Monday, January 8, 2018

The Way We Were

One day in the distant past when my brother and I were driving to Yosemite, we had this great idea for indie rock fans which was meant to alleviate the problems of touring. We were going to start a whole town that was just chock full of rock clubs, so that instead of bands having to go on tour and lose money seeking their audience, the fans would take on the monetary burden of seeing them instead.

The town would provide more than just a place to see your favorite acts play new hits, though. To attract repeat patrons, it would have a profusion of different-themed clubs, like there was one called “Covers” where your favorite bands came and only played covers, and one called “Switch,” where bands who were in town would exchange members (or instruments) and play each other’s repertoires, and there was one called “Backstage,” where you watched the set from the back instead of the front, only heard monitor sound, wore a laminate, and got your beer by plunging your hand into a cooler of melted ice.

Part of the idea was to make the fans act like they were on tour, instead of the bands. There were different kinds of hotels you could stay at, with different pricing, ranging from sleeping on someone’s floor during a loud house party (for free!) to the higher end type of hotel with a pool in the center (fun fact: the majority of spinal cord injuries caused by diving happen in this kind of hotel, when drunken male idiots jump into the pool from the balcony). The town was going to have a museum as well, and in it, there would be all the old vans of your favorite bands. For a fee, you could sit in a smelly one for eight hours straight with people you didn’t like, and stuff like that.
a Fellow, a Decemberist, a Fastback

Since this was pre-Branson Missouri, pre-Britney residencies in Vegas, pre-E-Bay and pre-Air BNB, I think we were pretty clever. Today, people do all kinds of things like this – they have baseball fantasy leagues and go on spring training trips, experience eco-vacations where they build bridges or help save orangutans; there’s even (I’m told) a South African safari you can go on with Robyn Hitchcock where he will sing you songs at night round the campfire. But back then, there weren’t those things and doing anything like that was monetarily out of reach anyway. And for whatever reason, “going on tour” seemed like the most romantic and hard to achieve dream – something someone like me, who was not in a band and was a girl to boot, could never ever dream of doing.

Except that I did it. For ten days in March and April of 1992, I Went On Tour with the Young Fresh Fellows and the Dharma Bums, in Europe, no less. I went with my friend Lisa, who was president of their record company, Frontier. We went because we could, and I feel fairly sure we may be the only two women who were not actual musicians and not sleeping with someone in the band who have ever had this opportunity.
Young Fresh Fellows, Nijmegen 92

This isn’t the time or the place to tell the story of that tour, but suffice to say it could easily have been the best ten days of my life. Many years later, I was reminiscing about a few of its highlights with head Fellow Scott McCaughey, who had by this time joined a new band called REM. He’d just headlined with them in front of 250,000 people at Rock in Rio in Brazil. “Oh, but believe me, that night in Spain was way more fun,” he said.

And I am sure that it was, because the mind boggles at anything getting better than that. Sometimes, when I am at Victoria Station in London, I look wistfully at the exact spot where we all parted company, the Fellows and Lisa and I. I remember us sitting there at 4 in the morning, waiting for the tube to start up, covered in Euro-grime and tear stained with laughter from a ridiculous all night journey on the Calais ferry back to the UK, and I just smile and smile.
Me: Berlin 92

Anyway, afterwards life went on for all of us, as it does, until one day a few weeks ago, it – life – almost stopped for Scott, when he suffered a stroke while on tour with Alejandro Escovedo. Very soon thereafter, Scott’s friends in Portland Oregon rallied round to have to raise money for his considerable rehabilitation expenses.

Scott has a lot of friends. And Portland has a lot of musicians. The result was a couple of events that were well worth getting on a plane for. Dubbed “Help The Hoople,” the concerts were held at the Star Theater and the Wonder Ballroom, and featured sets by musicians and bands like the Dharma Bums, Justin Townes Earle, Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers and James Mercer of the Shins, M. Ward, Alejandro Escovedo, the Decemberists, and various intricate incarnations of members of them all, including people from Sleater Kinney and R.E.M. The music ranged through Hood’s earnest and lengthy rumination on race relations in the South (“What It Means”), Mercer’s solo-greatest hits set (“New Slang” and “Simple Song”), the Filthy Friends and Alejandro Escovedo’s hard rock (including a cover of “All The Young Dudes”), the Decemberists fantastical/historical folky jangle “Hamilton”-inspiring rhyming slang pop, and of course, a set by 3/4s of REM: “You Are My Everything” (James Mercer on vocals), “The One I Love,” “Texarkana,” “Rockville” and “Superman” (with Mills on vocals) and, on the final night, “I Believe,” with Colin Meloy on vocals.

There are those who might quibble that this is not seeing REM, but I am not among them: to me it was more as if I’d gained admission to those clubs I made up on the drive to Yosemite all those years ago. Later, Jason said, “It doesn’t even matter who sings REM songs now, it only matters that the band is the same.” But the way that I’d put it is different: I’d say, it doesn’t matter who sings REM songs because we are all REM. Well, some of us may be more REM than others: when Meloy sang “Down By the Water” with his own band the Decembrists with Peter Buck on guitar, he said, “You’ve heard this song earlier in the night, only we added a few chords.” 

And it’s true, it turns out it is “The One I Love,” revisited, although in some amazing way I like it better. I like it better because it builds on it, like a sequel, or a second floor. It uses the original song like a framework on which to hang a higher flag, or to tell a different story, and by so doing it makes the song grow bigger and stronger and brighter and more resonant. It’s as if the music we love is a beautiful tree, and the branches are reaching higher and higher, and those of us in the audience, and on stage as well, have internalized REM’s whole catalog as bodily nourishment, informing our folk tales and our personal histories. The Decemberists have, for sure, and if I were REM I would take that as the highest possible compliment. I heard that at sound check they were all looking at their i-phones to figure out the lyrics, but I know the lyrics to "I Believe" by heart:

Trust in your calling, make sure your calling's true;
Think of others, then others think of you...

practice, practice makes perfect,
But perfect is a fault, and fault lines change...

And change is what I believe in."

You know how people talk about ‘self-care’? This is my version of it: treating myself to an old school road trip, returning like a dog to its vomit. Going to the Scott shows was just like old days when I was a rock critic really – meeting up with Lisa, Jason, Hammi, and others in some rando city; drinking at some old man bar beforehand, then watching R.E.M.  rock it out. The only difference is, there’s now direct public transport from PDX into town; during sets I can post pix and comments to twitter, and, oh yeah, I wear glasses now.

But self-care is one thing, health care is another. I dislike intensely both the fact that we are all so much older now – old age, as my mom says, is not for the faint of heart — and even more that, whatever one’s health care situation is, one needs to give fundraisers to support the cost of it. There’s something badly wrong with the American situation, because not everyone has friends like Scott’s, who can auction off their rickenbackers or write $5000 donation checks, but everyone is at risk for stroke.

From what I hear, Scott is doing better than expected, and he has a support system like nobody’s business, yet even he is struggling financially with what is actually a fairly normal situation. And that’s not right.
scott and gross deli tray, germany 92

But thinking those dark thoughts about the horrible place our country is in can only lead to depression. Another way of looking at it is that generosity can sometimes be its own reward. The thing is, we are living through such terrible times now. It makes it even more important to know who your friends are, and to foregather. I swear, sometimes I feel like one of those characters in “Station Eleven,” wandering in the wilderness, looking for other survivors, and I know I am not the only one, either. On the second night of Help the Hoople, the concert at the Wonder Room, a Portland musician named Casey Neill said something similar on stage. He was talking about how it awful the times are and how bad we all feel about it, and he said, “So my New Year’s resolution is…”

And then he paused, and made this gesture with his hands. I suppose what he did was wring them, like a lady in a Victorian novel; yes, he seriously wrung his hands. And as he did this, we all knew exactly what he meant, he didn’t even need to speak it. But then he did. He paused, and said, “It’s…”

“…to carry this feeling we all have in this room right now, this love and companionship and community, out in to the world and spread it.”
Thanks, Portland. Stay weird!

(You can still donate to the Scott McCaughey Fund, by clicking this link:

Monday, January 1, 2018

High on the Flower

On my way to see Camper Van Beethoven on the second to last night of the year, I found myself thinking about all the beautiful dresses I have worn to Camper Van Beethoven shows in the past.
There was, for instance, a beautiful pink silk print dress from the 1940s I had for a while that made me look like a Dorothea Lange-era Dust Bowl refugee, perfect to dance to ”Sad Lover’s Waltz” in. There was the empire-waisted brown and pink cotton shift that originally belonged to ML, a green linen baby doll frock I wore for most of the late ‘80s, and a number of other thrift store finds we used to get at Aardvark’s or that place in the Mission that sold clothes by the pound.

This was pre-Buffalo Exchange, see; back when thrift stores were actually thrifty. My friends and I shopped there to buy things that were one of a kind, not mass-marketed. And you cannot even imagine how much more radical we looked in comparison to mainstream women in their horrid 1980s clothes: shoulder padded jackets, blouses in primary colors, slacks. We were never confused with hippie-chicks, who wore Guatamalan-weave dresses and long skirts, because we wore fitted dresses with cinched waists and then, underneath, black legging and combat boots to show we weren’t housewives.

Of course I don’t wear that kind of thing now. This time I went to see CVB in ordinary, nondescript, comfortable clothing, though when I walked in, I saw a really pretty blonde lady wearing an enviable white hoodie with the words FUCK TRUMP emblazoned across it. Up on stage, CVB was already playing and I noted – since it was on my mind – that David Lowery was wearing an oxford cloth button down shirt under a navy V-neck sweater, like the professor that he is now. It was a far cry from the long ginger pony tail and loose jeans he used to rock, and it made me smile, because I used to rag on David, both in print and in person, for looking like a hippie in a post-hippie world, and I remember him telling me once that all rock bands were posing and it didn’t really matter what the pose was.

Of course he was right. But back then it mattered to me, because it was 1985, and Reagan was President, and in 1985, Camper Van Beethoven weren’t my favorite band, not by a long shot. They were a local band – give or take 60 miles – that I saw fairly frequently, whose sense of humor and fashion sense I found suspect. Unlike my favorite bands, who came from the East Coast and the Midwest, they looked just like the burnouts who went to my high school, long straggly hair and all, and in my shallow judgy, just-past-teenaged way it was hard for me to relate that to the kind of music I liked at the time. They seemed like Dead Heads who accidentally got mixed up in the indie rock world. They WERE Dead Heads who accidentally got mixed up in the indie rock world. I liked them moderately, but I didn’t love them, like I did some other acts of the era. They had their moments. But they just weren’t foreign enough for me to worship.

Fast forward some fifteen years or so. I’m sitting at home nursing the boring old baby and Paula calls me up: “Camper Van Beethoven have reunited are playing the Bolinas Public Library, wanna go?”

Me: “When?”

Her: “Now, dummy. Pump. Hand the baby off to her Dad. Get in the car!”

It seemed so sudden and awful of a thing to do. But besides being my friend, Paula was my midwife. I had got in the habit of doing what she said, even when it was something very horrid.  So I put the baby down. I got in my car. I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, and I wound around Mt. Tam. Up and up and up I went, then down down down. The sun was just setting, and I saw the ocean sliding off the side of the mountain, as one does as one approaches Stinson Beach. I got to the Bolinas Public Library and I was immediately gobsmacked by the past. I had barely been out of the house since baby’s birth, so it was all even more impactful than it might have been…either that, or I was still flooded with hormones. I wanted to cry. I DID cry, sometime during “Sad Lovers Waltz” or “Joe’s Stalin’s Cadillac,” or “White Riot” or “Never Go Back.”

In point of fact, that night I realized quite suddenly that in fact Camper Van Beethoven WERE my favorite band of that era, no question…I mean, of course they were! I just hadn’t recognized it at the time because they weren’t exotic enough. It was like one of those teenage movies where the girl suddenly realizes that the nerdy boy next door was way cooler and sexier than the football hero because in fact they have so much more in common, only with bands instead of individuals. Camper Van Beethoven come from the same time and place and space and era as I do. Camper Van Beethoven, c’est moi.

That night was an apotheosis of sorts: I was on the edge of quitting my job as a rock writer, and I didn’t really pay attention to any new music again until very recently. Only with this one exception. In 2004, CVB put out a new album, called New Roman Times. Here’s the thing: I love Camper’s old stuff, but what I REALLY love is New Roman Times. It is a concept album, about a future America in which various states have split off and formed their own nations, who are constantly at war with each other.  Unsurprisingly, Texas is a right-wing Christian fascist state, while California is a semi-utopian nation that is undergoing a civil war with parts of Mexico – or something like that.

“New Roman Times” follows the fortunes of some kid who fights first for Texas and then for California, under the flag of a commander called 9 Mile Beach (after a surfing spot in Santa Cruz). The album’s goofy story line worked for me even before half of everything it predicted came true: not civil war, per se, but the increasing polarization of America. As the protagonist, a fighter for the (fictional?) Christian Republic of Texas “Secure Intelicorps,” sings, if we weren’t all “high on the flower,” we could not “work for the power/that stands for nothing decent at all.” That seems like a line worth thinking about today, on the eve of the flower being legalized in California, but then I thought about this album on other days in 2017, too, like that day we dropped the MOAB on Afghanistan, the day my student Rashad, a vet with PTSD, brought his therapy puppy Zelda to class, and when I watched the World War I scenes in the movie “The Lost City of Z.”  In other words, I think about it all the time.

CVB have 2 even newer albums, La Costa Perdida and El Camino Real, and I like them too: the California vocal fry of Lowery’s voice, the twanged guitar, the imagery shot through with some deeply Californian vibe that only those of us who grew up in this state pre-Prop 13 may connect to.  Truly, the fact that CVB’s new material, old material, and mid-era music is all equally interesting to me is what puts them in a whole different category than almost every other band of my era. And it’s surely what brought me to the Great American Music Hall over the holiday, and why I stood there, smack in the middle of the dance floor, willing myself into that state of mind where you lose all consciousness of yourself as an audience member and become one with the music.

When I walked in, the band was digging deep in their catalog, singing songs drawn mostly from “Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart” and “Telephone Free Landslide Victory,” even doing that one jam that meshes together Led Zepplin’s “Kashmir” with “Hava Nagila,” so nerdy and so cool: it was as if they were pressing All Western Music into a big sieve, mashing it down, extracting its DNA and the reconstituting it as their own.
CVB, 12/30/2017

Then: “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” their biggest hit, and “Skinheads” etc. They didn't play anything from New Roman Times, or 'Photograph,' my favorite cover, but I am not bitter or anything, it's always a pleasure to hear them and anyway, I like to think there is all the time in the world to play all the songs in the world...I mean, we've been together this long, Camper Van Beethoven and me, we are obviously in it for the long haul. There's no breaking us up now. They are my forever family, there's no getting away from it. 

Meanwhile, the world marches on. The baby in this story is all grown up now, and on the way home, I noticed that the electronic freeway signs had changed from "Don't drink and drive' to "Drive High/get a DUI." Here's to the years I guess. Or at least to 2018.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A River Runs Through It

Once upon a time, when my daughter was about ten, I took her to see Nicki Minaj at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. “Starships” was a hit that year and she loved that song, but even then some might have said this was an inappropriate concert for a pre-teen. I did not care. In my world, ‘what was your first concert?’ is a standard line of party chat, and I wanted to ensure that she had a good answer. The Paramount is a beautiful venue, easy to get to and lovely inside. Besides, I wanted to see Nicki Minaj myself.

Fast forward six years and she and I are on our way to see Lupe Fiasco at the UC Theater in Berkeley, having another mother/daughter moment. Lupe is one of those rare artists who sit in the middle circle of our Venn Diagram of the Beloved, and I wanted to take advantage of that before my daughter drifts away into boyfriend-land, where I am no longer welcome. She loves Lupe because his songs remind her of her childhood. I love him because of his political edge. Also, once I was showing “Bitch Bad” in my Race and Ethnicity class and one of my students tweeted him and he tweeted us back. He said, “Thanks, USF!” It was practically my favorite moment in teaching – barring the time we showed “Paradise Lost: the West Memphis 3” and Jason Baldwin walked into the classroom at the end.

But back to the future! At first I thought this evening was going to be a bust. In my experience, rap shows can be really boring, with the artist kind of marching around on stage as if in a boxing ring, waving the mic around, and not doing much else. Plus, UC Theater, which I had never been to, turns out to be like one big huge bar. (Five bars, actually, and the one on the main floor is an especial drag.)

But then, Lupe came on and all was right with the world.  I am certainly accustomed to hearing very bad opening acts followed by very good headliners, but surely the talent-gap between the openers and Lupe Fiasco was the largest one I have ever experienced. On the night of Dec. 15th, he played for two full hours and was amazing throughout, through hits and non-hits, slam poems and off the cuff remarks, shoutouts to local charities (“let’s do this Occupy style – you yell the information, I’ll repeat it!”), covers of Kanye (“Touch The Sky”), shout outs to his d-jay and songs from the new record, “Drogas Light,” his first on his own (non-major) label.  

Full disclosure: I hardly ever go see rap artists. The last one I went to was Chance the Rapper, about three years ago; and I know that this gives me away as the kind of white person who coasts along the top of rap, experiencing it as a sort of lagniappe - or, as Lupe said (after he played “Superstar”): “Look at all the little islands of white excitement!”

Caitlin and I looked at each other, self-consciously, and laughed sheepishly. We were indeed an island of white excitement during that song, no lie. But what can you do? I don’t think he meant it venomously, it’s just a fact that, if you’re people like us, that’s what you’re going to hear. “Battle Scars,” “The Show Goes On,” (which samples Modest Mouse), “Paris/Tokyo”… in part because I am white, and in part because I am a mere dabbler in cutting edge rap (and those two things aren’t necessarily linked), these are the songs I associate with him with, though of course he has a much richer and deeper catalog that everyone else in the room knew far better than me. But that’s how it should be. Anyway, the reason to go to rap shows, even when you’re old and haggard, is that it’s the last place on earth where everyone in the audience is still hooked into the music as they should be. It takes me back to seeing Husker Du and howling out every word in unison with the crowd.  

Also, in addition to everything else he is – rapper, poet, entrepreneur, activist – Lupe Fiasco is what I consider a punk rocker. I can’t describe what I mean by that, exactly, except that whatever rash, abrasive attitudes he is spinning out put there, are mine as well. I can’t quote you any of his lyrics, but know that they express something I am thinking about the world right now, too. He once said, in one of his rants against Obama, “You should fight power, even if you agree with it.”  Yesterday he tweeted a very thoughtful answer to someone’s question about how to react to the phrase ‘stay woke’: “Nothing wrong with being vigilant and aware of your surroundings and circumstances. BUT wokeness shouldn’t be automatically defined or put into the same category as correctness. “Stay Woke” should be more internal facing, constantly being aware of ones inner flaws & faults first.” 

That kind of thoughtfulness is threaded throughout his musical output, such that I don’t know what is more surprising, the fact that he has in the past had actual hits (“The Cool” sold 900,000 copies) or the fact that, having had those hits, he was now playing a small-ish venue like the UC Theater – when Jay-Z is playing Oracle in a few weeks. In my opinion, he is superior to Hova. But then, like so many supremely talented artists (Chance the Rapper and Prince come immediately to mind) and very much unlike Jay-Z, Lupe Fiasco used his early success to go rogue. He always made music that was edgy and intellectual, ripe for seminars in critical race studies classes like mine. And I must not be the only person who teaches his work, because at the end of this show, someone handed him their final paper and he read the title aloud: it was, “W.E.B. Dubois, Lupe Fiasco, and the Tragedy of Double Consciousness,” or something like that, and he laughed aloud. “Thank you!” Can I keep this?”

Then he said, “Wait – Never mind. I’m not going to read this shit. No – just kidding…I’ll have someone read it and explain it to me.”

That comment made me happy, as did the concert as a whole, because it was so hooked into the idea that we should open our ears more and listen to what others have to say. Anyway, I went home and I wrote this blog, but then I was hesitant to post it, because I feel like it is just stating the obvious, and that it has no relevance to the music or the scene or the experience. And yet, the next night, I went to see the Dream Syndicate, a band that is entirely of my era, I found I had absolutely nothing to say about it other than, it happened, and it was good. That kind of music, it’s not about the future; it’s not even about the present. It’s like that famous saying of William Faulkner, 'the past isn’t dead – it isn’t even past.' That kind of sums up the Dream Syndicate.
dream syndicate, independent, 12/16/2017

You know, it’s so hard to go out sometimes, and even more so when you go to see things where you feel out of place. I get into a lot of conversations with people about the enjoyability, even the propriety, of doing such things at my age, but I still feel like, I don’t know, it’s worth being a witness. Isn’t it? Or should I leave it to someone else? I am undecided, but I feel like I often have insights at rock concerts that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t go to them. At Dream Syndicate, there were no insights to be had, because I had them all about that band in about 1986. But at Lupe Fiasco, during one of the intervals, I was scrolling through twitter and I saw the seven CDC words supposedly banned by the White House: ‘vulnerable,’ ‘evidence-based,’ ‘diversity,’ ‘fetus,’ etc.

My first thought was, “Well, I know what MY first tattoo will be.” And then I was enraged. But then, later, during the concert, something about the sound of it made me think, ‘but how can you ban WORDS?’ Language doesn’t work like that. It is like water, or lava, or the current, or the atmosphere, or a river running through our consciousness... It is unstoppable, and unpredictable, and impetuous and rash, and like Lupe Fiasco, it flows.