Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Life and Death of the Alternative Press

IF it weren't for the '80s Village Voice, I probably would not be a journalist. (The world, I expect, would be a better place.)

This weekend I have a story in Al Jazeera America about good times and bad for alternative weeklies. I talk about the crystalline sense of mission these publications had during conservative times, and the troubles they've had more recently. And I try to shine a light on the good and important work they still do.

In the piece I get into my youthful infatuation with the alt-press -- I interned at the Voice, freelanced for the now-defunct Boston Phoenix soon after leaving college, later worked for New Times Los Angeles. As nasty as that company could be, we had a blast there, some of the time, and I'm still proud of the work my colleagues and I did there. (Even if New Times responded by killing the paper and destroying its online archive.) Where is the alt press now?

And I try to sketch out what various weeklies have meant to the city of Los Angeles, which remains the Misread City.

Happy holidays to all my readers.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Richard Rodriguez on Religion, Atheism and Politics

SOMETIMES I wonder why the words -- especially the personal essays -- of Richard Rodriguez hit me so directly. He is a gay Latino born in the '40s, a devout if conflicted Catholic, and on many issues a political or social conservative. My origins and allegiances are very different and coincide with none of those categories (I have long thought of myself, for instance, as a Protestant agnostic on religious matters.)

Part of my connection to Rodriguez's work, I think, is that he writes so well about California, a major concern for The Misread City. But mainly, our mismatched alliance comes simply from the power of great writing, and deep thinking. I'm always curious what he has to say, even when we (frequently) disagree.

His elegant new book Darling is on religion after 9/11, and it's his first in a decade. It's my favorite work of his going back even longer.

Here is my Salon interview with Richard Rodriguez.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dave Allen on Rock Music and the Internet

RECENTLY I've been corresponding with Dave Allen, bassist for the British post-punk group Gang of Four. His ideas on digital culture -- mostly strongly opposed to those of David Lowery and David Byrne -- are as forceful as his bass playing on Entertainment!

I'll point out that I disagree with Mr. Allen on much of what he says; I'm less optimistic that the new system will work out for musicians (and I have seen from quite a close perspective how it works out for most journalists.) 

For example, he argues that there has been no golden age for musicians, that making a living has always been hard, and so on. Well, of course, that's all literally true, but just because a system was not perfect does not mean it has not gotten substantially worse.

I could argue to anyone who tells me, say, that Congress has run aground that we've always had conflicts in Washington, going back to the 18th century, and that Ted Cruz is just a latter-day version of whoever... Same with arguments about income inequality, or anything that matters. This argument does not help clarify where we are at present: You do not have to acknowledge the existence of a golden age to want things to be better or to resist and criticize the way they have gone. 

But Allen's an extremely sharp guy, a lively writer, and he deserves to be heard. Here's our Salon conversation. 

Returning to Charlie Haden, Jazz and Transcendence

TODAY I have been trying to move on to other things, but can’t get the memory of last night’s Charlie Haden/ Liberation Music Orchestra concert out of my mind. There are too many things to contemplate here, but let me offer a few stray thoughts.

Overall: While this night was by no means perfect – there were minor technical problems early on, the musician most of us had come to see was in such poor health he only played one song, there was a point or two where I was not sure ANYONE was going to play anything – it was also as powerful a jazz show as I’ve seen in almost 25 years of eagerly attending them.

The concert, which included only a few pieces, including a long “America” medley accidentally chopped into two pieces, offered great songs, great solos, and perhaps the finest arrangements I have ever seen at a jazz show. (These, with a full range of horns, were by Carla Bley, who sadly did not attend.) It was a show in which almost every note was played by someone you’d never heard of – the group was made up of students and alums from the jazz program Haden founded at CalArts – but nearly all of his was moving and persuasive. Some of it truly kicked ass.

Soon after I moved to Los Angeles in 1997, I attended a show at the old Jazz Bakery. I’m not sure who the artist was, maybe Brad Mehldau. In any case, I saw Haden casually standing around the audience that night and thought, Wow, I have really arrived at a major cultural center. (I was too cowed to introduce myself.) My friend the jazz critic Ted Gioia had a similar experience a few decades before. “I still recall the first time I heard him, when I was a college freshman,” Ted told me. “He was playing with Keith Jarrett at Oakland's Paramount Theater.  I thought then (and still believe it): Haden has the most beautiful bass tone in the history of jazz.”

It’s impossible, of course, to separate musical performances from the circumstances around them, and that goes double for last night’s gig. Live shows are always “you had to be there” events; this sense of the fleeting moment is amplified when you have a major artist who we may never see perform again, as may be the case with Haden. When I said as much yesterday, he tweeted back, Thanks 4 the nod Scott,but  I'm gonna make sure it's not my last hurrah but another hurrah in a long life! Hope u'll b there. Of course, this is a prediction about which I will very happily be proven wrong. But Haden’s health problems – a return of his childhood polio – are serious. (He has neither performed live nor eaten solid food in two years, I think.)

Haden came out at the beginning of the show, along with his young group. There was a bit of fussing with mic placement and other things. His cherubic smile is still there, and his storytelling is undiminished. (I meant this both to his anecdotes and his ability to “tell my story,” as he described it, on his double bass.) He walks with a cane, conducted the pieces rather than played them, and seemed to lose his place while speaking a few times. Nonetheless, we got a sense of a very strong personality, and someone whose love of music burns as strong as ever. He spoke about his friendship with Scott LaFaro, the Bill Evans Trio bassist who died very young in a car accident (one of very few bassists whose solos could be as lyrical as Haden’s) and Jim Hall, the graceful and understated guitarist who had died earlier in the day, and the difficulty of making sense of death. He also described his condition a bit, offering “Fuck polio!”

Chris Barton of the LA Times wrote in his review that it was "a night so fraught with the shadow of that unwelcome guest artist who can sit in at any moment: Time."

There is another aspect to the legacy of Charlie Haden: When he moved out to Los Angeles in the 1950s to seek out the jazz pianist Hampton Hawes, he made a permanent difference in the musical life of this city. CalArts jazz program is part of it. But the whole Haden clan adds up to about as substantial a musical family as we’ve ever seen. Haden’s kids – Rachel, Tanya, Petra and Josh – have, between them been part of That Dog, The Decemberists, the Rentals, Spain, and a good number of solo projects. (There are probably only a handful of us who listen with equal ardor to Haden’s playing with Ornette Coleman, Petra’s all-vocal reimagining of the early Who, Josh’s “slowcore” band Spain, and so on, but I am glad to have them all part of Southland musical life. Let me add: Spain, which recently reformed, shows how the aesthetics of jazz and a certain kind of nuanced, VU-ish rock can be combined in a way far richer than most over-emphatic, jive-ass fusion: They remain gripping and majorly underrated.)

The night, in short, left me feeling that jazz has a future, a subject I go back and forth on. The Liberation Music Orchestra organized for the show should stay together and, if possible, tour. Any kind of big band, perhaps especially an unconventional one, is hard to sustain economically. The show also reminded me how conducive a space to acoustic jazz REDCAT can be – with great acoustics and 230 or so seats, it’s the perfect size. The numbers are hard when you have a dozen or so people onstage and only a few hundred in the audience. But musically it was pure heaven.

The concert opened with the anthem of the African National Congress (in honor of Mandela), included the Bowie/Metheny “This is Not America” (which has never sounded so good), Coleman’s “Skies of America,” “Amazing Grace,” and closed with an encore of the Miles/Evans tune “Blue in Green.” For the final tune, Haden picked up his bass – we’d been told not to expect this – and played as deep and soulful a bass part as I can imagine. Despite being physically rickety, the music is still coursing through him and seemed to give him new strength.

Despite having listened to many Haden performances from the last half-century, and having seen him play a bunch of times, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him speak. Given my genial image of him, it was startling to hear his political rants – he’s a longtime lefty and anti-racist -- onstage anecdotes and thoughts on nature and music: He came across like a ‘50s Beat crossed with an ornery mountain man, appropriately enough for a guy from the Ozarks. His vocal chords are paralyzed, so at times it was hard to make out what he was saying, but I hope Haden has been taking notes on his life and music. There is clearly much fight left in this country boy.

Let me close with a rant of my own, or rather, by an art critic I admire. Jed Perl’s recent piece in The New Republic describes a process that is reshaping the world of visual art, or at least, its meaning during the market boom. It is not the neglect of the art, but rather the wrong kind of attention. As he writes:

Among the most revolting sports favored by the super-rich is the devaluation of any reasonable sense of value. At Christie’s and Sotheby’s some of the wealthiest members of society, the people who can’t believe in anything until it’s been monetized, are trashing one of our last hopes for transcendence. They don’t know the difference between avidity and avarice. Why drink an excellent $30 or $50 bottle of wine when you can pour a $500 or $1000 bottle down your throat? Why buy a magnificent $20,000 or $1 million painting when you can spend $50 or $100 million and really impress friends and enemies alike?

I think Perl is right, by the way, and my book, Creative Destruction, which comes out next year, concerns itself with some of these matters. And it’s not just the plutocracy: The cultural left, which is where I usually find myself, has run down the possibility of the arts as a holy space at least as far back as Warhol and Derrida. The irrelevance or “complicity” of culture has become an unexpected spot where right and left often meet.

But I must also add: Whether this is the last time any of us see Charlie Haden pick up the bass, or if he plays for another decade, and whatever the concert’s little rough spots, last night was quite clearly -- for many of us assembled -- a night of transcendence achieved.

(Photo credits: First by Steve Hochman, others by Steve Gunther, all REDCAT 10 December 2013)

Monday, December 9, 2013

Celebrating Charlie Haden

TUESDAY night in Los Angeles will see both a celebratory and a sad occasion: The jazz titan Charlie Haden – the lyrical bass player, free-jazz pioneer, crucial collaborator to Ornette Coleman and others, father to a four Los Angeles indie rockers, founder of CalArts jazz program – will lead his Liberation Music Orchestra at REDCAT. It has special music since this group – which Haden began in 1969 – was dedicated to music of the Spanish Civil War, Latin American independence and South Africa’s fight for justice. The REDCAT show’s arrangements were made by the jazz composer Carla Bley, who played a major role in the original group.

The bad news is that this may be the last-ever public appearance by Haden, whohas been very sick. He will pay with the group if he is physically able, but he may simply appear for a last hurrah from the Southland’s jazz community.

I’ve been listening to Haden – first, I think, on Coleman’s Change of the Century, then on dates he led, like his Quartet West LPs and his Montreal dates – since I got into jazz two decades ago. He’s collaborated with more of my favorite artists – Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Paul Motian, Lee Konitz, Hank Jones, Kenny Barron, many others – than just about anyone I can think of. He’s taught a number of young musicians I know and admire, and the Haden triplets and Josh Haden (leader of the ethereal band Spain) are among the cream of LA’s rock subculture.

Haden, who grew up in a country-music family in the Ozark Mountains, and whose basslines still offer songlike lines and a country twang, contracted polio as a teenager, and he is now suffering, in his 70s, from post-polio syndrome.

At this point, it’s hard for me to contemplate the Southland jazzworld without Charlie Haden. So I won’t. I urge everyone who loves Haden’s music, and the numerous traditions that intersect in his work and life, to come out to REDCAT tomorrow and blow the roof off the place.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Print, Online and the Creative Class

TODAY I have another piece in Salon, this one about the folding of New York magazine into a biweekly, and the resulting conversation about where the media is (and isn't going.) HERE it is.

People trying to be "counterintuitive" are framing this as a win for journalists and journalism, since more people will read New York related copy on the blogs (some of which are quite good.) It's like saying musicians -- or music -- are thriving because more people listen to their songs on Spotify than ever did in the old record label-and-album model.

If you work in journalism, or the media business, you know that the phrase, "we've moving online" is typically a code word for de-professionalization -- something the creative class has gotten awfully familiar with. David Carr in the New York Times had the right take, I think.

The magazine also plans to bulk up its print publication with more fashion and luxury coverage, at a time when most Americans – among them, the new mayor tells us, a lot of New Yorkers -- continue to emerge only gradually from the Great Recession. (The Bloomberg operation will reportedly cover the arts, despite firing its arts staff, as a subset of luxury.) 

New York magazine – which has always combined the smartly serious with conspicuous consumerism, Frank Rich alongside frivolity – is not the only publication that is upping its fashion and luxury “content.” The way high-end fashion coverage, celebrity-worship and house porn continues to replicate in magazines three decades into flat middle-class wages is a paradox a greater critic than I will have to tackle. But whatever is driving this, it’s not something most Americans should celebrate, especially journalists, who increasingly toil to remain in the middle-class instead of buying $50,000 watches.

Like the David Lowery piece that ran yesterday, this gets into stuff I investigate deeper in my book Creative Destruction, which comes out next year.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

David Lowery vs. Silicon Valley

CAMPER Van Beethoven's singer David Lowery has become the most ornery of those fighting for musician's rights. He's erupted over piracy, Spotify, lyric websites, and the battle between the surviving Beastie Boys (with the ghost of Adam Yauch) and GoldieBlox.

I speak to him for Salon here.

He makes a pretty good case for what's wrong with Silicon Valley techno-utopianism, which leaves artists out of the revenue stream.

(Lowery and his argument also make an appearance in my book Creative Destruction, which comes out next year.)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Cheering George Packer's "The Unwinding"

LORD know this book does not need any more praise, but I want to wave the tattered American flag for George Packer's The Unwinding, which just won the National Book Award. The book is not perfect -- more on that in a minute -- but it is lyrical, powerfully reported, passionately written, and lives  up to its subtitle: "An Inner History of the New America."

As research for my own Creative Destruction, I've spent the last year or two reading numerous books of social criticism, going back to the mid-century American generation of Vance Packard, and up through Barbara Ehrenreich and others, and this book makes an excellent extension of that tradition. (It is also self-consciously in the oft-overlooked tradition of Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy.)

Dwight Garner, in the New York Times, wrote about the potentially unwieldy number of piece that make up The Unwinding, some of which originated in The New Yorker. Here's Garner:

It is Mr. Packer’s achievement in “The Unwinding” that these pieces, freshly shuffled and assembled, have speed and power to burn. This book hums — with sorrow, with outrage and with compassion for those who are caught in the gears of America’s increasingly complicated (and increasingly poorly calibrated) financial machinery.

The larger discussion of the book hinges not on its skillful portraits of Florida real-estate busts, political life in Washington, Silicon Valley libertarians, or sketches of Newt Gingrich and Oprah Winfrey (who turn out to the the same person), but on its big picture -- or lack thereof. Here's David Brooks:

When John Dos Passos wrote the “U.S.A.” trilogy, the left had Marxism. It had a rigorous intellectual structure that provided an undergirding theory of society — how social change happens, which forces matter and which don’t, how society works and who causes it not to work. Dos Passos’ literary approach could rely on that structure, fleshing it out with story and prose. The left no longer has Marxism or any other coherent intellectual structure. Packer’s work has no rigorous foundation to rely on, no ideology to give it organization and shape.

Brooks, with whom I sometimes disagree, is onto something here, and several of my friends on the left have expressed similar reservations. Why is it that a journalist more-or-less on the left is uncomfortable/unwilling to frame his work with an  overarching theory of society or history, the way similar scribes did in the 19th or 20th century? The reasons are long and complex, and I hope to get into this another time. (For what it's worth, Salon's Laura Miller, a critic I like a lot, praises the book because it "pointedly refrains from making sweeping polemical arguments about 'what’s gone wrong.'... In a culture in which everyone is perpetually shrieking their political opinions, it’s hard to convey just how refreshing this is.")

For now, let me acknowledge Brooks' criticism, but assert whole-heartedly that The Unwinding is an incredible piece of work, something that everyone who wants to understand the crisis in America today should pick up pronto.


Postscript: As a reader, and an Angeleno, I am disappointed that Rachel Kushner's The Flame Throwers, a captivating novel about the New York art scene and '70s Italy, did not take the fiction prize. Both of Rachel's novels (The Other is Telex From Cuba) have been greeted with great acclaim (I am lucky enough to have written about both of them), she is as sharp a person as we know, and here at The Misread City we are confident that she will live to write and fight again.   

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Digging the New Dean Wareham

DESPITE our well-documented bias for things West Coast, the Misread City gang has a deep and abiding love for the work of Dean Wareham going back to the Galaxie 500 and Luna eras. The day after seeing Luna on its first US tour (opening for the Sundays, if memory serves, and before the first LP), we walked to the local record store in Chapel Hill to pick up the band's Slide EP. (It was what we imagine kids in the '50s used to do.)

Dean -- whose roots are in Australia and New Zealand and whose early bands were based in Boston and New York -- has recently moved to Los Angeles. He's also just released his first solo record, an EP called Emancipated Hearts. (Check out the track called Air.) We spoke to Dean about his new work, the state of the music business, and his feelings for California.

Dean Wareham plays Thursday night at Largo at the Coronet, one of LA's best clubs. We'll be there. Here's our Q & A with him.

You’ve been in a number of semi-famous indie bands – Galaxie 500, Luna, Dean & Britta – and are now releasing what I take to be your first solo recording. How is it different from leading a band, and is it strange feeling to be on your own?

 To tell you the truth it still feels like a band effort, these are musicians I have been playing with for some years now: Britta Phillips on bass and Anthony LaMarca on drums, and augmented on this mini-LP by producer Jason Quever, who played keyboards and electric guitar. So anyway, technically yes it’s a “solo” release because it says so on the front of the record. I’m doing all the singing, and I write all the lyrics and melodies, but I depend on those around me to help figure out the arrangements.

That’s not so different from how I’ve been recording my whole career. Perhaps the difference was at the mixing stage, Jason Quever mixed it, and I was there too, but we didn’t have a whole band sitting behind him making comments. Last night the four of us had a rehearsal at Jason's studio in San Francisco and the band sounds really good, both on the new songs we recorded together but also on the Galaxie 500 and Luna songs we are doing.

You’re known for songwriting, but you’ve always had a great knack for covers – Wire’s Outdoor Miner, Jonathan Richman, Sweet Child of Mine, and so on. What makes a song right for you to play, besides, you know, liking it?

Picking covers is hit and miss. Just because I love a particular song does not mean I can pull it off vocally. I covered "Distractions" by Bobby Darin, a sly anti-war song from his folk period. But my rendition was not quite successful. Nor was Luna's rendition of "Dancing Days" by Led Zeppelin, though at least there is a bit of comedy in my singing that. Anyway I do look for songs that are under-appreciated, lost even. 

One of my favorite tracks on here is the digital-only number, Living Too Close to the Ground, an Every Bros song significantly less well-known that, say, Cathy’s Clown. How did you stumble upon this one and what made it seem right for you?

The Everly Brothers are amazing, first for their rhythm guitar playing (and this is more evident in the ‘50s songs), but there is also this ‘60s period where they recorded a number of great albums for Warner Brothers, albums that didn’t do well at radio (at least in the States, they were more popular in England). They were probably out of fashion, but they kept making records. “Living Too Close to the Ground” I think was written by their bassist (though I’m not positive about that, I’ve read a couple different things); anyway it is a great lyric and their recording is haunting and weird. I’m happy with how mine turned out too — there’s a delicious slide guitar solo in there — played by Jason.

You’ve written in your memoir Black Postcards one of the best assessments of the shift from the label era of the ‘80s and ‘90s to our current post-Napster musical universe. Lots of raging debate right now on Pandora, piracy, the joys of going it alone with Kickstarter, etc. Be brief if you like, but how are you enjoying our brave new world?

I didn’t quite realize as I was writing my book, that it was about something that was disappearing, a world of compact discs and tour support and even indie labels giving healthy advances to bands. The book ends in 2005, since then of course many more changes. Back then it was the early days of piracy (or filesharing), now people are just as concerned about streaming.

As you say, there have been some interesting discussions online lately, David Lowery arguing that the internet revolution has been terrible for musicians, and others writing about the dangers of Spotify — and on the other side Dave Allen, formerly of the Gang of Four, arguing that “the internet doesn’t care” and that we are simply in a transitional phase between technologies, with new markets being formed. Maybe that's true; certainly the old marketplaces are disappearing and we can see that with our eyes. Dave Allen also points to artists like Amanda Palmer and Trent Reznor and says they’ve got it figured out -- so what’s wrong with the rest of us? Which sounds like an updated bootstrap argument to me, something Dickens would make fun of. We hear similar thoughts from Thomas Friedman, that if we can continually reinvent ourselves and learn new technologies, we’ll be fine. 

At any rate there have always been challenges, being a recording artist or musician has never been a very reliable job. I know the 1990s were good times for the music business as a whole, it was a golden age where they convinced everyone to replace their vinyl collection with compact discs, how great was that? And if your band had a hit at radio, then maybe you did well. 

It is an interesting time to be in a band; there are certain advantages — it’s cheaper than ever to make recordings and distribute them all over the world, via the miracle of Internet and social media. It's easier than ever to reach your audience. The problem now is it’s more difficult to sell music. We hear a lot that music should be free. Sure, it should be free, and so should health care and education, and recording studios, and my rent should be controlled too. But unfortunately we don't live in that world.

You moved to Los Angeles earlier this year. What’s it like for a longtime New Yorker, originally from down under, to land in California? What do you like here and what do you miss about the East?

I lived in Sydney, Australia, from age 7 to 14. I only know Sydney from a child’s perspective, but Los Angeles reminds me of that city — the sprawl, the perfect weather, the Eucalpytus and Jacaranda trees. I have only been here six months but Los Angeles certainly has its charms, its rich history, good food, plenty of culture. But I miss some of the freedom of New York, where it is much easier to go out at night, easier to wander the streets or ride a bicycle. Life in Los Angeles, as John Cassavetes said, is life by appointment. But the truth is I spend most of my time at home, avoiding traffic, playing guitar, running my record label, making sure the social media is updated — pulling myself up by my bootstraps.