Monday, August 17, 2009

Book review: My So-Called Punk, by Matt Diehl

Text by Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

My So-Called Punk: Green Day, Fall Out Boy, the Distillers, Bad Religion – How neo-punk stage-dived into the mainstream by Matt Diehl (St. Martin’s Press, NY), 2007.

Music writer and historian Matt Diehl has covered many music-related topics in his long history of being published by mainstream press, so it seems fitting for him to cover how punk gained its foot into that very arena.

Diehl quite wisely posits that punk actually entered the public day-to-day consciousness not as widely stated with Nirvana and “the year that punk broke” in 1991, but rather with the rise of groups like Rancid, the Offspring, and especially Green Day, in 1994.

In the first half of the book, through interviews with some of the top players and his own interpretations, he shows step-by-step how these and other bands grew out of the indie recording scene and made the jump onto major labels and radio/television (e.g., MTV). He quotes members of some of the top bands, indie labels, Suicide Girls, and even some of said major marketers.

The second half discusses some of the implications of these moves, including the question of selling out (such as in a well-pointed section titled “In Pop Punk, Success Will Be Thine Epitaph”), the consequence of the Internet on both the indie and majors, politicizing of the music, sexuality and neo-punk through an extended look at the Suicide Girls, gay issues, and whether punk is “dead,” or not. In one section on religion entering the scene, such as Christian punkers like MxPx, Diehl states quite wisely (and correctly), “Neo-punk’s embrace of Christianity suggest, in fact, that punk now mirrors cultural trends and social mores more than it necessarily critiques them. In this way, the punk scene has become a microcosm of society rather than a subcultural response to it.”

Altogether, this is an interesting look at a segment that has plagued me for a long time, i.e., I’m not sure I would consider some of the bands he calls “neo-punk” any kind of punk, such as Fall Out Boy, Queens of the Stone Age, or, to some extent, Green Day, any more than, say, Avril Lavigne). However, he also make it quite clear that my impression is not uncommon, and he refers to the “what is punk?” question with the vagueness that the question deserves (I am old enough to remember before punk was codified).

Another point Diehl deals with is the “punk is dead,” which, again, he smartly states, “Still, nobody can even agree on what punk is. Even today, punk holds many forms, all in dispute…while there may be some very good books on the topic, there can be no complete, utterly definitive history of this genre…Punk is a great national treasure gone international, a distinctly American art form that has evolved into the world’s loud, fast lingua franca. Behind jazz, blues, and rock and roll, punk rock is one of America’s great contributions of culture everywhere.”

So, I say if us old school punkers need some filler as to what has been going on (my own weakness is that I almost never follow what’s going on with mainstream music, and nearly only listen to indie music, no matter what the genre), this is a good primer to the goings on.

That being said, there are some comments that need to be made that I found troubling. Mainly, the man needs a better editor. Beyond the usual typos that plague most books these days (book companies need to rely on more than just Spell Checker; an example from page 166: “stats Lawrence Livermore,” rather than “states”), there are too many grammatical errors to be comfortable. Diehl has a tendency to use redundant words within sentences which is clumsy to read and, well, for nit pickers like me, distracting and annoying. Some examples include: “…whose bands include bands like…” (180); “Gurewitz in fact sees what he does as an alternative to major label corporate culture, which he sees…” (158); and starting two paragraphs in a row with “’Gypsy Rose Lee,’ meanwhile…” and “’The Blackest Years,’ meanwhile…” (108) (italics mine).

There is also a level of redundancy in subjects and text that could easily be cleaned up by good stewardship. There are many topics that are either covered a number of times in similar ways, or there is an overuse of expository explanations (i.e., “Fat Mike” nearly always followed by “of Fat Wreck Chords”). It seems as though each subchapter is its own piece of writing and it was stitched together. Again, and editor can deal with this to help the pieces flow together.

Brody Dalle, the Distillers
My biggest problem here, though, is with the Distillers. Well, not with the group itself, but Diehl’s absolute love of them. He gives the history of either the band or specifically its singer, Brody Dalle, at least two or three times, and that’sbefore he devotes an entire chapter to her/them (the only band that gets a full portion of the book). It is so obvious he has a major crush on her (“And in Dalle, the Distillers have a front person so compelling she rises above genre constraints…an utterly distinctive, beguiling expressive vocal style,” 91). Personally, I’d rather read about bands that I felt were more punk/less pseudo-metal, like Babes in Toyland, who could punk the fuck out of the Distillers.

Nearly all writers need an editor (to which I am included), and Diehl is surely no exception; he deserves that much. That being said, I am still happy to have read this book, and yes, I would recommend it to those wondering what the hell happened to make punk populist in the post-grunge era.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Spontaneous Combustion at Saskatoon's Le Relais Centre, Aug 14, 2009

Text and photos (c) Robert Barry Francos

Other than Sunny Rollins at the Saskatoon Jazz Festival, I have not had a chance to see live music since moving away from New York. Thanks to an invitation, I found myself in the downtown area at the Le Relais Centre, on 4th Avenue N, on August 14, 2009.

The lower floor of Le Relais is essential a big room, which had a series of (appx) 6'x3' wooden boards that made up the stage, with rented speakers and sound system that so reminded me of many of the shows I've seen in Brooklyn over the past few years. Similarly, this was a showcase put together by a group called the Possessed, who also closed the show. More on them later.

Moxon Quartet

First up was the Moxon Quartet, who were a trio this eve. All of their jazz-fusion is made up on the spot, but the group plays together so well, it almost seemed to be rehearsed. The keyboardist, Ray, posited that they "have been playing so often together the last few years that we’re comfortable enough to improvise music in response to what the other players are doing in the moment. It’s a bit like not knowing where you’re headed in your car but somehow arriving at your destination all the same!" Guitarist Lee called out for words from the audience to which to give them a direction, some of which included "duck," "rain" and "basement." One of the interesting aspects of it all was the physical language of Duane, the drummer. Sometimes he would turn his back on the particular part of the kit he was playing; other times he'd use his hands rather than sticks, and he also play the instrument in innovative ways, like using the edge of the cymbal, or the stands. It was, needless to say, very eclectic, but also cohesive. Miles would be proud, I would think.

Jeff Morton and Susu Robin

Next were the duo of Jeff Morton and Susu Robin, up from Regina. Using refurbished organs (including a Wurlitzer), found objects, a simple snare drum, and tambourine, they played standards by the likes of Billy Holiday, Cole Porter, and Bobby Hebb's "Sunny." However, they also did an improvisational take on them, plunking away at the keyboard and drums, changing rhythms and timbre to make it unique, but still recognizable. Jeff was more of the "plunker" as he did instrumentals, and occasionally Susu would play the keys closer to true (and yet not) versions, singing with a lazy-yet-sexy way reminiscent of Billy Holliday or Danielle Brancaccio (of Staten Island, NY-based Professor & Maryanne). Her vocals were very well received by the appreciative audience. One moment I thought weird was when Jeff and Susu announced that they had never actually heard a song they performed, "You'll Never Walk Alone," done by anyone else. Do they have the Jerry Lewis Telethon up here? And what about Gerry & the Pacemakers' or even Elvis's version? Maybe it part of what gives them their unique "flavor." It was an enjoyable set.

The Possessed

Last up were the sponsors of the gathering, The Possessed. This sextet included two guitars, a bass, keyboardist, banjo player, and drummer. The bassist commented that their sound has been described as a cross between Rush and Chick Correa, but I believe it would be better described simply as "astral," and reminded me a bit, at times, of either the early Velvet Underground or Red Crayola (specifically with the Familiar Ugly, on The Parable of Arable Land release). The clearest instrument was the banjo, which was used as part of the rhythm section. In fact, one may argue, that many of the instruments were used in ways that one would not expect, especially the guitars. One guitarist sat on the ground at the far right, using her strings as some kind of synthesizer sound by playing with the speaker and a piece of hand-held electronics with which I'm not familiar. The other guitarist also remained on the ground, but she gravitated around it, using her body, a number of metal instruments, and kitchen devices to produce, well, noise of varying types. Mostly this felt like what many in the '60s used for zoning out while using pharmaceuticals, and towards the end, when everything went wild and distortion ruled, it leaned more towards Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. Nice to see that tradition carry forward.

One aspect of the evening of which I was well aware was that these were three experimental bands, and yet each filled its own genre, none treading on the others. It was a nice choice of across-the-board-ness by the organizers. This felt like the beginning of entering into a new music scene that is vibrant and certainly not static.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Dream Over August 5-6, 2009

Text by Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet (To Come)

The days go on, and more boxes get unpacked, but there are still so much to do. We finally moved into our house proper, cats ‘n all, and we’re adjusting to our new life. Meanwhile, I had this dream that makes no sense to me…As a passenger in a car filled with friends, I arrive at a complex of small theaters, much like a Cineplex, except it is for live performances. It may be New York City, as I am assuming it is, since it is bright with multiple neon signs.

[Kristin Chenoweth]
By the time I get out of the car, all my pals have run off to the play, as we are approaching being late. Meanwhile, I’m not even sure which of the multiple theaters I am supposed to be in, as my friends have my ticket. I see an usher and walk over to her. Seems the attendant is Kristin Chenoweth. There is even more confusion on my part to the whole experience wondering why the star of the show Wicked, and television programs like The Left Wing and Pushing Daisies is working as an usher, but I don’t’ have the time to ask; instead I tell her of my plight of being lost. She tells me to wait and she will see if she can find out where I should be. Kristin is highly energized and bubbly in the dream-state.

[Susan Lucci]
Shortly (both in time and stature), she comes back happily stating that she now knows what show I’m supposed to be seeing. It is a one-woman musical show staring Susan Lucci. Truthfully, I never watched General Hospital and Lucci does not really mean anything to me, but theater is theater.

As we approach the space, Kristen leaves me in the hands of two ushers attached to the specific performance. They tell me to wait outside in the lobby until there is a break when it is okay to go in, but they seem confused about when, the procedure to enter. I’m thinking, “Surely I’m not the first person to arrive lake to this show; how could they not?”

I’m standing in the back, with the ushers on either side to make sure I don’t enter without permission. The doors into the theater proper look like the twin swinging doors into a restaurant kitchen, with windows in each about head high. Looking through the glass, I see the theater is pretty small, holding around 50 people; it is set up something like a church with rows of pews with a single aisle down the center, but there is a long table in front of everyone, rather than where the hymnal books would go. At the head of the aisle on the wall is a large stained glass “window,” and in the front of it, in preacher’s robes and a tall chef’s hat, is not Susan Lucci, but rather Andie McDowell! Again, I’m not a fan of hers, though she was okay in Groundhog Day.

[Andie McDowell]
McDowell is singing standards in a chanteuse style (and not altogether on key), though I don’t remember which songs., while serving food to the audience. Each dish ties in with what she is singing. There I am stuck outside, looking in, feeling resentful. I can see the one empty seat where I shout be sitting, but the ushers will not let me in until they deem it is okay to do so.

After around three songs/courses, McDowell goes off the stage to get the next food group, and I think, “Now is the time!” and look around to see the ushers are nowhere to be found. Damn!

I’m about to push the door open, when I see a side door open and a burly man sneaks into the theater and takes my seat, just as McDowell returns with her arms full of food, and singing a cheering song.

“Shit, I am so screwed,” I’m thinking and am ready to go ask for my money back, but realize it may be a problem as I still do not have my ticket on me.

That is the point when I wake up.

Any ideas?