”.  Neither of them could have given a rat’s ass about audience, or marketing, or online music sales, or any of the other crap that has subsumed the world of the present-day artist.

And you know what?  Here was the novel thing about that: it was fun.

One of those bands was called Bass Line Dada.  BLD was a ridiculously endearing little outfit that was a virtual casserole of genres … and an absolute train-wreck live.  I do believe that might have been the reason people so enjoyed our shows.  When I joined the band I played everything from treated recorder to xylophone to hand drums to guitar and banjo (few of which I had the slightest inkling how to play).  We were fronted by the most charmingest of poet/performers (Daniel Ari, who is, as we speak, putting the finishing touches on a brilliant collection of poetry/art: see his blog @ Fights With Poems), and augmented on Flying V Bass by The Reverend Doctor “Blackie” Holzberg.  (I was nicknamed Doctor Dark due to my penchant for penning such radio friendly classics as The Ballad of Lydia ShermanThe Gashleycrumb Tinies {which holds the record for highest body count of any song ever recorded} and The Ballad of the Stalker.)  Daniel donned the moniker of The Fang.  On our second, and unfortunately final, album we recorded his theme song (lyrics by Nervous Norvus):

Now here is the thing:  The thing is this:  Everywhere we played, people came.  We played our cd release concert for our first album Shoulder of a Hungry Man at The Starry plough pub in Berkeley.  We did the unthinkable and opened up for ourselves incognito as The Tony Clifton Experience.  Watch:

The Tony Clifton Experience live @ The Starry Plough

I mentioned a “couple” of “bands”.  The other was likely the most bizarre and neurotically lovable act this here Area of the Bay has ever witnessed: The Hand Shakes.  And, yes, it is supposed to be two words.  Narration cannot adequately convey how hilariously disturbed were these performances.  Thus I insert here a “documentary” on the life and times of The Hand Shakes:

I can hear your desperate implorations:  Please man, get to the fucking point!  You are asking yourselves, out of sheer self preservation, why is he prattling on about his past glories? Is he nothing but a bitter old man, pining on for days of yore?  The answer to that dear reader is no, and yes.  I am not a bitter old man, but I am most definitely pining.  There are a few salient points here that I’d like to bring to the fore.  (Thank God, you are saying to your computer screen.)

Point Number 1: Almost every show we did was packed.

Point Number 2: We did practically no advertising.

Point Number 3: When people said they would come, they came.

Point Number 4: People bought cd’s (when we had them).

Point Number 5: Everyone paid attention, rather than gazing at their hand-held device, or taking pictures with their hand-held device, or telling all of their friends and fans and followers what they were doing on their hand-held device.

Point Number 6:  We had fun.

Now tell me honestly all you artists out there:  how many of you can say the same about your shows?  To all of the above mentioned points? I’m imagining not a whole hell of a lot of you.  Something bad is happening to the human species and I’ll tell you this: it’s not good.  Here’s a theory… Have you noticed the proliferation of zombie-themed entertainment of late?  Now, you don’t have to agree with this theory yet, but later I’ll ask you to agree.  Think to yourself, what are the qualities of a zombie?  Besides the obvious… flesh-munching.  They travel in hordes.  They stare blankly.  They only pay attention to what’s in front of them.  They are in their own little world.  Their world is all about one thing.  Ok.  What does that remind you of?  Of course!  People with their fuckin’ hand-held devices!

We live in a world of lonely fame.  Each and every stupid utterance has the potential to reach millions.  Each and every idiotic antic can be recorded and posted for all the world to see and respond to with something equally as idiotic.  We have become attention zombies. So where does this leave the artist, who actually has something good to say (or not)?  Each and every day I am assaulted with “opportunities” like these:  “Seeking Alternative bands for Label Consideration”, “Skope Radio and TV Looking for New Artists to Fill Slots!”, “Seeking Artist/songwriters looking for a producer or label”, “Reach Over 60 Million Fans with Placements in Hundreds of Apps and Games”, “Radio Exposure on TRS247 Radio to 80,000 Monthly Listeners”….

Get the idea?  Fame.  It’s right there at our fingertips.  When I picture all of the artists spending their hard earned money (yes, all of these “opportunities” cost money) with the click of a paypal button, I can’t but also picture a Las Vegas casino with all of the sad old drunks blindly throwing their cash into a slot machine only to receive, well, nothing.

So what’s my point you ask (again).  To be honest, I have no fucking idea.  But what I do know is this, things have changed since those days with Bass Line Dada and The Hand Shakes.  And it was not so terribly long ago.  I think that, personally, I was happier when I knew who was paying attention to me.  Because they were right there, in the same room, or at the other end of a telephone line.  They were more than a status update or a cheery photo. They were a real human being, with reactions, physicality, a scent, eyes that said more than their mouth…  That world is now becoming a thing of the past. And what have we to show for it but sterilization.

I am trying to find myself as an artist again.  I need to reconfigure my relationship to the music that is inside of me, music that really wants to be in the world.  I am trying to be content with the idea that, possibly, no one will ever hear that music.  I want to relish again in the fact that I have a handful of very close friends with whom I do stuff, like eat.  Making music, for me, began as a deep desire to move others; it had nothing to do with sales or fame or labels or reviews or press releases or any of that other bullshit that eventually takes over.  I want that back.  Here’s an idea:  let’s you and I do a little collaboration.  I’ll post a song and you do whatever the hell you want with it.  Download and re-record it, overdub it, add a freakin’ symphony…Why? because we are all part of the same damn thing.  These songs are not mine.  They belong to the world… ok… to the universe (he says with begrudging embarrassment.) Are you ready?  Here’s the song:

Soon Comes the Morning

This is me letting go of ownership, and allowing you to take it.  It is a gesture toward the kind of world in which I’d like to live.  One that is free of the kind of proprietorship that harnesses creativity to standards set by corporations.  One that allows artists to be artists and not slaves to a system that relishes in perpetual struggle. Here’s my dream: I imagine a world where those who create are supported, valued, and esteemed; I imagine a world where ideas can be freely shared and “taste” is not governed by money mongering ass-wipes; I imagine a world where my song can return to me in a dozen different configurations, each version imbued with a generosity of spirit and good will; I imagine a world where art is placed above commerce; I imagine a world where decisions are made according to the laws of aesthetics and science is aligned with spirit but not blinded (or blindsided) by religion; I imagine a world where human  interaction is based upon mutual respect rather than competition and greed; I imagine a world where philosophy sails through the human imagination rather than circling through the belly of the Ouroboros. What would happen if billions of us imagined this world?

On that note here’s another song I’d like to share with you.  I like it a lot.  I wrote it in the spirit of the paragraph above.  Listen to the message and share it.  It will cost you nothing except about five minutes of your time.  If you like it share it with someone you care about.  Here is the song:

Burden of the Spell

Hopefully soon I’ll be back to a readership of 8.  Then I will no longer have to write such blatantly commercial articles such as this. What a sell-out.

 

Why I Quit Music (and the redemption of small press)

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Part I: The Plight

A few months back I made the decision to quit music.  Ok, that’s not really true.  I’m just being manipulative.  But it is partially true.  I, like 6,335,428  other people in the Bay Area, fancy myself a “singer/songwriter”.  I had a little project that I called The Mockingbirds. (I would link you to the website, but I deleted it.) I put out an album back in 2011 called Lacuna that I was very, very proud of.  So proud in fact that I ended up printing a thousand of them, which in retrospect bordered on hubris.  With my little project (which boasted a price-tag of upwards of $15 grand) proudly gripped in my bony mitts, I ventured out into the local venues with the notion that I would strike up enough sales to pay for the next record.  Who wouldn’t want to buy this after all? It has all of the trappings of what people love: it thematically revolved around my late father but was uplifting rather than maudlin, it was all acoustic, it had just enough arty influence to make it interesting but was also quite approachable, it was beautifully produced and engineered, it had an absolutely stellar cast of musicians, the cover art (executed by gifted artist and good friend Derek Wilson) was gorgeous, and the songs were really fuckin’ good!

Now, hear this:  Being a “singer/songwriter” or any other kind of musician or artist or poet in the Bay Area, or any place else for that matter, is really freakin’ hard work.  You end up being composer, creative director, publisher, marketer, promoter, manager, financier, performer, networker, and sales team – any one of which is a full time job in itself.  I don’t imagine that most artists enjoy doing all of that other work, but they do it anyway. Why? Because there is no other way.  And this is what pisses me off to no end about “popular music”.  I personally know dozens and dozens of first rate, absolutely dazzling musicians and songwriters that are struggling to make ends meet while airwave-wasters like Bieber and Spears et al sit on their professionally toned asses collecting fistfuls of cash for absolute dreck!  Though I have now quit performing music of my own, I fully and happily and with god on my side, endorse a fifth  entry into Kant’s list of antinomies:

  1. the limitation of the universe in respect of space and time,
  2. the theory that the whole consists of indivisible atoms (whereas, in fact, none such exist),
  3. the problem of free will in relation to universal causality
  4. the existence of a necessary being…and...
  5. the cotemporality of shit and diamonds (or: you can’t polish a turd with cash)

Here’s an interesting side-note.  Just as an experiment, I started a Facebook page for Lemmiwinks the Gerbil King, one of my favorite characters from South Park.  I just wanted to see if it got any attention.  I also created a Facebook page for my musical project The Mockingbirds because, as stated above, I was also the promoter and marketer for my music.  I do absolutely nothing to the Lemmiwinks page, except post some sporadic bullshit about gerbils and other rodents.  That page now has 359 likes.  It just got another one yesterday.  My Mockingbirds page to which I pretty consistently posted “meaningful” and heartfelt content has 246 (200 of which are friends whom I paid to click the button, the other 46 are spam). Now if I were the scientific type and had to formulate some kind of hypothesis regarding public taste, I might come to the horrific conclusion that the general public cares more about animated rodents than art.  Would I be right?  Who knows, but I bet if we conducted a poll, we might verify that hypothesis.  Reminds me of the scene in Supersize Me where Ronald McDonald was a more recognizable face than Jesus (and that’s saying something in this god-fearin’ Christian nation of ours).

As I stated earlier, I have incredible respect for the musicians that are attempting to pull off a career amidst all of the crap they have to do to get attention.  But for me it’s like this: I like driving my car but please don’t ask me what’s under the hood.  I felt like an absolute poseur with promo shots, stage banter, web presence, blasting Facebook with cheery, upbeat status updates about shows that were an absolute fuckin’ train-wreck -“Great show last night at ArtBeat!  Thanks to all [two] of you that showed up! Thanks for [not] supporting local music! :-)”… Probably the worst experience was a disaster of a gig at Pyramid Brewery in Downtown Walnut Crick.  It was like Derek Bailey (rest his ultra talented soul) performing for KFOG Kaboom – all puzzled looks over pints of draft beer and nachos.  All of this to say, I still have over 800 really lovely cd’s in my garage that I’m now donating to charity events.  (You think I’m kidding.  I’m not.) (If you want one, let me know. It comes with a dollar bill.) I say these things not to get an aw-poor-baby but to reveal just what the hell is going on for most of those “singer/songwriters” that are up there pouring their talented little hearts out for a crowd that is more interested in gossiping about their neighbor’s teenager than listening to what the artist has to say.  So I say to all those people (none of which are you, dear reader):  Pay attention, dammit! Buy a freakin’ cd!  You spend more on crappy Starbucks triple grande lattes than you do on music!  You say you love this artist or that artist and then you go home and stream it on Spotify!  You say to me, “aw c’mon dude, Spotify is coool… I totally use it to discover new artists”… No, you friggin’ don’t!  You get all of your music for free because you think you somehow deserve it!  Let me inform you of something, person other than you who cares deeply about the survival of the arts, you absolutely don’t deserve it.  That little silver disc that you refuse to purchase from the artist is not some damn gratuitous gesture, it is a labor of love!  It is a little slice of the only thing about humanity that gives me any hope – CREATIVITY.  By going home and launching Spotify (or Pandora or BitTorrent or any other stupid website or app that gives people’s music away for free) you are killing creativity.  You’ll pay $40 a week in crappy lattes but $10 for a cd that will help support an artist’s creativity well, that’s kinda pricey. Jesus.

Part II: The Redemption

Which brings me to the part about the possibility of deliverance.  (Cue angelic music). Amidst all of the utter and absolute crap that’s being released by the major labels, there are isolated islands of hope, oases of artistic integrity that are doing such incredible work that it makes me do a ludicrous little jig in celebration.  (It is like that joke where this guy has twin sons – one is a pessimist the other an optimist.  The guy can’t stand his sunny little boy but adores his little curmudgeon.  For their respective birthdays he gets the grouch a shiny new bike, and the little idealist a giant pile of horse shit.  While one boy is ignoring his new bicycle, he checks in on the other who is busily shoveling away at the pile of shit.  When the dick-head dad inquires as to the purposes of his activity, the boy brightly replies, “Well, with a pile of shit this big, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”) But back to the islands of hope: Some of these small press labels are simply devoting themselves to releasing really great music that pushes boundaries and explores the fringes of what music is capable of accomplishing (Isounderscore, for instance). Others, bless their souls, are releasing tiny runs of limited edition packages that are so exquisite in execution, design, and aesthetic content that it makes the mind wobble.

One of these art houses is Time Released Sound, lovingly run in Alameda, CA by a nice fellow named Colin Herrick.  Why just this morning I opened, listened to, and explored the 2013 release by The Angling Loser.  What can I say but what a treat for the eyes, ears, and fingers.  Inside the green, opaque velum envelope to which is affixed a fishing cigarette card, lies a little treasure trove of delights: a hand sewn fly tying flip book, an antique fishing postcard, a page from an angler’s instruction manual inside of which are enfolded two beautifully recorded cd’s, and a hand-numbered insert with track information.  The music is a tranquil combination of treated ambient-ish guitar, electronics, field recordings, and cryptic recorded voice.  Each release is a literal feast for the eyes and ears, usually in a run of maybe a couple  hundred.  Here’s a picture from their blog showing off some of this ultra-fine work:

time-released-sound

Am I right or am I right.  (Notice how I ended that with a period.) Freakin’ stunning. I want them all.  Now maybe it’s because I grew up listening to records (the kind that are 12″ in diameter and go inside a nice big cardboard cover with cool art to gaze at) that I like actually holding something in my hands when I’m listening, something that informs the sonic world in either text or imagery.  Something that fills the lacuna of meaning in the rich tapestry of the sensorium.  Or maybe it’s because I spent so much time with my lips on a bong as a young ruffian.  I don’t really know.  What I do know is that I absolutely love beautiful things, things that somebody’s hands have touched, things that are personal expressions packaged in love. I buy regular old cd’s in those goddam jewel cases, sure, but there is something so clinical and, well, unpatriotic about those.  This stuff that Colin produces, on the other hand, brings back that fine marriage of the arts that so many great artists (Gustav Klimt, Tristan Tzara, Jean Cocteau, Laurie Anderson, etc.) have spent their energy pursuing.

Here’s another one:  Wounded Wolf Private-Press is a publishing house in the UK/Turkey run by two ridiculously talented polymaths, Atay İlgün and Gözde Omay.  Quoting their website, their focus is “poetry, fiction, photography, folk and textural music along with additional prints and ephemera.” I recently ordered a couple of items from them which arrived promptly with a couple of additional gifts from these generous, kind-hearted folks.  The Hogweed and the Aderyn, is a beautifully textured slice of acoustic heaven.  Somewhat dark and pastoral, it conjures those European country-sides that all of us romantic Americans love to pine for.  The disc is housed in an elegant (biodegradable!) cardboard sleeve with a tiny carved wooden folk instrument affixed to the front.  All of this done, the music and the packaging, and executed by Atay and Gözde.

hogweed & aderyn

To my mind, this is the future of music.  Though I will probably never perform in front of humans again, I do plan to write and record. I hope that my next collection of songs can be released on a worthy press like one of these. Maybe just 100, but beautiful, handmade, personal, and intimate; a reflection of the time and effort it takes to plumb the soul and the intellect for words, search for the right notes and chords and rhythm to make the words come to life, explore the infinite variety of sonic textures that will support but not overwhelm the delicacy of the song, record until each gesture is in integrity with what the piece needs to come to fruition, muddle through the dozens of possible track orders until it flows like a river, and finally marry the final product to a visual aesthetic which both informs and augments all of those life experiences that have been boiled down to 50 or so minutes on a silver disc.

I love that there are people out there who have committed themselves to making a small but vital difference.  I love that there are musicians out there who are willing to go through endless amounts of bullshit just to grace our ears with their song.  I love that human beings love to create.  It gives me hope for the future.  For the rest of us our task is simple: appreciation.  Make art a priority because without it we lose a little bit of our humanity.  Scratch that… a lot…  So next time you are at a club watching/listening to an artist and some clown is talking about their stupid day at work, smack them upside their head and remind them that this music we humans make is our salvation, so shut the hell up!