Thursday, March 29, 2007

Strickland's Lament

My name is Principal Strickland. Marty is shredding "Johnny B. Goode" with Marvin Berry and the Starlighters. I have a pained, confused look on my face and my hands are protectively covering my ears. "I guess you guys aren't quite ready for that," Marty says. "But your kids are gonna love it."

I feel that way when I listen to the radio. Or when I pick up a music magazine. Or when I look at the show listings for the clubs I used to frequent. Who in the hell are these bands? Who signed them? Who actually likes them? Does anybody actually buy the records of these super-hyped, esoteric "next big things?" Or is their obscure fame simply a product of the music biz hype machine constantly selling the cognoscenti the concept of the esoteric "next big thing?" In other words, if nobody knows a real, human Arctic Monkeys fan, then is the band still as good as Rolling Stone says?

This is not a tirade about the music industry or the music press, about their penchant for signing and promoting bands that appeal to the lowest, simplest common denominator or about how the industry takes exciting young bands and whitewashes them into a commercial, publicly acceptable commodity, then judges their success by how neatly they fit into a "drive-time" play list. Believe me, I have endless opinions about that. No, this is about how completely clueless I am when it comes to new music.

A little background: I probably saw 300-400 shows between the ages of 17 and 28. I went everywhere, all the time. Black Cat on Tuesday, 9:30 Club on Thursday, Hammerjack's or the 8x10 in B-more on Friday, Velvet Lounge on Saturday. I saw pretty much every band I've ever wanted to see except The Clash, Husker Du and Minor Threat (although I've seen The Mescaleros, Sugar and Fugazi). I saw shitty bands in arenas and amazing bands playing for 30 people; over-hyped, under-hyped, no-hyped bands; bands I'd never heard of then nor has anyone since; bands that hadn't made it yet, bands that were past their time and everything in between. I've been in more pits than a grave digger. My best friend in college, Robin, worked at the old Waxie Maxie Records in College Park. We knew about EVERYTHING. We were John Cusack and Jack Black in High Fidelity. We got all the demos and promo copies and all-access passes and were talking about bands months before you ever heard of them. (I laugh/cringe when I think about some of the bands we "discovered" that we thought were gonna be huge- anybody wanna buy a slightly used, promo copy of "Junk Fuel" by Fretblanket?)

Flash forward to last week- I was in a Barnes & Noble, perusing the periodicals, and picked up a copy of Alternative Press for the first time in years. I used to read that rag with some frequency, and I remember it (could this possibly be true?) being filled with articles about bands I liked, regularly highlighting new bands I actually wanted to check out. The issue I looked at last week featured the annual "100 Bands You Need To Know" article. Each profile gave some background on the "need to know" band, and also listed three bands "Who They Sound Like." That's where I knew I was more out of touch with reality than I ever dreamed: not only had I never heard of, I think, 90-95 of the "Need to Know Bands," but I also hadn't heard of probably 290-295 of the "Sounds Like" bands. Not only am I clueless about this generation of music, but apparently I missed the last generation as well. I figured I'd see "sounds like Nirvana" or "sounds like Social Distortion" or God forbid, "sounds like The Smiths meets Candlebox fronted by Edie Brickell." Something, anything I'd recognize. Instead, everything "sounds like Morbid Angel meets Dog Fashion Disco meets Sigur Ros."

Basically, the whole article was as incomprehensible to me as Curt Schilling talking about Everquest. And I wondered...does anyone know who these bands are? Then I saw a kid a few feet away from me looking at a video game magazine. He had checkered Vans, tight black jeans, a black hoodie sporting a safety-pinned Good Charlotte back patch, a bunch of piercings and streaky, asymmetrical hair that reminded me of Lux Interior, but was probably modeled after some guy in Avenged Sevenfold. He was probably 16 or 17 years old. That's who knows the 100 bands you need to know; it's that kid, and all the kids like him. The ones my wife yells at for having no "pit etiquette." You know, the kid I used to be. And even though I think Good Charlotte, and probably the rest of the bands he likes, suck, well, for a minute I was still a little jealous.

I also get the weekly email blasts from most of the live music venues in DC and Baltimore. I should just unsubscribe because it's like getting a reminder every week that says, "You are old. You are no fun anymore. You are a square and this whole list might as well be in ancient Greek. Even if you see the name of a band you recognize, don't buy tickets and show up because all the kids will laugh at you. They'll say, 'look at that old guy with the Bad Religion t-shirt...God, how old is that shirt? Is it from the '90's?'"

Needless to say, finding the name of a band I recognize who actually still plays live gets increasingly harder each week. Sometimes what happens is this: I see that a band I like is coming to town, but not in a forum in which I can enjoy them. "Oh, sweet- Flogging Molly and the Street Dogs are coming March 10! Oh shit, it's at something called 'The Mid-Atlantic Shamrock Fest,' an all day parking lot festival. No thanks. Can't leave the kids that long. Don't want to deal with a crowd that big." The other problem is that most of the geezer punk bands we like rarely play clubs anymore. They all go on the Warped Tour (don't even get me started...). I guess it's easier playing 30 minutes a day for hundreds of thousands of kids over the summer than it is playing for 500 every night for an hour. Not to mention the fact that each Warped Tour features about 40-50 bands, and we might be familiar with three or four. It's like a national holiday in our house when somebody we like is actually playing the 9:30 or the Black Cat. It seems like that only happens about four times a year now.

Then again, maybe it's all for the best. Come to think of it, maybe it's meant to be. Maybe pop culture, in this case the music business, is designed for people without kids, without major time constraints, without busy lives. Maybe it's designed to be outgrown. If I knew as much about music today as I did in college then I might be pretty pissed if I missed a sold-out Arcade Fire gig. If I had half a clue what the hell was going on, I'd probably spend a lot of time pissed off that I couldn’t go see Band XYZ. Maybe ignorance is bliss. Tricky thing, that music business.

They say there's nothing sadder in life than a parent outliving a child. A few degrees less sad than that, I think, is a fan outliving their favorite band. Finding out that a band you grew up listening to is no longer together, one who was there in your formative years and well into your formed years, well, that has a really brutal way of making you feel older than you really are. Every time a Bosstones or a Face to Face breaks up, every time a Joey Ramone or a Joe Strummer dies, my youth puts another foot in the grave. Soon, there will be no concerts left to see, no CDs left to buy (if CDs even still exist), unless Bad Religion and Pennywise turn out to be my generation's version of the Stones and The Who. I really hope they don't, though, because there's also something very sad about that. Some people never learn how to grow old gracefully, with dignity. Those are the guys in the Red Room at the Black Cat wearing the Minutemen "Double Nickels '84 Tour" shirts who still think it's 1984, who still think they're 21 and angry. It's a hard lesson to learn, but eventually, begrudgingly, you replace "C-ya in the pit!" with your new motto, "C-ya at the playgroup!" When my kids are 15, I can't imagine the music they're going to love, but I'm pretty sure I won't be quite ready for it.


Anonymous Ernie said...

That was a good story. Sounds like I am kind of in the same boat as you.

Though I still get out to see a show every few months or so. And I still get in the pit even though I am now old ;)

(By the way I just found your site recently via Reb Sox. Nice job!)

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Ernie said...

It's hard to find new bands these days because they are not on the radio, unless you have a good college radio station nearby, which I don't.

I usually find out about new bands by going to shows. Usually if the opening band at a show is decent I will look them up online and there is often a list of similar bands to go with them and it's a little trail that I follow. That's how I find new music these days.

I just recently saw a pretty good band called Mess With The Bull. They opened for Fu Manchu. Check them out.

3:13 PM  
Blogger MattySox said...

Yeah, radio is hopeless. I used to find a lot of bands by reading the liner notes of cds by bands I liked. Once fifteen different bands give a shout out to the Voodoo Glow Skulls, well I best check 'em out. Liner notes are like family trees of a band's friends and influences- an invaluable resource. Obviously, kids and work and wife cut down on the amount of time you have to research such things; also, I used to buy cds five or six at a time. Now, I might buy 6 a year. And with babysitters and stuff, we hardly ever make the opening bands anymore, unless it's a name we know. I'll check out Mess with the Bull, as I've heard Fu Manchu and think they're alright. Thanks for the tip.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Jere said...

I thought fretblanket was like a top-name band....

Chan, though he has no idea why, ended up with a free (he hopes) subscription to Rolling Stone. So every week it arrives in our mailbox, and I look at the cover, and I'm like, "are you fucking kidding me?" Because it'll just be that same (I assume it's four dudes who play under a hundred different names) pop-punk band. And RS is honesty thinking, This is quality--cover material!

I've always thought the better bands were people who were older, but who kids liked. If you're experienced, and have cool influences, and you play music, and your crowd is really young, you've succeeded. That doesn't seem to happen anymore. It's either 19 year old pop punk dudes who look like every 16 year old in their audience, a bunch of 24-yr old Brooklynites playing to hipper than thou other 24 yr old Brooklynites, or 30-year old hicks listening to the older, Godsmack-ish "roccckk!" metal bands.

It seemed like when I was younger, there were bands who had already grown up, and were taking their cool shit to us, teaching us, the youth.

When I was in a band, our age was roughly 25. Our fans were on average 16. We gave it a shot, ya know. We tried to let these kids know that Blink-182 wasn't punk. And it was really cool to see the smart kids at our shows who came to see us rock the teen center while their friends went to the city to see [insert another blink-182 band circa 2000 here]. Hell, even the not-so-smart kids were even smart enough music-wise to come see us over that shit that the cheerleaders at their school liked.

So, I guess Im just glad I gave it a shot. I hope other people with good influences will continue to try to teach the young'ns instead of fooling them in order to profit off them.

10:12 PM  
Blogger MattySox said...

When I was a kid, I hated my parents' music; got so sick of it. Then one day my dad heard me listening to Social Distortion's cover of "Ring of Fire" (which, at the time, I didn't know was a cover- I think I was about 13) and he says, "I know that song!" I said, "There's no way you know that song..." So of course he breaks out a Johnny Cash record and in two and a half minutes, made me realize I know nothing about music. After that, I raided his whole collection- Cash, The Who, MC5, stuff like that. I guess what I'm saying is that someday I hope to hear an unrecognizable voice singing a familiar song drifting out of one of my kids' room...

6:25 AM  
Blogger MattySox said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:26 AM  
Blogger Jere said...

Your dad listens to the MC5? Crazy. Mine likes Sade.

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Ernie said...

I don't usually need a baby sitter because 99% of the time I go out to shows by myself, ;)

I have a giant list of CDs I'd like to buy, but I'm lucky if I can get one every other month.

My 5 year olds like the Ramones and Turbonegro. So I feel like I am doing ok in that dept at least!

12:27 PM  
Blogger Peter N said...

Matty, I've become so different than the concert animal I was in the 70s, 80s (especially...BRUCE!) and 90s. These years, I go to a select two or so shows per year! It used to be that many every (unfortunately for my grades) 2 weeks in college and through the 80s. The best concerts I've seen since January 2000?? Easy. The Paul McCartney show/tour of 2002. I saw him at the Hartford Civic Center, and with the 28 or so Beatles songs and other classics mixed in (the explosives during the Song LIVE AND LET DIE were scant feet from my face!) brought us Paul for three and a half hours. I was humbled, emotional and happy.
And then there is/was BRUCE, circa 2001. BEFORE the Rising, the late summer before, when he and his E Streeet Band went out and did a tour that made all of us long-time fans, and just about everyone, happy. This was the tour that was filmed and shown on HBO, at least partly. The DVD, with 5.1 DDT sound, as does the Sir Paul DVD, ASTOUND the ears and expand he concert experience.
Thanks for reading me, and thanks for being a friend.

7:05 AM  
Blogger 02145 said...

I've got a young workmate who listens to this so-called "music" and I always ask him if he's listening to Nickelback because it all sounds the damn same to me. I started weening myself off the newer stuff in the mid-to-late 90s. Music used to shout to me - it had a pupose in my life. At some point, I began feeling shouted AT, which is different. I thought it was just a bad time in music, something that would eventually pass. I am still waiting.

I'll just jam to The Cramps until the next revolution.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Jere said...

You mean you missed the crust, emo, screamo, glam, new wave, no wave, electroclash, rockabilly and garage revolutions, and the 4th-9th waves of ska? Come on! Extremely high-quality, all of it.

I think what makes so much music, and other stuff in our culture, so lame, is that it's all stolen from the past. Being influenced by several things and making your own unique thing is cool. Doing what's been done, only putting the word "retro" in front of it will only take you so far. (Or, I guess, putting the word "revolution" after it.)

And, hey, that kind of matches up with my old/young point from earlier. Older people playing to younger people works because it's like they're teaching he young people about their influences. But when the band is your age, they probably just discovered the same music from the 70s that you just did. So you kind of both burn out on it together. But hopefully something new comes out of it all.

11:50 PM  
Blogger MattySox said...

At this point, I don't think there is anything new. I think what separates a band is how well they do one of two things- 1. Emulate their influences to such a successful degree that the nostalgia they engender outweighs the obvious plagiarism; or, 2. They disguise their influences so well that it engenders a sense of nostalgia while at the same time convincing you it's something new. Either way, of course, it's really nothing new.

Most music today, whether it's popular or not, is based on nostalgia. The Killers want you to think of New Order; every pop-punk band wants you to think early Blink-182 or post-Lookout Green Day. And every underground street punk band wants you to think of CockSparrer or The Jam on speed. Nirvana got so much credit for being original; I think they fell into the second possibility from above. They were just repackaging Sabbath and The Pixies and late Husker Du and early Replacements and infusing it with a bleaker underside and amorphous lyrics. I know that's probably an unpopular opinion. I really like Nirvana but I also think you have to realize the party they were crashing- most of us were so hungry for ANYTHING "new" that maybe we overlooked some flaws in favor of enjoying something that wasn't Poison. Then again, in 1991, I was more into the Bosstones' "Where'd Ya Go?" ep; I never attached to Nirvana as much as some people, because I was already a little in touch with "the underground," so Nirvana wasn't the breath of fresh air for me that it was for some.

I'm not slagging Nirvana, just using them as an example of a band that everyone said was a "new sound." I'm not sure, in my lifetime, there's been a new sound. Well, rap, I guess. But I'm not politically correct enough to make a big deal out of that, simply because I don't like it. Bands create new sound now by speeding up or slowing down something they heard before, or adding distortion or some other effect. Is it new? Or just a bastardization of something old? It's like the old Vanilla Ice justification for ripping off Queen..."There's goes 'ning-ning-ning-na-na-ning-ning-ning.' And ours goes, 'ning-ning-na-ning-na-na-ning-ning." It's the same thing, really. What's my point? I have no idea. I am pretty sure though, that if something truly new and revolutionary came out, I probably wouldn't like it. I'm big on nostalgia at heart, I guess.

8:13 AM  
Blogger 02145 said...

You could break down some of those influences even further still. Somewhere in the Pixies lives The Fall. Somewhere in Husker Du lives The Damned. At some point, you just have to decide what you like.

I guess I see your point with the obvious rip offs, though. I think bands like The Hives and The Futureheads at least bring something of their own to the table. Unlike that terrible Deathcab for Cutie and the other new stinky stuff.

Still, sometimes I am psyched to identify influences in newer bands because it opens up a whole new world of music to me. Kirsty MacColl got me into lounge and ultra lounge, which I completely love now.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Jere said...

Nirvana always admitted they were a Pixies ripoff band. The thing about them is that they just had so many good songs, they would've worked in any style of music. They just happened to be influenced by stuff that made them do it a certain way, which in turn made every single record label completely overhaul everything and take shitty Alanis Morissette's and say, Okay, here are four dudes with overdriven guitars and thrift-store clothes* to back you up. And every band that had a guitar at all suddenly had LOUD guitars up front.

*thousand dollar outfits made to look like they came from the thrift store

11:59 AM  

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