Monday, May 12, 2008

1236 words about Sonic Youth's "Teenage Riot" (with Kerouac + the Cruise +Empire Records digressions.)

I wish it could always feel like this:

That video is a pretty good translation of what it's like inside my head when my mood swings up (which has happened NOW).

I feel ridiculously happy, boundlessly energetic, young, invincible, twitchy, and a bit incoherent. Like the visuals here, my mind jumps from one thing to the next. The world feels beautifully dizzying and I have trouble articulating how I feel to anyone outside my skull.

And often there's music playing. If my mood swing isn't accompanied by good music actually playing nearby, then I bring my own music. When headphones aren't available I just let music play inside my head from memory. Often during these swings, this very Sonic Youth song is the one playing in my head.

This song calls for speed. As in velocity, not meth. The tempo is fast and I find it hard to sit still when it's playing. I always thought this song would be great for the opening of a late 80s left-field teen movie:

The movie opens with our hero in bed in a messy bedroom, mattress on floor, Gibson and amp in the corner, Clash poster on the wall. He's overslept. He wakes with a start as Thurston's riff kicks, realizing he has to be at his job at the pizza joint across town in 5 MINUTES! He runs out the door while still buttoning his jeans. His mom tries to kiss him, nearly getting knocked over in the rush. "What's the hurry, honey?!" she says in surprise and mild distress.

Moments later, our hero is on his bike, pedaling furiously. He passes by characters on the sidewalk who we'll get to meet later in this unmade movie. The look in his eyes tells the movie-goer that our hero is a bit nervous, but he's glad to be alive on a sunny late morning in California (because where else could a late 80s teen movie take place? That stuff has to be GOLDEN, palmed!)

He skids into the pizza shop parking lot. A Pepsi or Coke sign is on the building's wall (for sly product placement.) The paunchy middle-aged boss is standing at the door in his apron. He looks at his watch and then at our hero, now running towards the door from his bike with a slight sheen of sweat. The boss shakes his head. This is obviously not the first time our high school hero has been late. A barely perceptible smile creeps onto the boss' face, as if to say "oh you crazy rascal. You're a good kid. I was once like you, so I'll let you go this one last time."

As Thurston closes the song with "...on the riot trail" the camera goes for a close up of our winded hero's face. He wipes his brow and exhales, relieved as he walks inside for another day at the pizza shop. But we all know that since it's a movie, this will be ANYTHING BUT just another day at the pizza shop...

Quite honestly, that doubly fictitious screenplay excerpt has played in my head a number of times as my own actions and reality have mirrored that of our pizza-tossing hero. I've run out the door and hopped on my bike many mornings running late.
I take Springfield Ave to 47th. 47th to the Gaey's Ferry Bridge. On the Bridge I dodge broken glasses and nails in the barely existent bike lane while below me there's a brief marshy stretch of post-industrial wasteland along the banks of the Schuylkill. Then I turn right at the FedEx and boom! i'm at work. Just behind FedEx is the lot for Philadelphia Trolley Works/Big Bus Company. I work as a tour guide on top of a double decker bus.

It's sort of like this, except less nasally, obviously not in NYC, and in color:

Yes, my job might seem more interesting than that of our pizza shop protagonist. But I'm 10 years older than our hero, inevitably less handsome than the Corey look-alike who'd get cast in the movie and my boss isn't a fatherly small town business owner. Instead my boss is a cheapskate millionaire who barely maintains the 30 year old fleet of diesel-spewing vehicles, views his workers as expendable, and might just be cheating on his taxes.

Should I even put that in print?

Regardless, when I get to work sweaty, out of breath, and late there's no benevolent head shake and subtle smile. There's only the threat that I'll be removed from the schedule. And on rare occasions I have been sent home.

But when I do make it to work by the skin of my teeth (and the strength of my upper legs) I feel satisfied and alive. My blood is flowing and my heart's pounding. I've gone from 0 to wired in 10 minutes. "Teenage Riot" in my head is often the propulsion.
I sing it in my head, but I NEVER have it on headphones when biking.

For the record, I think riding with headphones in traffic is stupid and dangerous. If you throw in a fixed gear and no helmet, it's even more stupid. And this is coming from someone who broke his leg in a bike accident 2 1/2 years ago. So people you know DO get seriously hurt in bike accidents....rant over...and now back to our regularly scheduled RIOT-----

Sonic Youth had an incredible missed opportunity when they played a rare DIY(ish) R5 Productions show at the Starlight Ballroom here in Philly in the summer of '06. Naturally the show was sold out. Naturally it was incredibly hot. And not surprisingly, SY was late taking the stage. The fans were packed in and restless. Everyone was ready to rock out. "Teenage Riot"--- a classic beloved by hardcore fan and casual listener alike would've been the perfect opener. But no, the show started with a song off their most recent album, "Rather Ripped." It had been released just a few days prior. It seemed like few fans in attendance had heard the album and fewer had had time to digest and appreciate it.

Soon I'd grow to love "Rather Ripped." And while I may be in the minority here, it's become my favorite SY album. I like it better than then classic Daydream Nation that includes "Teenage Riot." Blasphemy? Perhaps, but I can't argue with the fact that I play DD maybe once for every 5 times I play RR.

Still, "Teenage Riot" is a great song and one of the best in the Sonic catalog. Anticipating the band taking the stage, I had visions of the entire place singing along to "Teenage Riot", people stage diving and generally losing their shit out of pure reckless joy.

Oh well. I'm sure the band has played the song literally hundreds of times. And their newer material is probably more meaningful and satisfying for them to play these days.
So it's understandable why they'd open the show with a new one.

But back to the song's video:

It captures the excitement of the song in a non-linear way that suggests the frenzy of my hypo-manic moodswing mind and what it's like to be teenager on a sugar high** . The video doesn't try to tell a story to go along with the song. It just gives a picture of pure yet unsteady energy and creative drive. And happiness! Everyone is smiling in the video. The 8mm footage of the band rocking out cartoonishly throughout the video makes them seem like a bunch of high schoolers in a basement who can't play their instruments but still have a great time making up for that lack with excitement and attitude. And then you've got guest appearances by a cavalcade of stars. These are the heroes of Sonic Youth. And some of them were my heroes too, intensely admired in my volatile high school days.

Each time I've watched the video, I've caught more faces.

Here's a partial list (some of these may be wrong since these clips shift so quickly) Quite literally, if you blink you might miss some one:

Patti Smith (twice!), Paul Reubens, Kiss, Iggy Pop, Jack Kerouac*, Henry Rollins, the Beach Boys, Sun Ra, Neil Young, MC5 (or at least their White Panther button), the Minutemen, Ian MacKaye, Joni Mitchell, and William Burroughs.
And during the instrumental break around the 3 minute mark, the visuals switch to a few seconds of just colored stage lights, evoking the feeling of incoherent "pure yet unsteady energy."

*This brief view of Kerouac comes from my favorite clip of him. Of all the heroes shown in the video, Kerouac was probably the most important and influential on me. I was drawn to the myth of Kerouac and the freewheelin' hitch-hiking life. I was fascinated that Kerouac's own writing and life didn't quite live up to his myth's promise.
He was a flawed, anxious, angry, alcoholic, contradictory, misogynist, bigoted man. He also wrote a lot of self-indulgent crap. And he kind of wrote the same book 10 times. But when he was good, he was GREAT. And he had a wonderful speaking voice. Most of his jazz + spoken word recordings don't really mesh. But this one does. This is everything I love about Kerouac condensed into three and a half minutes.

I love the way he says the word "rags" and his accompanying facial expression at 3:10.
His lost puppy dog expression during the closing applause makes me want to reach through the years give him a hug.

I read in his Selected Letter that he vomited immediately after leaving the stage.

**Also, while I'm off on a tangent, "Teenage Riot" would've made a much better closing song than "Sugar High" for the awful Empire Records movie. If Renee Zellweger and company had mimed on the marquee to this tune instead of what they actually used then maybe (just maybe) that movie could've been salvaged.

This relates to my 80s teen movie screenplay idea, though Empire Records was actually mid 90s vintage. I saw the movie for the first time this past year. And my initial urge was to throw the VHS to the curb. Any movie set at a record store has SO MUCH POTENTIAL (and "Hi Fidelity" actually delivered on that potential more or less.) There are so many opportunities to slip in music nerdiness-- such as cult classic bands on the sound track, cult classic band posters shown fleetly in the background of scenes, cult classic bands at least mentioned by the characters.

But no! Despite being set at a independent record store, fighting fiercely to maintain its independence, the Empire Recods store is a thinly-veiled shopping mall Sam Goody's. And on top of the disappointment of the movie's denial of the existence of any non-mainstream music,the plot calls for disbelief to be suspended at least 90 percent of the time. At least I saw the film after I already knew what could and could not happen in teenage lives. I feel bad for the kids who saw this when they were 12 and thought, "gee whiz, when I get to high school, it's gonna be awesome!"

Some of my friends love this movie out of pure nostalgia, but watching it just made me angry. The movie feels like a product of 50 year old suit-and-ties sitting around a Hollywood boardroom saying "now how can we tap into today's youth market?" but then moving forward on the project without actually consulting anyone younger than forty.

On the plus side, Liv Tyler is very attractive in the movie. As a product of Catholic Schooling, her short plaid skirts equal nostalgic hotness for me, though I think I prefer her as an elf.

Friday, May 9, 2008

1170 words about the Mission of Burma LP reissues

NEWS FLASH: After finishing this up a few days ago, it was announced that Mission of Burma will be playing Philadelphia Friday 6/27 at the First Unitarian. The show will center around songs from their 1st two records "Signals Call and Marches" and "Vs." Tickets are on sale this Sunday 5/11. $18. I urge you to get one. I promise you won't regret it.

This may come across as an advertisement for the recent Mission of Burma LP reissues--- and maybe it is--- but it comes from the heart (the Ace of Hearts!) and I'm not getting a kickback for it. I have the urge to gush because the vinyl reissues of "Signals, Calls and Marches" "Vs." and "the Horrible Truth About Burma" have made me so happy recently. They look, sound, and feel great.

I never before had "real" copies of any of these albums, just faceless CDRs. But the full package experience has been so much more satisfying. I've been a big fan of vinyl since even before round physical mediums of music storage became obsolete. And these Burma records only increase my love.

So what makes these records so great? Well, first off, they're very satisfying musically. It's early 80s Bostonian post-punk. The songs are catchy and melodic, yet angular and threaded through by the tape loop experiments of off-stage member Martin Swope.
Swope took the sounds made by the guitar/bass/drums and voices of Roger Miller/Clint Conley /Peter Prescott, played around with them and spit them back into the mix as reconfigured textural elements.

You non-fans out there may already be familiar with what might be Burma's two most catchy anthemic songs-- "Academy Fight Song" and "That's When I Reach For My Revolver." Both are great angsty fist-in-the-air sing-a-longs.

The reissue packaging is also beautiful-- thick gatefold covers with booklets of present day interviews with the band and well-captioned pictures of the band in their heyday and pictures of original lyric sheets and equipment diagrams. And while the original releases were single records, they've all been rereleased with bonus tracks. And the bonus tracks are included on separate discs so preserved is the original flow of the albums (Ok "Signals..." is technically an EP.) And none of these bonus tracks is a sloucher either.

And the vinyl itself is heavvvy: 180 gram, maybe twice the weight of a "regular" LP. This heavy, high-quality vinyl is not only less prone to warping, it also also makes the music grooved on it seem more substantial since the medium is so weighty. Listening to these records there's a bit of synesthesia. The packaging and black plastic seem to merge with the sounds so it all seems to be coming at you through the speakers. You can't get this feeling from an mp3.

Admittedly vinyl is an inconvenient medium when moving about. But that's OK. These Burma LPs come with a free mp3 download of the whole album, so you get the best of both worlds. And that's good for me right NOW. While writing this, I'm sitting with headphones and a laptop in a coffee shop where I can't very well be spinning my 180 gram vinyl beauties.

And along with the bonus tracks and mp3s you get a live DVD with each set. And most of this video footage has never before been released. The 1980 footage included shows the band looking sweaty and nerdy, with their fans equally sweaty and nerdy. The 1979 footage is a bit botched by over-ly "arty" effects and twitchy angle shifts, but at least it sounds good. The '83 footage that fills 2 of the 3 DVDs covers both their final Boston shows. At these they look a bit cooler and more sure of themselves. But Roger Miller still looks pretty nerdy wearing rifle range ear protectors to try to keep his band-ending tinnitus from getting worse.

In this '83 footage, the Boston fans seem a bit confused by the band. Even this home town crowd didn't seem as if it really knew what to make of the group--- not quite punk, but shouty and aggressive, incorporating tape loops yet not wholly "experimental" because there are verses and choruses and plenty of melody. Their music falls into the very broad category of "indie rock" (which was just then emerging in the early 80s)--- but I guess the band was ahead of their time. For the Boston late show (21+) the front row just bobs their heads. There's not much visible singing along or enraptured audience gestures and only one or two stage dives.

This was the home coming show on their LAST TOUR (until the 2002 reformation) and the crowd knew this. Yet no one seems to lose their shit.

In the coming years, people would come to realize the greatness of Burma but "you don't know what you got til it's gone." We've now had 25 years to digest, study, and appreciate what Burma 1.0 left us. And if you could send some early 00s indie fans back in a time machine to Boston '83 they'd certainly lose their shit, sweatily singing along to every word....well at least I would.

And thankfully us early oh-oh-ers again have an opportunity to lose our shit and sweatily sing along. For the last five years, Mission of Burma has been back together with the nearly original line-up (the revered Bob Weston replaced Martin Swope on the loops) and the original energy and inspiration have been retained. They've released 2 more great albums, on par with the 80s material and can still put on a great show. It's inspiring that 50 year olds can perform new and old tunes that do justice to a legacy started nearly 30 years ago.

And if you want proof, here's a well recorded 2007 show that you can stream or download:
Mission of Burma in Atlanta, January 13th, 2007

And for two nights next month in NYC on the band will be present the whole Signals, Calls, and Marches EP (6/14) and Vs. (6/15) so you can almost build a successful time machine to the early 1980s

I'll be in NYC on June 15th, but unfortunately, I've already got tickets to see the equally amazing (yet totally different) time warp of Iron Maiden at Madison Square Garden. Oh Lord why must I have to choose?

But back to 1983 and the issue of the original Burma fans NOT losing their shit: the band really didn't do too much outreach to get the fans riled up. There was no "we'll miss you, thanks for 4 years!" speeches. There's very little stage banter at all at these shows. But the band plays really well. And it seems just the music itself should've been enough to whip the kids into a frenzy.

A frenzy gets whipped up and frothy at the early, all-ages show. There are kids stage diving during every song. But the frenzy seems arbitrary. It seems disconnected from the music onstage. I get the feeling the kids heard there was a punk show at the Bradford and just came out to stage dive with no knowledge of who the band was.
This clip exemplifies the disconnection:

" Trem Two" is a slower tempo song that's melancholy in mood and probably the least likely candidate in the set for stage diving. And yet the kids end up on the stage in full-force and end up sort of awkwardly slow-dancing in front of the band.

And when "Peking Spring" gets kicked out, the kids don't seem to go nearly as nuts as they should if they were really up on Burma's music. To my ears, this song is a perfect synthesis of punk energy and singable melody. In all fairness, the song remained unreleased until after Burma's first demise. But still, there's a great groove-filled "woah-oh" section that is just calling out for a good old mosh and sing-along. And yet the audience isn't visibly moved.

I'm fully in support of people dancing around and knocking into each other when they "feel it." I'm certainly one to lose my shit and spin around crazily when I fall inside the music I love. But I also agree with Ian MacKaye of Fugazi and I despise "violence disguised as dancing." And McKaye's early band definitely attracted a lot of aggressive dance (as the Minor Threat live video/DVD, also from 1983, shows)

though that DC dance and mosh seemed more of a community event. The kids seemed a lot more connected to the actual songs and there was plenty of singing along.

I get the feeling that all the stage diving at the Burma show was just a display of rebellious machismo. With the exception of one girl, it's all dudes doing the diving. Sweaty, often shirtless dudes too. These divers are not holy. They look and act like the people who arbitrarily moshed, kickboxed, and stage dove at shows during the era of my own punk/hardcore/emo show-going (1998-2002ish.) And I have a feeling that meat heads just like this are still spewing their testosterone at shows in 2008.

At the Burma all-ages Boston finale I only noticed one stage diver singing along. He steps to the mic and joins in for one chorus of 'Revolver." Oh well. The crowd kinda takes away from the music instead of adding to it. Roger just smirks away as the kids dive and dive. For a while the white-shirted staff tries to keep the kids under control. And at one point two cops come out and stand menacingly at the front of the stage for part of a song, providing unintentional donutty comedy. But eventually the authorities give up and give in. The stage monitors are just moved to the side to save them from the fray. And the kids dive on.

The clips that are posted online are from early in the show before the wide-spread stage-diving starts. Still, near the beginning of the clip below security practically rips the shirt off of a diver in flight and at the end of the clip you can see the crew removing some of the stage monitors in anticipation of a continuing onslaught. And in this segment you also get a fine "Red" with Swope-ian sound effects:

The awkward band-crowd dynamic makes the DVDs not wholly satisfying. But over half this footage has never been released previously. And each hour-long DVD comes as a BONUS to a full album's worth of audio. The camera angles are also very good (for the '83 footage) and it's an honest uncut document. (yes, I feel like a saleman here, but really, MoB isn't giving me a cent for any of this and I honestly think your life will be improved by the inclusion of these discs in your collection.)

Perhaps the reissues were just a money-grab for these aging Bostonians. But I get the feeling that a whole lot of care was put into these sets. The photos and layouts look great in glossy 12x12. Paging through the booklet while one of these records spins on your turntable (with the tone arm tracking set properly to 1.5 grams of course) you get quite a wonderful experience. You get a satisfying audio/visual package missing from a lot of today's albums and mp3 releases.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

572 words about Birds of Maya and Earth (May 5 2008)

I saw Kayo Dot, Birds of Maya, and Earth at Johnny Brenda's bar last night (May 5 2008) here in Philadelphia.

My experience during Birds of Maya's set was wonderful. They played beautiful heavy, fuzzy psych in the vein of early Sabbath. While they played, I closed my eyes and opened my mind to free associations across the blank black canvas of my lids.

Images built off of what I saw just before I closed my eyes. The images started with something in the room--- the shape of the singer/bassist hunched over his instrument or the arm of the person in front of me-- but with eyes closed and no outside visual stimulation for minutes on end, things morphed. My eyelids became a playground for my subconscious: images of my family's 1st home in Piscataway, NJ (1979-88), old lovers, abstract blobs.

All this came and went, shifting like a collage or a montage while I rocked back and forth with Birds of Maya's music washing over me. Every time someone accidentally bumped into me in passing, this trance, these visions would be broken. My eyes would open and I'd be rudely returned from the clouds and dropped back down into a Fishtown hipster bar.

At one point with my eyes open, I saw the singer/bassist crouched on the floor with his boom mike pushed down low and his bass propped up on his knee. I thought he'd been bowled over by the power of his band's own music , but after the set I learned from my friends that his guitar strap had simply broken, apparently while my eyes were closed, necessitating his awkward position.

BoM's set seemed to end too quickly. I think they actually played for 30-35 minutes, though it felt more like 20. But my perception was altered---- self-altered in a way, aided by good strong music.

As many of you know, I don't do drugs and I never have. But I like trying to experience something analogous to drugs through my own mental and sensory power. I like the idea of temporary "mind alteration." but I don't like the idea of the cost of drugs, the side effects, the possible physical and psychological addictions, the frequent injustice involved in their preparation, and the inability to "come down" at will when under the influence.

Drugs play off of the chemicals and circuitry already in place in the brain. I like seeing how far the brain can take itself just through internal and sensory stimuli. This seems to be a life-long experiment. And I take comfort knowing that I can come down nearly immediately if a situation around me requires a "level-headed" response.

Music doesn't always have such a powerful effect on me as it did last night. This was my 4th or 5th time seeing Birds of Maya and the first time I had a near-psychedelic experience. With my anxieties and racing thoughts it's infrequent that I can actually just let music wash over and have a drug-like effect on me. But I'm grateful that I CAN have this experience at all, without any "supplementary" substances, even if only happens occasionally.

Here's a clip of Birds of Maya, also recorded at Johnny Brenda's, late in 2006. I think they also opened with this song at the show last night. This video is choppy (as if half the frames are dropped) giving the band the appearance of dancers beneath a strobe. But the blurry, altered natured of the visuals suggests the altered nature of my own colorful closed-lid experience as the band played.

And the fuzzy sound is pretty spot on document of how the band sounds live.

Though Birds of Maya was the unexpected highlight, Earth was the headliner.

Earth's set, which came all (or mostly) from their newest album, was dark and beautiful--- doomy, instrumental country played at a heavy-hitting molasses pace. But by the time Earth hit the stage, it was nearly midnight and I was very aware of my tired legs. This made it difficult to fully lose myself in the music.

The standout of their set was the closing piece. Guitarist/mastermind Dylan Carson announced (sans microphone) that it would be a bonus track on the upcoming vinyl release of the most recent Earth album ("And the Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull.) This bonus track had a jagged trombone(!) line and a glacial yet catchy guitar riff.

I'm glad I haven't bought the album yet and have just been tiding myself over with a pirate download. Now I will certainly hold out for next month's release of the (inevitably) beautifully-packaged LP edition.

Here are two clips of Earth from the European leg of their tour earlier this year. The pieces accurately characterize the dark yet slow and relaxing flavor of the band's set last night

This second clip is the trombone "LP bonus track" tune that I enjoyed so much: