More About Iceland

The mist rolls down the mountain, o’er the green and pleasant plain / we stand and watch it coming: it arrives as driving rain.

Getting There: It’s an incredibly easy drive and flight combo from the New York Capital Region to Boston’s Logan Airport (a little bit less than three hours), then a nonstop flight on Icelandair to Keflavik that takes about four and a half hours. I can think of few places so exotic that you can get to so readily and (in relative terms, of course) inexpensively. I thought Icelandair was aces as an airline, with great service, and a great flight experience. I loved that every passenger had his or her own interactive, back-of-seat entertainment system, so passengers could watch what they wanted, when they wanted, rather than being force fed the latest in Hollywood tripe from centralized television screens. They offered Icelandic movies to accompany the American ones, which was quite nice, and some of the choices displayed an aesthetic sense that I doubt Southwest Airlines will ever be able to emulate. (Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain as an in-flight flick? Wow! I love that movie!) It also felt great to fly on a national flag carrier like Icelandair, as I think we really lack something in the United States by not having a single flag carrier to serve as a source of national spirit and pride for those who fly on it. Most of the great airlines I’ve flown in the world are flag carriers, and they almost always have a certain zest and zing about them that our lowest-common-denominator private carriers simply can’t begin to match. So Bravo, Icelandair! I want to fly you again, and soon!

Being There: The willingness to let human beings make choices for themselves, good ones or bad ones, really sort of permeates the whole Icelandic culture, in that there aren’t a lot of government regulations or physical barriers to protect people from themselves. You see this on the highways: the speed limits are low, but that makes sense, because the roads outside of the major cities are narrow, and they are often unpaved, and there are virtually no guardrails on any of them (even those at high elevation), so if you want to drive too fast and you fail to make that turn, then there won’t be a rail to keep you on the road, and you’ll have no one else to blame but yourself as you plummet over the edge of the mountain. The same concept applied at the various hot springs and waterfalls we visited: there might be a low (like ankle-high) rope or a painted line telling you to stay back, but there aren’t any guardrails or physical barriers preventing you from doing something stupid, since the government seems to assume that people aren’t, as a general rule, dumb-asses who can’t make sound decisions about their own safety. I found this really striking and surprising, actually, as most U.S. conservative types tend to look at the Scandinavian nations as the great demons of modern progressive socialism (along with Canada), but Iceland sure felt a lot more libertarian and a whole lot less “nanny state” than the United States does today in its willingness to not over-regulate or over-protect most aspects of day-to-day life among its citizens and its visitors.

The Food: We ate incredibly well the whole week we were there, but not in the usual vacation sense of gorging on comforting crap all week. The quality of the food was unassailable, pretty much everywhere we went, from very high cuisine locales like Fiskmarkaðurinn or Einar Ben through “cheap eats” like Krua Thai or Icelandic Fish and Chips. (I put “cheap eats” in quotes, since, again, everything is relative, and restaurant food does tend to be pricey in Reykjavik). We also had the luxury of having a kitchen in our apartment, so we shopped at local grocery stores and did most of our breakfasts and lunches and afternoon snacks on our own. I found Icelandic thin-sliced ham (“skinka”) to be very, very tasty, as were some of the cheeses we found. Iceland also does soup right: every time any of us ordered soup, it was masterful, starting with a seafood bisque at Cafe Paris and ending with a seafood stew at Geysir. I think my favorite meal was at the magical and mysterious Hotel Búðir, where we had lunch one day. I had a sea trout dish that was to die for, truly a fine piece of culinary mastery and skill and style. There are, though, a few things about Icelandic dining that sensitive American souls might want to consider before visiting Iceland, given that the rough climate there has created a dietary tradition where good protein sources need to be consumed, wherever they might be found. So at various restaurants, we found minke whale steaks, tenderloin of foal (yes, as is horse meat), puffin, and all sorts of lamb dishes on the menu (I ate the lamb tongue on the tasting menu at Fiskmarkaðurinn, for instance, so Katelin and Marcia wouldn’t have to) since those are the large, easily cultivated (or captured) animal staples of the Far North Atlantic diet. I pass no judgment. I understand why they eat such things, including the legendary/notorious hákarl, which Katelin and I ate, and which wasn’t nearly as repulsive as I was led to believe it would be. (But, then, I’m from a part of the world where we bread and fry every piece of meat possible, to hide the rancid taste of humid summer flesh rot, so my taste buds may be a bit desensitized to such things). Greenland Sharks and Basking Sharks (from which hákarl is made) are really, really big animals, so if you have to bury them in the sand for weeks and them smoke them to make them edible, so be it. Nice job, Icelanders, for making use of what’s available to you. Well played.

The Climate: High afternoon temperatures for the week we were there were generally in the high 50s or low 60s, though it didn’t drop down much lower than high 40s in the evening. We had glorious, sunny days from Sunday to Wednesday, and generally dry (though cloudy) days on Friday and Saturday, with on Thursday as a pure washout from a weather standpoint. We seemed to hit Reykjavik at the point when the “endless daylight” was rapidly coming to an end; the first couple of nights we were there, the sun dropped below the horizon, but the sky generally remained light blue with pink clouds all night long. By the time we left, it was legitimately dark from about 11:30 PM to maybe 1:30 PM, and our host told us that the darkness increases by about six minutes per night at this point in the year. Our apartment faced almost due west, so we had some incredible sunsets at night . . . around 11:30 PM or so. As a light and short sleeper, I could get used to such a situation.

The People: We found Icelanders to be lovely people for the most part, and it helped us a lot to discover that most of them spoke at least rudimentary English, since Icelandic is a really tough language to pronounce, even on a phonetic basis. (About the only bit of “Ugly Americanism” that we engaged in, privately, was coming up with easily-remembered American words to substitute for hard-to-say Icelandic words. So, for example, while we did eventually learn how to properly say “Snæfellsjökull,” when we spoke aloud about going there, we usually just referred to it as “Snuffleupagus” instead.) We never felt resented or disrespected as tourists, and we felt very comfortable in our interactions with local folks everywhere we went. There’s a quiet pride and dignity evident in the way that most Icelanders carry themselves, especially given the economic struggles that their country has endured over the past few years. I also actually liked the fact that “tipping culture” doesn’t exist in Iceland: they charge you what they need to collect, building in service and handling fees, and you don’t add tips to the bills. This allows customer service folks to function in a way that doesn’t depend on fawning over or touching or getting overly-familiar with customers in the hopes of increasing their tips. I liked the professional distance and dignity of that arrangement a lot, and never felt like we were being rushed out of a restaurant so the server could seat, serve, and get a tip from the party that followed us.

The Country: Unspeakably beautiful. I really can’t do much more than send you to the pictures. We spent about half the week right in Reykjavik, and half the week driving out in various directions into the countryside, and I was absolutely captivated by the views and vistas we encountered. I also came back with a much deeper and greater appreciation for the amazing history of this isolated island nation, which (as best can be ascertained) was settled by European people sometime in the mid-Ninth Century of the Common Era, about six hundred years before Europeans gained a significant toe-hold in what’s now the United States. As a very young child, I was enthralled to discover my name in the history books (Eric The Red, Leif Ericson, etc.), and I think this is what has fueled a lifelong fascination with Iceland, that I’m awed and amazed I was able to satisfy this month. Wonders! Marvels! Joy! How fortunate and grateful and humbled I am for the opportunities presented to me! Life is truly, truly good. Truly!

On Being A Music Critic

(Note: I wrote this many, many years ago, when I was a print media music critic, as part of a novel. This text didn’t make the final cut, and hasn’t seen the light of day publicly until today. It’s sort of stunning how accurate it still is, though, with regard to traditional print music media).

The best thing about being a music critic is that most people are genuinely impressed and envious when I tell them what I do for a living. They don’t think about the hearing-loss, the paltry pay, the obscene hours, the rush deadlines and the amounts of second-hand smoke and first-hand bacteria to which I’m exposed while haunting the area’s various and sundry concert venues. They think instead about the piles of free albums that arrive in my mail box each week and the complimentary tickets to shows that are passed my way, always in pairs, making cheap dates truly painless propositions for lucky men (and most music critics are men) like me.

I can also confess that I’ve not had to purchase a single t-shirt, hat, sweatshirt, coffee cup, cigarette lighter or windbreaker throughout the ten years that I’ve been working as a music critic, as bands and labels and venues all believe that free merchandise may help their critical causes. Hey, if nothing else, it looks good for them when a music critic who theoretically gets paid for having good taste advertises their band, record or club on his chest, desk, back or head, right?

This steady flow of promotional material definitely keeps my clothing expenses down, and getting all my music addiction needs covered on top of my modest wardrobe requirements means that my marginal pay can actually be stretched further than might seem possible to the casual observer. Or to my publisher, but don’t let her know that.

My paycheck certainly goes a lot farther now than it did when I had a “real job” in the commercial world. I used to have to buy button-down shirts, ties and dress slacks then (even though no one from outside the office ever ventured into my cubicle), and I spent an insane amount on concert tickets and records. I must confess that I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the concept of “enough” in my life. If it’s worth having or doing, I figure, it’s worth having or doing too much of it. And I live it like I talk it. Always have.

That applies to music, food, relationships, and drinking. Unfortunately, for all of her permissiveness in other areas, my publisher has never given me a liquor budget, so that one crucial life expense has come out of pocket, or at the expense of others outside of the newspaper, all along. And on some plane, it’s sort of weird that the newspaper pays for everything except my drinks, given that alcohol serves as the fuel that makes the music machine run as well as it does. Or at least at the level where rubber and road are still meeting regularly anyway, since you’ve got to be more of a player than most players around here are ever going to be before you get the cocaine cartel working for you.

Bands request beer and booze on their riders, almost as a matter of course. Critics from competing papers (we don’t compete ourselves, we let our advertising departments do that) line up at the bar to compare notes over drinks before, during and after club concerts. Club owners make little to no money on ticket sales after they get done paying promotional costs and band guarantees, but they make a killing on liquor sales, and an owner’s favorite artists are always going to be the ones who bring out the heavy drinkers instead of the kids. Performers bolster their courage with belts before strapping on their basses and bashing their drums, then entice their more-willing-looking fans with their own free drink tickets in the hopes of winning the sexual lottery after the show.

Alcohol flows pretty freely for the music critics, since most bands and promoters and owners are almost as interested in having us say nice things about them in print as they are in scoring after a concert. One of my all-time favorite venues, in fact, was configured in such a way that I could cover an entire concert from my favorite stool, watching the bands on-stage in the backroom through a conveniently-placed window next to the bar. It was a classic arrangement, and as long as I wasn’t ordering premium liquor, I was drinking on the house pretty much every night. My publisher wouldn’t give me a liquor allowance, but my favorite venue’s lovely bartenders did, God bless ‘em.

Most other clubs (and their staffs) weren’t so generous, and none of them seemed willing to stock my refrigerator at home, so I’ve still had more than ample opportunity to spend, spend, spend in my efforts to keep myself, my writing and my life properly lubricated. Fortunately, the late nights I spend out covering concerts are considered just cause for showing up at work late the next day, so I’ve gotten good at throwing up and sleeping off my excesses before showing up at the office around lunchtime to engage in a different sort of regurgitation.

Because on some plane, that’s what being a music critic (or at least a concert critic) is all about. I chew up a show, I digest it a bit, and then I spew the resultant mix of music, blood, beer and dark, critical bile onto a clean white sheet of newsprint so that other folks can experience it as well. Some folks want to read about concerts that they actually attended so that they can know what to think about them, officially, before making public value judgments that might embarrass them should they fly too far from the community’s collective perception of the event in question. Some other folks want to read about concerts that they didn’t attend, so that they can either sigh with relief at having passed on a bomb or grit their teeth with remorse if they missed a triumph.

Some folks don’t care one way or the other, they just read because they’ve got nothing better to do or because they liked the picture next to my review. And realistically speaking, I’m probably writing for more of that last group than I am for the first two, since most of the people who read my paper not only don’t go to concerts, but don’t ever want to go to concerts.

Instead, they just like the fact that they can pick up free copies of their chosen alternative newsweekly every week, skim them during their lunch breaks and then leave them on the coffee house counters for the next hundred half-interested diners, and all without spending a dime. Most alternative newsweeklies make great bathroom reading, too, and not just because of the “adult services” advertisements that keep us in publication, although those don’t hurt.

So what’s the point of writing music reviews for eaters and crappers and self-abusers instead of readers and thinkers and listeners? I like to think (or rather, I need to think, lest I become overwhelmed by the pointlessness of my work) that a concert review is a sort of a news item, designed to keep the community up on current events, filed by me, the trusty scoop reporter. And while a concert may not be as newsworthy as the breaking items that fill the front part of the paper, it is a public gathering that can attract the occasional large crowd, and it’s as apt to erupt in mayhem as any other spectacle that occurs regularly around here. That’s news, right? Right.

Or at least I think it is, and so I report what happened at the shows I cover. Not only how the band looked or what they sounded like, mind you, but how the audience reacted, whether the lights were working, what the doorman said, what the guitarist did on the bar at 3 AM, after all the sane people had gone home. For local acts, such a concert review can increase their prestige and drawing power among the homegrown club-land critters, who are always desperate to be right on top of the next hot thing, usually in the hopes that it’ll take them out of town when it goes. For national bands, my reviews can help market their next stops in our town, or be reproduced in press kits to help them lure promoters and owners at later tour stops. It’s a dog lick dog world out there, and I don’t mind the occasional taste of haunch fur as long I’ve got a free t-shirt or hat to show for my loving ministrations.

Concert reviews aren’t the only things I write, though. There are also album reviews, which ultimately serve as little more than free advertisements for the national record companies that send them to us. Why take out an expensive paid ad when good I (or a thousand other drones just like me) will give you two columns of free publicity for the price of a compact disc and a cigarette lighter?

To keep myself from feeling like too much of a cheap whore in this regard, I also make an effort to review albums by our own up-and-coming local acts, who can’t afford to send me as many promotional goodies. Their mothers and girlfriends generally like reading about them in the paper, so they appreciate the legitimacy that a printed review gives them with those who matter most. Some of them have actually escaped from the local music-go-round, in part on the strength of the reviews that I’ve given them.

It’s not that my reviews made those bands better, mind you, but they did make people outside of our market think that they were. Why would I be raving about them so much if they weren’t rave-worthy, right? Well, yes, I could be on the take or dating the bass player, but how are they gonna know that? And why are they gonna care? They’re dating other bass players themselves.

Preview pieces also take up a fair chunk of my time. These may come as interviews, where I call up an artist and ask him or her the very same questions that he or she was asked fifteen minutes earlier by another critic, then record the well-rehearsed answers and present them as original insights into the minds of the subject musicians. Or they may come as promotional blurbs, which pack the salient points about an artist or band or event into a brief 250-word summary that (in theory) makes it sound fresh, interesting and essential. Go! Now! Buy! Enjoy!

Having done some five to ten of these pieces a week for something approaching a decade, I’ve pretty much exhausted every possible description of every possible musical genre at this point, but I’m sensitive about selling a promising artist short for the want of an adjective. Thank God for the thesaurus and for the promotional write-ups that the better publicists send me accordingly. Just please don’t make me type “jangly guitars” again, okay? Thanks.

My publisher also likes to have me occasionally poop out what she refers to as “thought pieces.” These are articles that examine and attempt to explain trends or movements or insider secrets within the greater music industry, things that may be too macro to be captured in the decidedly micro interview or concert critique format. I’m with her all the way on this in concept, but the problem with thought pieces is that they throw all my weekly rhythms off, because they require a bit more time and research and work to prepare, not to mention requiring me to actually think.

And I don’t have to do that very often in the rest of my writing, since I assess and review things almost as a reflex action at this point in my journalistic career. I don’t even bother to take a notebook and a pen to most shows anymore, since if I’ve got 500 words to cover a four-band hardcore bill, I can make up a convincing 125 words per band without even seeing or hearing them. It’s those damned coffee house shows that get tough when it comes to critical auto-pilot, since you’ve usually got only one artist per show, and people want to know the names of their songs and samples of their lyrics and whatnot. I’ve got to pay attention. I’ve got to take notes. I avoid those shows accordingly.

“If the minimum wasn’t good enough,” my college room-mate used to say, “then they wouldn’t have made it the minimum.”

Works for me. But lowest common denominators aside, we’ve got to keep the boss woman happy, all of us, every one. So I hit the granola shows periodically and churn out a new thought piece about once a month, whether I’ve thought about anything or not, just to keep the peace.

I also try to view these thought pieces as my charitable public service work, since I don’t get paid anything extra during the weeks that I do them, and since they don’t generate nearly as many free promotional items and drinks as concert and record reviews do. In my public servant mode, then, I try to ensure that the thought pieces not only entertain, but educate, since I know full well that the average starving musician hereabout can use all the free help he or she can get.

And I offer that help whether they want it or not, because both the too-too-idealistic and the too-too-out-of-it-to-care sectors of our homegrown music community need to understand just how vile the industry they’re seeking to enter can be. Maybe I’ll even scare some of them away, which, 20/20 hindsight in full effect, I wish someone had done for me.

It’s all about the kids, ultimately. Let’s hope they don’t grow up to be us.

Rock in the Forest of Suicides

Elliott Smith: Here in Hell, we suicides are given new bodies as twisted trees and bushes in a black, tangled forest. I’m a weeping willow. Boo hoo hoo! Frankly, I think we got a pretty good deal, compared to the heretics in their burning tombs or the fortune tellers with their heads turned around backwards. I sure wish they’d stop playing all those Radiohead and Wilco records over the house stereo, though. That’s just cruel. Did you know that they have a special rock star section of the black forest here in the seventh circle? They do, it’s true! I hear Ian Curtis moaning whenever the wind blows the right way.

Ian Curtis: They keep calling me. Keep on calling me. Calling me. Caaaaaaaalling me.

Elliott Smith: Cobain’s right next to me, too, right over there. They made him into a little scruffy patch of poison ivy.

Kurt Cobain: Boston Red Sox! Asian wild ox! Little black box! Bagels and lox! Pustules and pox! Chickens and cocks! Tackles and blocks! My libidox! YEAH!!!

Elliott Smith: All the overdose guys are here too. As far as the powers that be in the cosmic order are concerned, apparently, if you off yourself, you’re going to the forest of suicides, whether you meant to do it or not. I’ve got to tell you, just between us: Janis Joplin is one rough looking tree.

John Bonham: Honestly, I have no idea why I’m in Hell. I mean, one minute, I’m hitting on some fourteen year old girl that I’ve drugged with Mandrax, and the next thing I know, I’m a tree, locked into an eternal embrace with Keith Moon. He’s a strangling fig vine, wrapped all around me, head to heel in Hell. What the, um, Hell, you know?

Keith Moon: Always running at someone’s bleedin’ heel! You know how I feel, John? Always running at someone’s heel? John? You know how I feel? Always running at someone’s bleedin’ heel? John? John? You know? You know how I feel? John?

D. Boon: I guess setting up tour schedules in such a way that your driver ends up falling asleep at the wheel counts as a self-snuff, too, since here I am in the forest with Elliott and Ian and Bonzo and the others. But that doesn’t quell my indomitable jolly big man spirit, since I’m still writing great Minutemen lyrics in Hell, every single day! Here’s a sample for you:

Me and Watt, we lived in Pedro.
Discussed homosexuality,
out in the shed behind Watt’s house.
Decided we were straight.
Chose to play guitars instead.
Drove to the grocery store in the van.
Bought bologna.
This is the essence of man.

Oh, wait, wait! Here’s another new one I like a lot. A real classic! Check this out:

Me and Watt drove in the van from Pedro.
Set off to discover the land.
Made George drive, most of the time.
This is the essence of drummers.
Had Corona and bologna.
Wrote a political song for Anthony Kiedis to sing.
But he wouldn’t.
Looked like dorks.
Went home to Pedro.

See, being dead, I haven’t lost my touch at all! And just like in the good ol’ days with SST Records, I’m still a hard-working Joe here in Hell. A couple of weeks ago, I helped Lucifer out by driving the Zamboni around the pit of ice at the center of Hell, to tamp the traitors and falsifiers down, and also because the big red man likes to see things looking neat, not with a lot of chewed up ice surrounding him down there like you might see at a double overtime Rangers game at the Garden. But, anyway, he gave me a 24-hour furlough, so I went up and caught my old buddy Mike Watt on tour with his new band. I even wrote a song about it! It goes like this:

Went to Albany to see Watt.
Drove in the van all the way up from Hell.
Made fun of some pool playing dudes.
Watt was late.
I detuned his Thunderstick and scrambled his Spiel.
But he still jammed econo.
Had a Corona, (ten cent deposit in New York).
Boy, Watt still can’t sing.

Hillel Slovak: Really D. You are the man. Your words are such poetry to me.

D. Boon: Thanks, Hillel in Hell. Sorry you had to play along to all those Anthony Kiedis lyrics for so many years. I probably would have overdosed, too.

Martin Tamburovich: Me and Boon and Watt went to Pedro High together, and I was there in the shed when we started our first band. I loved those guys so much, like brothers. Heck, I even started a record label with them, but it never went anywhere, and no one remembers my part of their story anymore. So now I’m in Hell, too, but D. Boon never calls or visits. I guess that’s just all part of the torment. Here in Hell, abandoned and forgotten, just as in life.

D. Boon: Hey, Martin! I didn’t realize you were here, since they assigned you to the Circle of the Hopelessly Obscure! But now that I know we’re neighbors, I wrote a song for you anyway. It goes like this:

Me and Watt and Martin grew up in Pedro.
Formed a band.
Changed our name and threw Martin out.
Me and Watt started a record company with Martin.
But we put all of our good stuff out on Greg Ginn’s label instead.
Sorry Martin.
Maybe partying will help.

Ian Curtis: Eliott Smith keeps calling me. Keeps on calling me. Calling me. Calling me. But when he does, I always do my best fake Missus Curtis voice and say to him “Ian isn’t home right how, he’s out hanging around somewhere.” Ha ha! I’ve still got it, even in Hell!

Elliott Smith: Boo hoo hoo!

The Demon Azmahobeth, Esq.: Alright then, that’s quite enough of this unauthorized nonsense! You rock stars shut your traps and get back to suffering. And for the rest of you out there, I’ll have you know that “Hell” is an official trademark of Cloven Hoof Enterprises LLC, a subsidiary of Satan Lunchmeats Corp., a joint venture of Oscar Meyer, Inc. and Pope Pius XII Famous Brands GMBH. Tamper with our proprietary properties and we’ll roast your thighs for Lunchables, and poach your eyeballs for Spaghetti-O’s. Try us. We’re infinitely patient, and infinitely litigious.

Home from Iceland (The Photos)

Marcia and I at Hotel Búðir, the Real Restaurant at the End of the Universe. (Great photo by Katelin!)

We’re back from our utterly amazing and mind-blowing vacation to Iceland. There are so many things to write and tell, and my brain is still slightly addled from the trip, so rather than blathering at you ad nauseum today, I figured I’d let the pictures tell their thousand words instead.

Here are the best of the bunch: JES and Family in Iceland, August 2010. (I generally do not like to use Flickr, but I’m too tired to set up a new travel page on my website right now, so this will have to do; for those who haven’t used it before, there’s a “next” button above the first photo that will take you through the whole stream).

And here’s a link to a text report about the trip: All about Iceland, JES Style.

To answer the most burning question that regular readers may have here: yes, Katelin and I did find the fermented and smoked basking shark, and yes, we did eat it.

The Analog Kid Speaks

There is so little good-sounding new music to be had lately, and I blame that on the fact that everything is made on computers these days, and everyone’s a star on their own computer.

Most people who record and burn their own CD’s don’t know enough about sound engineering to effectively over-ride the presets that Microsoft Windows or the latest Apple iJobs products and their related lackey software applications impose. And it seems the folks at Windows and iJobs seems to think that everyone wants a slick, drum-and-bass heavy contemporary sound, so that’s what amateurs and pros alike churn out now, sometimes even egregiously remixing classic albums of years gone by to punch up the bottom. Because we need to make the Rolling Stones sound more like Shakira, and the Beatles sound more like Shania Twain, and Led Zeppelin sound more like Fountains of Wayne.

Sure, people say that the great thing about computers and cheap recording gear is that anyone can make a record. But the bad thing about computers and cheap recording gear is that anyone can make a record, too. Just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should. The fact is, some people are good at some things, while some people are good at other things. And, truth be told, some people just flat out can’t sing, can’t write and can’t play. Very, very, very occasionally, such people produce the happy musical accident, a thing so unique and weird that it becomes wonderful because it is so, so very wrong, but most of the time, that’s just not the case.

When everything is special, nothing is special. When everything is ordinary, everything is ordinary.

The way I see it, there are some objective truths to be expressed here, whether the arbiters of contemporary creative culture want to acknowledge them or not. Fact: analog is a beautiful aesthetic, with fat cables, tape hiss, tube hum, electrical warmth, etc. Fact: Digital is a convenient and cheap and available tool. Fact: When “everybody” makes an album, we don’t end up with more people making cool indie lo-fi stuff, we end up with more lame folk singer, hip hop or pop garbage piling up all around us. Fact: If all you listen to is crap, all you are likely to produce is crap. And Fact: Most Americans listen to nothing but crap.

Lest you feel inclined to call me a Luddite, I don’t have a problem with technology in general. Electrifying a guitar didn’t kill the instrument, but instead, expanded its possibilities as a creative tool immeasurably. What I do have a problem with, though, is the fact that today’s technology comes so prepackaged for you. With analog recording gear, you had to have some idea what you were doing, and there weren’t all sorts of presets and easy patches to make things happen. It also wasn’t cheap, and didn’t come pre-installed when you purchased a bass guitar or a PONG machine. You had to chose it, and buy it, and learn to operate it, as opposed to just discovering it lurking on the desktop of a computer that you bought for homework, not music-making.

These days, the problem with home digital recording is that it’s like PowerPoint for Music: everything sounds the same, because the software is such an integral part of the sound. It’s the same thing with photography: in the digital era, everyone thinks that they are a photographer because they point, click and post, so no one learns anything about composition, developing, color, light and all the things that make good photography good. We live in an era of cheap and easy and prefab. And the new album you made on your computer tonight is no more or less a work of art than is the purse-lipped flirty photo of yourself you slapped up on your Facebook profile. Disposable piffle. No quality control. Facile and forgettable.

This becomes all the more insidious when you realize that this dumbing- and blanding-down of music is being perpetrated by gigantic international computer conglomerates that want all of us to live, play, work, create, think, talk, communicate and spend money within a set of proprietary programs that benefit a small, rich consortium, most of whom are middle-aged white men.

Back in analog days, your little home recording unit, which cost you a pretty penny (rather than being “bundled” in with something else you bought) didn’t narc you out back to its manufacturer, the way that your computer lets Microsoft and iJobs keep track of you. In those days, you were recording to a piece of tape, and what you mixed on your board actually ended up on the tape without an intermediary step. In these digital days, you output your mix to a computer, where your friends from Microsoft or iJobs and their allies have already decided on a final EQ, or volume level, or hi/lo gain, unless you are motivated or clever enough to work around their presets, and most folks aren’t. And if you are, such information will be communicated the next time you synch your application to the Mothership.

If you want to play in their sandbox, you’re gonna use their shovels and spades. Which they will give to you when you buy their pails.

Ultimately, I guess what I’m saying is that as computers have made things easier and easier for people, and people haven’t had to work as hard for their sounds, the things people produce get more and more same-sounding and same-looking, because there’s less incentive to dig deeper and understand what you are doing and why you are doing it, when all you have to do is press a “burn” button (incorporating both hardware and software elements) and poop out a disc, a photo or a Powerpoint presentation.

Our tools influence our product. There’s just no way around that. And as our tools push people towards a more standard, easily achieved mean, our product gets more and more alike, originality becomes less and less of a valued commodity, and the monetary worth of Microsoft and iJobs stock continues to grow and grow.

So I say to you: the true era of glorious lo-fidelity analog recording is over, my friends. Once you’ve injected digital into the process, you’re just dealing with bits and bytes and business, not sound. Personally, I long for the days when everything you needed in the studio could be connected with quarter inch jacks. Screw all this midi and USB and micro-plug garbage. I want fat cables and amplifier hum. And not amplifier hum that’s added in after the fact by a computer.

Do you suppose there’s a place for me and my ilk in this world anymore?

Take A Pebble

1. I’m about two-thirds of the way through Gary Shteyngart’s novel, Super Sad True Love Story, and I have to tell you: if he manages to deliver a payoff as good as the buildup to this point, then I’m going to be happy to declare it one of our era’s great masterpiece works of fiction. The book is a piece of near/mid-future dystopian literature, set in such a vibrant, fully-realized, believable and frightening United States-to-be, that for the first time in my literature-reading career, I have a sense of what it must have been like to read Orwell’s 1984 in the midst of the physical and economic wreckage of post-war London, or Zamiatin’s We in the early days of the Soviet Union. Shteyngart essentially takes the most odious facets of our contemporary American culture (e.g. the dumbing down of politics, persistent invasions of privacy from government and commercial sources, the coarsening of discourse and dialog, the blurring lines between entertainment and news, our ever-shortening attention spans, our constant need to be in contact via our hand-held toys, the insidious creep into the public domain of the related pornographies of violence and surgically/digitally/chemically-enhanced sexuality, etc.) and extrapolates and blends them into a shocking and terrifying whole, which never crosses the line into the realms of the unbelievable. It’s a titanic work of writing craft, and I have to admit that I’m almost afraid to keep reading, because I hate when I like a book-in-progress this much, and the author can’t fulfill his or her premise when push comes to final shove. (I’ve stopped reading Chuck Palahniuk altogether, for example, after he let me down this way for about four books in a row). I’m really rooting for Gary Shteyngart to pull it off here in Super Sad True Love Story, because his words, his language, his ideas, his characters and his themes are so rich and wonderful that they deserve a well-developed, well-delivered ending, even if it’s a Super Sad one. Fingers crossed.

2. Speaking of the dumbing down of politics, I’ve been watching political advertisements on the televisions at the gym, without actually listening to the sounds associated with them. (I wear headphones, and generally listen to Napalm Death when I’m working out). As dreadful as I imagine those commercials must sound, they’re almost unbearably awful to watch as pieces of creative craft and communications, with ugly graphics, vapid button-pushing iconography, no-budget production values, cheap/bad actors pretending to be voters, and such obvious lowest-common-denominator messages oozing out of them that it’s almost an insult to the intelligence of an average human being to think that someone paid money to put these pieces of garbage in front of us. Scarier still, these things apparently work, or nobody would continue to buy them. (See Super Scary future dystopia discussed in Bullet One above, and tremble). There’s one other disturbing element that has jumped out at me while watching these things without the sound this year: the amount of raw hate that they project, as though our political opponents, whoever they are, are subhuman, and deserve our enmity and scorn (at best) or our loathing and violent retribution (at worst). While I’m no Luddite pining for simpler days of yore, it inspires me to imagine a Nation where folks learned about politics by going to watch political candidates debate issues publicly for hours, rather than a Nation where people are expected to make choices based on idiotic, pandering garbage like what’s being pumped into my gym, and presumably every household hereabouts, every ten minutes or so. It makes me grieve for the soul of my Nation, truly. And I say this as a non-partisan, thinking, centrist citizen, willing to devote the time and energy needed to understand issues and make rational, lucid choices as to how I should vote to advance the causes of import to me, and willing to live with and work with the opposition should my candidates fail. It scares me to think that I might be in the minority in this regard.

3. Are cats supposed to like olives? Because Ladyjane the Bumblecat with Thumbs is absolutely crazy about them, which I discovered for the first time when she, literally, tried to take one out of my mouth while I was eating it. Here she is in her basket on top of the ‘fridge, trying to figure out how to use her thumbs to work a can opener, to get to the tasty morsels within, as weird as that might be . . .

 

I Can Has Can-Opener?