Loose Strife

An MP3 blog

Saturday, September 27, 2008

#37 - Yesterday's Gowns & All Tomorrow's Parties

Hi there. Sorry it's been so long. Jeez. This is my first post since....last year.

I know that sounds weirdly confessional. "Hail Mary, full of Grace. Father, it's been 13 months since my last blog entry."

In their way, blogs aren't unlike confession booths.

In that spirit, I will further confess that while I've been listening to vast amounts of music over the last year, it really hasn't been moving me---thus, there hasn't been anything much for me to post about. My friend Charles says (diplomatically, of course) that the problem might be me and not be the music.

"You might just be depressed," he says.

Okay, sure. But a lack of compelling music may be a big part of what I'm depressed about. That and the usual stuff about the government, the war(s), corporate agribusiness, etc.

There is also the possibility I've finally reached that dreaded moment others reach in their mid-to-late twenties, where NOTHING new seems nearly as good as the music you loved in high school and college. The awesome soundtrack to your awesome coming of age: getting drunk for the first time (and second, and third), discovering various drugs, falling into bed with attractive people harboring only the faintest expectations that it will evolve into a "relationship."

This was never my situation. My school years were a period of awkwardness and discomfort. When alcohol, drugs, and/or sex did appear, rarely, they generally created anxiety and guilt that outshouted any lasting pleasure.

So I don't fetishize the music of the mid-to-late '80s and early '90s above any other periods. And yet: Every other fucking record I've put on in the last year seems to be a pale Xerox of some '80s rock act.

But something happened last weekend that proved me wrong about my taste for '80s-'90s nostalgia and cured me of my general malaise. Somewhat.

All Tomorrow's Parties are a bunch of British promoters who have been hosting music festivals for a few years now. They made their name staging events at downmarket holiday resorts in the U.K., where people can rent rooms and spend a weekend swimming, playing mini-golf and fornicating in between seeing esoteric bands. The idea is like the record shop in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity turned into a sleepaway camp. (This same comparison was made by a guy on NPR. It might have been a coincidence, but I'm not so sure. Music writers are all thieves.)

ATP's New York debut was held at Kutsher's, the old Borscht Belt resort in the Catskill mountains. That's where my Queens homies were dragged to for long weekends to spend quality time with their bubbas and zadies (ie, grandparents) during the dog days of summers back in the '80s. Barry Klein and Robbie Berkeley bitched about it endlessly. But while Kutsher's might be hell for a disaffected teenager stuck with their family---when they'd rather be smoking cigarettes behind dumpsters on Union Turnpike with their hoodlum friends in the hope that Judy Greenblatt would slip out of her house and grace the alleyway with her breasts and radiance---Kutsher's was near heaven for a slightly overweight 30-something hoping to reconnect with what had been until recently an all-consuming love affair with music.

I left Queens in a Zip car straight from work at day care Friday (yes, I'm still working there). I figured the fairy dust and turquoise paint that the four-year-olds splattered my hair with during art could be shampooed out later---although it later struck me as such a festive touch, I left it in.

A word about the accommodations at All Tomorrow's Parties: Stanky. Another word: crumbling. Did I care? Nah, not much. Because I bought my ticket late, I was stuck in the Raleigh hotel, the event's sister-site, another Borscht Belt resort whose heyday had come and gone: Huge chandelier, gold wallpaper, mirrors and glass-topped coffee tables around the lobby. A shuttered snack shop called Scruples, shelves emptied but for 3 bottles of orange Snapple. A pool and a sauna; both locked. Outside were crumbling cement ping-pong tables without nets, basketball and shuffleboard courts cracked and clotted with weeds. Out front was a sign that said PARKING FOR HATZOLAH PARAMEDICS ONLY. You sensed that many old Jews departed to see the Almighty from this very hotel.

It certainly smelled like it. In the Sammy Davis Wing, where I was staying, a young black housekeeper inexplicably sprayed puffs of Windex into the air as she drifted down the hall---the scent of ammonia apparently preferable to the scent it was masking. My room, which to its credit had a fairly new plastic mezuzah nailed onto the doorframe, reeked of mildew; the window frames were cracked and askew, and two of the three lamps had no bulbs. I later discovered there was no heat in the room---or the entire hotel, for that matter.

Why? Who knows? I couldn't find anyone who actually worked at the hotel to verify anything. The woman behind the desk, a tad on the slow side, explained that there were no managers; the personnel were all weekend temps.

It was like a remake of The Shining with Jack Nicholson's character played by Morey Amsterdam.

As it turns out, the place had officially closed a couple of years back, and was being operated as a sort of rental property for religious groups. In its way, I guess All Tomorrow's Parties is one.

Kutsher's, meanwhile, was still open for business as usual, although parts of the resort seem condemned (doorless rooms with collapsed ceilings were a tip-off), and it exists in a sort of early-60s time warp. Exhibit A was the Justine Cosmetics concession stand, which Justine's sister, Debra (who was filling in Saturday morning) said they'd been operating for 45 years. The women vaguely resembled drag queens, in their do's and heavy make-up, so they did not seem entirely out of place among the ATP crowd of aging punk rockers. But the product line---which included their own Putty and Lazy Girl brand cover-up and blush---wasn't moving with the crowd, and by Sunday the sisters had closed up shop, their transformational magic on hold until the Kutsher's old-schoolers return.

My own transformation began Friday night with the Meat Puppets, who played all of Meat Puppets II during an evening devoted to older bands playing classic albums from beginning to end. This is not a new idea; in fact, my last post mentioned Sonic Youth performing their magnificent Daydream Nation on the now-defunct McCarren Pool stage in Williamsburg. But for certain groups playing for certain audiences, it's a kinda brilliant idea.

I mean, if your emotional attachment to a group is rooted in hours, months, years spent listening to an album from top to bottom, why wouldn't you want that experience recreated live? I mean, I'm happy Cris Kirkwood is finally out of jail and back playing with his brother and getting his life together after years as the worst sort of drug casualty, and I hope they return to recording and rekindle their creative flame. But I can't imagine a better Meat Pups show than this one, during which the band (with some new dude replacing drummer Derrick Bostrom) played nothing new, just a fine recreation of II with a little extra guitar fireworks, tacking on the deliciously trippy title track of Up On The Sun and a couple of weird covers at the end--- a set mirroring cassette tapes made by thousands of fans around the world who appended the original 30-minute LP on one half of a 90-minute Maxell XLII with "Up On The Sun" and a few weird covers to fill out the side, which we then played until the tape oxide was stripped off as thoroughly as meat from the bones of dead rodent in the Meat Pup's Arizona desert backyard.

I've always hated the idea of living in the past musically --- it reeks, like the hotel room, of stasis, narrowmindedness, hopelessness, and death. But my guilt was erased by the shakily incandescent joy of these songs, whose greatness was only magnified by my history with them, and confirmed by the faces of 20-something trust fund indie kids who couldn't have anything like my history with the record but nevertheless were beaming like five-year-olds in an ice cream parlor. (They must all be working at latter-day dot.coms where the venture capital is still flowing; for a day-care center employee like myself, the cost of ATP represents my show-going allowance for the next two-plus months.)

My nostalgia reached its zenith on the final night: Bob Mould, finally fronting a full-on rock band again after years of solo acoustic gigs and ill-advised techno experiments. He ended his majestic set with a clutch of songs from Husker Du's New Day Rising, a record my 14-year-old self cherished even more than Meat Puppets II back in the '80s: the title track, "Celebrated Summer," and "I Apologize" --- plus "Makes No Sense At All" from the subsequent Flip Your Wig.

These were songs I screamed---usually under my breath, but still---while slogging down 73rd Avenue to and from Ryan Junior High School, in a pubescent attempt to emulate Mould's jock-on-bad-acid howl. There was something in that shredded yell, which reached its apex on the Husker's terrifying version of the Byrds "Eight Miles High" (which he didn't play, alas) that seemed to epitomize all the horrors of growing up: the failures, the self-loathing, the fears of being exposed as a freak, a fool, a fag. It was for me the ultimate expression of rock as a transcendent force, and hearing it live in its full-band glory for the very first time in the low-ceilinged catering hall at Kutsher's, which you could imagine was some basement hardcore club if you squinted your eyes, sent me into pogoing spasms like I was hurling myself around my Queens bedroom in 1985. At one point, I slammed into a mirrored wall on one side of the room and felt the glass crunch under my weight. But the room was pitch black, the music deafening, and noone seemed to notice. So I just pogoed my ass over to the other side of the room like nothing had happened.

There was new music at All Tomorrow's Parties, too. I had my mind fully blown by Lightning Bolt, who admittedly have been around for 10 years in one form or another. But they still represent a new generation, and they made me rethink my pooh-poohing of the current noise-rock scene that they represent.

When the group began their set, as they always do, on the floor in the middle of the audience, a circle of fans closed around them, and the only way to "see" the band was in the fish-eye reflection of a circular driveway mirror the group mounted on a stand over their amps. From the rear of the room, it looked like a cute little hardcore show circa 1985, with kids crowd-surfing and punching their fists in the air. But when I pushed my way into the circle, Brian Chippendale's drumming sucked me into a cybernetic engine; my fist became a piston alongside all the others, and my shouts, too, became an integral element, marking the thrill of every time-signature shift. I can see why Bjork wanted a piece of this in her music (see "The Dull Flame of Desire," from Volta), although Chippendale's drumming magick is contextual, and even hearing him play solo live this past summer (opening for Boredoms at Terminal 5) didn't prepare me for what he does with Lightning Bolt. I may never listen to one of their records all the way through. But I left their set reaffirming what, until last year, I'd always believed --- that music can always be made new again.

Even by musicians playing old music, as My Bloody Valentine proved. I'd seen the group a couple of times in the '90s, and they were mind-crushingly loud. But their headlining set at ATP was like being a subject in a science experiment involving the effect of ultra-high-volume sound waves on human emotion and musculature.

I chose to use my prescription NRR 25dB earplugs (I've had mild tinnitus ever since around the time I first saw MBV) instead of the free Howard Leight NRR 27dB earplugs they distributed at the door, and I'm not sure I chose right. The show ended with "You Made Me Realize," the majestic song from their debut EP, capped with a 17 minute noise crescendo that pulsed through the Starlight Ballroom like some alien energy form --- it was like being transported into the cloudy, throbbing, brain-sucking planet-space in the 1972 Tarkovsky film Solaris.

In the movie, Solaris was able to draw out your memories of loved ones and literally make those memories flesh; it was a sort of nostalgia machine that allowed you to relive cherished moments over and over again.

I thought about this as the sound waves roared over me.

Occasionally I opened my eyes and looked around the room. About half the audience had their eyes closed; the other half were staring at the stage bug-eyed, like deers in headlights. I fingered my earplugs and moved them around a bit, which modulated the sound; if I did it rhythmically, it was like superimposing a new musical structure on the drone entering my head. It was kind of like dancing, and kind of like being a remixer, using the earplug posts and my earlobes as knobs and faders to control the sound.

Eventually the drone ended, the band left the stage, the lights went up, and the fans stumbled out of the Stardust Ballroom.

I looked for a familiar face, but couldn't find one. I wondered if Holly was here --- and if not, why not?

But as I walked out into the damp, early-morning Catskill mountain air, I felt connected again in a way I haven't for quite a while. In the face of everything, devoting ones life to the pursuit and exploration and celebration of beauty seems a reasonably worthy path to take, I thought. People drifted up Kutsher's dirt road towards the parking lot; there was remarkably little conversation. Headlights lit up the woods. And with my tinnitus humming pleasantly, I looked forward to getting home, and getting back to work.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

#36 - Music sounds better with you

What they saw

If an alien spacecraft flew over New York City last night, and if they had equipment designed to track unusually high levels of energy on the ground in terms of decibels, lumens, and human neurochemical activity (the sort of equipment that one would imagine any self-respecting alien spacecraft would have), the out-of-towners would have first stopped over a clump of stage lights in Prospect Park, under which Craig Finn and The Hold Steady were rocking their adopted hometown with moving tales of druggie losers, borne on magical power chords that goof on heartland rock clichés at the same time as they glorify them, making spectacular gestures of empathy with the untold thousands whose young lives were soundtracked by hammer-on, hair-metal guitar solos and honest workshirt riffage. The show is no doubt a love fest of boys with eyeglasses making devil-horns and girls with eyeglasses making devil horns and a singer whose CPA demeanor only magnifies the music’s profound, dirtbag-in-all-of-us beauty.

It is not purely a love fest, though, because in the crowd somewhere is Holly, the handsome waitress from Minneapolis turned ad copywriter and rock critic who regular readers of this blog will remember as Craig Finn’s muse and I believe sort-of ex-girlfriend---or at very least someone with a complicated relationship to the singer. I am certain Holly is there because, when I ran into her a few weeks ago at Sonic Youth’s amazing recreation of “Daydream Nation” at McCarren Pool, she told me that despite her history with Craig---and partly because of it---she would never miss a local Hold Steady gig. We walked around Williamsburg after the show that night and marveling out how well the band has aged, and how unimpeachably cool a couple Kim and Thurston are, even if the Ecstatic Peace releases have been a little underwhelming. And Holly even asked me if I wanted to be her plus-one for the Hold Steady show. Sadly, I had to decline.

Now why, you might ask, would I decline an invitation to see perhaps the world’s greatest rock band with a woman I’ve been obsessed with for over three years? Let me put it this way: If the aforementioned aliens continued south from Prospect Park, they would have soon fixed on an even brighter glow, pulsating out from where the land mass meets the ocean, colors hurtling into the inky blackness like fireworks. And as the aliens drew nearer, they would register tremendous 4/4 house beats, and the monstrous WHUH-WHUH-WHUH of saw-toothed synthesizer riffs, and an overwhelming upsurge of emotions from a stadium-full of people who feel that dance music is a religion that can unite black and white and yellow and rich and poor and gay and straight in transformative ecstasy. And finally, at the center of the glow, they would see two men in robot costumes standing atop a neon pyramid---an evident nod of respect to the apocryphal pyramid at Chameleon, the early West Village disco that would later become the famous Paradise Garage in 1977.

The spectacle this evening in 2007, of course, was Daft Punk performing at Coney Island’s Keyspan Park. It was a massive recreation of their legendary 2006 Coachella Festival show, which went on to become a YouTube phenomena, and the tour was a traveling revival meeting intent on proving that electronic music could still fulfill its mid-90s promise. As I explained to Holly in a text message, I was being forced to take sides in the ontological battle between rockists and the international dancefloor massive. Her thumb-typed response was simply “Whatev.” But as my imaginary alien plot devices might testify, what ultimately happened last night was not so simple. The show was the most thrilling of my life---and I know I’ve written that before, but this supercedes all previous claims. It was also, quite possibly, the saddest show of my life.

The evening began in a frenzy when a message board posting made me realize that my General Admission ticket limited my access to the stands, not the stadium dancefloor---which for me would be like watching a hot-dog eating contest from across the road after a week-long fast. So I took the F Train to Coney Island and began canvassing the parking lot for fat people. My logic was this: Most heavy-set fans would prefer not to stand up for the entire show, and would be happy to trade a field ticket for a seat. I’m rather heavy set myself, and this is generally my attitude. But tonight was different: all my fellows had field tickets that they refused to part with.

Finally I came upon a small tailgate party at the far end of the parking lot. A very large couple were reclined in folding lawn chairs on either side of a cooler, while others leaned against car bumpers. As it turned out, everyone already had tickets in the stands.

“Sorry,” said the woman in the lawnchair, who was wearing a vintage Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt. Then she pointed to the cooler and said “Gerolsteiner?”

“Um, sure,” I said.

She pulled a bottle of German mineral water out of the cooler and handed it to me. It was full, but the seal on the cap had been broken.

“Water?,” I asked?

“It’s special water,” she said, grinning. “The Germans think it has restorative powers.” She grins at the guy next to her, a voluminous old hippie in a Woodstock Harley Davidson t-shirt. He chuckled, and stuffed his mouth with wasabi peas.

Maybe it was the comeraderie of the moment, or my thirst, but I figured what the hell, took a long swig, thanked her, put the bottle in my pocket, and went back to my ticket hunt.

And almost immediately I saw what looked like a press table at the side of the stadium. Figuring I could try using my dubious blogging credentials to scam my way in, I was informed by a women with a clipboard that Daft Punk were giving digital video recorders to hundreds of fans to record the show, and if I wanted to be a cameraman, I would have access to the field. I said sure. So I exchanged my driver’s license for a tiny Sony DV unit, and in I went.

I’d missed the opening acts entirely by this point. And as I worked my way through the crowd, all the stress of the ticket fiasco fell away. I felt profoundly at home here, among these strangers; we were all part of the same tribe, and our shared love of dance communion, if it could only be harnessed or distilled, could surely trigger world peace, or at least provide an alternative to Paxil. I know this sounds like hippie blather. But that doesn’t make it any less true. And suddenly there was Dennis Miller – Dennis fucking Miller, reprehensible reactionary scumbag “comedian” – standing in the crowd with his hand on the shoulder of a teenage boy: maybe his son, maybe his secret lover. Who knows? But either way it was fine. If Dennis Miller, struggling with pedophilic homosexual leanings, squirming quietly at the wrong end of NAMBLA jokes, can come out and be himself at Daft Punk show, then good for him.

And then the stadium lights dropped and the video screens flashed and suddenly I was being pulled upward by analog synthesizer riffs like Curious George at the end of a balloon string, with fragments of the vocoderized chant from “Around The World” and gargantuan four-four beats careening around the stadium. And then suddenly thousands of people are shouting “woooooooo!” along with the hook of “Crescendolls,” which Daft Punk lifted wholesale from “Can You Imagine,” a beautifully out-of-character move by the disco-era remains of the New York doo-wop group Little Anthony and the Imperials, who may be better known for this sample than their 1958 debut hit “Tears On My Pillow,” a moving number though it is. And suddenly I realize I am very, very high---placebo effect or otherwise, I do not know---and I feel the joy of the moment lapping at the back of the neck like the black waters of the Atlantic Ocean lapping at the Coney Island shoreline behind the stage.

And then suddenly I realize: shit, the camera. I need to capture all this. So I fire it up and train the viewfinder on the stage. And as the aperture adjusts to the brilliant lights, I find myself watching a tiny video screen of men in robot costumes standing in front of a video screen of men in robot costumes, which mirrors exactly the image in my minds eye of the YouTube video of Daft Punk performing at Coachella in front of a video projection, and then I feel the image in my viewfinder propelled forward into the retinas of hundreds, maybe thousands of beautiful, loving, yet humanly flawed Daft Punk fans who couldn’t be here tonight and must watch the event on laptop screens in their dark bedrooms. And then these multiple layers of video images collapse into one another, and my head begins to spin, and I have to turn my camera away from the stage.

It’s at this moment that I suddenly feel profoundly alone, despite being surrounded by this crowd of beautiful, loving, yet humanly flawed Daft Punk fans. And I am scanning the crowd for a familiar face. But in fact every face seems familiar: the skinny latino girl in cutoff jeans and a bandeau top doing crazy back-bending limbo moves. The frat dudes high-fiving and rubbing each others’ heads. The hugley fat couple jumping up and down in the stands in what seems like slow-motion. And then I realize: it’s the couple from the parking lot. And I wave and jump up and down to get their attention, and it’s like I’m moving in slow motion, too. And I want to shout their names, because they don’t see me. But I don’t know their names. So instead I shout “Gerolsteiner! Gerolsteiner!” But they still don’t see me. And then Daft Punk rewind the hook from “Crescendolls” again, and everyone is screaming “Woooooo! Wooooo!”

And then I realize I’m no longer holding the camera. So I drop to my knees, and begin to feel around the dark stadium floor. And then I feel a hand on my shoulder, and a voice saying

“Alles gut? Sie wird in Ordnung?”

And I look up and see a blond dude with a crew cut in a Brazilian soccer shirt handing me a bottle of water---not Gerolsteiner, of course, but God-damned Coca-Cola-owned Dasani. But I took it and drank and said “Danke” even though I don’t speak German, and he said some other things I didn’t understand, and then the show ended and the lights came up and I found the camera, which seemed to work although the viewfinder was cracked. They still gave me my license back at production table, though they were obviously pissed. And then, since I was still pretty wired, I walked along the Coney Island boardwalk, watching other very high people staring up at the old amusement-park rides, and laughing at the garbage buggy, which plucked up cans in its mechanical arms and emptied them into its dumpster before moving on down the beach.

And later, as I sat on the F train around 4AM, I thought about how many train-rides I’ve taken home after shows by myself over the years. And I thought about Holly, who was probably in bed already, hopefully alone. And I thought about the guys in the Hold Steady, who after their hometown show might even be in their own beds, either alone or with loved ones or with friendly fangirls who look remarkably naked when they remove their eyeglasses, even if their clothes stay on. And as some guy probably said at the end of some Raymond Carver story, I felt right then that something major was about to change. But I couldn’t say exactly what it was.

Friday, March 16, 2007

#35 – Wack jobs, crack smoking, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

It’s funny, sometimes, the ways in which your dreams come true.

When I was in high school, I had a part-time job with an equipment rental company in Manhattan that contracted with hotels to provide on-site A/V support: microphones and sound systems, video projectors and screeens, that sort of thing. And precisely 20 years ago this month, one of my jobs was setting up the Grand Ballroom in the Waldorf-Astoria for a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I don’t recall who was being inducted, because we were not allowed anywhere near the ballroom once the event was underway (they brought in their own people to operate the gear).

But I do remember stuffing myself into an ill-fitting suit jacket and dress slacks and winding a tie around my neck so I could look presentable while crawling along the red and gold carpeting, strapping down audio and electrical cables with gaffers tape. I also recall the contractor’s site manager---who seemed to live, at least, part-time in the equipment storage room---whipping out two jumbo vials of crack after we’d finished the job.

He wanted to celebrate in a rock’n’roll manner.

I declined to join in, but I was fascinated. I’d never seen crack before, and I can still summon the vaguely metallic chemical scent it produced when he smoked it in his stubby glass pipette, sitting in a swivel chair in the storage room with his feet up on a steel shelf stacked with overhead projectors. I immediately recognized the smell as a major component of his strange, nearly-overpowering body odor.

I felt bad for the guy, which I guess is why I lent him $10 to go out and score another vial, knowing I’d never see the money again (I didn’t). Later, when he’d smoked all his rocks, I did join him in a couple of Bud tall boys, which we emptied while listening to music on a beaten-up radio, switching between an oldies rock station and a Latin station. He never drank while smoking crack, he explained---it kills the buzz. But afterwards it apparently helps relieve the bugs-under-the-skin sensation you get when you crash.

Anyway, this past Monday I found myself back at the Waldorf-Astoria Grand Ballroom for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. But this time, I was actually an invited journalist---the supposed power of blogs once again cowing the old guard into opening the gates in the hope of remaining relevant. In fact, they even broadcast the event online, since no cable network (let alone broadcast network) wanted the event.

Ah yes: the warm, maternal folds of the Internet. It will never reject you, no matter how dubious or long-winded or culturally-slipping your content may be.

It was, to be honest, a dream come true. Once again I put on an ill-fitting suit jacket---very possibly the same one from my high school days---and dress slacks, and wound a tie around my neck. And once again I was not allowed into the ballroom: instead I was directed to a room in another part of the hotel, where journalists were gathered to watch the event on video monitors.

Having worked in the Waldorf, of course, I knew the service corridors around the ballroom pretty well. And before Aretha Franklin was into the first verse of “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You”---part of a tribute to the late Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records---I was up in the main event, standing besides a cute dykey girl operating a studio-scale video camera atop a pedestal.

I missed the dinner, which from the looks of the half-eaten plates was a beef tournado with asparagus. But I did snag some of the chocolate mousse dessert that one of the waiters slipped me. (Too rich and a bit over-sweet, but the price was right.)

Now, I know I’m supposed to dis this event: the smugness and moneyed self-satisfaction, the exclusivity, the hordes of tuxedoed and designer-gowned corporate lackeys congratulating each other for their hipness and rock rebelliousness, applauding themselves for finally inducting the Ronettes---who saw less than $15,000 for their classic recordings, despite an ongoing lawsuit, and who, according to the scuttlebutt, were finally allowed in only because Phil Spector, the talented producer/shyster and Hall of Fame backroom player who had reportedly blocked their induction for years, was on trial in Los Angeles for the murder of a starlet and thus indisposed---and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the first-ever rap group to be inducted, although the overwhelmingly white, over-40 crowd seemed more impressed that newly-minted corporate CEO Jay-Z was on hand to validate the event by reading a lukewarm tribute off his Blackberry.

But even though I’d been reduced to sneaking into the event itself, I couldn’t hate on it. Aretha, who I’d never seen in person before, sounded awesome. So did the Ronettes, even with a stand in for Ronnie Spector’s sister Estelle Bennett, who apparently had throat problems. Patti Smith, who I’ve always revered (see post #26) , began with a solid cover of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” which she introduced as “an anti-war song” to the overstuffed and unresponsive crowd. She followed it with “Because The Night,” which the suits seemed to know, and then, after an introductory spiel about how she was now going to play her late mother’s favorite song, the one “she liked to vacuum to,” her band ripped into “Rock’n’Roll Nigger,” which absolutely killed. It would have been the most thrilling moment of the evening even if it wasn’t followed by the Rev. Al Sharpton paying tribute to the late James Brown. But if the beauty of the segueway was lost on much of the inebriated crowd, that only made it sweeter.

That was the night’s most thrilling moment, but not its most moving, at least for me. That was R.E.M. playing “Gardening At Night,” from their 1983 debut, Murmur. Bill Berry, looking much thinner but much the same as he did before he quit the band in 1997 after a brain hemorrhage, was behind the drums, oonching things along at surprising moments as he alwasy did. Michael Stipe was again incanting indecipherably, Mike Mills was hitting the high notes, and Peter Buck was playing those borrowed Byrds licks like a punk kid playing dressup in Dad’s fancy hippie clothes.

I’d grown up liking a lot of rock bands, but R.E.M. were the first band I can say I truly loved. It’s hard to say why, precisely. There was just something so charmingly un-rock’n’roll about their rock’n’roll, at least in their early days. They had these beautiful and mysterious songs which seemed to channel powers the bandmembers themselves couldn’t quite comprehend, and they performed them as if they were in their basement jamming out in front of a mirror. Which in a way, given their audience, they were---though they may have actually been, say, in the Beacon Theater. That’s where I first saw them, on the Reckoning tour in ’85, when I was 15---my very first rock show. It was one of those moments I might call an epiphany if that word wasn’t so debased, and the whole idea of connecting it to rock’n’roll didn’t seem so cliche.

That said, I have no adequate words for it. But I’ll always remember the show as a great, heart-opening experience. And I’ll always remember their little reunion Monday for the flicker of that remembered experience: standing on my toes in the Balloom so I could see around the camera-woman, hoping the security goons wouldn’t ask to see the wristband I didn’t have, and being transported out of myself to a place where I didn’t have to worry about them, or how sleep-deprived I was going to feel the next morning with the kids at the daycare center, or how maybe I hadn’t quite come as far along in life as I’d have liked from that day twenty years ago crouched in a hotel storage closet in a shabby suit pounding tall boys with a crackhead. It was a place where I could savor a feeling of limitless, propulsive possibility---the place I’m perpetually relieved to find that music can still take me to, and the reason I keep writing to you. xxoo.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

#34 - My superfluous year-end list

"Katie Cruel" - Karen Dalton
"Katie Cruel" - Bert Jansch w/Beth Orton & Devendra Banhart

Last I checked---which was December 14th---my kinfolk at the excellent MP3 blog Largehearted Boy had counted 520 year-end musical best-of lists online. That's not counting the massive aggregate lists, of which there are now two. The Village Voice Pazz-Jop critics poll used to be the only game in town. But then the paper was bought by the New Times chain, who fired Bob Christgau, who created and helmed the Pazz & Jop poll for thirty-some years, and which prompted some folks to think P&J was dead (the sacking was an incomprehensible move since he's also clearly the greatest living workaday rock critic, even if he sounds like a bit of a curmudgeon on those NPR podcasts). Now Idolator, that amiably snarky new music blog affiliated with the talented media gossip-mongers at Gawker, is doing a similar poll. It's being helmed by a fellow named Michaelangelo Matos, an excellent music writer whose blog will give you some idea of how scarily obsessed some of us are about our musical passions, and will also remind you that some Americans still think electronic music rocks.

So why do I think the world needs another list? I don't. But this is ostensibly a music blog, so here goes:

1. Juana Molina - Son
2. Cat Power - The Greatest
3. Niobe - White Hats
4. Au Revoir Simone - Verses of Comfort, Assurance & Salvation
5. Joanna Newsom - Ys
6. Grizzly Bear - Yellow House
7. El Perro Del Mar - El Perro Del Mar
8. Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings The Flood
9. Jolie Holland - Springtime Can Kill You
10. Karen Dalton - In My Own Time

I'll spare you longwinded explications of the list hiearchy (which shifts daily, to be honest) and the individual specifics of greatness. I should note, though, that one record is not a new release, though it has been out of print for years. But Karen Dalton's In My Own Time, first issued in 1971, is such a fine record, and so influential in terms of music that's being made now (Joanna Newsom, to cite but one example, cops to studying her vocal style intensively), I couldn't omit it. For a taste, I offer you her version of the traditional song "Katie Cruel" from Own Time, and a version inspired by it sung by two other Dalton fanatics, Beth Orton and Devendra Banhart, from a recent CD by '60s British folk god and champion drinker Bert Jansch, Black Swan.

One final observation, on looking back at the list: every record, with the exception of the cozy fantasy-land created by the dudes in Grizzly Bear, features a distinctly otherworldly woman's voice. Make of that what you will.

Happy '007 and Merry What-have-you...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

#33 - Remembering New Orleans

"Don't You Just Know It" - Huey "Piano" Smith & The Clowns (1958, Ace Single #545)

I took these photos on the first weekend of this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival back in April.

Why am I posting them now?

Honestly, it’s because I just found the 128MB SanDisk flash card that contained them. In a moment of data storage anxiety over whether to file music-related digital photos and DVDs in their own media sections or with my CDs under their respective artist/genre headings, I had absentmindedly slipped the card into the New Orleans section of my music library, following Blues and preceding Jazz, at the end of the various artist compilations, in between Rhino’s great 1992 CD comp New Orleans Party Classics and a DVD of Dr. John at Tipitina’s in 1986.

The MP3 above is from the Rhino collection; the performance photo is of The Jackson Travellers testifying in the gospel tent the morning of 4/29/06. I don’t have any pictures of the good Doctor performing at Tipitina’s the previous night, unfortunately, because I met a Lousiana dude named Johnny Batiste---a local contractor who I gave my extra ticket to outside the club and who proceeded to get me so blasted on drinks and whatnot up on the balcony, I would have been unable to focus had I even thought to take out my camera. I did remember to rub the brass skull of Professor Longhair for good luck on the way out of Tip’s. But I don’t recall much more of the evening/morning afterwards, except that it involved being dragged around the French Quarter by Johnny and his three beautiful sisters on a tour of the neighborhood’s oldest bars, and then waking up in my hotel room feeling like I’d been freeze-dried. (Hey Johnny, if you're reading this, thanks for what I’m pretty sure was a great time.)

I do recall Johnny telling me that he works for his dad’s construction company, and that for the past 8 months (at that point) he’d been mostly working pro-bono, driving bulldozers and other heavy equipment around the region, pulling cars off people’s roofs and such.

Thinking about it now, I’m glad I misplaced these photos. Last month, on the first anniversary of Katrina, we were all barraged with images, articles, political soundbites, and multiple replays of Spike Lee’s awesome 4-hour doc When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in 4 Acts

Now, as we approach election day, you don’t hear much about Katrina. And I imagine the scenes I saw and photographed in the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview and around the 17th Street Canal and many other parts of the city remain largely unchanged, that Johnny is still out there with his bulldozer, and that the podium posturing of last month has produced precious little in terms of on-the-ground results.

Think about it.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

#32 - Just because it's a song doesn't mean it's true

"First Night" - The Hold Steady

So I saw the waitress again. You know, the one from Minneapolis. Those who don’t know, please refer back to posts #6 and #22. I apologize this blog does not have an internal search engine.

It was last week. She was without her laptop, and scribbling in a small notebook in the balcony of Irving Plaza at the TV on the Radio show. She was on the VIP side, on the right; I was with the people, directly across from her on the left. The show was extra-terrestrial. Great clouds of weed smoke rose up from the crowd beneath us, and the band churned out waves of soul-drone energy so massive it was all you could do to hold onto the boogie board of your consciousness and ride it until a lull. It’s appropriate they’re on 4AD, because they totally have that swoon-rock thing down, like Cocteau Twins and Lush, but more gnarly and boyish and groovy and urban and dissonant and hippie-ish and hairy. Dave Sitek, the white dude, had these little windchimes attached to the peghead of his guitar, which he kept wacking against the microphone, and that seemed like an apt metaphor---taking delicate, beautiful things, like Kyp’s falsetto and Tunde’s soulman tenor and the overall droning ambiance, and churning it around.

As I believe I've noted before, there’s something mannish in this woman's appearance, substantial in that Midwestern Nordic way; broad shoulders, horsey teeth, and strong legs. She wore one of those little half-sweaters, black, affixed beneath her bosom over a leotard, with small green crystal earings and a wooden cross, which looked half-goth, half-Christian, like it coulda gone either way.

And so it did, as I found out when we spoke after the show. Like many Minnesotan progressives, straight and gay, she apparently couldn’t quite shake the Christianity, despite her obvious distaste for the way it’s been hijacked by nutjobs and bigots and homophobes and hawks and powermongers and psychotic TV preachers and faux-pious rappers and craven political spin-meisters and clueless Germanic popes. So she made it a fashion accessory and a social networking tool. We talked about first communion and confirmation and Jesus Christ Superstar, which was my very first album and hers too. In fact---and this is the first weird thing, but not the most weird thing---she had the words JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR tattooed in the shape of a tiny cross on the front of her right shoulder, just below the collarbone. She pulled down her top an inch or so to show it to me.

She explained it was the first album she ever owned, and thus the first tattoo. She also said she was embarrassed to have the name of an Andrew Lloyd Weber creation inked into her flesh, but that it only goes to prove that, and I quote here, “you should not get a tattoo when you are young and foolish, just the same way you shouldn’t discuss marriage with someone while on ecstasy.”

We talked about the show by Merzbow, the Japanese noise artist, which was the last time I saw her. I told her about the mass retching at the show, which she had not seen, but had read something about in Pop Matters. It turns out she left early because she’d felt queasy. I told her my theory that he was an activist vegetarian sonically attacking carnivores. Sure enough, she’d eaten hanger steak that night.

It turns out she lives in New York full-time now. She’s a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather, but also writes on music---for Rolling Stone, Blender, Spin, No Depression, Bust, and Arthur. We talked about writing, though I didn’t mention this blog. And we talked about tattoos. The Jesus Christ Superstar one she did herself, using a mirror, which I found remarkable.

And that’s when the most weird thing happened, the recognition of which was precipitated by my hearing a line from a song in my head, which goes:

“Tiny little text etched into her neck it said ‘Jesus lived and died for all your sins.’”

And then another line that went:

"Damn right I'll rise again."

And yes---I found out her name was Holly. It’s a name I like a lot. Its the name of the transvestite in the first verse of Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side,” the one who “shaved her legs/then the he was a she,” and who is based on the real life Holly Woodlawn. And that’s kind of appropriate, given this Holly’s boyish demeanor.

But this Holly, as some of you now must realize, has been specifically immortalized not in the songs of Lou Reed, but in those of the Hold Steady, and it's been going on for two albums now. Not accurately immortalized, I now know, but immortalized nonetheless.

“Fucking shitbag liar,” Holly says in an Irish bar on 3rd Avenue that we wind up in. There is no Jesus tattoo on her neck, as the song "Yr Little Hoodrat Friend" suggests, just the one on her shoulder. (She says "Little Hoodrat Friend" is about her too, even though it doesn't use her name.) As for the tattoo on her lower back---the one that Craig Finn snarls about reading as “Damn right I’ll rise again”---is actually a knockoff of a Maori moko design like the kind Ben Harper has on his back and has been showing off over the years. No words at all. It’s right on her sacrum, in fact. She excused herself, went to the bathroom, unsnapped her Danskin snaps, and came back out to show me. She rolled down the top of her Lee's, and I reached my hand out to steady myself against a pillar. As mokos go, I thought it was a pretty good knockoff.

“It’s pagan, not Christian,” she said, sitting down in the booth. “That’s key. He made me out to be some junkie trainwreck Jesus freak. I’m more pagan than Christian, really.

She shook her head. “Fucking liar,” she said.

“Wow,” I said.

“And I did go to Hazelden," she said. "But just to chill, really. And my parents didn’t name me Hallelujah. It’s just Holly. That came from a joke---Craig would say “Holly-lujah! whenever he was drunk, which of course was constantly."

"Asshole,” she said.

After that she fell quiet. And then she had to leave, because she had work the next day.

“First Night” is the only song explicitly about Holly on the Hold Steady’s excellent new record, Boys and Girls In America. It’s my favorite: it made me teary-eyed before I met her, and it still does. So does the line in “Same Kooks” about “making love to the girls with wrapped up wrists.” “First Night” mentions something about Holly, the character, being in a hospital. I didn’t ask her about that. But I did look at her wrists, which seemed unmarked under her string bracelets.

Holly doesn’t have a blog. She doesn’t believe in them. “I don’t write for free,” she said. “Fuck that. It’s too hard. I’d rather just keep my thoughts inside my head until I need ‘em.” She grinned a toothy Midwestern grin.

I also didn’t ask her whether she moved to New York for Craig, although I assume she did. And I didn’t ask for her phone number, because I didn’t want her to think I was hitting on her, because at the time I wasn't sure I wanted to. I just said “I’ll see you around.” Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

But I am certain I will see her around. The movements of music writers, after all, are very predictable.

Friday, October 13, 2006

#31 - An African pop tip

Just a link to a sweet new-ish MP3 blog, Awesome Tapes From Africa, which is exactly what it says it is, a mix of old and new African pop uploaded off of cassettes. Guy’s got a really good ear---check it + spread the love.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

#30 - Goodbye dan dan, hello higher self

The theme of this blog (a theme, at least) has always been that too much of a good thing is not always a good thing. That goes for the eponymous plant loosestrife in most ecosystems, as well as dan dan noodles w/minced pork chili vinaigrette in my personal ecosystem.

This doesn’t alter the fact that Wu Liang Ye on Lex @ 39th is the greatest Sichuan restaurant in Manhattan, probably the entire city (I need to do more exploring in downtown Flushing to verify this).

You can’t go wrong with any of the Wu’s signature dishes, or the special appetizers. The razorback clams, for instance---a wonderfully toothsome seafood you rarely find in non-Asian restaurants---are served cold in a bright green scallion-sichuan peppercorn pesto and presented like a bird of paradise, with a head carved from a giant radish with a carrot coxcomb and a tail made of fanned razorback shells. And their dan dan noodles, $4.95, are the ne plus ultra of street food: greasy, near-mushy, and smolderingly hot, with sichuan peppercorns (once again) cutting through the fattiness of the crumbled pork bits and numbing your mouth just enough to ameliorate the heat.

Ah, pork. If there is anything that can match its sublime, savory richness, I don’t know it. (Duck comes close, and these folks also do a camphor tea smoked duck, $15.95—half a lacquered bird hacked up with a cleaver---that’s like the best Southern BBQ you’ve never had at a Southern BBQ joint.)

Anyway, I find one order of noodles always leaves me two bites short of full. So last night I got two and finished both. I also finished a liter of gruner veltliner (a light, clean, sometimes faintly effervescent Austrian white which, it should be noted, goes fabulously with spicey Asian food), since it had a beer-style bottle cap and was thus impossible to reseal. Austrians must drink a lot.

(NB: I enjoyed this meal while apartment-sitting for a friend on 24th Street with a wine-fridge full of inexpensive but excellent bottles, many obtained via Wine Woot, a site well worth checking out.)

Today I feel like hell. Heartburn clawing at my esophagus, gas gnawing at my gut, chili heat singeing my---you get the idea. I feel dizzy and nauseous. And I’m thinking back to the Merzbow show earlier this year, where it seemed all the meat-eaters began vomiting just as the music reached its most intense-beautiful apex.

Looking back, it seems totally implausible that music could have such a selective effect on non-vegetarians. And yet. My yoga teacher always said it’s impossible to be a truly enlightened yogi and eat meat---the two activities are incompatible. Maybe Merzbow’s music was too intensely beautiful for the non-enlightened.

I’ve always rejected the Judeo-Christian dietary laws as being uselessly out of date and pointlessly ascetic in an era with modern food-handling techniques and advanced culinary arts.

But today, I will make a vow. (Vows are another theme of the this blog; making them takes strength, keeping them builds strength, as I’ve written before.) I do hereby forswear meat. For the next, um, year.

I will do this as a component of my yoga practice (“practice” being a good word for it, since I usually feeling I’m practicing as opposed to actually doing it). I will do this also to lose some weight, since I am now tipping the scales at, well, nevermind.

One thing: I will make an exception for bacon. Only bacon without nitrates, from organically-raised, antibiotic-free pigs.

And dan dan noodles.

Okay, okay, fine. No bacon, no dan dan. No duck. No pork.

If Merzbow and Nick Zinner can do this, so can I.

Monday, September 18, 2006

#29 - A luncheon at Per Se; an ethical quandry

“How Long Has This Been Going On?”Ray Charles, singing in the mid-1970s, with the Count Basie Orchestra (minus Count Basie), performing in 2005-6

Today I took a day off from work at the Small World day care center to attend, for the first time in my life, what I am told is an increasingly rare event: a record label press junket. Okay, apparently it wasn’t a real junket---none of the journalists had been flown in from anywhere, as far as I could tell. But I was certainly transported---first by subway, then the Time-Warner Center escalator---to food heaven, aka: Per Se, what some say is the best restaurant in New York City. It’s sister restaurant, the French Laundry in Napa Valley, also run by super-chef Thomas Keller, has been called the best restaurant in the country.

Reading guys like Lester Bangs, it seems that record companies had more money to wine and dine journalists back in the ‘70s. Now, with downloading cutting into their profit margins, I guess they don’t anymore. Or maybe I just don’t get invited to them. But since bloggers are the new media stars---or so the old media keeps telling us (without actually coughing up any work, at least for this boy)---some of us were invited to this event, organized to pimp a new Ray Charles record.

Yes, he’s still dead. The record, Ray Sings, Basie Swings was constructed from vocal tracks recorded at a live concert in the ‘70s with his backing band, and newly-recorded backing by the Count Basie Orchestra (sans the late Count, of course). The idea was partly serendipidous, we were told, spurred when the producer of Ray’s final major release, the umpteen-million selling Genius Loves Company, found a tape of Charles’ concert on a reel that also included a set by the Basie Band. The men didn’t play together that night, but now, thanks to the miracle of technology, they do.

Figuring this was gonna be a hard sell, especially to the crusty old-guard jazz hound culture in New York, the marketing/pr folks pulled out all the stops. I don’t know why the big fuss, thought. Dead people come out with new records all the time, between reissues and cameos on hip-hop singles and mix-tapes. Biggie and Tupac have probably released more material post-mortem than when they were alive; Ol’ Dirty Bastard is catching up fast. And since many of the tracks on Genius Loves Company were supposedly assembled with pre-recorded vocal performances by duet partners not in the room with Ray, what’s the difference whether the participants are dead or alive? If the music is good, the technology is simply a footnote.

Is the music good? Sure. Ray’s vocals are strong, and the Basie band arrangements are dapper, notwithstanding a couple of sappy bits. It's airless at points, yet really not bad.

But the lunch? Lord Jesus. It began with a very amusing amuse bouche of salmon carpaccio flecked with microscopic chive stems atop a black sesame seed studded cone, whose interior contained a blip of creme fraiche---a fantasy of sesame bagel/cream cheese/lox as ice cream cone. Understated and exquisite, and perfectly matched with the a chardonnay-tocai-pinot grigio blend from Friuli (the aparatif was a wonderfully fresh Basque country white Txakoli). The salad was a pickled endive surrounded by tiny architectures of dense, razor-shaped melon cubes and tiny pickled baby red onion circles, deployed between drizzles of ultra-virgin olive oil and aged balsamic. The tartness of the endive parryed the sweetness of the melon to a gentleman’s draw, which danced beautifully with the wine.

The entree was a lovely square of grilled black cod atop a succotash sitting in a creamy pool of some sort of intensely concentrated fresh corn reduction, a perfect use of late-September produce. It was boldly paired with a Zinfandel, which made a suprisingly perfect match, the wine holding its juicy own against the corn's sweetness while the charred cod skin and bits of hardwood-smoked bacon brought out a gentle smokiness and oak notes.

“Fish with zin, very Per Se,” said the diner beside me, a writer for some Conde Nast publication, I didn’t catch which---meaning, I gather, how typically California-foodie-renegade.

The Zin also worked well with the dessert, a deconstructed something-or-other that set a tablespoon-sized scoop of intense, fresh ginger ice cream in a nest of graham cracker crumbs beside a glob of exquisite caramel goo and what looked like a Joseph Schmidt chocolate egg truffle, but tasted even better. Along the edge of the plate was a thin, hardened line of bittersweet chocolate which only the boldest guests dared to smear up with their fingers. (Of course, I was among them.)

I must sound like a foodie. I am not. I can’t afford to be a foodie. I just like to eat. And read food magazines.

At the end of the meal, following a push for the assembled to “please cover this record” in their magazines and newspapers and TV shows and blogs, I staggered out into the sunlight of a perfect fall afternoon and walked across the street to Central Park, feeling full and bought. I had no intention of writing about this record before I went to this event, which I attended purely to get into a restaurant I’d never be able to afford otherwise. But here we are.

Does the music deserve coverage? Hey, it’s an interesting story and an engaging record---which despite some of the ridiculous hyperbole flying at the lunch, can’t hold a candle to his greatest recordings, but what can? Listen to the track above and judge for yourself.

I guess this is how it works. Did the lunch, and this posting, constitute payola? Is Eliot Spitzer going to send his boys down to the day care center? I’ll let you know. In the future, I promise to police this sort of conflict-of-interest more diligently in Loose Strife. But for now, I’m going to enjoy the little packet of Per Se chocolates with a cup of coffee from the Starbucks dark roast beans I got in my Ray Charles gift bag.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

#28 - Fellini on the danger of music

(Above, Federico models a crown on the set of Fellini's Casanova, 1975)

There’s something about people who spend all their time listening to music---not musicians, but armchair music fans, whether they’re professional critics or record store clerks or just layfolk. It’s a bitterness, a sort of loss of empathy, as if the emotional songs they covet and fetishize and analyze were, like science fiction parasites, sucking their own emotions out, or acting as surrogate expressions of feeling they themselves have become incapable of.

It’s a strange and, frankly, rather scary phenomena; I worry about it, since I spend a great deal of time coveting and fetishizing and analyzing emotional music.

I’ve always been fascinated by this quote from Federico Fellini, which seems to have some relevance to what I’m talking about. It appears in the LP Amarcord Nino Rota, a tribute LP to the Italian film composer who scored most of Fellini’s greatest films.

I can listen to Nino for days on end, sitting at the piano endlessly reshaping a musical theme, intent only upon finding the exact musical phrase to coincide with the sentiments and particular emotions which I am trying to convey in a sequence of film. Yet funnily enough, outside of the work context, I actually can’t stand listening to music; it conditions me, it alarms me, it tries to possess me and consequently I am forced to defend myself---to push it away from me, like a thief trying to escape from the temptations of the bargain basement. I don’t know, it’s probably another case of our “catholic conditioning”---but music makes me melancholy: it fills me with remorse. And useless as remorse always is, music attacks me with the voice of admonishment, a voice which I feel destroying me because it sings so loudly, conjuring grandiose dimensions of harmony, of peace and of accomplishment, and yet quite clearly leaving me excluded---a total exile! Music is cruel---it stuffs you with nostalgia and regret and when it’s finished, just leaves you utterly directionless: music introduces you to the unattainable. Marvelous, but how sad!

Food for thought.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

#27 - By the time we got to Woodstock...

“Wooden Ships” – Crosby & Nash (live in Los Angeles 10/10/71)

Boy, the summer just flew by. Mine's been okay. Hope your's has been, too.

So check it: Yesterday I drove --- or I should say, more to the point, made pilgrimage to --- Woodstock. Not the real Woodstock, the town in the eastern Catskills, but the apocryphal one, that hovers like a tribe of ghosts over a bunch of rolling fields in Bethel, New York, in the western Catskills, where the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival was held 37 years ago.

Thirty-seven years ago.

This year, after much talk and time, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts opened, adjacent to the downward-sloping field where the stage sat at the 1969 festival. That field has been preserved like a holy site: seeded with lush grasses, cultivated with what I imagine to be the finest of petro-chemical fertilizers, mowed to a crewcut suburban length, and guarded by venue employees in maroon polo shirts, who would not allow anyone to tread the hallowed turf.

At least before the concert, which was, I should note, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Afterwards, the employees must have had other duties, and high concertgoers were free----free, man, FREE!----to skip down the incline to inspect a memorial totem pole in the center of the field.

I caught a ride with some older friends from Queens, Steve and Myra, who were almost hippies back in the day (they’re in their mid-40s now) and whose daughter, Ruby Jade, is one of my kids at Small World Day Care. None of us had ever been to the Woodstock site before, and as we sat in traffic along route 17B drinking cans of Tecate beer (whose current design makes them look very much like cans of Coke, a handy disguise when knocking one back in the car), we imagined the epic traffic jam of the original festival.

This time, however, noone abandoned their cars on the side of the road to walk. I guess you don’t just leave Mercedes SUVs and Subaru Forester XLs at the side of the road.

The show was remarkably moving. Sure, hearing the crowd of boomers shouting along to Neil’s “Rockin’ In The Free World” made it sound more than ever like a beer commercial (despite the fact Neil, as he demonstrated with This Note’s For You, doesn’t go in for that sorta thing). And some of the new material lagged, although songs from Neil’s current Living With War CD were accompanied by mock-up CNN video footage, with ticker-tape crawls that cited impressive facts---like George Bush’s refusal to attend any soldier’s funeral since the beginning of the Iraq war. (If he did, it would be front page news, and Karl Rove would never permit American military casualties to be top stories.)

But Neil’s guitar was on fire. He torched Graham Nash’s “Military Madness” with solos that recalled his former tour-mates Sonic Youth, and happily dueled with Stephen Stills---who looked worse for wear but held his own---on a ridiculously inspirational “Almost Cut My Hair.” Even a song as dreadfully over-exposed as “Our House” sounded gorgeous; with couples hugging each other and singing along, no doubt thinking about their two cats in the yard and the kids at home with well-paid nannies, only a complete churl could deny the holiness of the whole scene. Given my “family” situation, I couldn’t relate. But pop is about fantasy, yes?

And on that note, I’ll end this by pointing out that “Chicago,” Graham Nash’s song about the protests at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968, was probably the evening’s most powerful moment. Its opening lyrics, in particular, were quite timely

So your brother’s bound and gagged
And they've chained him to a chair
Won't you please come to Chicago just to sing
In a land that's known as Freedom
How can such a thing be fair?
Won't you please come to Chicago for the help that we can bring

We can change the world
Rearrange the world
It's dying..

You might imagine people singing along feebly between sips of $10 wine from plastic cups. But they weren’t---they were hollering, shouting, belting it out. I got teary, and sang so loud I only heard the music soaring around me intermittantly.

(I’m 34, you see; I missed all this stuff first time around.)

I hope folks took some of this righteous fervor home with them in their Mercedes SUVs. I hope I did, too.

Monday, May 08, 2006

#26 - A death in the family

Patti Smith – “birdland” (live in London, 6/25/05)

His father died.

Those are the first three words to “birdland,” my favorite Patti Smith song. The lowercase is intentional.

From Patti Smith Complete: Lyrics, Notes and Reflections (Anchor, 1999):

The birdland here was inspired by a passage from Peter Reich’s “Book of Dreams” His father Wilhelm Reich had died, and during a family gathering he thought he saw the lights of a spaceship while the song “Party Doll” was blaring. He believed his father to be at the helm. But despite his desperate cries, the light vanished into the night sky as Peter lay on the grass, weeping beneath the stars.

The lyrics were apparently improvised live in the studio. Smith describes herself as a “human saxophone.” She talks about revering her “two Johnnys,” John Coltrane and Johnny Carson, as examples of men who could think on their feet.

The shrinking of my father’s physical frame that I’d written about earlier, that stumped so many medical practitioners, had stopped by March; it ultimately reduced him from 6’5” to 4’2”. By this point he was almost completely immobile.

It was not a huge change. For years he did little besides sit at the kitchen table, looking out the window, through the slats of the white aluminum blinds and the mesh of the blackened screen, at the patch of grass in our backyard, the scrubby hedge, the overgrown blue spruce, and the slate roof and crumbling wall of the brick garage, which was half covered with English ivy. He’d have his bowl of cereal and banana, drink his cup of Lipton tea, and then stare until lunch, when he’d rise, heat up a can of soup, half spoon/half pour it out of the pot and into a bowl, sit back down, eat it, and stare. Eventually my mother would come home, make him dinner, and serve it to him in the same chair. The sun would set, and maybe he’d move into the living room to watch some TV.

He’d usually fall asleep there on the couch. Sometimes I’d wake him, touching his bony shoulder or---once the shrinking began and he was suddenly, shockingly, smaller than me, for the first time in my life---stroking the wisps of hair on his head, like I do when I have to wake up a kid at the day care center where I work. My father would then wake with a small start, chuckle a bit, mumble something, and get up, either by himself or, later, with help from me, and he would trudge upstairs to bed. In the morning, he would trudge downstairs, and begin again.

Sometimes I would let him sleep on the couch, to save the trip upstairs.

His death came pretty quickly once he decided not to get out of bed; about three weeks, I guess.

The picture posted above was the view from his bed---a framed portrait of his mother and himself from the 1920s. He stared at it for many of his final waking hours, trading the empty backyard for a view into the past. I suppose it was the last thing he saw: one frame from the life that is supposed to flash before your eyes as you go, stilled in amber.

I suppose there is a point in most people’s lives where you stop looking forward and start looking backwards. The idea terrifies me.

Friday, April 28, 2006

#25 - Cat Power, and another comeback

“Hate (Pocket Mix)” – Cat Power

Cat Power was astonishing at Town Hall last night. Awe-inspiring. Possibly life-changing. Really. I mean, if Chan Marshall---the name behind the moniker---can actually get through an entire show, more or less, without breaking down and running off stage midset (she did sneak off during one song, but it seemed planned), then what right do any of us have to fail?

Her album, The Greatest, is about someone who used to have high aspirations but has been beaten down by life. By the record’s end, having struggled through her darkest hours, she comes out the other end, not with any bogus salvation but with the simple reassurance that human contact, love and communication, might save her.

Her concert at Town Hall in New York City the other night was a similar display of struggle, like any Cat Power show. Nearly every song teetered on the brink of collapse, both in terms of their fragile construction and Marshall’s performance. Her history adds to this: she is known for her inability to finish a show without being overwhelmed by self-consciousness and being unable to continue. I personally have seen fourteen Cat Power shows, and every one (last night’s excepted) ended abruptly; at one she curled up in fetal position onstage until her band gave up and left her there, exasperated. At another she literally ran off stage, into the audience, and out the theater door into the street.

Tonight she had a huge backing group, The Memphis Rhythm Band, which included a horn section, a string section, and an awesome old soul guitarist---Teenie Hodges---who played with Al Green on all his classic early-to-mid Seventies stuff. It seemed impossible that she could collapse with such a huge ensemble behind her, in a venue like Town Hall, in her home town.

And yet. She was fidgety and seemed disoriented during the first few songs. The friends I came with left early, figuring they’d cut their losses.

But she pulled it off. Sure, she squirmed like an autistic child and did silly little mime and dance moves during her most pathos-gripped songs. (I confess I closed my eyes at some points because she distracted me from the pure sadness of the music.) And she did leave stage during “Where Is My Love,” leaving her background singers to vamp, which they did for what seemed like 10 minutes. But she came back before the song ended, having changed from her flouncy little black dress to an elegant white strapless flapper number with fringe at the bottom. She did “Love and Communication” and the band ---- relatively speaking, but still --- roared. She started singing, then wailing ‘I LOVE YOU’ over the wave-like crashing of the songs final chords----whether to the song’s subject, her band, her friends in the audience, or all the above was unknowable. And when the song ended, even her bandmates, looking like family members at a clinic on discharge day, seemed astonished that she pulled through.

But the most beautiful moment was the encore, where she came out to play “I Don’t Blame You,” the lead track from what’s probably still her best record, You Are Free, though The Greatest comes close. The lyrics talk about a performer, probably Kurt Cobain, who just couldn’t survive fame’s emotional blast furnace, and how Marshall, or her character in the song, anyway, doesn’t blame him. She sang it alone, in a trance, at a huge grand piano. And when she finished, she faced the audience like a military cadet and gave a small salute, as if she had just completed a taxing frontline tour of duty (she had, in a sense), but didn’t want to make too much of it. Then she turned on her barefoot heel, wiggled her ass like a burlesque girl, and walked offstage.

Anyway, back to the world outside the concert hall.

My Dad died last week. My Mom is kicking me out of the house, and I’ve got 99 more problems (to quote Jay-Z, the most annoying MC in hip-hop) that have been weighing me down. So much so, I’d abandoned this blog months ago. I just couldn’t bring myself to write. But last night Chan Marshall, by example, inspired me to get over myself and get back to work. Like Sisyphus, it’s all I got, baby.

Above, a version of “Hate,” from The Greatest, remixed without authorization by Richard, the inspired dude behind Pocket Mixes. His modus operandi is often to take a sad song and make it---well, if not necessarily better, then beautiful in a different, dub-and-disco-loving way. His remixes always have a sense of the celebratory, and I feel like celebrating today. Because while my life might be falling apart, I’ve at least revived Loose Strife, which suggests anything might be possible.

PS (added a few days after the above was posted) – I didn’t know it at the time, but the above post was written on April 28---a year to the day since I began this blog, and the day I had pledged to “finish” it. Of course, I failed to keep my original pledge to keep it going for a full year. So every ending is a new beginning, and every failure an opportunity. Right?

Thanks, Chan. And as always, thank you for reading, whoever you are.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

#24 - Art-house porn can be depressing. Music too, albeit less so.

A couple of nights ago I saw Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs---which in addition to offering a lot of graphic, intermittently hot sex, tries to capture the sensation of standing around in a rock club and giving yourself over to the volume and beats and notes through the eyes of a 30-something Antarctic geologist, who is falling deep into it a thing with a 21 yr old hottie he met in a club. Outside the Brixton Academy one night for a Super Furry Animals show when his girlfriend is elsewhere, the dude marvels “five thousand people in a room and you can still feel alone.”

Well, yeah.

It seems to me the essential condition of being in a rock audience is precisely this. Standing alongside dozens or hundreds or thousands of other people (or even just one), all locked away in their individual experience---drugged or sober---of what is supposed to be a collective rapture, a group orgasm. But they never are. The performances that have always moved me the most were those that attempted to break through or melt this wall of isolation, usually via dancing. The Dead once. At The Drive In show. An early Jurassic Five show in San Francisco. Basement Jaxx. But they all fall short. Even if you are there with a lover---and I saw 135 shows with Emily (I know; I have every ticket stub)---and even if you go home to have hot, spitty, rough sex afterwards, it is impossible to escape the feeling that while the band is playing, and you are riding pleasure waves created by audio waves rubbing, riding, slapping you the way a lover might, you are alone.

Jesus, dude---snap out of it. You’re really beginning to sound pathetic. This is going to be my last post until I can pull myself out of this funk. As for music, no funk tonight. I’m just not feeling it.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

#23 - Transgenderism, vaporization, and the glory of Antony

“Mysteries of Love” – Antony and the Johnsons

Been awhile. Much to catch up on. I’ll do it in a few sequential posts so you don’t get bored with another long ramble.

Went to see Antony and the Johnsons last night at Carnegie Hall. Yes, Carnegie Hall.

For those not familiar with Antony, this is surprising. He is a downtown performance artist, a boy who straddles genders aesthetically and spiritually, who I last saw perform in a sort of kabuki whiteface at a small club called Tonic, where I recall him sitting at a piano and singing songs of such delicately weird and transcendent beauty, with his wildly quavering and bravely vulnerable high tenor (low alto?), I got all teary eyed.

He also did one about blow jobs that was very funny.

I managed to wrangle a ticket out of his booking agent, Gigi (formerly George), a very beautiful transvestite (or possibly transgender; I’ve never asked, though if he/she is doing anything in terms of breast implants, it’s a very understated effect). I was invited to dinner at a Greek restaurant with a bunch of his/her friends, and we talked about real estate and rocket science (one guy, very handsome, was a jet propulsion engineer) and music and recreational drugs over retsina and priorat and some lovely grilled octopus. Afterwards we huddled in a doorway to smoke some excellent Mendocino green bud in a gadget called a vaporizer, which you used with a Bic lighter just like a regular pipe. But instead of burning the weed, the flame instead bakes it inside of a metal chamber, which causes the plant matter to generate a very tiny amount of smoke that contains all the active ingredients you need.

I gotta say, it’s a little less sensuous than filling your lungs with a big fat cloud. But as its owner pointed out---a 40-something FTM tranny who worked as a very high paid corporate lawyer in San Francisco---it's much healthier. "Lung cancer," she pointed out, "is not sensuous."

True, that.

The show was wonderful, with a hilarious but also genuinely sorrowful version of Whitney Houston's "I Want to Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" (which the singer remade as a love letter to Shania Twain) and an incredibly beautiful version of the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says,” which Lou Reed---a friend of Antony’s who appears on his most recent LP, I Am A Bird Now---came out to play guitar on. It’s a song about Candy Darling, the transgender star in Andy Warhol’s circle whose deathbed photo appears on the cover of I Am A Bird Now.

When Antony hit the high notes at the end of each chorus, it was so sublime I nearly fainted, and would have were I not sitting down. On my left was Gigi, smelling like honeydew and sinsemilla, on my right a transgender journalist I did not know scribbling notes on his/her program, from whom I detected a scent of red wine and roses. The seats in the balcony were close together, and during the really emotional parts of the show, she moved her black-stockinged leg up and down not quite in rhythm to the music, rubbing it occasionally against mine.

I think heaven is something like this. Only with more comfortable seats, I hope.

Jimmy Scott, the veteran jazz singer with a voice and presentation that is also gender-blurring, sang a few songs. And I thought about how many great divas had sung on the stage of Carnegie Hall in years past. My father told me he saw Billie Holiday there on more than one occasion, back in the day.

Gender – so arbitrary.

Above, a cover from Antony’s I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy EP. “Mysteries of Love” is the wonderful song written by Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch for the film Blue Velvet, where I recall it appearing as a slow-dance number at a house party. Originally sung gorgeously by Julee Cruise (where is she now?), its slightly Cocteau Twins electronic ambience sounded somewhat out of place in the film’s neo-fifties setting---intentionally, no doubt. But this version might have even worked better. I will keep it in mind (along with that Whitney cover, if Antony ever records it) for a slow-dance mix tape. You never know when you might need one.

Monday, September 26, 2005

#22 - Vegetarian militancy, sound magick, B&D, and the most astonishing live show of my life

"Bondage For Satomi Fuji" - Merzbow

I just saw the most incredible show of my life.

Or maybe, to be more precise, I had the most incredible club experience of my life.

That’s not it either, but hey---it’s a lead. Let me explain.

My friend Ethan, who is a psychology student at Queens College, emailed me out of the blue to ask if I wanted to see Merzbow---aka Masami Akita, the Japanese “noise artist” and writer---at the Knitting Factory, the multi-stage avant-garde coddling music space in Lower Manhattan. Ethan is interested in extreme behavior, which is curious because he is a very mild-mannered, non-extreme sort of guy. I said sure. I’ve never really gotten into this sort of music---it all sounds, well, like noise---but I figured it would be interesting. So last night we went.

Opening was Jim O’Rourke, occasional Sonic Youth member, who performed a duet with some guy using a bunch of electronic boxes. It was a mostly undifferentiated mass of electronic shrieks and rumbles which heaved in some interesting ways. Next was Circle, a Finnish prog-rock group who were pretty great, with lots of anthemic crescendos and Arctic Circle howling and an excellent, krautrock-literate drummer who looked wicked in a black turtleneck and a black cat-burglar mask, like Batman’s sidekick Robin if he was a skinhead philosophy grad student. Adding some visual amusement up front in the audience was a huge dude wearing a red headband, who was alternately taking pictures of the band and, during the really heavy parts, pumping both fists ecstatically towards the ceiling, presumably in a gesture of Finnish solidarity.

Merzbow came on precisely at midnight, and sat behind two PowerBooks, one 15” and one 12”. (For some reason I’d thought he used a guitar, but whatever.) On one was a MEAT IS MURDER sticker, and the word FUR behind a red circle and slash.

Akita had long straight black hair that hung down to the small of his back, and wore small oval glasses. As a writer, he is known for his writing on bondage and S&M, so it might strike some as odd that he is also an animal rights activist.

I guess it’s about consent.

The performance began with a stream, then a flood of sputtering low-frequencies which increased in volume until it felt like a hundred subway trains were running beneath the venue (unlike Joe’s Pub, in which you can usually hear only the #6 train during shows). Then higher frequencies came in: piercing laser-shots, screaming outbursts like buzzsaws against steel, lurching and grinding sinewaves bending like girders collapsing under the weight of buildings, and around it all a cloud of static like a swarm of giant bees, or the magnesium-flaring center of a pyrotechnical display that just keeps sizzling. It felt like---here comes a rock critic cliché, but I’m at a loss for any more precise description---the soundtrack to the apocalypse, of new buildings collapsing, calling to mind the World Trade Towers which fell only a few blocks away, and the German industrial group Einsturzende Neubauten, whose name in fact translates as “new buildings collapsing” and who I was thinking about last week while stepping around mounds of dogshit and high-end babystrollers in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, the group’s old stomping ground. I closed my eyes, and I basically saw the money shots from old Godzilla films.

Yet there was also a stillness and an austere beauty to it all, as the chaos merged together into something almost ambient. The volume was admittedly terrifying: I had earplugs screwed in to the hilt, with a 25dB noise reduction rating, and that made it easier to parse the subtle, sculptural moves he was making within each group of frequencies. (Never have I been to a show where earplugs actually enhanced the music). And there was the sheer physicality of it: the bass frequencies literally entering your body and massaging it from the inside, the high end grazing your skin like the tingle of ocean salt when it dries on your body hair after a swim.

With your eyes closed---almost the entire crowd stood that way---you felt like you’d been physically taken over and manipulated by some Alien – like creature, although more symbiotic that parasitic. The act of bondage has never rated very high in my erotic top-ten. But I imagine that it might create a sort of sensory-deprivation dream-state much like the experience of this performance, where immobility and sensory deprivation makes you acutely sensitive to your body while simultaneously freeing you of it, allowing you to step out of your flesh husk and watch yourself writhe.

It was pretty hot, actually.

But then things got weirder.

Whenever I’d open my eyes, I’d see the crazy Finn with the headband up front, holding a SLR camera with a flash unit about four feet from Akita’s face and firing off shot after shot----despite the fact that Mr. Merzbow didn’t change his bookish expression or move, except to pivot his head a few inches between laptops, for the entire 2 hour performance. When he wasn’t taking pictures, the Finn was bellowing and pumping his fist.

It was after about an hour and a half that the guy let out another moronic stadium-rock yelp, and with his fist still up in the air, projectile vomited across the front of the stage. It was the most spectacular upchuck I’ve ever seen: it came out of both sides of his mouth in a wide spray that somehow missed Akita---who didn’t so much as blink---and his equipment.

The music seemed to get even louder as the stench wafted back. People began moaning and moving towards the door, and soon half the room was empty. But Akita gave no indication that he’d even noticed, and there were still dozens of listeners who remained riveted to the floor, eyes closed, hands over their noses and mouths.

Then an even stranger thing happened.

Or maybe not strange at all. Other people began throwing up. A jockish dude near the left speaker cabinet puked violently into it. Two dreadlocked white guys, one following the other, hurled side-by-side against the side of the bar. And a beautiful Japanese girl, who I’d been watching bliss out whenever my eyes were opened, put her hand on my shoulder and hurled onto my left foot before being led away by her girlfriend.

At this point, the lights suddenly went up, the volume seemed to arc up even higher, like the sound of Godzilla hitting high-voltage cables.

And then it stopped. Akita stood up and walked off stage, seemingly unaware anything unusual had happened.

Maybe this wasn’t unusual.

Out on Leonard Street, the crisp night air returned my body to me, and relieved the nausea of being inside. People milled about, dazed, some hunched over, a few laughing and trying to find words for what happened. I saw the Japanese girl get into a cab with her friends, which was a bit of a letdown as I wanted to try and console her. I looked down at my shoe, and there was a chunk of what looked like unchewed yellowtail sitting in between the front laces and the toe. Disgusted, I kicked it off.

Then I had a fleeting thought: What if Merzbow’s frequencies, coming as they did from an anti-meat activist, were designed to attack and sicken meat eaters?

“Interesting idea,” said Ethan. “Good thing we had falafel. I’m going to Google that when I get home.”

Above, a 29-minute piece from Merzbow’s out-of-print Music For Bondage Performance 2, to give you an idea of what I’m going on about. Do not listen to it after a meal at Peter Luger’s.

But wait---I almost forgot the weirdest thing of all.

At one point during Merzbow’s set, I left to pee, and went up to the balcony for a different perspective. I stood next to a tall, handsome girl in the first row of seats who was typing speedily into a 13” PowerBook. She looked familiar, and when she looked up, she pointed in an accusatory way and smiled; a cute, snaggle-toothy smile. But given the volume, talking was out of the question. Since I couldn’t recall her name or where I knew her from, I pointed back to her, nodded in that universal nightclub nice-to-see-you-but-I’m-not-going-to-talk-to-you-now code, and left to renter the maelstrom below.

After the show was over, it hit me: She was the waitress from Minneapolis---the one who brought the Bloody Marys during my interview with Conor Oberst at Hell’s Kitchen, and who gave me a withering look when I chugged Conor’s leftovers. Her hair was half blonde and half green then---now it was growing out brown with white tips, which is maybe why I couldn’t place her at first. That and her out-of-context appearance in New York.

When I realized this outside the club, I went back in to find her. But she was gone.

I hope she didn’t get sick. Judging from her build, she looked like a carnivore.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

#21 - Hi, I'm back

"Tomorrow Is A Long Time" – Nick Drake

It’s been a long time, I know. We haven’t spoken since I returned from Berlin last week. Thanks for remembering me.

Looking back at my last post, I was a little shocked to see that I invoked Jesus Christ. I was raised Catholic---not too enthusiastically by anyone involved---but I did the First Communion and Confirmation deal, and went to confession a few times as a kid (at a certain point, it would have become too time-consuming). And I must now confess that I never really developed a relationship with The Guy.

So it was odd that I should beseech Him.

Nick Drake, the ‘70s British folkie, probable suicide, and musical patron saint of sad-sack aesthetes, would make more sense. Above, a Dylan cover from a 1968 (or '69) tape Drake supposedly made for his Mom shortly before recording his fiercely gorgeous debut Five Leaves Left. A nice thing, that; I further confess haven't burned my Mom a disc since her hairplugged dick of a boyfriend began jocking me for Tupac back catalog. Anyway, this track has turned up on various bootlegs; the one I have is called The Complete Home Recordings.

I wonder if there is such a thing as a small Nick Drake medallion that I could wear around my neck to worry between my thumb and forefinger in difficult times? Maybe I should look into manufacturing one? I bet they’d sell well---certainly give St. Christopher a run for his money in my little corner of the world.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

#20 - A meeting with a soulmate

M. Ward - "Let's Dance"

Yesterday was my final day in Berlin, and as usual when I travel, the final day is when you finally begin to feel comfortable in a place, like you could really stay awhile.

It’s not unlike relationships in that way.

I rode to Alexanderplatz (thinking of the Fassbinder epic) to buy a simple power adaptor---after a couple of hours, my fancy international converter gets hot enough to iron shirts with and shuts down---and some good German muesli to take home. As I’ve mentioned, this country really knows what to do with grain, from beer to bread to breakfast cereal.

Other foodstuff (to ape Jon Stewart)….not so much.

Although I must say: I had an excellent meal last night with the famous Michael Mark Wretch. He has been living in Berlin for about six or seven years now, having fled New York in the wake of a break-up with a beautiful, very intense, and---okay, this is a sexist cliché, but it’s true in this case---totally fucking crazy woman, Bobbita (ne: Bobbi) Birgisson, a music journalist-turned-publicist who used to do a punk/hip-hop ‘zine with Wretch called Def and Dumb that was totally hot and hilarious but somehow lost Wretch most of whatever money he had (which, being a trust-fund kid, is rumored to be a lot). By the end, you could find them having screaming, drink-flinging fights in the back of the Mercury Lounge or Irving Plaza, or find him haggling with the clerk at St. Mark’s Sounds over the price of some ‘80s post-punk import CDs he was trying to sell from his formerly vast collection.

This, of course, was before he realized how much more money he could make selling them online, on Ebay and Amazon. After which he pretty much stopped writing about music and became an online record seller full-time, often mailing off the free review copies he still received in the mail from record companies to whoever PayPal-ed his account in the same padded mailer (and with the same postage, if the stamp was uncancelled) that he received it in.

Wretch also did an early music blog called Berlin Is A Bitch (a nod to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s culture-kicking classic “Inglan Is A Bitch”) but he took it down after a couple of neo-Nazi art-punks recognized him and gave him a beat-down outside an Einsturzende Neubauten reunion show a few years back. It’s unfortunate; it was really good---smart and obnoxious and surprisingly sensitive and impassioned when the subject was music that really moved him, like Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society in their early-‘80s lineup (with smoking harmolodic kid guitarist/banjoist Vernon Reid, before he became a black metal god in Living Color)(that’s a black metal god, as opposed to a black metal god; I don’t know that Vernon ever worshipped Satan or anything). Being pretty much the first of its kind, was something of an inspiration for Loose Strife.

Which is why it was doubly disturbing to find him in such (sorry) a wretched state. After getting lost in an East Berlin housing project courtyard---and nearly set upon by a bulldog and two skinhead kids blasting old 50 Cent mixtapes on a boombox---trying to find his crib, I finally stumbled on his Soviet-style apartment block, rang his bell, walked down the dogshit-scented hallway, and came face-to-face with the man whose writing I’d revered for so many years.

His narrow halls were lined with stacks of CD cases of from the floor to near the ceiling, in various heights that made a sort of plastic skyline. In his bedroom/livingroom there was a laptop on a desk surrounded by more CD buildings, piles of padded mailers, and a bed covered with LPs lying flat. His kitchen was even more frightening. There was a burn mark about three feet up the wall behind the stove (“tried to make French fries,” he told me; “Germans make shitty French fries”), four open boxes of American breakfast cereal---Life, Raisin Bran, Captain Crunch, and Wheaties---on the dinette table, and across from the sink, which was filled with crusted dishes and all sorts of unspeakable filth, was a bookshelf packed with an excellent selection of international cookbooks and wine guides.

It looked, in fact, not unlike my apartment. It was ghost of Christmas future. I had to leave immediately.

Anyway, we went out for the aforementioned excellent meal at a non-descript Prenzlauer Berg bistro, which I wound up paying for, but didn’t care, because hell, it was the least I could do for a fellow culture warrior, especially one so evidentally injured in battle. It included two bottles of an excellent semi-dry Reisling (which sadly I was too drunk to note the name of), a plate of sumptuous white asparagus (from Berlitz, I was told, a town near Berlin reknowned for its asparagus, less so for it being the site where Jews were burned alive back in the 12th and 13th centuries, although I guess the history of ever inch of this country is bloodstained, not unlike like ours) and some excellent breaded veal (which I rarely eat in the U.S., but did here because I imagine the animals may be treated more humanely in Europe). (Again, this is the romantic in me; I’ve never been to a European abbatoir, but if I correctly recall the pro-vegetarian, anti-vivisection The Animals Film, which has a chilling soundtrack by seventies prog-rock guru and activist Robert Wyatt, they’re hardly resort spas.)

Anyway, drunk and stuffed, we rolled down to see M. Ward at a place called Tachles, an old department store-turned-anarchist-art-squat which, in addition to galleries and a bar, houses a small rock club. After our excessive meal I felt truly like an ugly SUV-driving American, and felt bad vibes emanating from the doorman, when I tried unsuccessfully to bluff my way in by claiming to be on the guest list (Wretch had no problem, of course). But once inside, beer in hand and Ward onstage, playing incredible Fahey-esque guitar figures and singing in his crazy, cracker-Americana Louie Armstrong slur, I felt utterly at home. And when he played his excellent cover of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” (the CD version posted above), and a fat, sloshed pair of Germans began waltzing between the tables and knocking over beers---including mine, into my lap---I understood that, despite the sneers of German punk anarchist proprieters, I was part of an international brother-and-sisterhood of music-worshippers, an intractable blood-clan of gentle hedonists, and that nothing could alter that---not language, not politics, not drunkenness, not sanity. I looked over at Wretch, who was chatting up a tall, fine-looking German girl with blonde fraulein pigtails, Ben Gibbard nerd-boy glasses, and impressive cupcake breasts wrapped in a too-small vintage A&W root beer t-shirt. And while he was clearly, painfully, out of his league, I rooted for him. After all, he is my kin.

Jesus Christ Almighty. He is my kin.