Sunday, January 04, 2009

list five new bands

Last night my old roommate Steve said that legacy music is crowding out anything new, that new bands don’t stand a chance in our content-saturated world.

I didn’t know what to say. Silently I tried to list five new bands—bands that’d appeared on the scene in the last five years—and I couldn’t do it.

I felt so out of it.

Oh, I can conjure up a pop music princess or two—foxy little Miley Cyrus comes to mind—and rappers with clever names and sidearms. There’s 50 Cent and Eminem. Then there’s Amy Winehouse, who in spite of her obvious talent is best known for her tats and her ability to make a spectacle of herself. How about Gnarls Barkley—that’s two people, almost a band, although I wouldn’t be able to pick out a Gnarls Barkley tune from the shuffle on the average iPod Touch.

What I mean is, even if I can scrape together the names, I don’t actually spend much time listening to their music and probably won't be able to come up with a song. And I think Steve was referring to a rather more specific genre of music, one in which there’d be a bass player and a guitarist and perhaps a drummer or two.

You know: a band.

The four of us were sitting together at Steve and Kathy’s dining room table, me and my three old Mentor Street roommates. Steve, Kathy, Chris, and I. Here it was, the waning hours of 2008 and we were talking about music. Just like we did almost every evening those decades ago when we were roommates.

Music was the backbone of our lives back then.

I remember falling asleep in my room on a rainy Pasadena night long ago. Steve was playing his guitar in our dining room. He was singing too. He had a pleasant, reedy voice and he could play the guitar very well. The rain was pattering on the roof and on my windows, which were just two pieces of glass that slid in a wooden track. Every so often raindrops would sputter in where the panes of glass met.

It’s hard to feel any more secure or happier than that. I was 20 years old.

We’re quite a bit older now, graying even, but I had a suspicion that Steve—or Kathy or Chris—could name five new-ish bands if they wanted to, without even straining. Five bands Steve had discovered through MySpace, or had seen serendipitously at some club in San Francisco.

Even the newer bands that crossed my mind weren’t new enough. I knew Steve and Kathy had just seen the Mermen, a band I think I like too, but they don’t count as new. Haven’t they been around since the late 1980s?

It’s not just the bands. I can’t name very many local clubs, although there are at least a dozen within walking distance from our house.

Chris has an excuse. He books real acts for a well-known cultural venue in LA and has done so since we were roommates. He’s familiar with other genres. With classical music. With avant garde. With Celtic music. I recall, with no small amount of gratitude, the tickets he’d pull for me, tickets for great seats. Tickets for sold-out shows.

Wasn’t it because of Chris that over the course of three consecutive evenings in the early 1980s I’d seen Lou Reed, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen in concert? Didn’t we fly up to San Francisco together to go to a Hot Tuna show, killing time in the iconographic bar at LAX while we waited for our much-delayed flight, drinking pina coladas because Warren Zevon happened to use that drink as a prop in Werewolves of London?

Because the Chronicle’s Pink Section, the one with the entertainment listings, has three crossword puzzles, a cryptogram, a jumbo Sudoku, a jumble, and a number puzzle, I sometimes remember to check who is playing where and to read the reviews of a show or two. The problem is, I save the puzzles, so usually by the time I get around to paging through the Pink Section, the bands have played and moved on to the next city on their tour.

But even the Pink Section names don’t leap to the tip of my tongue. The occasional brush with a publicity flyer or a club ad isn’t enough to fix the names securely in my mind.

Yeah, I remember a few local acts, the ones that offer a mnemonic, the bands I’ve seen performing on floats at the Pride parade. Mandonna ("The All-Male, All-Live Tribute to the Queen of Pop") or The Cinnamon Girls (an all-bear Neil Young cover band that Yoram took me to see at The Eagle). Or Three Day Stubble, a bizarre geek band that’s been around for a quarter of a century.

Not new.

When I was a little kid, I was amazed that my parents didn’t seem to listen to music. In our undisturbed living room, they’d parked a big mid-century hi-fi in a Danish modern teak cabinet. The centerpiece of the hi-fi was a reel-to-reel tape deck, which even then wasn’t that common. There was probably a turntable involved with this setup too, because my folks owned five or six stereo albums. Nat King Cole. Tony Bennett. Mantovani. A tape of Lenny Bruce live at the Hungry i, which was the only thing I’d even tried to listen to.

My parents never listened to the records or the tapes. Nor did I, because I had my own record player upstairs, a Decca, that I played monaural Beatles records on, over and over, until they developed skips and pops that I associate with the Beatles to this day.

Hel—you can I’m feel—down and I do appreciate—round. Just like that.

Later, when I was in college, I helped my parents pick out some new stereo components for the den. A Pioneer turntable. A receiver. Some speakers. I even lent them some records, the Simon and Garfunkel albums that I’d bought in junior high, but had decided were pretentious and embarrassing by the time I got to high school. But they really needed something to play on the stereo. Something. Something was better than nothing.

I didn’t expect them to listen to the Ramones or develop a taste for the Jim Carroll Band.

Not only did I leave my Simon and Garfunkel at home; I also left the Mamas and Papas and Buffalo Springfield, all the recordings I thought they’d find palatable at their advanced age. Melodic things. Stuff I’d abandoned, but nothing unspeakably horrible. They could develop their musical sensibilities.

I came home to find my mom listening to KNX News Radio (“All news, all the time”) using the new receiver. I was appalled.

“You got this new stereo and you’re listening to AM radio?” I asked, incredulous. “AM RADIO?”

AM radio. Not music, just newsmen with smooth unaccented homogenous voices. Unimaginable.

I’m loath to admit to Steve, Kathy, and Chris that I’m that unimaginable person now with no musical taste.

I can keep up with the conversation about what Steve’s calling ‘legacy bands’. It’s not that I’ve listened to any of them recently; it’s just that I can remember some of the music.

“I never saw the Rolling Stones,” I offer, unsure of whether that’s good or bad.

In the hierarchy of musical experiences, there are some things that are unambiguously good: say, seeing Nirvana play in a small club in Seattle. Catching the New York Dolls at Max’s Kansas City. And there are other things that you just know you want to have expunged from your musical permanent record: anything to do with David Lee Roth. Bob Dylan in the late 1970s, when he was in his Jews for Jesus phase. And there are some things that I’m just not sure about.

“I’ve seen the Stones—“ Chris stops to count. “Four times. The last time wasn’t worth it. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were old and just a parody of themselves. But the first time was in 1975. They were just incredible.”

As long as we stick to the far distant past, I can dredge up some comparable experiences. But no-one wants to hear another joke about Keith Richards being the work of a particularly talented and ambitious embalmer. I’m tempted to talk about the time Rock Howard and I saw the Monkees at Disneyland: a show that’s so bad it’s good.

No-one says much about that sacred cow of bands, the Grateful Dead, even though they figured prominently in our lives at Mentor House. Deadheads would camp out in the living room when the Dead were in town, running up thousand dollar phone bills and leaving wafting clouds of patchouli hovering over our beanbag chair. One winter we decamped to San Bernardino, Bakersfield, Sacramento, following the band northward through the center of California and keeping a cold virus alive among us for the entire season. We thrilled to the knowledge that the band had the same rhinovirus we did.

“That liver transplant guy,” Chris says now, referring to Phil Lesh.

Like David Lee Roth, Phil Lesh falls into the unambiguously bad musical experiences. We all dutifully chime in something about Phil Lesh. That Phil’s side projects had always been lame. Someone remembers the name of an unlistenable song he recorded in 1974.

We still refer to him as Phil, as if he were someone’s older brother’s best friend whose dubious musical taste was some kind of inside joke. That somebody’d snort every time the name was mentioned.

Phil. Snort. Phil. Snort.

Have you ever noticed that most peoples’ musical taste is enmired in whatever they listened to in college? Whatever they blasted out their dorm windows on sunny afternoons when their classmates were basking on the lawn?

That’s what I’m afraid of.

You can find these people everywhere: the biker whose bell-bottoms date back to the 1970s listening to the Doobie Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd on the juke box. “Play Free Bird” they yell at the cover band playing at the neighborhood dive bar. “Play Free Bird!” And you almost expect them to hold up their lit cigarette lighters as if they had been transported in time and space back to the Inglewood Forum.

Oh, most people are more discreet than that, but if you catch the distant jangle of their cell phone ring tone, it’ll give them away every time.

“Isn’t that Smoke on the Water?” you ask a co-worker suspiciously.

Marcia’s phone plays Hey Jude. I can hear strains of Beatle coming from her purse.

I still have a sagging shelf of vinyl records: Allman Brothers, Clash, Dead Kennedys, Jimmy Cliff, the Doors, the Cramps. Utterly predictable. The bursar must’ve issued the darned things on registration day.

I never bothered to convert the vinyl to CDs, so my tiny CD collection is a testament to how little I’ve expanded my musical repertoire in recent years. Stereo Total and Shonen Knife. Beck. The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

I might as well have been in a musical coma for the last decade or two.

How could that be? My MP3 player is my constant companion. Whenever I walk alone or drive alone, I’ve got those dorky ill-fitting ear buds jammed into my ears. The music files are, of course, invisible, since there’s no album covers or jewel cases on my shelves to represent them, just a couple of folders in my file system (and who besides me rummages through peoples’ file systems?).

Fooled you!

I’m not listening to music at all. Rather I’m one of those people who listen to a chaotic, ever-expanding collection of podcast subscriptions. Amateur natterers and small-time philosophizers. Chroniclers of the local bars and Chick-a-fils (or is that Chick-fil-As?). But they seldom play music. And when they do, I fast forward through it to get back to the words, because these podcasters seem to have execrable taste in music. One of them plays Barbara Streisand on purpose, for godssakes. I didn’t know anyone actually listened to Barbara Streisand. I thought she was like Stairway to Heaven—iconic and seriously dreadful.

You’d be better off with Lawrence Welk, his accordion and bubble machine, and his band full of “fine family men”.

When I admit to my friends that I don’t listen to music very often, Mark usually adds, “You can blame it on me. It’s because I can’t stand the music you listen to.”

It’s true that he can’t abide by my taste in music, as stuck in the past as it is. He gets cranky when I put X on the car CD player when we’re on road trips.

“It’s not your fault,” I tell him. “Don’t you think I could put it on my earPod? You wouldn’t have to listen to it then.”

I mean, I could even listen to the soundtrack from Bye Bye Birdie on my MP3 player, and no-one’d be the wiser.

For one term in college I lived across the hall from this guy named Ed Bielecki. Like my parents, he had a reel-to-reel tape deck. But unlike my parents, he used it, and used it often. He played theme songs, hit singles, and commercial jingles in heavy rotation—Gilligan’s Island, the Andy Griffith Show, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction. He’d turn up the volume. And sometimes he’d leave, and leave the tape deck running. He locked his door and left.

Cause we gotta little ol' convoy,
rockin' through the night
Yeah we gotta little ol' convoy,
ain't she a beautiful sight?
Come on an' join our convoy,
ain't nothin' gonna git in our way
We're gonna roll this truckin' convoy,
cross the USA
Convoy... Convoy...

It must’ve been a tape loop. It’d repeat for hours. I banged on his wall with a metal cookie sheet, but he couldn’t hear it. The music was just too loud.

The mate was a mighty sailing man,
The skipper brave and sure.
Five passengers set sail that day
For a three hour tour, a three hour tour.

I wonder if he still listens to the same music he listened to in college. Or has he moved on? There’ve been plenty of jingles and theme songs between then and now. Maybe he’s full of secret regrets.

It’s late now. Steve, Kathy, Chris, and I have been drinking from two bottles of single-malt scotch.

“I didn’t like Stairway to Heaven even back then,” Steve says.

“I didn’t either,” I say.