On Saturday night, in New York City, upstairs in Manhattan’s 54th Street Yamaha piano studios, which by the way is very close to that other keyboard shrine, Steinway Hall, Stereophile’s own contributing editor Bob Reina and his group, Attention Screen recorded their third live album for Stereophile Records, a label owned and run by editor in chief/sound engineer John Atkinson, our fearless leader. Just so there is no confusion, I mean that last term as an endearing salute rather than in the sense of Rocky & Bullwinkle’s Germanesque dictator of Pottsylvania.
If the cover of the latest issue of Uncut is any indication, “lost” albums never lose their appeal for the musicallyinclined or obsessed. Music fans always want what they don’t have or haven’t heard or hear is hard to get. It’s the allure of the forbidden record. And it’s a chief symptom of the record collecting psychoses.
Never did I think the day would come when I’d be standing in a line at 10:30 am on a chilly April Saturday to get into a record store. A record store mind you that is directly across the street from the now spacious, high-ceilinged NYU offices that were once the Tower Records on Broadway in downtown Manhattan.
So far, other than Steve Zahn who is really annoying as a devilmaycare DJ with goofy eyeglasses, the new HBO series, Treme is pretty great. Lots of flavor. Some hokiness of course, but still fairly believable most of the time. The best scene so far hands down was when Elvis Costello, playing Elvis Costello, comes out of a bar to crawl into his limo and Kermit Ruffins, playing himself, is standing on the sidewalk really huffing on fatty. When Zahn encourages him, through the cloud of smoke, to talk to Costello and maybe land himself an opening slot on an upcoming Costello tour, Kermit demurs and Zahn comes back with a line, and I’m paraphrasing, “So what do you want to do all your life, play music, get high and BBQ in New Orleans?” Kermit laughes and shakes his head in the affirmative. In some ways that’s the story of a lot of NOLA musicians. They can be provincial. And disdainful of success. It can be a town where a sort of collective inertia keeps people from doing anything but hanging out. I know, I’m painting with broad strokes here, but it’s always been a town, heavy with musical talent, much of it unwilling or unable for whatever reason, to leave. And then those who do leave get tarred as traitors or getting too big for their britches. There truly is nowhere like New Orleans, I adore it, but damn, the place is like a parallel dimension sometimes.
Late on Saturday, the last night of SXSW, I somehow ended up having a pint with a mixed party of American and British band members, only one of whom I knew previously, when suddenly the subject of the British government’s support of the arts came up. Seems these four young lads, and their frontwomanone stunning fulfillment of my perky blonde English chick singer fantasy (oh my)hadn’t used their money to come all the way to Texas. No, the government had picked up the tab. The fact that they were vaguely ashamedbecause being on the dole is unhip and kind of the opposite of DIYtold me it was true.
“Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round
They sing "I'm in love. What's that song?
I'm in love with that song."
(from “Alex Chilton” by The Replacements)
My five month old cell phone fried itself dead. Traffic in downtown Austin crawled inch by inch. A friend, who called himself a “capitalist,” called long distance to tell me Obama’s health plan was going to bankrupt the country. But all of that paled in comparison to the strange news that on the first night of South By Southwest 2010, the great Alex Chilton had died just before leaving New Orleans to come to Austin to play a Big Star reunion. Or as the more cynical among us had it, another Big Star reunion.
The relationship between the internet and music continues to evolve in new and bizarre ways. The latest is Guvera, a site that offers free music downloads, that the principals say uses the sponsorship model in new and they hope successful ways and keeps everyonefrom artist to label to consumehappy. When you register for the site, they ask you a battery of questions about your likes and dislikes and then you’re free to search for a song or an artist. The site will then direct you to a channel or channels, sponsored by an advertiser, which has what you’re looking for. Using the information from those initial customers’ surveys and then your subsequent download history, the site’s algorhythms find the target audience for certain advertisers and grab their eyeballs in a better way than pop up or strip ads. They also tell the advertisers what music the customers they want to reach listen to. The advertiser pays the royalties on the music to whoever holds the copyright. In other words, either the record label or the artist gets paid. It ain’t stealing.
The Grammy Awards are that one Sunday night every January, when for a few brief hours, I try to imagine what people on other continents (in not other planets) think of America when they watch this silly, frivolous, super glam display of Las Vegasness come to the Staples Center. How incredibly ridiculous we must look to the rest of the world. During the telecast, I’m liable to claim I’m from Canada. By the end, I want to take a shower and scrub off the sleaze. The whole thing is so bad, so not about music, that I have to change channels throughout the telecast if only to cleanse my palette. Last night at one point, I flipped over to the hi def Palladia network and there was a Britney video of her tune, “Womanizer,” which was nominated for a Grammy but lost to Lady Gaga. Owing to the fact that much of the video takes place in a sauna, with Brit writhing around nude (creatively covering her nasty bits), the contrast between Spears skin and the absolute nonsense that was goin’ on in L.A. made Little Miss Crazy look like the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
Call it “Hollywood Alcoholism,” meaning it’s not Requiem for a Dream, that chilling and incredibly visceral film depiction of addiction, but the more common cut and dried varietyhe came, he drank, he fucked up, he had an epiphany and of course, he cleaned up after one neat and tidy trip to the Zen rehab clinic. Having seen Townes Van Zandt and more than a few other musical substance abusers when they were riding high (which is really riding low, if you know what I mean), things just ain’t this a way. Hollywood’s way is to show addiction without any of the struggle. Oh sure, he threw up, sort of, once or twice but hell, I remember seeing Townes fall off a stage that was four inches high, and then he couldn’t get up. When I pitched in to help, the man clearly had not showered in quite some time. He’d been bingeing and playing one nighters, which is where Crazy Heart starts out.
What a weirdassed juxtaposition it was. Freezing as hell outside, like 20 degrees with a stiff breeze, and a Zydeco band inside generating a sweaty mess. On top of that, a mysterious fever swept the place. The kind of fever, brought on by alcohol, that you have to sort of call Jazzfest fever. Anyone who’s ever been to the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans and gotten into the spirit of the thing can instantly reconnect with those feelings, once they have a few beers and hear some NOLA music, be it Cajun, Zydeco, funk or whatever. Hey, you have to hand it to Jazzfest, they’ve created a mojo that goes way beyond the music and creates wildly loyal fans, every festival should be so lucky.
John Hammond has always been a strange case. Son of the legendary record producer and scout John Hammond Sr. who worked with Billie Holiday, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, young John who sang and played guitar staked out a difficult piece of musical turf when he decided to make playing acoustic Deltastyled blues on the National Steel guitar his signature move.
I’d say on average that about 85 percent of the people I ask, hate Christmas music with an undying passion. I am one of a crazed minority who actually like the stuff and have long cultivated a collection of the stuff. Although I usually begin the season with the two volumes of Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits, both of which are now out of print (C’mon Rhino!), but are easily found used on Amazon, my general rule with Christmas music is: the weirder the better. And God knows when it comes to weird, Bob Dylan’s new collection of guttural holiday croakings is truly amazing.