Monday, October 28, 2013

Adrian's Summer/Fall Concert Blitz, Part 9: Ian Anderson, Pantages Theater, Tacoma, WA, 10/27/13

Oscar Choice: "I tell you one thing that really drives me nuts, is people who think that Jethro Tull is just a person in a band."
NASA psychologist: "Who's Jethro Tull?"
-- From the movie Armageddon
Ian Anderson -- singer, lyricist, flautist, acoustic guitarist, and all-around mad genius behind Jethro Tull -- has been out touring his latest solo album for a while now, and his show finally made its way to the Seattle area this past weekend. The funny thing is, the solo album is a sequel to a Jethro Tull album. So when is Tull not Tull? Apparently when Ian Anderson says so.

As fans know, Jethro Tull has always been a revolving door of musicians, with only two mainstays: Ian, who's been there from the beginning, and guitarist Martin Barre, who's been there since the second album, Stand Up, in 1969. Martin isn't on this tour and didn't appear on the album, so perhaps Ian put aside the band name in deference to him. Will Ian ever perform as Jethro Tull again? I have no idea, and if not, I'll be disappointed that I never got to see them perform. But this show was certainly the next best thing.

In 2012, Ian decided to take the classic 1972 Tull album Thick As a Brick and fashion a sequel, Thick As a Brick 2. Both albums are being performed in their entirely on this tour. Each one is an album-length song. With an encore of the Tull classic "Locomotive Breath" included, there were a total of three songs performed at this nearly three-hour show. Good thing there was a lot of excellent music going on the whole time.

For the uninitiated, Thick As a Brick was written as a send-up of progressive-rock concept albums, at a time when such things ruled the world of rock music. The subject of the album was a precocious English schoolboy named Gerald Bostock, and the album's lyrics are intended to be a recitation of his controversial epic-length poem that caused the adults around him to question his psychological stability. Despite its intention as a parody, the album ended up being one of the strongest, and certainly most adventurous, of Tull's career. To a great extent, Ian Anderson beat the proggers of the day at their own game.

Over the years, Ian had often been asked what he thought might have happened to young Gerald when he grew up. So on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the original album, Ian wrote Thick As a Brick 2. But instead of spelling out a single narrative for us, Ian instead wrote a piece that ruminates on how the choices we make in life can lead us on markedly different paths. Consequently, Gerald Bostock's life was speculated to have taken one of five various turns, depending on the decisions he'd made. He may have ended up as a banker, a shopkeeper, a preacher, a soldier, or a gay man who was rejected by his family and became homeless. The twist to the story is that every path ended up sad, with Gerald either alone, disgraced, or carrying out a mundane existence that never quite lived up to expectations. Poor little Gerald.

I'd never seen either Tull or Ian live, but I'd heard how fun the shows could be, and the performance at the Pantages Theater in Tacoma -- a beautiful old venue in itself -- did not disappoint.

But one thing you have to know before you attend an Ian/Tull show is that Ian's voice is in a bad way. If you know this going in, you can prepare yourself for it, but otherwise I'm certain it would come as quite a shock. He still has loads of energy and enthusiasm, and he can still stand on one leg and make a flute rock like nobody's business. He has a very British sense of humor that keeps him from ever taking himself too seriously. He has a flair for the dramatic, with sweeping hand and body gestures to embellish the music and a bug-eyed intensity that lets you know he's totally into his performance. And his appearance has him perfectly playing the part that his music conveys. If amplifiers had been around in medieval England, a band like Jethro Tull would have been the stars of the kingdom -- and with his paisley vest over a white shirt and a black bandanna on his head, Ian either looks like a wandering minstrel or a pirate who's lost his parrot. It's hard not to love the guy.

But his voice is almost painful to listen to. He's lost most of the range he sang with on Tull's classic albums, and on this night, he croaked his way through the first Thick As a Brick album with what sounded like a very strained and taxing effort -- as if he was pushing with all his might and the notes just didn't come out the way they should have. I saw him stretch onto his tiptoes several times in a mighty effort to hit some of the higher notes. He even spoke his way through one section, not even trying to hit the notes. Imagine someone who's just getting over a bad case of laryngitis, and you have an idea of what Ian sounds like when he's singing. Age takes its toll, and it's taken a particularly hard toll on Ian's voice.

But bless his heart, Ian seems to have come up with a brilliant solution, in the form of Ryan O'Donnell. Ryan is a young guy with blue eyes and curly brown hair who nearly stole the show. As befits a Tull/Ian Anderson show, Ryan spent the first half of the concert jumping around the stage in a sort of harlequin's outfit, minus the jester cap, but with a cane that served as a versatile prop -- at times a sword, a cello, an oar, a second flute. Ryan added to the theatrical feel of the show, and at times he doubled Ian's moves around the stage -- but the stroke of genius is that Ryan sang in Ian's place for easily half of Thick As a Brick. It was obvious that Ian wanted to save some vocal lines for himself, but when Ryan took over, it elevated the show to another level. He was fantastic. Even better, his singing freed Ian up to do more flute playing, which was a very good thing indeed. Watching Ian prance around the stage while he played his flute was one of the highlights of the whole show.

Ryan had much less to do on Thick As a Brick 2, which Ian wrote with his current vocal limitations in mind, but he did make appearances as two of Gerald Bostock's possible professions -- dressed in a suit and bowler hat as the banker, and in black robes as the preacher.

Both parts of Thick came off very nicely, thanks to a well-oiled band that was able to navigate the music's many twists and turns with seeming ease. And just to remind us all that Ian Anderson never really took this whole prog-rock thing very seriously, he punctuated the evening with lots of humorous moments. The show began with five men walking around onstage in flat caps and dingy orange overcoats, armed with brooms and dusters to clean up their surroundings. Turned out the cleaning crew was the band, minus Ian, which we found out as they threw off their costumes and headed to their instruments. Another moment had Ian interrupting the performance with a phone call from violinist Anna Phoebe, who ended up "calling back" by way of a performance over a fake Skype connection. During the intermission was an equally phony YouTube video from one Archibald Parritt (a.k.a. Ian himself), giving us a tour of his estate in St. Cleve -- the fictional English city where Gerald Bostock lived as a child, you see -- before introducing the band on its return to the stage to perform Thick 2. And finally, the "Aqualung" character made a cameo during the show, walking across the back of the stage in full scuba gear.

But the funniest moment involved a prostate-exam PSA between the two "sides" of the original Thick album. (You know, back when we had albums that we had to turn over halfway through.) Ian invited a "patient" onstage (actually the guy who ran his merchandise table), along with someone who volunteered to be the "doctor," complete with latex gloves. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when the two of them walked offstage to do the "exam" -- but we did get to see a cartoon version taking place behind a "modesty screen." Funny stuff, but Ian seemed dead serious about reminding all us men in the audience to get our yearly exams.

Anyway, the end result of all the tomfoolery was that the show felt like half a rock concert, and half a weird Monty Python skit. And that just made the whole thing all the more endearing.

The audience greeted Thick 2 with great enthusiasm, which was a pleasure to see. I've been to shows where a classic artist tries to lay some new music on the crowd and gets a tepid response at best. But the band really brought the best out of the music. As someone who felt the performance sounded a bit lifeless in spots on the Thick 2 album, this show brought the piece to life in a way I hadn't expected. I still think the sequel meanders a bit toward the end, but for the most part it's a worthy follow-up to a legendary album. There are just enough motifs borrowed from the first Thick album to give the two pieces some musical commonality, but not so much that Thick 2 ever becomes a pastiche. It stands fairly well on its own. Ian succeeded in writing a quite tasteful follow-up.

And it's probably something he only could have written at this stage of his life. The first album is full of fire and manic energy, which only a young, ambitious man could have achieved. Forty years on, we get a second album that still rocks, but in a more subdued way, with an abundance of musical and lyrical passages that take on a reflective mood -- as you might expect from a man in his 60s, perhaps looking back on his own life and career as well as that of his fictional character. To that end, it was a job well done. And even if Ian is losing his singing voice, he has nothing to hang his head about as his career winds down. He's given us a lifetime's worth of memorable music, and for that alone, I'm grateful to him. I have to say I also have immense respect for a guy who knows his current limitations and doesn't let his ego get in the way of bringing on someone else who can help shoulder the load. Even if Ian someday can no longer sing, his vocals will be in great hands with Ryan O'Donnell.

"Really don't mind if you sit this one out," Ian sings to open the original Thick As a Brick. But I can say I'm really glad I didn't choose to sit this one out. This show was one of the highlights among all the concerts I've attended this year, with only one more to go. I was pleasantly surprised by just how good it was. Well done, Mr. Anderson, and thank you.


Thick As a Brick
Thick As a Brick 2


Locomotive Breath

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Future of Music and the Double-Edged Sword of Technology

I've come to the conclusion that the Internet is simultaneously the best and worst thing to ever happen to humanity.
The good stuff is really good. Just think about what we can do today, thanks to technology. It's amazing that we can instantly connect with other people anywhere around the world at any time. It's nearly mind-blowing that I have practically the entirety of human knowledge at my fingertips, available for me to pull up whenever I want. These kinds of things were unthinkable just 25 short years ago. I'm only in my 40s, but I can remember a world with no cell phones, no social media, no home computers, no 24-hour news cycle, and only the few TV channels you could pull in from the antenna on the roof of the house. The Atari 2600 was cutting-edge technology when I was a kid. We've advanced so far in such a short amount of time that those old days seem like the stone age, as far removed as the horse and buggy is from space flight.

Even when I graduated from college in 1994, when the Internet was just starting to come into its own, I never would have believed you if you'd told me that one day I'd be working in real time, on a computer, from the comfort of my home, for a client 2,700 miles away, and making a living at it.

All of this is absolutely nuts. It's the stuff of science fiction. But we take it all for granted and can't really imagine a world without it anymore.

But then there's the bad stuff. The Internet can instantly disseminate faulty information far and wide, and fighting the bad info once it's reached critical mass is awfully hard to do sometimes. The Net also affords us the anonymity to be nasty to other people in a way we'd never dream of doing in real life. And it can stifle social interaction and alienate us from each other. I often see people clustered together at a local bus stop, but where they might have once tried talking with each other, now they're all doing what I call the iHunch -- bent over and silently staring into their phones.  

But one of the worst side effects of all this technology, in my view, is how it's changing our entertainment options, particularly music.

I'm not talking just about the inferior sound quality of MP3s, or the death of record stores, or the inevitable demise of a tangible product I can hold in my hands. Those are all things that matter to me, certainly, but it's the changing attitudes toward music that give me pause.

I got to thinking about this after recently reading some comments about the state of the music industry from two of its members: David Byrne of the Talking Heads, and Steve Lukather, veteran session player probably best known for his work as the guitarist in Toto.

In an interview with the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper, Byrne laments the rise of streaming services, such as Spotify, that have carved out deals with record labels that leave the artists with mere scraps. The way he sees it, the labels and the streaming services are happy with the money they're making, and listeners are happy to be consuming music for almost nothing -- but the musicians, the ones who actually make the product being bought and sold, are left out in the cold.

Here's some of what Byrne had to say:
For many music listeners, the choice is obvious -- why would you ever buy a CD or pay for a download when you can stream your favourite albums and artists either for free, or for a nominal monthly charge?

... The amounts these services pay per stream is miniscule [sic] -- their idea being that if enough people use the service those tiny grains of sand will pile up. ... The major record labels usually siphon off most of this income, and then they dribble about 15-20% of what's left down to their artists. ... Damon Krukowski (Galaxie 500, Damon & Naomi) has published abysmal data on payouts from Pandora and Spotify for his song "Tugboat" and Lowery even wrote a piece entitled "My Song Got Played on Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89, Less Than What I Make from a Single T-shirt Sale!" For a band of four people that makes a 15% royalty from Spotify streams, it would take 236,549,020 streams for each person to earn a minimum wage of $15,080 (£9,435) a year. For perspective, Daft Punk's song of the summer, "Get Lucky", reached 104,760,000 Spotify streams by the end of August: the two Daft Punk guys stand to make somewhere around $13,000 each. Not bad, but remember this is just one song from a lengthy recording that took a lot of time and money to develop. That won't pay their bills if it's their principal source of income. And what happens to the bands who don't have massive international summer hits?

In future, if artists have to rely almost exclusively on the income from these services, they'll be out of work within a year. 
Lukather, in response to a music blogger, made largely the same point, though with a little less articulation and grace:
ALL this pontificating about how Spotify and the like are the 'answer' and how  'the artists get paid' etc.

How much? Really? WHO keeps tabs and accounting?

Maybe I just don't know. I don't see any money and have A LOT of stuff out there over 35 years of making records. 

Have you done the breakdown on what an artist get PER tune on iTunes? Pitiful.
You might think they're both being hypocritical, since both men have surely made a comfortable living in the music industry. But the point they both make is that the world in which they toiled and made a name for themselves -- one in which musicians could actually make a living as musicians -- is vanishing.

And I contend that the world will be much poorer for it if that's so. How many of the musicians who fill our lives with joy would have stuck with their musical endeavors if they had to fit in their music between menial jobs that paid the bills? How many great songs would never have been recorded, or even imagined, if the legends of music had been forced to reduce their passion to a hobby? I realize that's exactly how most musicians start out on their journey, playing at the smoke-filled bar downtown for a few bucks a night, hoping to get that big break. And I'm not saying you can't be a part-time musician and not make great music. In fact, the guys in Echolyn, one of my favorite bands, all have day jobs but have still managed to put out some amazing tunes. Their 2002 album Mei is completely DIY and also one of the most astounding pieces of music I've ever heard.

But that's the exception to the rule. What happens if that brass ring is no longer there to grasp for? What if getting a record deal doesn't mean anything, because you'll get no significant compensation for the streaming of your music, and/or because people are downloading your songs without paying for them? Even Echolyn was motivated in the beginning by getting a major-label deal. They ultimately got one, and it fell apart after one album, but after a hiatus they decided to pick up the pieces and keep moving forward, fitting the band around their everyday lives. But how many artists would do that? If there's no promise of a payoff for all the hard work, a lot of people who could have otherwise brought us some incredible music might just decide to pack it in. If you're young and single with nothing to lose, you might still take a shot at it, but playing for the love of the music only takes you so far if you have a mortgage to pay and kids to feed.

The counterargument tends to go that musicians will just have to rely on concerts and merchandise sales for their revenue. For established artists, that's fine. But for anyone trying to get some traction, how do you get to the point where you can sell enough tickets and T-shirts to make a living? Well, that's where things like the streaming services come in, right? Even if you're not making any money for having your music played, it's still good advertising, isn't it? Byrne addressed that issue, too:
Some artists and indie musicians see Spotify fairly positively -- as a way of getting noticed, of getting your music out there where folks can hear it risk free.  ... Artists often find this discovery argument seductive, but only up to a point. Patrick Carney of Black Keys said in 2011: "For unknown bands and smaller bands, it's a really good thing to get yourself out there. But for a band that makes a living selling music," streaming royalties are "not at a point yet to be feasible for us". How do you make the transition from "I'll give away anything to get noticed" to "Sorry, now you have to pay for my music"? Carney's implied point is important -- the core issue is about sustainability; how can artists survive in the long term beyond that initial surge of interest?
That point becomes even more important when you consider the entitlement attitude of a lot of people who think they shouldn't have to pay for music at all. I've even seen people boasting that they have huge collections of music but never paid a penny for any of it, as if casual theft is something to be proud of. I'd like to think we have more respect for musicians than that. I'd like to think people don't try to justify why they have the right to the fruits of someone else's labor for free. Alas, that's the culture we live in, and I don't see how it's at all sustainable for the musicians. Again from Byrne:
[A]s author Chris Ruen points out in his book Freeloading, if you yourself didn't pay for any of the music by your favourite bands, then don't be surprised if they eventually call it quits for lack of funds. 
Or as Rush so well put it, "You don't get something for nothing."

Lukather thinks part of the problem is that technology has made it too easy for anyone to make music, implying that good artists no longer get a fair hearing. When the labels were the only gatekeeper, he argues, artists had to be good. The labels would put up the money for recording time and promotion and actually made long-term investments in the musicians they signed. Furthermore, he says, the whole system has been reduced to marketing people for the splash they can make in the media, regardless of musical talent:
[T]he media chooses to care more about who is super gluing meat to their bodies and other ridiculous HYPE ... to get attention rather than LISTENING hard to the music being made. 
I think Lukather has a romanticized view of record labels, as if they were ever in it for anything but the money, and I also disagree that the democratization of the music-making process is a bad thing. Lots of great musicians who once upon a time would never have made it past the record-label gatekeepers now get a chance to be heard.

As for pushing image over talent, it's sometimes hard to argue. (Hello, Miley Cyrus.) But image has always been a part of popular music -- otherwise the lads from Liverpool wouldn't have had matching collarless suits and moptop haircuts back in the day. I think the big difference between now and then is that image and talent were once both part of the package. Now, as long as you look good, it seems talent is optional. You can just get auto-tuned in the studio and lip-sync onstage. 

Where I do agree with Lukather is how music seems to have been reduced to a disposable commodity.
[The labels] make 'McRecords' for people who don’t even really listen. It's background music for people to either find a mate or shake their heads while texting or skyping or doing other things. Environmental noise for the multi-tasker. 

Gone are the days of loving, dissecting, discussing the inner workings of  'AN ALBUM' … sitting in silence while it plays .,. looking at the liner notes and the few photo's [sic] IN the studio ... imagining what a magic place it music be to make such music …

To some extent, it has always been thus with popular music. People go bonkers over the latest top-10 hits, they dance to them for a while, and then they move on the next batch of top-10 hits. The big difference today, I think, is that technology is taking away the ritual of immersing oneself in the listening experience. I know what he means when he talks about sitting down with a record, putting it on the player, and then reading the lyrics and liner notes and checking out the band photos and album art while you listen. I used to love doing that. But you can't do it with a bunch of electrons. Feeling a sense of ownership with a piece of physical media, I think, did make the music more personal. We've taken away those LPs, cassettes, and CDs and replaced them with an ephemeral cluster of sound waves that -- thanks to the cloud, YouTube, streaming services, and the like -- may not even reside in your own home. The music is, in a very real sense, not even something you can say you own anymore. 

But in the end, what can we do about any of this? Complaining won't change it, and the technology isn't going away. Even if we could ensure a better financial deal for musicians through the streaming services, and even if we could persuade people to pay for music rather than illegally download it, the fact remains that more artists than ever before can be heard, which means more choices for consumers, which means it becomes harder to generate mass cultural appeal of the type that used to turn out blockbusters and superstars. Having more choices has fragmented our interests into little niches, to the point that we're unlikely to ever see another mass cultural phenomenon like, say, the Beatles. We're not all on the same page anymore, because we don't have to be.

Think about it this way: When the Beatles played for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show, 73 million people watched it on their TVs, out of a U.S. population at the time of about 191 million. That's 38% of the entire population. Today, even with all the hype about the finale of Breaking Bad (at least it seemed like a big deal, if my Facebook feed was any indication, though I admit I don't watch TV), it was seen by around 10.3 million people -- out of a U.S. population of 313 million. That's about 3% of the population. 

It's a far different world from when Beatlemania gripped the nation. And there's no turning back.

Do we music fans face a future in which artists once again have to rely on wealthy benefactors if they want to devote their lives to their passion? Are most musicians doomed to becoming part-time hobbyists?

Musicians have given me so much happiness through the years that I want to reward them for their work. They've been my joy, my comfort, my ticket to new worlds -- my reliable friends. So I'll continue to do my small part, buying records and going to shows. It's all I can do.

In the meantime, maybe it's best to not worry about what's out of our control and simply do as Steve Lukather suggests: "Time to put on Dark Side of the Moon and chill."

On LP, of course.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Jann Wenner's Museum: Such a Strange Preoccupation

This is Wallace. Wallace loves cheese.

Let's say that one day Wallace decides he loves cheese so much that he opens up a museum dedicated to his favorite varieties of coagulated milk curds. He decides to call his museum the Cheese Hall of Fame, and his inaugural inductees include the big names you'd expect in such a place: Cheddar, Brie, Swiss, Gouda, Feta, that kind of thing. Names that few would take issue with. These are the standard-bearers of cheeses.

Every year, Wallace names a new group of cheeses to his hall of fame. Eventually, all of the well-known names have been inducted, and that's when the complaints start rolling in. Cheese fans the world over begin to wonder why their favorite but perhaps less popular varieties haven't been added yet. Still others take issue with some of the varieties that have already been inducted. The firestorm begins.

"Taleggio deserves to be in!"

"This hall of fame is a joke! How can you induct Colby Jack before Monterey Jack? There would be no Co-Jack without Monterey."

"You lost all credibility when you inducted American cheese."

"I'm starting a petition to induct Roquefort. It's a disgrace that you haven't added it yet."

"Chevre? Seriously? What's next, yak cheese?"

"Why do you hate Mizithra? You've inducted every other Greek cheese but this one!"

"Velveeta? Are you kidding me? That's not even a cheese!"

In all their emotional agitation, these outraged turophileshave lost sight of something very important: They're getting all worked up overone person's museum, which that one person just decided to call a hall of fame. Getting their preferred slabs of dairy "inducted" does not imbue them with some sort of magical greatness, just as not getting "inducted" does not constitute a condemnation. All it means is that Wallace likes some cheeses and not others.

You see where I'm going with this, right?

Every year around this time, I see music fans getting similarly riled up over the nominees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Either they think some of the nominees have no business being in the Hall of Fame, or they can't believe their favorite artist has been snubbed once again. And so the petitions begin, while others comfort themselves by saying the Rock Hall long ago lost its credibility when it began inducting artists from some unworthy rock sub-genre, or when it inducted some band ahead of an earlier band without whose influence the inductee would never have existed. The hand-wringing all gets a bit silly. Fans start to sound like the girl who got snubbed by the cute guy and rationalizes it by saying she didn't really want to go to the dance anyway.

This year, my favorite band for the past 30 years, Yes, is a nominee. And I'm supposed to care about this. In fact, I'm supposed to be full of rage that Jann Wenner and his anti-prog cronies continue to carry out their hateful crusade against progressive rock! I'm supposed to stuff the ballot box and ensure that Yes earns its rightful place in the Hall of Fame! I must help right this injustice! It's about time Yes has gotten a nomination, because this has gone on for too long!


There are three things that I think music fans -- and not just Yes fans -- need to keep in mind here.
  • It's not a hall of fame; it's a museum reflecting the tastes of the people who run it.
    Just because Wenner and a few other people opened a building and slapped the name "hall of fame" on it doesn't make it so. Yes, I know, the R&RHOF began taking fan votes in the past few years, but by and large, the artists that have been inducted have continued to come down to the decisions of a small number of board members. The whole thing is little more than an ego trip that buttresses the directors' self-nominated positions as cultural tastemakers. And they're tastemakers only because people let them be so. In other words, the R&RHOF has legitimacy only because people give it legitimacy. Getting so wound up because your favorite band hasn't been inducted just feeds into it.
  • A hall of fame for a subjective artistic pursuit like music is ridiculous.
    Sports halls of fame at least make sense. Sure, there are intangibles in sports -- things like leadership, and a lasting influence on the game. But there are also hard stats, like winning percentages, broken records, playoff appearances, and championships. What kind of stats are you going to use for musicians? Record sales? If that's your barometer, then sure, the Beatles and Elvis would qualify for a music hall of fame, but then so would Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and the Spice Girls.

    Music isn't a popularity contest. It's much more personal than that. One person's "best song ever" is another person's "turn that junk off!" Letting a group of museum directors decree the greatness of one artist, album, or song over another is as silly and pointless as having a committee determine objective rankings for the Mona Lisa, The Birth of Venus, and Starry Night. Or maybe you like that painting of the dogs playing poker better than the Mona Lisa. The point is, it all comes down to personal opinion. And a "hall of fame" built solely on personal opinion is illegitimate on its face. That's not a knock on Wenner et al. as much as it as is the simple reality that trying to place objective rankings on art is a fool's errand.
  • You don't need your musical tastes validated.
    If it bothers you that your favorite artists haven't yet been "inducted," that means that on some level you're worried about the public perception of the music you listen to. The only thing that should matter is whether you like it -- even if no one else in the world does. If I worried about getting other people's validation of the music I like, I wouldn't own two-thirds of my music collection. Getting the R&RHOF's stamp of approval on your music doesn't make it better -- it just means the people who run the R&RHOF deemed it worthy of their consideration. And I don't know about you, but I care about Jann Wenner's opinion of my music about as much as I care about my mechanic's opinion of my music.    
This is not sour grapes. Three of my favorite bands have already been "inducted" in Cleveland -- Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Rush. The thing is, I don't think any more highly of those bands for having been "inducted," and I don't think any less of the artists I like that haven't been "inducted." It simply makes no difference. And I'll never understand why "induction," or lack thereof, is always such a big deal to so many people.

The only music hall of fame that matters is your record collection. The only judge that matters is you. Throw on your favorite album and lose yourself in the music. Because that's what it's all about. Not the awards, not the recognition, not the validation -- but where the music takes you. It can take you on a transcendent journey through space and time … or it can take you to Cleveland.

I don't know about you, but I know which journey I'd pick.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Adrian's Summer/Fall Concert Blitz, Part 8: Chris Cornell, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 10/20/13

Benaroya Hall is the home of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. It's not the first place you'd think of to see a performance by a pop or rock artist, but the SSO has done things like this for quite a while -- presumably to appeal to a wider, and younger, audience than classical-only shows would be able to do.

Chris Cornell took his turn on the stage this past weekend, and although he remarked about how great it was to be back in his hometown and get such a warm reception, he clearly felt a little uneasy in his surroundings. "I feel like we all broke into somebody's parents' living room," he joked -- and he decided that lobbing a few F-bombs and flipping the bird toward the rafters would make him feel more in his element. Whatever works, I guess.

Chris is on his on one-man acoustic tour, performing songs from throughout his career. I love his voice, and I've always found his lyrics intriguing, as they seem to occupy a weird space somewhere between abstract and observational. There's a lot of poignant stuff about the human condition, but also a lot of things like:

In my eyes, indisposed, in disguises no one knows
Hides the face, lies the snake, and the sun in my disgrace

Which sounds great when Chris sings it, but good luck making heads or tails of what "Black Hole Sun" is about. (More on that later.) I remember Johnny Cash once saying that when he covered Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage," he thought the lyrics were some of the most bizarre he was ever given to work with.

But who cares about the lyrics, really, when you have Chris Cornell's amazing voice to listen to for nearly three hours? I mean, seriously, of all the great things to come out of the Seattle grunge scene in the '90s, the greatest of all has to be his voice -- immediately identifiable, with an insane range that can shift from soft, low, and emotive to loud, wild, and shrieking in the blink of an eye. I heard a little bit of a rasp in his voice at this show, and he seemed to strain just a little bit when he tried to belt out a few lines -- but for all the wear and tear he has surely put on his vocal cords over the years, he still sounds fantastic. If he's not 100%, I wouldn't put him below 90%. I noticed that on Soundgarden's King Animal album that came out last year, he sounded a little more reserved and didn't howl as much as he has on past Soundgarden albums. And this acoustic tour can surely give him a bit of a break, too -- after all, it has to be easier to sing over one acoustic guitar than over the roar of a rock band. So he's being smart about preserving his voice. Good for him.

This is the first time I'd seen Chris in any live context, and as I took in some of the excellent tunes from his '90s peak work, including Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog, it made me wish I could have seen him at the height of his fame. Unfortunately, in the '90s I was in a total prog-snob phase and tuned out the grunge revolution completely. Little could I have imagined, as I was walking around the campus of Western Michigan University circa 1994, listening to things like Yes' new Talk album, that someday I'd be living in Chris Cornell's hometown, the epicenter of grunge, and looking forward to seeing him in concert at his homecoming show.

Chris said he hasn't lived in Seattle for about 10 years, and he seemed genuinely humbled by the raucous standing ovation he got as he walked onstage. He said when he was a kid growing up here, he annoyed people and no one could stand him! It wasn't quite a Sally Field "you like me!" moment, but it was nice to see a human and somewhat vulnerable side to a guy who's been a superstar known around the world. It seems success hasn't jaded him. But from some of the comments he made about the rough patch he went through in the late '90s, he may just be happy that he survived, got sober, and is still making music for his fans.

Not that he wasn't above ribbing some of the more enthusiastic and vocal members of the audience throughout the show, but it was all in good fun. One fun example: Early in the show, a woman somewhere shouted out, "I love you, Chris!" Laughs and applause throughout the crowd. Chris smiled and said, "I love you, too!" A moment later, a guy calls out the same thing. Chris looks in his direction and says, "I know you just did that to be ironic, but now all your friends think you're gay."

There was a turntable to one side of the stage, and before Chris came out to start the show, his guitar tech put on a record for us to listen to. It was Hank Williams. "Your Cheatin' Heart," and then "Hey, Good Lookin'." Not what you'd expect at a Chris Cornell show! When Chris walked onto the stage, he lifted the needle, and after saying his hellos, he put on another platter and sang, karaoke style, to an instrumental version of "Silence the Voices," from his solo album Carry On. He described it as a song that asks where the humanity of our leaders goes when they decide to start a war. Powerful stuff to open the show.

After that, Chris grabbed a guitar and weaved his way through his sizable body of work -- sometimes standing before the mic, and other times seated.

Next to him was a table with a red telephone on it. That was odd. Was he expecting a call from the president? Fortunately, someone in the crowd asked him about it, and he told us that it used to belong to Jeff Buckley. Turns out they used to be friends, and somewhere along the way they both discovered that they owned nearly identical red telephones. After Jeff Buckley died, his mother gave the phone to Chris, and he says he's become like a superstitious ball player about it ever since -- it has to be onstage with him, where he admitted he felt a little naked without anyone else up there with him. Obviously, security blankets can take all forms.

About half of the show consisted of solo material, which I admit I'm not as familiar with, but I liked what I heard. I'm so clueless about pop culture that I didn't even know he sang the theme song to the James Bond Casino Royale reboot! He said when he agreed to do the song, called "You Know My Name," everyone just assumed he did it because he was a Bond fan. But for him, he said it was about joining an elite club that Paul McCartney belonged to. When it comes to Bond themes, Chris said, there's Paul McCartney and then there's everybody else. As a huge McCartney fan myself, I can't say I disagree. Sir Paul's performance of "Live and Let Die" this past summer at Safeco Field is ingrained in my mind as one of the greatest performances I've ever seen, at the single best concert I've ever attended.

As for the more familiar material, Chris played five pieces from Soundgarden, six from Audioslave, and three from Temple of the Dog. He had some guest performers along the way, too. Bhi Bhiman, his opening act, accompanied him on "Hunger Strike," singing the parts Eddie Vedder originally handled. Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd came out to perform on "Halfway There" and "Fell on Black Days." (Guitarist Kim Thayil was there, too, and briefly stepped out from the side of the stage to wave at the crowd, at Chris' prompting -- but he didn't play.) Even Chris' guitar tech, Stephen Ferrara, joined in on "Never Far Away," one of Chris' solo pieces.

There were a few cover songs mixed in as well, including two Beatles tunes -- "Dear Prudence" and "A Day in the Life." He also played Mother Love Bone's "Man of Golden Words," the song whose lyrics gave rise to the name of the Temple of the Dog project. And that song, in turn, segued into the chorus from Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." Very nice.

But the strangest cover song, and probably the strangest moment of the show, came when Chris told us the story of how he set out to learn U2's song "One." He said he went online to look up the lyrics, and he started playing the chords to the words, but then he realized that what he was reading wasn't U2's song. It was Metallica's song "One," their brutal, Johnny Got His Gun-inspired antiwar epic. But instead of looking up the U2 lyrics, Chris decided to keep going and created a mashup of the two "Ones." And the morbid Metallica lyrics actually work against the plaintive U2 melody! That was a stroke of accidental genius.

"Black Hole Sun" didn't come around until the encore, but it was worth the wait to hear such a powerful song in such a radically different setting. Grunge unplugged -- it worked for Nirvana back in the day, so why not Soundgarden?

Fun fact: Chris said that the title "Black Hole Sun" came from something he misheard a news anchor say on TV. He didn't elaborate, but he said he got to thinking about what he thought he heard, and he pretty much ended up writing the song on the short drive from Woodinville, an east-side suburb, back to Seattle. Kind of funny, after all the overwrought lyrical interpretations I've seen people giving that song over the years.

Chris closed the show with "Blow Up the Outside World," in tribute to his Soundgarden bandmates. As the song began to wind down, Chris knelt over his effects board and triggered a loop of his guitar and vocals. The loops built on each other, with a layer of distortion and feedback swirling around the whole thing and getting louder and louder. As it all degenerated into a pulsating wall of noise, Chris walked over to the turntable and put Hank Williams back on. He shut off his effects and said goodnight as "Cold Cold Heart" began, its crackly, ancient-sounding fiddles and steel guitars standing in sharp contrast to the cacophony that had just been ringing through the auditorium. 

And that was that! An abrupt ending to two hours and 45 minutes of outstanding music. I hope I get a chance to see Chris performing with Soundgarden one day, but until then, this show left me with one poignant line from "Black Hole Sun" running through my head:

No one sings like you anymore.

Well done, Mr. Cornell. You did your hometown proud.


Silence the Voices (solo)
Scar on the Sky (solo)
You Know My Name (solo)
Dandelion (Audioslave)
Cleaning My Gun (solo)
Sunshower (solo)
Original Fire (Audioslave)
#1 Zero (Audioslave)
Halfway There (Soundgarden) w/Ben Shepherd
Fell on Black Days (Soundgarden) w/Ben Shepherd
Seasons (solo)
The Day I Tried to Live (Soundgarden)
One (cover)
When I'm Down (solo)
Man of Golden Words (cover) / Comfortably Numb chorus
Wooden Jesus (Temple of the Dog)
Call Me a Dog (Temple of the Dog)
Hunger Strike (Temple of the Dog) w/Bhi Bhiman
Dear Prudence (cover)
Never Far Away (solo) w/Stephen Ferrara
I Am the Highway (Audioslave)
Doesn't Remind Me (Audioslave)
A Day in the Life (cover)


Misery Chain (solo)
Like a Stone (Audioslave)
Can't Change Me (solo)
Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden)
Blow Up the Outside World (Soundgarden)

Monday, October 14, 2013

Goodbye, Columbus Day

Russell Means is a hero of mine. A lot of people know him from his acting career, most notably in the role of Chingachgook in Last of the Mohicans. But before that, he was an activist for American Indians.

I have some Cherokee and Blackfoot ancestry -- not a lot, but at least probably more than Elizabeth Warren -- so the history and the plight of the Indians have always been of interest to me. They're largely a forgotten minority in the United States, even though they've suffered through terrible tragedies and injustices since the first invaders set foot on their lands. And that's why I'm glad there have been people like Russell Means, a warrior in every sense of the word, to stand up for them.

Not content to live as a broken spirit on a reservation, where he saw his people living in squalor, slaves to addiction and reduced to living on meager handouts from an indifferent government, Means led demonstrations and occupations at Wounded Knee, Mount Rushmore, Alcatraz, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs office, both to bring attention to the plight of Indians and to shake up the often-corrupt tribal bureaucracies themselves. Whether his activism helped or hurt his cause is up for history to judge, but his bravery and determination were never in question.

Means died last year, but not before leaving behind a proud legacy. The Oglala Lakota was the first national director of the American Indian Movement, and it was with the Colorado AIM that he set out in 1992 to shut down Denver's Columbus Day parade on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of the Western Hemisphere. Means told the story of that day in his autobiography, Where White Mean Fear to Tread. Following in its entirety is Chapter 53 of that book, "Goodbye, Columbus Day."
When I had finished making Mohicans, I still had done nothing to curb my anger. My assassination plots were still very much alive. In fact, my list had lengthened by one.
Mohicans wrapped up on October 11, 1991 -- not a day too soon. Colorado AIM had asked me to be its executive director, and I had to be in Denver the next day. That was, of course, Columbus Day. To indigenous people of this hemisphere, the celebration is the ultimate affirmation that since 1492, Western society has regarded us as expendable. Columbus was a murdering heathen who "discovered" the heaven on earth that was home to my ancestors and immediately set about turning it into a living hell for them. Denver was where Columbus Day was first celebrated in 1907. It was also in Denver, that the territorial government decided that fighting Confederates was too dangerous, so the whites murdered red people in their villages and reported "Indian unrest" to be such a threat that they could spare no troops to fight for the Union. Heading the genocidal Colorado Volunteers was an ordained Methodist minister, Colonel John Chivington, who became famous for his massacre of Cheyenne women and children at Sand Creek in 1864 -- and for saying afterward, "I believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians."

For years, Colorado AIM had been trying to get the Denver populace to stop celebrating Columbus Day and to understand that by honoring the first transatlantic slave trader, the city was affirming and supporting genocide. It was Columbus who sowed the seeds of Manifest Destiny. In the Europe of his time, it was against church law to enslave or murder human beings, although such canon rarely prevented wholesale murder. To enslave Indians for his own enrichment, he had to convince the Church that indigenous people were subhuman, and therefore could be slaughtered or enslaved with impunity. To persuade the Church that they were subhuman, Columbus accused the Indians of such unnatural acts as cannibalism -- a lie. Later, Cortez accused the Aztecs of human sacrifice -- another lie, but my own recent conversations and experiences with Aztec medicine men convinced me that their ancestors, aided by a masterful understanding of plants which temporarily slow the body's functions to near-paralysis, performed open-heart surgery. This has been partly confirmed by recent archaeological and pharmacological research. In order to conceal this truth and sell the lie of human sacrifice, the Franciscans who accompanied Cortez burned every Aztec book. The church policy of genocide was the basis for European colonization of two continents -- and as the 1994 revolt in Chiapas illustrated, nothing has changed.

For years, I had been telling AIMsters that we had to start planning to do something about the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus' arrival, in 1992. I thought it should be something very dramatic that would make international news, but only Colorado AIM shared my enthusiasm. Glenn Morris began a four-year program to educate Coloradans about Columbus and his legacy of oppressive laws and policies against Indians. We also held a rally around the statue Discovery of America, near the state capitol in Denver's Civic Center Park. I threw a can of water-soluble red paint on it to symbolize the centuries of bloodshed Columbus was responsible for inciting. I was arrested, but the charge was dismissed.

There hadn't been a Denver Columbus Day parade in more than thirty years, but in 1990, the Federation of Italian-American Organizations, which claimed to represent about sixty thousand people in metropolitan Denver, decided to have one. Glenn and Colorado AIM tried to establish a dialogue with FIAO to explain why we were offended by the idea of honoring a murderer. We suggested that they change the theme. We said, "We'll join your parade if you don't have it on Columbus Day. Have it the day before or the day after and celebrate Leonardo da Vinci or Sophia Loren or Joe DiMaggio -- anyone except Columbus." An arrogant FIAO leader said, "The police are with us." We said that if they went ahead as planned, we would stop the parade -- and they broke off communications. A few days before the event, however, we went to see the FIAO officials again and worked out an agreement whereby AIM would lead the parade. Afterward, we would set up an intercommunity group to discuss the elimination of future Columbus Day parades. As soon as the parade was over, however, FIAO canceled negotiations and refused to talk with us. AIM then asked Denver Mayor Federico Pena -- one of the lawyers who had defended me in Scottsbluff in 1972 -- to remove the Columbus statue from Civic Center Park. When he refused, we offered to contribute new statues to complement Columbus's, including one honoring Hitler. In hindsight, we should have offered one of Mussolini, too.

Another Columbus Day parade was scheduled for 1991. That's why I hurried from North Carolina to Denver after finishing Mohicans. Early on the morning of October 12, I joined an AIM rally that drew about 450 people. I'm embarrassed to say that only about 150 of the ten thousand Indians in greater Denver came to the rally. After the governor and grand marshal passed the reviewing stand, about two hundred of us moved into the street and blocked the parade. We waited to be arrested. We wanted to flood Denver's courtrooms, cost the city some money and effort. The police assembled their tactical squad and brought in buses to haul us away. After about forty-five minutes, the cops arrested the four principal leaders -- Margaret Martinez, Glenn Morris, Ward Churchill, and me. They took us to a bus and said, "Get your people out of the way and we'll just cite everybody -- we won't take them to jail." We had stopped the march and the media people had swarmed around taking pictures, so we agreed. As soon as everybody was out of the way, the parade resumed and the cops didn't issue any more citations. It was a trick. I've got to hand it to the police for pulling a good one on us.

The four of us were charged with serious misdemeanors that carried a total of two years' jail time. We went to court in June 1992, and the trial lasted two days. We defended our actions in stopping the parade by citing an international treaty on the prevention of genocide signed by President Reagan and ratified by the U.S. Senate. According to the treaty, "hate speech" is not acceptable because it promotes genocide. We offered documentation proving that acts of genocide by the United States are continuing, including the forced relocation of the Navajo, Department of Agriculture programs that compel Indians to eat substandard and unhealthy food, and medical experiments on unwitting Indian subjects in Alaska and Minnesota. We argued that by promoting stereotypical racist images of Indians, the parade encouraged genocidal practices. The jury, comprised [sic] of people reflecting the multiethnic nature of Denver, found us not guilty.

The verdict stirred up the press, especially the Rocky Mountain News, historically a newspaper for Indian haters. In the last century, its editorials had advocated annihilation of all Indians in Colorado and had lauded Chivington for the Sand Creek Massacre. After our acquittal, there was an outpouring of anti-AIM editorials. Colorado AIM wasn't among the groups labeled as "fringe organizations" of troublemakers, ex-convicts, and malcontents. Its principal leaders, Ward Churchill and Glenn Morris, are professors. Glenn is also a lawyer whose views are published frequently in local editorial pages. Many other AIM members are professionals, prestigious and accomplished people who cannot be refuted, dismissed, minimized, or trivialized. So well regarded is AIM that many Colorado community organizations -- black, white, and Asian -- have called on our security force to help protect their demonstrations, especially on Martin Luther King Day. In the wake of our acquittal, however, the infuriated Denver media focused editorial hatred on Glenn, excoriating him as a "brownshirt" -- a Nazi -- for his desire to end the parade. More hatred poured out on radio talk shows.

Meanwhile, AIM was organizing and mobilizing for the next year and the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's "discovery" of America. Fifty local and statewide organizations -- including the Colorado Council of Churches, the NAACP, the Urban League, the Nation of Islam, the New Jewish Agenda, Making Waves, MeCHA, a national Chicano student organization, and the conservative Hispanics of Colorado -- agreed to march with us on Columbus Day. We said repeatedly that although we were adamant about stopping the parade, we would do so peacefully. The media people acted as if they had never heard us utter the word. Broadcast and print reporting continuously ballyhooed our "threats," hysterically reiterating that we were planning violence. Raising the specter of a conspiracy, they attempted to whip up public opinion against us.

Seven times, FIAO and AIM met to try to resolve the crisis peacefully, with negotiations facilitated by Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a city of Denver representative named Steve Newman, and the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Service. The FIAO "negotiator" summed up his organization's position -- he told me something like, "You Indians had better understand, this isn't your country anymore, it's our country now, and you had better get with the program." That was the end of the dialogue. How could AIM reply except by showing those racist rednecks that this is still our country and always will be?

When AIM spokesmen were invited on a few radio shows, they calmly said their piece, backed by history and facts and law. Glenn, Ward, and I met often with the police. We told them we preferred to follow the methods of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but we had also learned from Malcolm X. We said, "Touch our women or children, and we will defend ourselves by any means necessary."

I gave talks to support groups and at strategy sessions. About three weeks before the 1992 parade, we held a meeting with non-Indian support groups in the basement of an Indian church. There were many people, black and white, who hadn't been in demonstrations since the 1960s. Some expected a police riot, so we told them how to prepare -- bring a first-aid kit. Bring a handkerchief that can be soaked in vinegar in case the police throw tear gas. Don't wear contact lenses, because if you're gassed, you'll go blind. Don't wear earrings or anything else the police can grab.

I said, "We want to stop this parade, but we don't want to break the law. Don't spread out along the parade route and attack individual floats. Please don't bring marbles and roll them on the streets, because many police will be riding horses and they will fall down -- we don't want that." I also said, "Please don't bring any female dogs that are in heat. The police K-9 corps will smell them and get all excited and run away and cause confusion. Someone could get hurt."

After saying all that, half-kidding, I added, "Wait! This is going to be a peaceful demonstration, and I'm so sure of that I'm bringing my seven-year-old son! I know we're going to win because we have spiritual power behind us." I arrived on the day of the parade to find the cops obviously worried. The chief of police had gone on television to announce that vacations had been canceled, and all Denver officers had reported for duty, Mounted police and dogs were assembled, fire trucks hooked to hydrants, and hoses manned. The SWAT team was out in force. FIAO had lined up a policeman's auxiliary organization, and had drawn the tentative support of some press organization. The FIAO had also gotten slick. It got police permits for the parade route and for a gathering on the capitol steps, where we had held rallies since 1989.

We set up our audio system and people started to flood in. A crowd of more than fifteen hundred, including about 250 Indians, came to march with us. We had many Chicanos, a few black leaders, and lots of Italians, more than were scheduled to march in the parade. But there was no parade! The floats never came. Only after the cancellation was announced did a few Italians wander in. Within five minutes of that announcement, another thousand AIM supporters, people who had been hanging back to see if something bad was going to happen, came rushing in -- twenty-five hundred people dedicated to peace and an end to racism. It was the grandest feeling. I was filled with elation and pride. Nonviolence had succeeded, and self-determination was alive.

On the day we stopped the parade, Indian people throughout the Americas held a variety of anti-Columbus demonstrations. Ours was the only event that yielded a tangible victory. I believe that was because we alone had prepared for the day by organizing for four years. We enlisted the support of all the responsible people in Colorado, and we educated the community so well that the media, despite a mighty effort, could not stir up anti-Indian hysteria.

There wasn't even any talk of a 1993 Columbus Day parade. Instead, AIM held a little ceremony in the park and planted four donated aspens. When the Denver city officials heard we were offering them, one said, "Could you please make it some other kind of tree? We like to keep the park neat and clean, and aspens proliferate -- they grow everywhere." That's why we chose them! There was no 1994 Columbus Day parade in Denver -- but today there are quite a few young aspens growing in Civic Center Park.       
As Columbus Day 2013 draws to a close here on the West Coast, I'm encouraged to have seen criticism of Columbus move a little more into the mainstream. The Oatmeal did a comic on Columbus that probably drew more attention to his exploits than anything else has in quite a while -- even though the gent that The Oatmeal offered up as someone we could celebrate in place of Columbus appears to have a questionable track record himself. In the end, maybe it's best to just stop celebrating the day altogether. Sadly, Denver has reinstated its Columbus Day parade -- and Means was arrested there during a parade protest in 2007 -- but it feels as if the tide is finally beginning to turn.

On the other hand, I've seen plenty of people reacting to the growing anti-Columbus sentiment by telling us, in effect, that we can't judge Columbus by today's standards. Everyone back then acted like that, I read more than once.

Yeah, sorry. I know the human race has made important strides in the past 500 years, but it's simply disingenuous to say that everybody was a rapist, murderer, and plunderer in Columbus' time, and that we can't cast judgment on his actions.  

Russell Means certainly thought he was fair game. And bless him for that.