Digging For Fire

[NOTE: this is part 2 of a longer piece.  For part 1, click here]

When you’re seventeen, it’s no stretch to say that at that age, music is as important as it will ever be in your life, and that the friendships you have will also be the most important.  Your friends become your life at that age, if not sooner, and they become your family.  I think it’s because at that age every experience is so intense to you; you fall in love and fall out of it with the gusto of a tragic Shakespearean character, and every good or bad thing that hits you is either the best thing or the worst thing ever.  And when some band is singing to you (yes, to you – not anyone else), it’s like God’s finger shooting a lightning bolt right between your eyes.  When you look back at that time in your life, you hear music, and years later when you hear that music, you remember that time in your life; you cannot avoid it.  You remember driving your town’s streets with friends, you remember basements at friends homes.  You remember parties at the homes of people you’ve forgotten. Every memory, and every life, has its own soundtrack.

Yet another truism holds that the friends you have at 17 are probably not the friends you have at 21 or 22.  Yes, we live in an age of social networking so it’s easy to keep “in touch” – lord knows I’ve kept in touch and reconnected with older friends through Facebook.  But back in the olden days before the internet and cell-phones, if you wanted to be friends with someone you had to make effort to do so.  You had to call them on the telephone – a telephone that may have been a rotary one (and if your sister was yapping on that phone – the only phone in your house … well, good luck with that).  Lots of people didn’t even have answering machines so if nobody answered you had to call back.  You saw friends at school and after school and on weekends, but only face-to face; you didn’t Tweet or tag each other in photos and videos, and you didn’t sleep with your cell or iPhone or Blackberry on to be kept in the loop twentyfourseven.

But five years down the road?  Chances are you’ve already lost touch with those people.  You’ve moved on and so have they.  Really, it’s because you’re in a different place than they are.  There’s rarely a “falling out” – you lose touch, you don’t return phone calls or emails and you gradually drift apart; it’s erosion, not an earthquake, and it continues throughout your life.  It happens when you graduate, it happens when you marry, it happens when you start a family.  Life continues and you realize that a great number of these friendships you thought would last forever only last a fraction of your lifetime.

So let’s jump back two decades, to September 1990.  I had 20 bucks burning a hole in my pocket, and I decided to zip down to the local record shop to see what was in the offering.   I cruised the rock section.  Now by “Rock” we’re talking about AC/DC, The Who, The Stones, Bon Jovi – your standard top 40 and certainly nothing “hip” or “new” or “cool.”  I perused the racks – the cassette racks, since I had a walkman, not a portable CD player, and found myself flipping through the Beatles catalog.  I was and remain a fan of the Beatles – as I said in the previous installment, good music is good music – and I found myself with a copy of Abbey Road in hand – surely one of the greatest rock albums of all time, loaded with classic late era Beatles songs.  I kept the copy with me and worked my way down the aisle, past Foghat, past Kiss, past the Pixies –

Wait, the Pixies?  There’s a Pixies album here?  In this store?

I don’t know how my friend Elliott heard about the Pixies – all I know is he swung over to my place earlier that summer with a copy of Doolittle because he, myself and other friend Mark were driving to Kingston to see Robocop 2 (a double irony, given that exactly 10 years later production wrapped on Robocop Prime Directives – my first produced work – the villain of which was a character named Bone Machine, a name lifted from the lead track of the Pixies Surfer Rosa album).  We listened to Doolittle on the way there and, in the words of a Pixies song on a different album, were Blown Away.  It was loud and primal and melodic and for that summer, the Pixies were the soundtrack of my life.  I had no idea who they were or where they were from, but by listening to Doolittle over and over and over again, I pictured some long haired demonic beings unleashed upon my eardrums.  I learned their names – David Lovering on drums, Joey Santiago on lead guitar, the ethereal Kim Deal on bass (who ushered many teenage of fantasies about cool bands with hot female bass players named Kim), and the man with the voice that could go from melodic to a growl within the same verse was the enigmatic Black Francis.

The Pixies began to mark a shift in my listening – like many my age I was into my share of Zeppelin and The Doors and The Beatles, but had begun to move into a larger world.  I still like the old guard – face it, a great song is a great song – but there was something about “discovering” music that few others were into – music that put you in a rarefied category.  Music that marked you as an individual, nor part of a crowd.

I pulled the lone cassette from the slot, assuming it would be Doolittle, but the red tinged cover told me this was something else.

This was something different.

This was something new.

This was

A quick scan of the back cover pegged Bossanova as a 1990 release.  It was brand new, unheard, and in my grasp.  Thoughts crashed through my brain.  What was it doing here?  Had someone ordered it weeks ago and not claimed it, prompting the store owner to put it on the shelves?  I had NEVER seen a Pixies album for sale in this store ever, and believe me I looked – I tried to order copies of Surfer Rosa and Come on Pilgrim and after flipping through his big catalog, the store owner couldn’t find it, meaning I was SOL. But here it was, in my hand, and I had the money for it.

I looked at Abbey Road in one hand.  The Beatles.  A classic.

I looked at Bossanova in the other.  The Pixies.  A new album.

For a moment I did consider making The Safe Choice, but as I moved ever so slightly to put Bossanova back, I felt my grip tighten on it.  I’d made my decision, shoved Abbey Road back where it belonged and took Bossanova to the counter.  It was a decision that changed my life, though I didn’t realize it at the time.  It marked a shift away from the classic rock, the safe rock, and deeper into the world of Alternative Nation.  It was the first big step into a bigger world.  In fact, after that day in September 1990, nothing would ever be the same for me.

“The Pixies” said the clerk as he glanced at the cover and entered the price into the register.  “Sounds kinda faggy” he continued.  “Need a bag?”

I handed over my money and shook my head “no.”  I was going to pop this sucker into the tapedeck of my car the moment I got into it.  I returned to my trusty old Toyota Camry, popped it into the deck and soon enough the melodic sound of guitar filled the air.  I cruised town, not heading home until Bossanova was finished, to the haunting final chords.  Once home, I popped it into my tape deck in my room and listened to it again, this time looking at the liner notes and finally got to see what these guys looked like.  David Lovering looked like a banker; Joey Santiago looked – well, pretty much like I imagined; a gunslinger.  Kim Deal was brunette, not blonde as I imagined, and looked like someone I’d see hanging around my town. And Black Francis, he of the loud quiet loud and howl?  He looked like – Christ he looked like me (and still does to a degree).

Popular consensus is that Bossanova is the Pixies weakest album.  By this point the rift had been growing between Black Francis and Kim Deal – her side-project, The Breeders would, in a few short years, eclipse The Pixies as far as taking the mainstream – who can remember the summer of 1993 and not think of “Cannonball?”   Yet it’s my favourite Pixies album.  It doesn’t rock as hard as Doolittle or Surfer Rosa, it’s not as “out there” as their swan song Trompe Le Monde, but Bossanova doesn’t sound like any other Pixies album, and for that reason it stands above the pack. It’s my Sgt. Pepper, my Nevermind the Bollocks, and my Nevermind.  Even now, listening to it 20 years later (and I never really stopped listening to it in that 20 years), it transports me back to that moment in my car, letting its sonic beauty swirl around me.   The Beatles and The Who and The Doors went to the back of the collection and I was seeking out music found left of the dial.  It blasted nitrous oxide through my being and propelled me to new heights and a new world of music; to a planet of sound.

Life went on, and I lost touch with a lot of people, but not with the music we all loved.  People pass in and out of your life with alarming frequency, but music remains with you long after they’ve gone, and as I would discover fifteen years later, both the music you love and the friends who love it with you have a surprising way of returning to your life.

Rock Music

[And so begins the epic story behind my number one album as written about in the 15 Albums post]

When you reach a certain age, you realize how malleable time is.  In 1987 when I was 14, I caught a documentary marking the 20 year anniversary of the Summer of Love, and specifically the Beatles landmark Sgt.  Pepper album.  Now to a 14 year old, 20 years is mind-boggling – it’s something your mind can scarcely comprehend.  It might as well be 50 years.  But when you’re in your late 30s, 20 years is time enough to realize how quickly they can pass.  1990 was also a landmark in my personal life, as it marked the release of an album that, at least for me, is a landmark on the level of Sgt. Pepper.

I “came of age” in the loosest sense of the word in a small town on the St. Lawrence. By small, I mean SMALL – population circa 1990 was about 21,000 – same it was in 1986, same it was in 1996.  For someone who had become used to big cities, it was about as exciting and glamorous as a salt mine somewhere north of Siberia.

In 1990 we didn’t have Amazon.com or iTunes, or the internet, or a lot of the stuff that’s become commonplace now.  If we wanted to hear music, there was the radio station, and the record store.  Those were both fine if you were into top 40 and classic rock, less fine if you were into more esoteric work.  The best conduit to discovering new music was usually through a single reliable source; your friends.  And the instrument we used to communicate that music, was the ubiquitous mix tape.

You see, back then, we couldn’t preview a track, or Google the band.  We read about it, usually in Rolling Stone or Spin magazines.  Much Music (Canada’s MTV, which we could pull in on our dish from our home upstate) had a show called City Limits that aired midnights Friday and played what they called “Alternative music” – music that would break into the mainstream a year later. I would tape City Limits (on Beta, no less), so on Saturdays when I finished up work for the day, I could watch it, pen and paper in hand, and write down the names of bands and songs I liked, and I liked a lot of it.   But in 1990 this was music a kid in a small town had to go to lengths to hear.  We only had one record store, and it was stocked with the usual top 40 classic rock. Yes, you could get other music, but it usually involved the store owner thumbing through a big catalog to see if the album was available, and then it would be a 3-6 week wait.  So any time you’d travel to a bigger city you made sure to bring money and hit the record stores and load up on music like a fatty on a binge at the candy shop.

So, in September 1990, armed with 20 bucks in my pocket, I journeyed to the local record store to pick up something to listen to on the six hour bus trip.  What followed was proof that the right band, with the right album, at the right time in one’s life, can change your world forever.

[More to come]

Memory

If you’re of a certain age, and of a certain era, this will be familiar to you:

It’s the first page of the first story in a project I’ve been working on for a while now.  I’ll post more in the coming weeks, and *hope* to be able to make an announcement as to what it is and its current status.

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: