X/Y

For someone best known as Film & TV writer, I’m doing a lot of writing about non-film, non-TV things on this website, arent I?  Have no fear — I do plan to resolve that shortly with more industry related stuff, but first, do me a quick favor and look at this photo.

Examine it closely.  What do you notice about it?  What do you see?  What don’t you?  What, aside from the watermarked date on the bottom right corner, tells you it was taken 18 years ago?

The first would have to be clothing.  Look at the band on stage, look at the people watching, and check out the people walking by in the background.  You see flannel and combat boots and ripped shorts.    Also, note the hair – not since the late 60s did you see such long hair on guys, and in the early 90s that was complicated by the fact so many girls wore their hair short.  You see ball caps and sideburns and high-top sneakers, and there’s grain and grit to the photo, captured on actual film too, and you didn’t know if the photo turned out at all until you got it back from the lab days or weeks later.  Yes, friends, 1992 is as alien to 2010 is, as 1974 was to 1992.  1992 belongs to the ages now; kids born in 1992 started College this month – the average age of the kids in this photo was – yep, 18 years old also.  They’re all largely married with kids now, and in one tragic case, a member of that band passed away last week at only 35.  Old photographs like this fascinate me – especially ones of people going about their day. In the case of photos from the late 80s to mid 90s, I really wonder.  Those kids with the Doc Martens and cut-off cargo pants, the nose rings and Day Glo hair and dreads – where are they now?  A lot of them now are Soccer Moms and their banker husbands with the paunch and pattern baldness, the strollers and 2.5 kids, the nice suburban home.  But they had to come from somewhere, and that somewhere was probably a mosh pit.  They’ve become what they vowed they never would; they became adults

You know what else tells me it’s an old photo?  Do you see any cell-phones clutched in hand?  Do you see people texting?  Of course you don’t.  If this show happened in June of 2010 there’d be hundreds of photos posted on Flickr, videos uploaded to Youtube and the band’s official website, where you could also watch music videos they put together themselves, along with a stream of their album and free downloads.  All of this could be accomplished without a record label’s involvement.  It’s a different world, and a new generation taking its reigns.  And that’s the big problem.

I think I noticed how much things have changed at a Metric show in NYC last year.  I was up on the balcony above the crowd and the band, and all I could not help but notice the sea of LED screens blinking on like stars in the night sky.  People were listening to the band, I guess, but they were also texting and messaging, Tweeting (I guess) – and I realized that was the big difference; that “furnishing proof I was at the Metric show” was more important than “watching the band I paid 30 bucks to see perform.”  It was less about “the band” and more about “me watching the band.”  Whatever happened to simply enjoying a show?  Does the art of performance somehow lose its legitimacy if you, the audience, can’t stake your little claim to having been there, to making it about you?

I know, I know, I sound like one of those “get off my lawn” types, but whatever happened to just “watching the band” and appreciating the music?  Perhaps one of the rudest displays I’ve ever witnessed was at a record release party for a performer managed by a friend of mine, where she was performing a short acoustic set and people were too busy texting and talking LOUDLY to the point where you could barely hear her.  At least the majority of the crowd was as annoyed as the performer was, but it made me have to ask what the fuck these idiots were doing here if not to see and hear the performance?

Maybe it’s because music is occupying less of a special place for people, particularly teens and twenty-something’s than it used to.  We can blame them obviously for their narcissism, but the fact is we created this monster.  Music driven culture has been dying a slow death for the last decade, as the main lifelines – Much Music, MTV, VH1, commercial radio, have moved away from music programming and into “reality programming.” Generation X – my generation, would be (and were aghast) at the mainstream’s attempt to co-opt them through Grunge Fashion on the runways at Milan, and pre-fab TV like The Heights.  Generation Y seems to demand it, and is insulted when it’s not pitched and promoted and sold to.  Sure we had The Real World, but look at the series’ early run and compare it to the here and now; now you have a generation raised on reality, or what is dubbed reality by marketing.  A generation who takes Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” (a statement that dripped bitter irony I might add) to heard and not only expects it but demands it of them.  Generation Y are the polar opposite of the preceding one; they constantly live in public.  Never out of touch for more than five minutes, because “not being in the network” is akin to death.  But what happens when nobody is watching you anymore?

The movie business – my business – is just as culpable in this.  They’re peddling the fantasy of life, not the reality (and by “reality” I don’t mean grim Hubert Selby reality anymore than I mean the plastic artifice of reality TV featuring vapid celebrity wannabes); the reality of just trying to get through your day, through school, and through life, with your head down and your sanity and dignity intact.  Both my wife and a good friend separately asked me a few weeks back why Hollywood doesn’t make movies about “average” and real people – it’s all million dollar McMansions and swimming pools and kids who stepped off a fashion magazine – it’s the life so many in this age group want and never get.  I never would have imagined that John Hughes movies would look like gritty documentaries compared to the teen oriented product squeezed out today (and that includes Weird Science), but it does.

What are the great stories of the now generation?  The Jazz Age had The Great Gatsby.  The 50s had On The Road and Rebel Without a Cause.  The 60s?  Too many to mention.  The 70s, and the 80s recognized teens and embraced them in the films of John Hughes, in movies like River’s Edge and Heathers, and gave them their own network with MTV.  The 90s had Douglas Coupland, Slacker and Lollapalooza … but The 2000’s?  We’re still waiting, unless you think Jersey Shore and The Hills are the apex of creativity.  It burns me, because I know there are great stories out there trying to be told.  I do think that music is as strong now as it has been since the early 90s – Arcade Fire, MGMT, The Dead Weather, Metric – but it’s as if the young and bold voices have either been locked out of the store, or aren’t interested in getting inside.

In his review of the Daria TV series (you know; when MTV was good) at Chud.com, Troy Anderson asked a question that articulates the point quite well;

Does individuality still matter in such a conformist age? Will we always be locked in this Us vs. Them attitude or can we ever escape it?  As an adolescent, adversity helps to define who we are as people. Hopefully, we’ve grown up since then. It’s time for a new generation to endure the struggle.

I still have hope though that things will change as they inevitably do.  That pendulum always swings back and as much as Generation X was a response to the shallow vapidity of the generation that preceded it, the generation that follows the Milennials could very well be our salvation.  Just as long as they keep their eye on the ball, and their eyes AND ears on the band on stage before them

ADDENDUM: Not two weeks after penning this, the Wall Street Journal printed a story about the “cell phone cameras at concerts phenomenon” and the growing backlash against it.  Sorry, WSJ, I said it first.

15 Albums [Part 2]

[For Part 1, click the link at the right of the page]

We resume the list of fifteen with the number eight selection of albums that changed my life at some point.

In spring of 1991 a friend at school told me about this touring festival – the “Lollypop” fest or something.  He mentioned the bands, and when he said Jane’s Addiction was headlining, I was sold.  I’d heard “Stop” and “Been Caught Stealing” and seen the videos on City Limits (Much Music’s late Friday night block of Alternative videos).  This album was in the news also because the cover had been censored, and the band replaced it with  this:

As a point of civic duty, I picked up the album, white cover and all, cut out a picture of the original art from a Rolling Stone magazine, and scotch taped it to the cassette case; a real act of defiance, huh?  At any rate Ritual remained jammed in my tape deck that summer, and for me represents the “calm before the storm” before the number 3 item on this list dropped and dropped big.

This was the first album I remember actually salivating in anticipation of.  Rolling Stone gave it a 5 star rating (“Classic”) – and this was back before they handed out five star ratings like candy at Halloween.  This was cutting it close to the wire – I was off on a vacation to Mexico with my family on a Friday and I needed to get this album before I left.  Fortunately it made it to my small town in time and it went on vacation with me – proving to be a nice salve after getting a bad sunburn my first day there and spending the next two hiding in my room.  I still listen to it, when I freely admit people, if they remember Midnight Oil at all, it’s for “Beds Are Burning”, their one North American Hit.  But they were huge in Australia, and had a career that spanned nearly 20 years.  Lead singer Peter garret is now a MP (that’s Member of Parliament) in Australia, which proves that we all grow up someday.

Apparently this is my favorite Stripes album.  I was assembling a mix on Itunes and realized at the end of it that a good third of the songs were off Elephant.  The White Stripes are good writing music; I’m actually listening to them right now as I write this.  I like the simplicity of them –  guitar and drums – simple yet very musical.  I also hold it up as proof that I have bought music released in this century.  In fact, since 2008 I think I’ve bought more music and seen more bands live than I have since 91-93.  It’s part of an effort to listen to music I *wasn’t* into 20 years ago.  The fact that there’s GREAT contemporary music to be found if you’re willing to dig hard enough should make it easier.

When the whole Grunge thing hit, I was into the scene (and used to have the long Grungy hair to prove it), but Mudhoney were my favorite band from that place and time.  They were joksters and pranksters – a fun band playing lean and mean rock and roll.  I was such a fan that, on the weekend everyone was returning to my hometown for Commencement and Graduation ceremonies, I chose to stay to see Mudhoney instead.  My diploma was mailed to me and I didn’t care.  The show was awesome.  Most would go with Superfuzz Bigmuff as their favorite Mudhoney, but Every Good Boy is mine.

I realized at the last spoken word show he gave that I attended last year, that I’ve seen Henry Rollins, with his band or by himself, in performance more than any other artist.  I actually got to tell Henry that in person, a fact that he seemed genuinely touched by, This is my favorite album of his too – great music to listen to when you’re pissed off about something ( as you’ve already guessed, I get pissed off a lot).  I never would have imagined, seeing the Rollins Band play the opener of Lollapalooza 1991 at 2 in the afternoon, that he would be the artist I would continue to follow over the next two decades.  I look forward to decade number three.

How can this album NOT be on this list?  It’s a classic, yeah yeah yeah, but for me a perfect case of the right band, with the right album, at the right time of my life.  Senior year of high school and it finally felt like the inmates had taken over the asylum.  Now nearly 20 (!) years on, it still sounds as fresh as it did the first time you heard it.  I saw Nirvana in November of 1993  — five months later Kurt Cobain was dead, the band finished, and “Alternative Nation” followed shortly thereafter.  It was  a brief moment in time (and moments such as these are always all too brief, always fleeting), which is kind of the point isn’t it?  How else would they be remembered?

U2’s best album hands down.  I was and remain a fan, but not on the level I was in November of 1991 when I was counting the days until its release.  I actually popped into the local record store to browse on the weekend prior to its November 21 release and to my shock heard it playing on the store PA.  I ssked the owner if it was in stock early.  He said “It’s in stock” but not being sold until Tuesday.  I begged and pleaded for him to make an exception.  He would not.  He was an asshole for that.  I think the store’s gone now.  Good.   But the amazing thing about Achtung Baby is the fact that it almost never happened.  The band nearly split up during its recording  — had that happened, Rattle and Hum would have been their swansong — but somehow they managed to come together and finish it (and their now classic song “One” was the catalyst of that survival).  It’s an intensely autobiographical album for me — two of the songs on it — “So Cruel” and “Until The End of the World” — perfectly encapsulate a messed up relationship I got into, out of, back into, and back out of.  Achtung Baby is a bitter album, and for one that received decidedly mixed reviews at the time, and an album that dropped just as music was lurching out of mainstream, the fact it has endured is a testament to its status.

And, lastly but certainly not least, we have the most important album of my life.

Yes I’m a big tease.  You’re just gonna have to wait for it, because it’s part of a much bigger story.

But here’s a hint:

Distance Equals Rate X Time

Typically my workday begins with me at my desk, enjoying my one cup of coffee for the day, checking email, drafting responses, deleting spam, and reading the usual websites.  I do this for as long as it takes to drink my coffee before I get down to work.  I always start with The Onion, and their AV Club website, and on Friday September 10, they ran an article inspired by a question comedian Patton Oswalt asked them: 

Everyone says things like “Oh man, how cool would it be to be in Dealey Plaza during the JFK assassination, or see The Beatles during one of their Cavern Club concerts, or witness ancient Rome?” Well, what if you were given the chance? 

Here are the conditions. You’ve been granted a hypothetical ticket to live, in comfort and coherence, during one five-year time period. Maybe you want to be in New York in Chicago during Prohibition, or Victorian London, or France right before the Revolution. (Or during—no judgments.) You’ll be able to understand and speak the language (if needed), have enough disposable cash to live at leisure, and experience whatever you want, with no need for a job. You’ll have a comfy apartment or house to return to, full period wardrobe, and as much time as you need before making this trip to study up on the period you’ll live in. 

But you must stay within a five-mile radius of where/whenever you choose to live. Thus you can’t go see the Kennedy assassination, then go zipping around the world to London to watch the birth of the British Invasion, or New York for the early years of Greenwich Village. Want to see the Kennedy assassination? Fine. But then you’re stuck in Dallas for the next five years.  What historical period (and place), in your opinion, offers the most enticing experiences in one five-year period?

Now, who among us hasn’t waned to experience life in a different place and time?  I certainly have; three of my screenplays have taken place between 1901 and 1918, centered, for the most part, around World War One.  I’m something of a WW1 buff actually, more so than its sequel.  At any rate I wondered; what period outside of The Great War would I find to be the most enticing experience in one five-year period? 

Typically I had several, but narrowed it down to the following three;

Florence, Italy – 1409-1504

I live in the Renaissance City at the height of said Renaissance.  I apprentice myself to Leonardo da Vinci and serve as assistant to him in the creation of his many great machines, convincing him to actually construct many of them. Then when he leaves to travel with the Papal Army, I cross town and apprentice under his rival Michelangelo and help him sculpt David.  On my off days I hang out in taverns with Niccolo Machiavelli and tell him “sure, a book about Cesare Borgia sounds like a brilliant idea, but you may want to pick a different title; how about The Prince?”  I then ingratiate myself with the crème of Florentine society and end up spending a lot of time at the Borgia court, and get to watch first-hand as Cesare Borgia and his father Pope Alexander IV launch their plot to unite the Italian City States under papal rule.  I make a successful play for Cesare’s sister Lucrezia, incur Cesare’s wrath, but make sure to take copious notes so, upon returning to the present day at the exact moment I left it, I finally have all the research materials I need to finish my damn novel already.

Los Angeles, California – 1971-1976

Armed with a pile of screenplays that will be thirty years ahead of their time, I’ll convince Hollywood to produce the lot of them, befriend George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Marty Scorsese, become heavily involved in the making of American Graffiti, Jaws and Taxi Driver, rewriting all of them and ensuring they become the classics they are remembered for (since I ‘ve already seen the finished product).  I also tell Lucas about my idea for a thing called “Star Wars,” which I sell to him for one dollar, with an agreement that I receive 50% of the gross profits from the film, its sequels and spinoffs, in perpetuity.  This is agreed to in an iron-clad contract.  Said funds are deposited directly into a numbered Swiss bank account.  On returning to 2010, I make a big mother of a withdrawl from said account, and return to Hollywood, buy out MGM and become a Selzneckian mogul.

Seattle, Washington – 1988-1993

Sure I could go with Manchester circa 85-89, Swinging London, or Haight Ashbury circa ’66, but I’m going to be predictable and settle on Seattle at the birth of the Grunge Era.  I’d hang out in coffee shops, go to clubs and see Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, and countless others.  I make friends with the perpetually starving artists; buying them dinner, letting them crash at my pad, buying them beer and just hanging out.  I become a Svengali type to them all, and bear witness to the last great era in rock music as it’s happening around people who don’t realize it, and depart in late 1993, before everything turns tragic (but not before making sure I’m with Mia Zapata the night of July 7, 1993, to make sure she isn’t murdered by some, so I can see how great her and her band can become).  I also tell Kurt Cobain, to chill on the worries about fame, that it’s fleeting, and he should cancel the rest of the In Utero Tour, move out to the middle of nowhere and just hang around reading books.  I’m mentioned in the liner notes to Nevermind, Badmotorfinger, Ten and Dirt.  People wonder whatever happened to me and I become this mythic figure.  Years later someone does a documentary about me.  I’m tracked down, but the notion I was the guy is dismissed, as I would have been 15-20 years old at the time.  My secret remains safe.

Now narrowing those three down to one is a difficult task.  Florence seems the most practical as it pertains to a long in gestation project I’m currently embroiled in, but I would fear that the reality of this time and place and its people would clash with my somewhat romanticized interpretation of these historical figures.  Hollywood fits with my desire to conquer the entertainment world, to influence the making of several classic movies, and attain the financial security I desire – but who says I’m not already on the road to doing that?

The nostalgic in me zeroes in on Seattle, and given how much writing I’ve done on music recently would indicate that.  But for me, there’s certainly an appeal in pulling up stakes and living, anonymously, in a place and time contemporary to my life and experiences.  

Of course, I could really do none of these things; how could I when I have so much to do right now?

15 Albums (Part 1)

So the other day, I was sent one of those notes on Facebook that spring up from time to time; the old “reply and tag” standard.  Most of them get ignored and the person who sent it to me blocked or chopped because I don’t have the time to respond, and some abuse the privilege (seriously; Farmland?).  But in the case of this one, I had to respond because in this case because artist Richard Clark sent it along, and because Richard and I are working on a project about music.

Essentially it asked me to pick 15 albums that I’ve heard that will always stick with me.  I was to list the first fifteen I could recall off the top of my head, and take no longer than 15 minutes to do so.  I was to post the list, tag fifteen friends etc …

I ended up doing it, and if you’re connected to me on Facebook, you read the note.  But, I wanted to go a little more in depth as to why I chose the albums I did, here.  All of the below are important to me; I can look at each and summon a very specific memory about the period in my life when I first heard it.  Listening to these albums today, those memories come flowing back.  I don’t think I’ll ever stop listening to them.

And off we go …in reverse, from fifteen down to one.  

The “Middle Period” of The Beatles remains my favorite; the span from Help to Revolver, where they became more experimental, but prior to them jumping full tilt into Pepperland and the Maharishi.  They could still write a catchy tune (not that they ever lost that tough, but there are miles of difference between “Paperback Writer” and “I Am The Walrus”). Of that period, Rubber Soul is my favorite album, with the bittersweet “In My Life” a personal anthem. I first heard it in 1987, the 20th Anniversary of the Summer of Love, and in the midst of the big Beatles revival of the late 80s.  Even then, hearing “In My Life”, I could imagine myself twenty years down the road, remembering friends and lovers, of moments and meaning … and I often think about them, even now.  But the whole album is packed with great songs –Drive My Car, Nowhere Man, Michelle – and is as fresh sounding as an album released in 1966 can sound.

The Doors are perfect band for when you’re 15 or so – kind of like Green Day is now — all about rebellion and stuff (albeit a non-complex rebellion).  If I was born 20 years earlier, I’m sure I would have gravitated to the darker music of Mr. Mojo Rising over the Come on people, sunshine and flowers and peace, man. They were a gateway band for me – it was a surprisingly straight line from The Doors to The Velvet Underground, to Sonic Youth – one led to another. 

The other “breakout L.A. band” of 1966-67?  The Monkees.  Yeah.

oMy favorite album from one of my favorite bands; it’s the one everyone buys first, and I recall many days at a friend’s cottage blasting thus one on the stereo.  I saw them in concert in New York in 2006, when the original lineup reunited.  The show had been postponed because singer Shane MacGowan had suffered “an injury” (anybody familiar with his legendary drinking could imagine that “injury” having something to do with a bar stool).  But the next night the Pogues took to the stage minus Shane, who was finally brought out in a wheelchair by a roadie.  We all laughed, thinking it was a joke.  Then he proceeded to sing for the rest of the show from said wheelchair.  It was awesome and given the strong connection the Irish have to New York (with “Fairytale of New York” and “Thousands are Sailing” the standout tracks on this album), I can’t picture one without the other.

Document immediately makes me think of the summer of 1991; I know this because I have videotape from 1991 of me and a friend driving aimlessly around my town, with “The One I Love” on the stereo.  I got into REM in a big way around 1989’s Green, when they were just on the cusp of being huge, and I bought up their back catalogue in short order.  Their breakthrough Out of Time album dropped in spring of 1991 – the first in a series of records that would help change the musical landscape for a short but memorable period.  Document remains my favourite REM album from my favorite REM period. 

Polly Jean Harvey is like one of those girls you want to talk to in the bar or club and don’t because she’s just too cool and you figure “hell, I’m just wasting my time.”  Only then, years later, you found out she always wondered why you never came over and talked to her.  This 2000 album has a heavy New York vibe – and I felt that way well before I moved down here.  Anytime I’m in Brooklyn, I can’t help but hear “You Said Something” playing somewhere in my brain.

The first album I bought deliberately to piss my parents off.  It worked. For a brief time I considered forming a band because of it (and as I know many great bands did likewise in its wake); I mean, the Sex Pistols were a terrible band, but that was their appeal and I knew any band I was in would be terrible too. I also managed to slip a copy into the tape deck at the school gymnasium one day.  It got midway through “Bodies” (i.e. Track 2) before the teacher yanked the tape out of the deck and asked; “who put this garbage in the stereo?”  Of course, I manned up and admitted, proudly, that it was I. I was so Punk Rock.

Summer 1992 was the second installment of the Lollapalooza festival – the one that hit as the whole Alt Rock explosion, well, EXPLODED.  Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, RHCP … all great. But as dusk fell in advance of Ministry taking the stage, I noticed all these black clad vampire people emerge from the crowd and surround us.  They were everywhere.  And when Ministry began to play, the place went NUTS.  After the dust settled and we returned to our normal lives, I knew I was going to grab a Ministry album, which I did – this one – as I was in the midst of packing for college.  It was the album that blasted out my dorm room door from September to December of 1992.  My roommate who’d never even heard of them became hooked on it and we went to see them play maple Leaf gardens that December.  MLG was just up the road from my dorm – walking distance – where I saw U2 in 92 and Nirvana in 93.  This album makes me think of that period when after years of being stuck in small-town Ontario, I was off the leash at last.

More to come …

A brief note on comments

All comments posted to this blog have to be approved by either myself or the site admin before they show up for public viewing.  This means all of you spammers are wasting your time, as your comments, of which there have been many, are deposited in the trash. 

Part of me is flattered that you even bother, but as you should know, flattery gets you nowhere.  Then again, the fact you make your living  circulating spam would indicate you don’t know that.