Sunday, August 30, 2009

It's Bigger Than Jackson


For the past two months, news within the music world has been dominated by two initials: MJ. The world watched as Michael Jackson was rushed to a hospital in LA and was reported to be "not breathing." It recoiled in shock when it was reported that the King of Pop was dead. It cried during his memorial service. And now, it is picking its collective jaw up off the floor as Jackson's death is being labeled a homicide.

It's hard to not see the tragedy in Jackson's story. The star was addicted to so many drugs he probably lost count, and was (like countless other mega-stars) surrounded by folks who refused to say no to him. So when Dr. Conrad Murray administered the lethal dose at 10:30 am on June 25th, it's plausible (however twisted) that the doctor was simply doing his job.

Now, the Los Angeles Police Department is showing the world the most concerned face they can possibly muster. Putting away the person responsible for Jackson's death--be that Murray or anyone else--is their number one priority. To the LAPD, Michael Jackson is now their most high-profile victim.

But he weren't King of Pop, if he didn't have the fame, the money, the connections to get his mitts on the bevy of prescriptions he relied on to keep his habit in check, he wouldn't be a victim. He'd be a junkie--and most likely a criminal.

Compare the way Jackson's death has been treated to that of the recent passing of DJ AM. There are, of course, many differences between the two cases--not the least of which is that Jackson was exponentially more famous than AM. Then there's the fact that nobody else gave him the fatal mixture of crack and prescription drugs.

How does any of this, though, make DJ AM less of a victim? Anyone who has struggled with hardcore addiction knows that shaking it isn't exactly on par with giving up Oreos for Lent (hell, I've smoked a pack a day for five years and no matter how much my lungs crackle or how light my wallet gets I seem to be right back where I started within a week of quitting). Addiction, as we have been so often reminded since Jackson's death, is a real and quite serious condition that can't be overcome by willpower alone.

A quick glance through the history of popular music will also provide an endless list of talented artists who have succumbed to drug abuse or addiction: Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Vicious, Cobain, et al. Most of these artists didn't have a doctor there to pump them full of their final dose. Yet it would be cruel (not to mention incorrect) to insinuate any of them weren't victims too.

The question of victimhood and addiction might be a sheerly moral one when it comes to famous artists, but to the thousands of addicts who aren't lucky enough to make the papers, it's not nearly as quaint. The LAPD's handling of Jackson's case might look odd to anyone who has been at the wrong end of the department's drug sweeps--not to mention to the thousands in prison for little more than possession of a controlled substance.

Go into any working class neighborhood, any housing project in the country, and you'll see a lot more worth escaping than Jackson had to deal with for a long time. Jackson's addiction stemmed from the deeply held insecurities and pain he carried with him that were no doubt exacerbated by being turned into a one-trick pony by the music industry. In these neglected communities, though, kids are put to pasture before they even have a chance. Is it any wonder that lighting up seems like an easy way out?

In most other industrialized nations, addiction is rightfully looked at as a disease worthy of treatment, and in fact, centers exist for just this purpose. In the United States, however, it's seen as a crime. Unless, that is, if you're rich--in which case the Betty Ford Clinic's doors are wide open.

Michael Jackson's death is being played as a freak tragedy. It isn't. As the investigation into the King of Pop's death continues, it might be worth reflecting on the innumerable talented kids who also wound up in jail or dead without the world ever getting to know them. It might also be worth thinking about the sick double standard that put them there.

This article first appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.

*****

Friday, August 28, 2009

Revolution is only a t-shirt away...


Like my shirt? It's new. My friend, the Shopaholic, saw someone wearing it on the train a few days ago, and immediately said "I need to get that for Alex." So she tracked it down, and we bought it together just yesterday.

And where did we buy it from? Urban Outfitters! It was sitting up on the second floor right between two other stacks of shirts labeled "Capitalist" and "Communist." The revolution may not be televised, but you can sure as hell put it on a t-shirt!

Just to be clear, I have no illusions about the CEO's at Urban helping us build the barricades. This is, after all, the same company that bowed to pressure from hardcore Zionists who demanded that the clothing store stop selling keffiyehs, even as they sold shirts with racist depictions of Arabs on them that said something along the lines of "sheikh-ing it up."

Urban Outfitters is no different from any clothing company. They are, however, smart marketeers. They recognize the polarization brought on by the ongoing economic crisis--and the contributions that mainstream publications like Newsweek, not to mention the hue-and-cry from the Palin-style right, have made to it. And as they attempt to market to young scenesters like myself (the majority of whom are more to the left than any generation in thirty years), they're trying to make a buck off of it in the same swipe that they do vinyl pressings of Modest Mouse albums.

It's a classic example of what the Situationists called detournement: the attempt to co-opt of a subversive piece of culture to make it safe again. They've done it to everything from punk rock to the legacy of Martin Luther King.

So if I know that the motivations behind the shirt's manufacture were suspect, why buy it? If I may use a pet-care metaphor here, it's because the cat's already out of the bag, and I'd like to help it breathe a little bit more. The balance between the coolness of genuine rebellion and the attempt to market it has always been an uneasy one. I'm sure that Urban Outfitters are oblivious to how their attempt to market our own radicalization back to us might end up fanning the flames--big business will gladly sell us the same rope we use to string them up! And Urban has always been adept at spinning things back to us in a cynically ironic way. What capital doesn't realize is that, though irony is still a legit way to express one's self among young folks, it's taken on a much more hopeful tone lately. From comedians to artists, it's become a way of pointing out not just what's wrong with the world but what might be an alternative. In other words, after years of being "against" everything, we're moving towards being "for" something else, though that shift is still admittedly in its infancy.

Let's face it: over the past year it has become cool to be politically minded and active, and that's not a bad thing at all! And though the culture industries may try to keep a lid on it, ultimately they can't. Young people know they are getting screwed right now, and more and more are asking themselves if there is a better way to run society. Case in point: the woman who let me into my fitting room said to me "you got the right shirt," and we had a brief but fruitful conversation about why socialism is the answer. I didn't ask her about the prospect of unionizing Urban Outfitters, but hey, one step at a time. I will also point out that there were a lot fewer of the "Socialist" and "Communist" shirts left on the rack than there were of the "Capitalist" ones.

Brothers and sisters, I give you the return of Radical Chic! Now the only thing that's left is for us (not the stuffed-suits) to fill it with some substance. I'm wearing this shirt with pride not because of where I got it, but because it's simply what I am--along with a growing number of people.

*****

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Pitchfork on the mp3


Anyone curious about what exactly the rise of the mp3 and peer-to-peer means should read this article by Pitchfork's Eric Harvey. This piece, "The Social History of the Mp3" (part of P-Fork's "first ten years of the millennium" retrospective) is excellent.

Harvey is unapologetic in his defense of how the internet and technology has leveled the playing field for artists and fans alike: making the music industry much less relevant, exposing them for what they are, and raising the notion that culture should be free. Such a notion is far from revelatory--indeed, it's become common currency since Napster came onto the scene--but Harvey's method and fact-finding makes it rather irrefutable. In particular, his comparison of the mp3 to the 45 rpm record and how the latter allowed countless independent record labels and artists to capture the imagination of ordinary people back in the late '40s and early '50s is prescient. It places technology and music both squarely in a historical context. They are ever-evolving, ever-shifting, and with them the roles they play in our lives.

But Harvey also takes it one step further. Using the examples of Michael Jackson and the Beatles (as well as the massive fandom that these artists generated), Harvey asserts that the industry's control over music itself created a "star-system" that artificially separated the artist from the fan. Both the Fab Four and MJ came along at a time when the previous musical models had become stale, but the fact that they remained for the most part wedded to the machinations of the industry meant that they were easily placed on a pedestal--made out to be "better than," reinforcing the elitist idea that creativity is meant only for the exceptionally talented.

The mp3, however, blurred the line between artist and fan. In Harvey's words, it has "democratized" the music process and created more of a "convergence culture":

"These sorts of nostalgic recollections, to a large degree, are facilitated because the old industry, built on selling magic, purposefully obscured all the backstage collaborators that helped superstars to emerge. But now, we find ourselves within a historical moment that allows us access to all the previously hidden aspects of music-making. Instead of approaching this situation as if the 'magic' were gone, wouldn't it be much more productive to seize the opportunity to create an entirely new crop of idols? In other words, if 'fan' is going to continue to have any resonance as a passionate listening strategy at a time when its definition is up for grabs, it's clear that fans themselves need to do the defining. The first step in this process-- the establishment of new infrastructures and technologies-- has already happened."

That's an incredibly important point to make. If those to whom music is important in their lives (read: everyone) want to seize the moment and redefine the parameters of what is culturally viable--an endeavor that is as old as music itself--then the material resources are already there. Indeed, the once tight grip of "the biz" is looser than it has ever been.

In an age where most ordinary folks have a lot less expendable income, and are toying with the idea of a fundamentally different way to run society that's significant--especially because most have already come to realize that cultural fulfillment doesn't come with a price tag.

*****

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sick Sounds: Musicians and Healthcare


By now the debate around healthcare reform in this country has reached a cacophony. There are the usual suspects: the wheeling and dealing on Capitol Hill, the polished spin of the pundits, but with the added fun of the Palin-clones invading town hall meetings (how much is big pharma really paying these people?), there seems to be one segment of people whose critical voice has been totally lost.

That, quite bluntly, is the voice of the uninsured. Those 45 million Americans who have no platform for the same reason that they don't have insurance--they're broke. But past all the white noise being created in the media, you actually don't have to go too far to hear the voice of an uninsured citizen. As a matter of fact, it might be as easy as turning on your stereo.

That's because, despite the image of musicians living a charmed and carefree life filled with parties and endless gratification, most have had a hard time getting health care. The number of uninsured or underinsured among the ranks of artists is staggeringly high. According to LA-based Rock A Mole Productions, who conducted a year-long research poll into musicians and healthcare, that number is somewhere around 96%.

Let me say that again. Ninety-six percent of musicians are uninsured or underinsured. Can you imagine that statistic applied to any other profession? Try to picture 96% of teachers being uninsured. Or 96% of construction workers. It wouldn't fly with them and it shouldn't fly for artists.

If one thinks about it, that number actually makes sense--at least in the twisted logic of this system. Art is valued only insofar as it can sell in our society. As such, only those select few artists who manage to rake in the dough for the biz are the ones taken care of. Madonna and Bono don't have to worry about health insurance.

But if you're like most artists--in debt to your label, receiving crap royalties and playing gig after gig just to pay the rent--then it's no exaggeration to say that you're working your ass off to keep your head above water. Some might counter that at least you're passionate about what you do, and they'd be right. But passion doesn't put food on the table, and it sure as hell won't pay for your chemo.

Years ago, I remember watching footage and interviews from a show in Los Angeles--assembled by the inimitable Patti Smith. It was a benefit to bring attention to the cause of musicians' healthcare. In particular, I recall an interview held with Dave Lowery of the band Cracker (if you're a child of the '90s like me, then you'll remember that Cracker were part of the surge of alternative in the early part of the decade, and hit it big with their single "Low"). Lowery recounted that a few years prior, Cracker's bass player had lost his pinky finger in an accident. Because he had no insurance, he had to pay out of pocket to have it reattached--an expensive procedure for sure, but failing to shell out the bucks would have essentially meant that he had no way of playing music or making a living.

Benefits like this are no rarity. According to Rock A Mole, 87% of musicians have played a show such as this to raise money for a fellow musician without health insurance. As a music journalist, I receive at least a few emails a week notifying me of yet another show of this nature. A punk drummer who has cancer. An emcee recently diagnosed with MS. A jazz-guitarist who needs help paying for his AZT. The list goes on.

There is, of course, an alternative to these benefits. Musicians in Sweden, France, Canada, Germany and other countries don't have to worry about what might happen to them if they fall ill. These countries have universal healthcare. No worrying about how to pay the medical bills--because nobody is allowed to profit off of human sickness.

It's a system that goes far beyond President Obama's increasingly watered-down "public option." The massive bailouts to Wall Street could have easily paid for the first steps toward a universal, single-payer system.

Predictably, this is the one option not being discussed in the mainstream debate. Obama, once a vocal supporter of single-payer, backtracked on it before he even hit the campaign trail. And though congress seem to have their ears and wallets wide open for the big insurance companies, they seem reluctant to listen to the vast majority of Americans who support a universal healthcare plan.

Which is why it's time for our side to turn up the volume on this demand. To make our voices the loudest and most unavoidable out there. And when the healthcare CEO's scream at us to turn down that racket, we'll respond by appropriating the old adage: "if it's too loud, you're too rich."

This article first appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.

*****

Friday, August 21, 2009

Reaching back and going forward

Damn. Just damn. Damn, damn, damn! That's just about all I can say about how pumped I am by this new project. K'Naan, the Somalia-via-Toronto emcee who has made some noticeable waves since breaking out last year, and mixtape master J. Period have announced the upcoming release of The Messengers. The project will come in four parts. The first three sampling and paying homage to, in order, Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan (three artists that have profoundly influenced K'Naan's own work). The final segment will be a mixtape featuring all three previous installments, along with bonus tracks and other features.

Yeah, that's hot. Listening to the three preview tracks (available for download here at OkayPlayer.com), what's immediately apparent is that K'Naan's rhymes mesh incredibly well with Fela, Marley and Dylan--thanks in part to his own chilled versatility, but also to the fact that these legendary artists' own work remains pretty timeless.

Check out the vid below for "Belly Full," featuring Kardinall Offishall, General Steele and Bajah--as well as my all-time favorite Marley track!



*****

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

We're all pirates, they're all parasites


With the tenth anniversary of Napster (god, has it really been that long?), we're bound to be hearing a lot about the decade of peer-to-peer. It's amazing to think of the resolve that the music industry had back then--hell-bent on squashing the ideas that culture should be free and artists shouldn't have to rely on parasites to produce their work. Now they seem to be slogging through the whole thing just to keep up appearances. They know they're shameless, and they know that everyone else knows it too. But halting their campaign against ordinary downloaders would mean admitting their own irrelevancy.

Judging from the review in last Thursday's New York Times, "Ripped," the new book from Greg Kot (of NPR's "Sound Opinions"), seems a worthy contribution to the ongoing debate around technology and music. Kot doesn't just start with Napster; he starts with the history of home taping and the flak that hip-hop has received for sampling (proving that the industry's "Mine! Mine!" attitude it nothing new).

Kot gives credit to the new generation of sound pirates who have made the playing field a little more level with the aid of the net and a CD burner, but also investigates artists who have emerged or been enabled to push their creative and career boundaries as the web became a one-stop for music--Radiohead, Prince, Wilco, Arcade Fire, Conor Oberst, etc.

Most importantly (once again, according to the review), Kot seems to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the big music biz: "the moral posturing was a laughable new wrinkle. Here’s an industry that had instituted payola, routinely manipulated shady contracts to take away publishing from songwriters, and engaged in questionable accounting practices to deny royalties from record sales to the vast majority of its artists.”

As reviewer Dana Jennings puts it: "'Ripped' is another case study in American industrial arrogance, an account of companies that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) learn agility. Instead of adapting to the new reality, they started calling their customers thieves."

This rings especially true today, as industries that have refused to change with the time (auto, banking, etc) have been forced into bailouts in the wake of the current crisis. There is a tendency to somehow think of the music business as being somehow different. But, at Kot makes clear, this isn't the case. Major labels and the RIAA are run by the same profit-driven motive as any other industry.

The rise of the internet and peer-to-peer is our age's best-known example of a trend that Marx himself identified a century and a half ago: the tendency for the means of production to outpace the relations of production. As technology has empowered ordinary people to gain further control over music, the biz has been running scared, scrambling to maintain their own position.

There's a lesson here. Can you see it?

*****

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Correction...

In my recent review of Dead Prez's Pulse of the People, I incorrectly referred to Ratfink as one of the myriad guest MCs on the record. They are, in fact, a rock band that was sampled by Green Lantern on the track "Warpath." To the group (who rock), as well as member Eric Gorman (who was nice enough to email me and let me know), I apologize.

*****

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Rise and Fall of the Woodstock Nation


It's difficult to not suffer from Woodstock overload at this point. The past weeks have seen endless attempts to cash in on the fortieth anniversary of "three days of peace and music." Rhino records has released a six-disc collection of the festival's highlights (yet another one). Specials galore has descended upon cable and public television. And we're all being reminded that at the end of the month, director Ang Lee will be applying his own treatment to the hippie-fest with his own Taking Woodstock.

Like everything that happened in the '60s, Woodstock seems to have its boosters and detractors. Those who love it and those who hate it. Those who sing its praises and those who deride it all as a muddy mess worthy of being forgotten.

Is there anything between these two extremes that can explain all the hubbub? Today's young people aren't stupid or cynical, and they deserve to know. What is it about those three boisterous, soaking wet days that has irreversibly forced them into the cultural consciousness?

The reality of 1969 is a hard one to replicate today. A year before a half-million converged on Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York, the whole world seemed to explode into an unpredictable upheaval. The war in Vietnam had been declared "unwinnable" by Walter Cronkite after the Tet Offensive. Young people who had taken to the streets of Chicago to voice their own discontent had been faced with an onslaught of police violence at the Democratic Convention. Martin Luther King had been assassinated, sending America's ghettos into uprising. The Black movement was growing and becoming more militant, the women's and gay movement were just being born. And from Prague to Mexico City, the new buzzword appeared to be "liberation."

Culture never follows far behind when societies collide with the prospect of real change. The teenagers and young adults who had been fed their parents post-McCarthy hogwash couldn't ignore the outside world forever--or the music that had taken on increasingly rebellious tones.

In short, this was a time when youth were looking for alternatives--be that to war and repression, or to the culture as a whole. "Although the festival didn't go exactly as planned, it was, as advertised, three days of peace and music," says Jon Pareles, a music journalist who was in attendance. "That made Woodstock an idyll, particularly in retrospect, even though it was declared a state disaster area at the time."

It rained. It was muddy. There were insufficient food and bathroom facilities. And none of the groups took the stage on time. Yet it was still an "idyll." Past all the hyperbole, that's a real statement.

At the time, the festival's sheer size was enough to put it on the map. Woodstock Ventures, the outfit that put the concert together (yes, it was a corporation) had sold 186,000 tickets beforehand, and expected few more than 200,000. They certainly didn't expect it to turn into, as Wavy Gravy put it, "breakfast in bed for 400,000."

But due to the last minute venue change, the promoters were faced with a decision: finish building the stage or strengthen the fences. They ultimately made the wise choice of finishing the stage. So when crowds showed up earlier that expected, the fences proved to be a useless venture anyway. An anarchist grouping known as Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, who had gained a great amount of notoriety around the New York City area, is credited for bringing the fences down entirely.

Listening to any of the material from those three days (and there is more than an ample amount available) one starts to get why Woodstock was a big deal. Of course the liberatory sentiment of the times peppers the songs--from Country Joe McDonald's anti-war "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" to Joan Baez's version of "We Shall Overcome". In an infamous moment, Abbie Hoffman attempted to steal the mic from the Who to plea for the freedom of radical activist John Sinclair, but was hassled off by Pete Townsend (who later said that if he had known what Hoffman was intending, he would have let him go forward). Then there's Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner," whose searing, distorted notes did something to the national anthem that no doubt made Richard Nixon bristle.

Stepping back and listening to the songs in their entirety, though, you start to hear the feel of the time actually seeping into each song. This was music happening in a time and a place. Its chaotic echo wasn't simply a bunch of great songs; it stood in stark contrast to the repression that America seemed ready to dole out.

The massive crowd at the festival--who aside from leaving a large hillside in shambles caused little trouble for the locals in Bethel--went along with the whole thing quite well. Two deaths were reported: one from a heroin overdose, the other when a tractor ran over someone sleeping in a cornfield. However, all accounts reveal the behemoth influx of folks on Yasgur's farm was largely peaceful. The bohemian ideals that Woodstock purportedly aspired to seemed intact when all was said and done. Pareles describes the throngs in attendance as a "young, left-of-center crowd--nice kids, including students, artists, workers and politicos, as well as full-fledged LSD-popping hippies."

As the newspapers hit the stands in the days that followed, commentaries seemed stunned. Many papers attempted to paint Woodstock as a disaster of some sort, as if half-a-million unwashed hippies could result in no good. Bernard Collier, at the time a writer for the New York Times was told by his editors--hilariously--to focus on the traffic jams and drug use in his article:

"Every major Times editor... insisted that the tenor of the story must be a social catastrophe in the making. It was difficult to persuade them that the relative lack of serious mischief and the fascinating cooperation, caring and politeness among so many people was the significant point. I had to resort to refusing to write the story unless it reflected to a great extent my on-the-scene conviction that 'peace' and 'love' was the actual emphasis, not the preconceived opinions of the Manhattan-bound editors. After many acrimonious telephone exchanges, the editors agreed to publish the story as I saw it, and although the nuts-and-bolts matters of gridlock and minor lawbreaking were put close to the lead of the stories, the real flavor of the gathering was permitted to get across."

The New York Daily News also ran defamatory headlines in the opening days of the festival like "TRAFFIC UPTIGHT AT HIPPIEFEST" and "HIPPIES MIRED IN SEA OF MUD." But after receiving angry phone calls (from the parents of the attendees no less), the Daily News was forced to make their coverage more favorable.

Prior to Woodstock, the "hippie" culture had remained somewhat marginal. Each city had its own community of freaks and radicals, but nowhere had it gone beyond a sub-culture. With the advent of this festival, it had emerged as a counter-culture. Just like everything else in American society, the parameters of music and arts were changing.

Regardless of what kind of time the festival was--and there are conflicting reports in how enjoyable those muddy three days were (to each their own I guess)--the tone and sheer size of the event had served as a kind of coming out for the hippies with all their contradictions. The revolution on the globe's streets had been met with a revolution in culture too.

Revolutions are never smooth. Just as the rising tide of radicalism was to face new challenges in the coming years, so would the new counter-culture. "After the buzz wore off, the utopian communal aura of a Woodstock Nation gave way, almost immediately, to the reality of the Woodstock Market," says Pareles, "a demographic target group about to have its dreams stripped of radical purpose and turned into commodities."

The militant wave receded in the '70s, and though much of the hippie culture remained, it was now as easy to emulate as going to Sears. It wasn't the first time an insurgent way of life was sucked back into the system, and it wasn't the last.

Underneath the layers of corporate detournement, however, the cultural symbolism of Woodstock could never be completely wiped out. That's why it echoes through to our time... well, that, and the endlessness with which it seems to pad the bank accounts of record executives.

Like most folks of my own generation, I grew up under Woodstock's contradictory shadow. Though born thirteen years later (almost to the day, actually), I don't remember a specific time when I learned what the festival was; it had always just been part of my basic knowledge. I watched the television with wide-eyed naivete as Green Day and Red Hot Chili Peppers attempted to recreate the original fervor at Woodstock '94, and hung my head in disappointment as reports of violence and looting leaked from the thirtieth anniversary show.

In many ways, it was my first lesson in how big money can ruin good music. While the original Woodstock tickets went for $75 (inflation adjusted), Woodstock '99 had charged $150, as well as $12 for a slice of pizza and $4 for a bottle of water. A communal paradise this certainly was not.

What happened on those three mud-soaked days in upstate New York was, indeed, notable. While establishment figures wagged their fingers at protesters, insisting that the country "needed" their buttoned-down authority, the counter-culture proved it wasn't fit for the sidelines. It would be a disingenuous to call Woodstock a microcosm of a better world (not to mention trite). The festival did, however, reveal yet another front where the status quo was in trouble. Now, as the audience members of Woodstock are applying for their first Social Security checks (what's left of it), it's worth wondering whether we as young people have what it takes to make the streets and stages shake.

This article first appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.

*****

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Harry Patch (In Memory Of)


Radiohead have surprised again (which itself is really no surprise). Last week, the ever-morphing, ever-innovating, never-compromising group released a single called "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)" on their website.

The song has received an unusual amount of attention in the British press--especially for a one-off single. That's largely due to its subject. Harry Patch, as some may know, was the last living British veteran of World War I, who died late last month at the age of 111. Patch was also, notably, a pacifist. In one of the last interviews he gave before his death he called war "a calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings."

Harry fought at the battle of Passchendaele in Belgium, a battle that lasted over three months and took the lives of over half a million men on both sides. HIs three best friends were killed in that battle, all at the same time. Harry was wounded. "It was not worth it," he said later, "it was not worth one let alone all the millions."

After hearing him speak on the Today program not long before passing away, Thom Yorke was so moved by Harry's words that he wrote a song based on them. Though Yorke started writing it before Harry's passing, his death makes it all the more poignant. There is little here aside from the simple, haunting strings and Yorke's sparse, other-worldly lyrics. There's a faint tension behind the sadness--one that reaches back to the horror of the trenches, yet dodges the notion that the same horror is somehow a thing of the past.

Listen. And listen good.



Lyrics:

I am the only one that got through
The others died where ever they fell
It was an ambush
They came up from all sides
Give your leaders each a gun and then let them fight it out themselves
I've seen devils coming up from the ground
I've seen hell upon this earth
The next will be chemical but they will never learn


Proceeds from the download of this song (which costs a pound), will go to the Royal British Legion, which administers care for veterans of all British wars.

*****

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Looking back...

As the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, there have been so many changes in music it's hard to keep track of it all. In this spirit, Pitchfork will, starting next week, be launching a series of articles looking back at how the past ten years have shaped the sounds we listen to.

Despite P-Fork's often annoying elitism, this series may manage to be quite fascinating. In particular Eric Harvey's contribution on "the social history of the mp3," and Nitsuh Abebe on "the mainstreaming of indie."

Of course, here at RF, you will also be able to look back at these changes (though admittedly not until closer to the new year, and from a perspective that is in many ways sharper). Overall, the past ten years represent a fracturing of the mainstream in both a socio-political context, and a cultural one. In short, the same old crap handed down to us from the establishment simply hasn't cut it over the past decade--from the botched war in Iraq to the recent economic meltdown to the seemingly irreversible crisis in the major labels. In response, we've seen some magnificent flashes of ordinary folks simply creating their own culture--from the immigrant uprising to the unstoppability of peer-to-peer and hip-hop's big bounceback.

There's a lot to consider when thinking back on the past decade. And if the past can't help but shape the future, then it seems clear that there will be a lot to look forward to.

*****

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Respect, Dammit!


It's already apparent that Baatin's legacy is bound to share the same path as J Dilla's: an artist who radically pushed the boundaries of his art, whose due only comes after it's too late. Indeed, it's more than just mere coincidence that the two started out in the same group.

To the mainstream music press, Baatin, a founding member of Slum Village, was little more than a footnote after his July 31st passing. Go to the hip-hop sites, though, and you'll find that it's impossible to miss tributes to his life and work. Instantly recognizable as the dude with the head-wrap and "what's up doc?" delivery, he was an emcee with deep love and reverence for hip-hop, convinced of its relevance and versatility.

He was born Titus Glover in 1974. The Detroit that he would come up in was quickly transitioning from "Motor City" to one of the most economically devastated areas in the country. It's easy to draw a connection between the hardship faced by the city and its offer of some of the most diverse and expansive acts in hip-hop today. In the late '90s and early 2000's, Slum Village's presence would prove essential to this dynamic array.

Khalid el-Hakim, who runs Detroit's Black History 101 Mobile Museum called Baatin "a very spiritual brother. He brought a spirituality to Detroit hip-hop that you didn't see with other artists. That's what he was known for."

This spirituality was an integral part of Slum Village from the beginning. Along with Dilla and T3, Baatin created a subtle combination of street swagger, introspection and flat-out fun. The early praise they would receive from artists like Q-Tip gained them a quick place among the hip-hop vanguard. And though their first album, 1997's Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1), wouldn't be officially released until 2005 (thanks to the demise of A&M Records and the ensuing legal troubles), it would become one of the most sought after records in the underground scene.

Categorizing the feel of Vol. 1 is a futile pursuit. It simply doesn't fit neatly into any specific style or sub-genre. And damned if that isn't what makes it such a gem! The whole album is an experiment in minimalism that still somehow manages to stick to be rich and intricate. The beats, the rhymes--none of it is over-hyped here, and yet there's never a question that they're going for gold throughout the whole record.

There was a lot of blither-blather about "rap's new direction" by the time Fantastic Vol. 2 dropped in 2000, and though Vol. 1 was still locked in record company hell, the bubbling buzz about SV among folks in the know reveals that they had already contributed to this shift.

Testament to how far Slum's influence had spread can be seen in the story of "Raise It Up," the last single off Vol. 2, and perhaps the group's best-known song. Dilla had swiped the beats for the track from a bootleg of Daft Punk's "Extra Dry," simmering the sharply punctuated synth line to a vaguely faded chillness underneath the trio's flow. When word reached the French electro duo that their track had been ripped, they didn't demand payment. Instead, they simply asked for SV to remix Daft Punk's "Aerodynamic." The reason? They happened to be devoted fans of Slum Village!

Though it might be easy to hang Slum's influence on Dilla's beats alone, the group were always a cohesive unit, with no one element being complete without the rest. Baatin's distinctive voice was just as much a part of this.

UK hip-hop commentator Phillip Mlynar remembers the affect Baatin had on him upon listening to Vol. 2: "I remember buying the album and listening to is solidly for a couple of months (this being the days when you'd leave home with two or three carefully selected albums to see you through the day), and over that time lines from Baatin--the cat with the weirdly warped and textured vocal tone--became permanently ingrained in that part of the mind that catalogues rap lines."

Baatin's penchant for the left-field kept Slum Village strong even after Elzhi after Dilla left in 2002. By the time Trinity came out that year, SV had finally gotten some notes. Their hard-to-peg sound meant that they weren't rocketing to the top like some others, but that didn't stop some presses like the Phoenix New Times from declaring that "Slum Village is going to single-handedly save hip-hop."

Unfortunately, Dilla's departure was only the first in a series of setbacks for the group--and for Baatin in particular. Directly before the release of 2004's Detroit Deli, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and stepped out to seek treatment. With two out of three original elements now gone, T3 and Elzhi continued as a duo.

To call the timing of Baatin's death tragic would be a vast understatement. Four years after leaving the group, he re-joined Slum in the studio to record Villa Manifesto. Though it's unclear whether the album was finished at the time of Baatin's passing, it still promises a mind-boggling offering. Ever-conscious of stretching the parameters of their music, SV brought in just about everything they could get their hands on. On top of featuring guest producers like Black Milk, Wajeed and Pete Rock, Manifesto will also feature unused Dilla beats and even contributions from his little brother, Illa J.

In an unprecedented move, SV also posted a request for beats by unsigned producers on Okayplayer.com, planning to include a few lucky winners on the new album. In the end, over 400 artists submitted. This reverence for the fresh, the new, the undiscovered is what has always guided Slum's evolution.

And then, there was the promise of Baatin's well-humored return to the mic. Fans of the classic SV lineup were no doubt excited for Villa Manifesto. Now, with Baatin gone, a shadow is bound to be cast over what should have been a cause for celebration.

"With Baatin passing there is no doubt tribute sets with intensify," wrote Davey D on his blog. "I can only imagine what Baatin's passing means to a city like Detroit with is still mourning the deaths of J-Dilla and Proof, who was the unofficial mayor of Motorcity. How has it affected people's psyche?"

How has it affected all of our psyches? With hip-hop in yet another transition, with artists yet again tooling around and aching to break the boundaries, the presence of Baatin and Slum Village serve as a lightning rod. In these impending changes, Baatin will most likely be remembered as a crucial influence. It's just a shame that this is only recognized after his death. History has a funny way of remembering its trailblazers.

This article originally appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.

*****

Friday, August 7, 2009

I'll Tell You "Why So Socialist," and I'm Not Joking


Over the past year or so, I've gotten used to the often laughable "Obama-as-Marxist" screed that has been coming from the decaying right wing in this country. As someone who has spent almost a decade proudly organizing as a socialist, I've been able to let these McCarthy-ite mischaracterizations roll off my back, even while recognizing their potential danger, but ultimately peg them as a symptom of the Republicans' waning influence in a country veering to the left.

But there was something that got my quills up about the recent news that a conservative website has started hawking merchandise depicting Barack Obama as the late Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning Joker from The Dark Knight. The images, which first went up in poster form along LA's underpasses, include a picture of the prez wearing Ledger's smudged clown makeup, accompanied by captions such as "Why so Socialist?"

This all struck me as profoundly disturbing; and it wasn't just the combination of Ledger's maniacal grin and Obama's serene countenance that stirred my ire.

For one thing, the images rip off the artistry of Shepard Fairey, whose work has embodied the overlap of punk/indie and hip-hop aesthetics at a time when cross-cultural unity is the most needed. For another, it slights the legacy of a brilliant young actor, gone before his time, whose sympathies always lay firmly with the left. The anonymous "artist" who came up with this portrayal should thank his lucky stars that Ledger is dead, otherwise the always-incisive actor would have a few choice words that would leave this hack's rhetorical guts on the floor.

Then there is the not-so thin line of racism that runs beneath these images. Taking the context into account, putting a black man in white face seems to implishly ask "if the darkies can do it, why can't we?"

Finally, and crucially, there is the much belabored point that Obama is no socialist. If he were, then he wouldn't be utilizing Bush-lite bailouts in the midst of the worst economic crisis in sixty years. He wouldn't bother simply buying up the debts of banks and insurers while leaving essentially the same cabal in power that got us into this mess in the first place. If Obama were even a vague believer in socialism, he would jail the Goldman Sachs executives that now sit in his cabinet, along with all the rest. He would seize their massive assets and use them to finance a moratorium on foreclosures, forgive student and credit card debt, and create enough high-paying jobs to replace the ones we've already lost.

And if he pulled the troops out of Iraq (I mean all of them!) and Afghanistan, he might have saved enough to rebuild our schools and hospitals, and initiate a real universal healthcare plan that goes far beyond the wimpy "public option." Such measures wouldn't even make him a socialist--more like a proponent of social democracy. But hey, I'd take that over what we currently have any day.

So would most Americans if you asked them. When the hue-and-cry of "socialist" gets this loud from the right--be it in the form of a cartoon poster or a vulgar "tea party"--you know something is up. The current free market failure throwing so many lives into chaos is doing the same for our ideas. Recent polls show a majority of Americans, especially young ones, strongly in favor of an expanded social safety net. And in a true sign of changing times, a recent Rasmussen poll revealed that only a slim majority think "capitalism" is a better system than "socialism." Among adults under 30, the numbers are pretty much evenly divided between capitalism, socialism, and "undecided."

After three decades of conservative dominance in US politics, the rhetoric of the Sarah Palins and Rick Santellis appears to be backfiring. If it's any indication, so will the smug little campaign of this nameless joker.

This article originally appeared at SleptOn.com.

*****

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Get well soon, MCA... like, damn soon!

RF isn't normally in the habit of keeping track of different celebs' health (especially when the death of Baatin is barely receiving lip service). This isn't PerezHilton.com. But in this case an exception will be made. That's because the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch isn't a "celebrity" in the colloquial sense of the word. That's right, I said it.

The well-wishes sent to him from all different styles of music reflect his importance as a rightfully influential artistic trailblazer. As folks have heard, MCA was recently diagnosed with cancer of the preaortic gland and the lymph node (yikes!), and word out from the Beasties' mailing list is that he's gone through the first round of surgery and is headed for radiation next. That ain't fun.

From Jay-Z to Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, there aren't a lot of artists who can command respect and sympathy across music like MCA. He's managed to inspire artists of all stripes--indie kids, punks, heads, you name it. The different tributes speak to how, despite the iron wall that sometimes seems to be in place between genres, there is always room for crossover and experimentation. Yauch is apparently doing well, and one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the music world who isn't pulling for him.

The wishes for a speedy recovery are especially prescient given that the Beasties have a new album dropping in the fall: Hot Sauce Committee, Part 1. From the sound of the video below (featuring NaS--hell yes!), it's set to be their grittiest in a long time:



Here's to a quick rebound!

*****

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Shut up, Noel.


Mark Beaumont, one of the few "hip, young gunslingers" left at the NME, has a great recent post on the magazine's blog space, calling out Noel Gallagher--the rather small brain of Oasis--who evidently is sick of "politics in pop music."

"I have been to loads of concerts where bands don't play, the just talk politics," said Gallagher. "There is always a message about poor people or people dying from hunger. Can't we just have a nice evening, do we always have to feel guilty?"

There's a certain irony in Gallagher having a problem with bands spouting off, given that at the height of Oasis' popularity in the mid-'90s (that's right Noel, your peak was a long time ago), we had to endure endless verbal vomit declaring that his group was "the greatest rock band in the world," and "bigger than the Beatles." It's also funny that the two groups he calls out specifically are Coldplay and U2, whose own "politics" smack more of watered-down, rich liberal guilt than anything else. In his own smug indifference, Gallagher actually has a lot more in common with Bono than he realizes.

Beaumont does a bang-up job of handing Noel his own rhetorical ass:

"A nice evening listening to, say, 'Give Peace a Chance,' 'Killing In the Name,' 'What a Waster' or 'Elizabeth My Dear'?

"At the time of writing Oasis were due to be supported by a 'nice evening' of acts including The Enemy, Reverend and the Makers and Kasabian. Noel might be advised to open his ears."


There is a reason that all of these acts are almost all considered to be more dynamic and interesting than Oasis in the British music press, and it's not just because of their sound. What Gallagher misses is that artists are human beings navigating their way through a chaotic and alienating world, dealing with it any way they can, including their song-writing. As a native of Manchester, which has given rise to such groups as Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle, he should know that. In a way, Gallagher is denying the very thing that makes art so vital and necessary in these times.

Oasis never did anything more than write nice pop songs. And while Coldplay and U2 aren't the best example of groups that include politics in their repertoire, acts like Rage Against the Machine, the Libertines and Kasabian have the kind of relevancy and timelessness that Noel only has in his own head. Unless you think "Live Forever" actually says something.

*****

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Suicide Onstage: What Green Day's Theatrical Debut Means


There is a lot of sound and fury over the upcoming stage version of American Idiot. Unfortunately, it signifies nothing. The recent announcement that Berkeley Repertory had at long last assembled the creative team for the opener of their '09/'10 season with the world premiere of a musical based on the iconic album has produced a variety of reactions, from open hostility to unrestrained excitement.

Me? I just think it raises some questions about whether Green Day is headed for the dustbin of history.

It might make sense to put American Idiot onstage. It is, after all, a "rock opera." And Green Day's portrait of rebellion and anxiety in Bush's America was, it needs to be said, impressive for when it came out. Few acts in the rock mainstream had dared to step outside their comfort zone and produce a work of this magnitude that questioned the bad trip the country seemed to be on at the time.

Sure, not all of the songs were successful--many of Billie Joe Armstrong's first attempts to write socially relevant lyrics were obviously first attempts--but the urgency of their message wasn't lost on anyone. Though nay-sayers on both the right and the left derided them for jumping on the "anti-Bush bandwagon," the fact was that the Bay Area trio managed to reach an unprecedented amount of disillusioned kids who no doubt felt the same way.

The question is whether a stage production is the right move to give that message a new platform. Though the rule of Bush the Second might be over, the forced austerity of the Great Recession, continuation of two occupations and blatant denial of rights to the LGBT community have ensured that the anger and alienation are not things of the past for young working people (and this is even the thrust behind Green Day's recent followup to Idiot--21st Century Breakdown). These are not the people, however, who are likely to be dressing up for a night at the theater.

During my time living in Washington, DC, I worked as a play reviewer for a local paper. The clientele I was forced to rub elbows with in this position were not, shall we say, the most blue collar folks out there. Doctors, lawyers, professionals and other members of the upper-middling classes were the primary audience members I encountered during my time writing these reviews. They were, after all, the ones with enough scratch to pay for the often pricey tickets.

There's a certain tragedy here, given that theater didn't always used to be such a middle-class art-form. The 1930s saw the radical plays of Clifford Odets and Bertold Brecht performed for audiences of workers, and there are even notable exceptions to the rule today. The fact remains, though, that for the most part, the stage is today an out of reach luxury for most people.

Why Green Day would want to divert a work they deem of such importance into this dead-end is perplexing. The group are not clueless. And the songs off of both American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown at least vaguely acknowledge the need for radically fundamental change--even if it isn't always communicated in a successful way.

And yet, a deeper examination on the forces tugging on the group reveal that while there might not be a method to the madness, there is a madness to the method.

----------------------------------------

Chief among the influences for both Idiot and Breakdown were the Who and the Clash--two hard-rocking, rebellious bands who were never afraid to push the boundaries of their own work.

At this point, becoming the Who--a band who are by now so big that they devoured themselves a long time ago--seems no sweat for Green Day. Accomplishing what the Clash did, however, would require a greater political and social acumen than the boys from Berkeley have at their disposal. The politics that guided the Clash's art were steadfast, a product of the revolutionary spirit that was sparked the uprisings of 1968 and fomented in the worldwide economic crisis of the '70s. When the Clash played reggae or hip-hop, you knew it was a direct act of solidarity, a giant red flag carried through the music world that dared it to revolutionize itself.

The odd thing about Green Day is that they actually do seem to believe in one of the basic ideas that the Clash were proponents of--that punk rock can help change the world. I was reading an interview with Jello Biafra recently, who reminded the journalist that even after becoming one of the biggest bands in the world, Green Day played benefits for Food Not Bombs, often raking in massive sums of 40 or 50 grand to feed the homeless.

Alas, Green Day do not have at their disposal the full extent of the ideas that the Clash did. We do not live in the aftermath of a 1968; we are building from scratch. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that this kind of earnest radicalism (however vague it might be) has become increasingly watered down by a mushy liberalism that ultimately separates them from the ebbs and flows of everyday life. While Joe Strummer and Mick Jones looked out their window for inspiration, Armstrong's view seems increasingly obscured the bigger his ivory tower gets.

Although 21st Century Breakdown reveals Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool to be deeply affected by the upheavals taking shape in the current economic crisis, the album's greatest flaw is that it seems rather inorganically separated from some of the most exciting trends currently taking root in music.

With this in mind, the most notable thing about Breakdown is how much it sounds like American Idiot. Green Day intended their most recent album to be a continuation, the next chapter if you will. But thanks to their reliance on the same mix of three-chord thrash and acoustic melancholy that made Idiot so memorable, Breakdown sounds less like a sequel than a redux. It's an attempt to rehash the same formula and call it pushing the boundaries, which is ultimately the best way to describe the former's arrival on the stage.

This gets at the crux of Green Day's contradiction. The band will put its best foot forward, only to be ensnared in the classic music industry clap-traps. They channel Bush-era disillusionment with American Idiot, then allow it to be turned to a middle-class musical. They speak out against the war in Iraq, then release a version of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" on a compilation that calls for troops to be sent to Darfur. They rail against the worst excesses of the American establishment on 21st Century Breakdown, then appear on "Good Morning America" to promote it in front of a thoroughly hand-picked audience.

Maybe the group are, like so many before them, trying to use the system against itself. Maybe they are cashing in on the time-tested formula of empty musical rebellion. Much more likely, however, is that the band are coming to the realization that there are some fundamental things that need to change, but aren't quite willing to jettison the system that feeds them to make that change a reality.

Throwing your lot with that system overboard might seem like career suicide, but it's not quite as impossible as one might think. Artists varying from Radiohead to DangerDoom are experimenting with what it means to make music outside the confines of an industry that is increasingly irrelevant. In doing so, they have implicitly asked what it means to share vibrant art and urgent ideas in the midst of a social and economic shit-storm. Green Day have attempted to join in on that storm, but have ended up simply replicating it inside a teacup. If they dare to peek over the edges, they might discover the difference between spectacle and substance.

This article originally appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.

*****