Same as it ever was?

If Jim DeRogatis at the Chicago Sun-Times is saying Pearl Jam is anchoring Lollapalooza, I’m inclined to believe him. He was the first to break the story, but when I heard the news this morning, it was credited to Billboard.com, which made me initially skeptical. Last year, Billboard said “Chicago media reports” indicated that a reunited Smashing Pumpkins (as opposed to the barely-there version Corgan’s working with now) were being eyed as a headliner. It was picked up all over the place, but after a little research, I discovered it turned out to be nothing more than a third-hand rumor passed on by an editor…the same editor who wrote up that Pearl Jam piece. Hence my skepticism.

But like I said, if DeRogatis is the original source for it, it’s probably true. But this leads to another question: why would the organizers of Lollapalooza want to continue booking headliners that only harken back to Lolla’s glory days, rather than acts that help the fest stake out a new identity as the barometer for the best in music?

Let’s get a couple givens out of the way first. Pearl Jam is a more interesting, challenging, and focused band now than they were when they first played Lolla back in 1992. You could easily argue that they’re as much in their prime now as they were back then. And in some instances, I have (which is funny, since I’m not a huge fan, and the only PJ album I have is the “bootleg” live album they recorded in Hamburg).

Also, Lolla’s identity now is different than it was during PJ’s first appearance there, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Looking back at the lineups of the old Lollapalooza is like reading notes from the underground of American rock music. I’m not here to eulogize that time, or suggest that the new Lolla should try and re-capture it. They’re clearly trying to establish themselves as the place where both the casual and hardcore music fan can find a reason to justify dropping $200 on tickets, and not have to spend days in the desert to hear lots of good music. I think that’s a good thing.

So why, if I’m not the same person I was when Lolla came to the World Music Theatre in the early 90s, does Lolla seem like it’s often content to book acts who were the soundtrack to my teenage fumblings? Maybe it’s because the arena concert industry makes the most money off of the artists who were most influential during the teenage years of those who are now in their 30s.

Look at the top 5 concert draws for 2006: The Stones, Madonna, Bon Jovi, U2, and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. With the exception of Tim and Faith, those are all artists whose audiences are now well into adulthood, and had their most influential years in the 1980s (even the Stones were still a viable creative entity during that time).

Pitchfork and Intonation illustrate how music listening and buying patterns have become increasingly niche-oriented. They are for people who buy and listen to music regularly, and in some cases, religiously. Even Bonnaroo still operates as one really long, large-scale club show, as evidenced by the extensive camping opportunities (which is the festival version of going back to your friend’s house, drinking a few beers and passing out on his couch after a show).

But Lolla in the mid-aughts is the ultimate example of the arena concert as an adult theme park, where everyone plays Ultimate Music Fan for a weekend. You’re overcharged for everything, have to walk a lot, and stand in long lines. There’s more artifice than reality, but in the end, if you’re patient, there are still plenty of thrills to be had. Most arena tours are constructed that way, and Lolla is the 800 pound gorilla version of it. (Coachella splits the difference between Bonnaroo and Lolla, with tents available and Palm Springs a short drive away, and if you look at their lineup, that’s a pretty good description of it right there.)

So it makes sense that if Lolla wants to re-create the arena experience on a much larger scale, then they’re going to go with artists who speak to the teenager still living inside most adult music fans. A few newer, cutting-edge thrills are fine, but they have to deliver the goods, and that means tapping into what most of the attendees remember as their primo concert experience.

Or to put it another way, while people might ride Superman: Ultimate Flight when they go to Great America, they don’t leave without hitting either The Demon or The American Eagle.

In the garage

(Note: This is the second in a series of back-dated posts I’ve been working on for the last week, but have only now managed to add here, for reasons I’ll write about later. But it makes logistical sense to post these on the date I originally created them. Plus, later on it’ll make me look less lazy. Also, please bear with the crankiness. I promise there’s only one more Grumpy Old Man post after this one, and then I’ll go back to making jokes about hot girls).

A few months ago, a bar called Ronny’s started showing up on live show listings here, which I’m sure prompted some who live in the Logan Square neighborhood it resides in to wonder “Where the hell is Ronny’s?”

Turns out Ronny’s is a neighborhood bar around Armitage and California. According to the young woman working the door, the folks at MPShows.com approached the owner – the eponymous Ronny – about booking some shows into the bar’s side room, which is little more than a glorified garage, and so small, that you’d be hard pressed to fit any more than two cars in it. It’s definitely not a place that was built – or ever remodeled – for the purposes of hosting live bands.

The rectangular bar itself is probably large enough to handle the regulars who frequent the joint for cheap beer and a game of pool on weekdays, but at a show I went to last Friday, featuring The Ettes, the place was jammed up with the usual live music crowd, and a few others lured in by the multitude of press accolades the band’s received.

There’s no stage in the side room, so watching a show at Ronny’s is somewhat akin to seeing your friend’s band play in their basement, especially since the place holds less than 100 people. This, of course, encourages more heckling than usual, which meant one unnecessarily-sunglasses-adorned hipster was able to badger the opening band (a perfectly all right group of guys called The Singles) into playing “one more” by sheer force of proximity.

Ronny’s is a dive. Portions of it appear to be falling apart. There’s one bartender, and she’s both overworked and probably underpaid for the pleasure of dealing with the patrons’ demands, which is important to remember when she brings you drinks you didn’t order and confuses your change with the person next to you. The jukebox is about 90% Hispanic artists, and 10% top 40 (Gwen, Mariah, Dave Matthews), and is probably reflective of the community surrounding the place, and its music taste, though little of either was present in the bar that night.

During the show, The Ettes lead singer/guitarist/instigator – announced they were “from the road,” but later told me they’re currently based out of L.A. but keeps that piece of information quiet, since the band doesn’t identify much with the town (the drummer and bassist are from New York and the singer hails from Florida). They’re spending their pre-SXSW East Coast tour looking for a new place to call home, so roll out the red carpet Hoboken, New Jersey!

All of which got me thinking about something my friend Mark Anderson wrote in a comment about dive bars, that appeared on a local blog. The whole bit is worth reading, as is a longer piece he wrote on Chicago tap rooms, but the most apropos point is this:

“…the people who might count as regulars at a “dive” bar often frequent the place because they have no other choice if they want to participate in the same social interactions we younger and more prosperous members of the community take for granted.”

The Ettes are in a position (and a field, I’d say) where crafting an image is as important as crafting a song. They can choose how they define themselves, like choosing a different city to be “from.” Similarly, the people coming to their shows are lucky enough to have the freedom to decide how they’re going to spend their leisure hours, and privileged enough to not have to care whom they’re displacing.

While I’m sure the owner appreciates the increase in business on weekends, I felt a little like I was trespassing. Not because I felt unwelcome, mind you, as both Ronny and the bartender were quite cordial. No, it was more because I felt like I was taking up a seat from a guy who didn’t have as many choices as I do about where to spend a Friday night, and was really looking forward to a little tejano music and an MGD, but decided to stay home instead. It didn’t help that the jackass next to me kept calling Ronny by his first name, which really kind of struck me as entitlement, because he gave no indication that the proprietor ever spoke the words “Call me Ronny” to him.

I played a little Freddy Fender on the juke to even the score, but it didn’t quite do the job.

God, I love that band

First, an update: Van Halen tour, possibly not off. The postponement is “not due to any internal strife among band members.” Sure.

Also, Billy Corgan’s manager on the reason why he’s not bringing James and D’Arcy back into the mix: “For the sake of a younger generation that he wants to turn on to the band’s music, he is doing it with a band that will more faithfully recreate the old songs than ever before.” Hear that? Corgan – by proxy – just said that James and D’Arcy has fallen off. Rock Beef 2007!

Anyway, I just finished the 2006 version of DaCapo’s Best Music Writing anthology. Year after year, DaCapo collects some of the most insightful, funny, and thought-provoking pieces written about music – sometimes only tangentially. Most of the pieces are more than just critical analyses of music, in that they try to say something about how music affects a particular worldview. Elizabeth Mendez Berry’s piece on domestic violence in rap and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s surprisingly thoughtful travelogue about the Christian Rock festival called Creation, in particular.

The selection that really hit me was J. Edward Keyes’ reporting on a Bloc Party show in 2005 (unfortunately, it’s not available online). The piece’s focal point is the hype that Bloc Party are set to be “the next Franz Ferdinand” (I always thought they were supposed to be the next Gang of Four, but no matter) before delving into the twin devils of mystique and hype, and the unrealistic notions of both. While Keyes might not come up with any earth-shattering conclusions, the impact comes from the way he presents his findings, letting his reporting speak for itself and avoiding any pop-psych journo speak.

At one point Keyes is speaking with a couple indie music snobs who have this to say on whether Bloc Party will indeed become the next FF:

“As long as they stay under the radar, I’ll keep listening to them,” he says. “But if they become mainstream, I’m probably going to stop.”

I’ve been a full-time music lover since, roughly, junior high, and a part-time music snob since probably college, but this is one of the most asinine statements ever made, right up there with “I’m only staying for one drink.”

People who really love music (and this guy isn’t one of them but more on that in a bit) sometimes say things like this. Not exactly this, but like this. It’s because they worry that success will spoil Rock Hunter, and the things they love about a band will change. Maybe chasing mainstream success will cause an artist to change his or her sound so much that they’ll no longer be the band you love (we’ll call this The Liz Phair Rule). Or they’ll record new material that makes it harder and harder to convince people that they were once relevant (we’ll call this The Rod Stewart Rule).

But nowadays – and I realize what an old man that phrase makes me sound like – there’s an increasingly large segment of the music-consuming population that’s reduced music to a trend, to fashion, which is why it’s more common now to see a band become wildly hyped, then torn down, often before they’ve even released a full-length (Tapes ‘n’ Tapes, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Arctic Monkeys to name a few). Other symptoms of this phenomenon include indie rock songs in commercials, girls who wear baby tees emblazoned with the names of bands whose albums they don’t own, and dudes who claim to be huge fans of a band, five minutes before they hit the exits and ten minutes before said band hits the stage.

And that brings us back to the Bloc Party fan.

I don’t worry about my favorite bands becoming mainstream or overly popular. I worry about jagoffs like this guy taking up residence in my favorite rock clubs. For this cat, being a “Bloc Party fan” is about knowing something other people don’t, not about enjoying the music. And that’s why he’s not saying he’s worried that if the band becomes mainstream, they might fall victim to The Liz Phair Rule or The Rod Stewart Rule. It’s not a qualitative decision. He’s saying he only likes the band because of what it says about him.

People who make comments like this always try to make it sound as if they’re very high-minded, as if their criticism stems from the band abandoning its initial ethos. So it’s important to remember that in these instances, it’s more about the person making the comment, than the band about whom they’re commenting.

Because what does it matter if you’re the first to know about something that’s wonderful, if you can’t appreciate the wonderfulness of it?

Outta Love Again

Whoops.

“Over the weekend, employees of tour promoters Live Nation were informed that “the Van Halen tour has been shut down.” It’s not yet clear what went wrong…”

Guys, I just said it was a bad idea. You didn’t have to go and cancel the whole damn thing.

Ah well. Who wants hot sauce?

You won’t see this on your SATs

Remember the analogy questions on the SATs? They were usually structured thusly:

Sleep is to bed as urinate is to _______.

A) Sink
B) Toilet
C) Bathtub
D) Off a balcony, but only if you are in college and drunk

Maybe not as much with the potty humor, but that was the general structure.

Analogies were always my favorite part of the SATs. Using them as a rhetorical device that could be used to both build rapport, and make muddy concepts clear held a lot of attraction to me, and still does. The phrases “That’s like…” and “It’s similar to…” are probably uttered by me at least once a day, and I shudder to think how many times they’ve cropped up in my writing.

Little surprise then that the following tumbled out of my mouth during the Grammys last week: “You know, Britney Spears is the Nirvana to Christina Aguilera’s Pearl Jam.”

Sure, there was wine involved. But stick with me for a moment, and cast your mind back before the head-shaving, the hyperbole, the assless chaps, and the worship of the Who, (respectively) to the early days of the career of each artist.

Both Britney and Nirvana were the first horses out of the gate, though they were clearly not in for the long haul. Though Nirvana had a very fine first album prior to its breakthrough, both seemingly came from nowhere and re-oriented music culture for the next few years, creating imitators in their wakes, and had an influence that went beyond the charts. It extended to fashion, mass media, and the way those that heard their music thought of themselves. Both Nirvana and Britney functioned as arechtypes, and spurred others to pursue something larger than themselves, whether it was an artistic statement, or music as a means to fame (without Britney, there is no American Idol, period).

Christina Aguilera and Pearl Jam seemed to follow their predecessors, though they’d been following similar paths all the while, and suffered only for timing. Both found themselves grow increasingly uncomfortable with the way fame and image seemed to dictate what kinds of art they could create and, in response, they released albums that almost dared some in their audience to continue to call themselves fans (Vitaology in PJ’s case, Stripped in Christina’s). Later, they came to terms with both their art and image, to emerge as more than survivors, but as the gold standard of their respective movements.

Now, I know some of the above might be taking things a bit far. Particularly that bit about the “gold standard” though I dare you to name any other teen popster whose albums you’d rather listen to than one of Aguilera’s, and dare you to deny that Nirvana is more about what they represent than what they’ve achieved (and before you answer, which did you find yourself pulling from your collection more recently: a Foo Fighters album or a Nirvana album?).

In any case, like the SATs, this isn’t about the perfect answer, it’s about picking the best answer.

Reunionize Yourself

Sorry for the lack of posts. Lots of life change, what with the new job and the new place. Won’t happen again. Promise.

In the interim, reunion tours for both The Police* and Van Halen were announced, and it’s not possible to find two bands that are more indicative of the Goofus and Gallant school of thought when it comes to rock reunion tours.

On the one hand, you have The Police, who – with the exception of the occasional one-off gigs here and there – haven’t worked together artistically in the past 20 years. They’ve been offered scads of money before, but never saw the need. But at this stage in their respective individual careers, a reunion tour is a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down. With Sting having recorded an album of music on the lute (!!!), it’s a chance for him to prove that old Onion editorial was correct. For Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland, it’s to remind those who’ve forgotten that the band’s artistic success was built on the creative tension that existed between the three of them, and that no matter how things looked on the outside, the entity known as The Police required the efforts of all three. This house, often divided against itself, did stand. Take away any part of the whole … and you have an album of music played on the lute.

And speaking of removing part of the whole, there’s Van Halen.

The day after my Senior Prom, I – along with my date and some friends – went to Great America. In conversation with the acknowledged Guitar God of our high school, I derisively referred to the band as “Van Hagar,” a slight for which Guitar God took me to task. “C’mon, it’s not like they were ‘Van Roth’ before.” I had no retort.

I thought of this moment when I heard that VH bassist Michael Anthony had been unceremoniously (and if there’s a more apropos adverb for it, I don’t know what it is) booted from the band. Michael Anthony’s crime seems to be having toured with Hagar recently, which is ironic, since Roth famously did the same on the “Sans Halen” tour a few years back.

I thought of that moment again when it was announced that the brothers Van Halen were reuniting with David Lee Roth, with Eddie’s son Wolfgang on bass.

Talk about being careful what you wish for. Even the most strident Sammy Hagar defenders would admit that a tour with Diamond Dave fronting the band would be worth seeing. Since the Roth years of VH, in particular, depended on the thump-thump-thump and “Oooh baby baby” that Anthony brought to the party, this tour’s going to end up like the end of “The Monkey’s Paw,” where the departed relative you wished back to life turns out to be some weird zombie knocking at the door in the middle of the night.

When I see Van Halen, I want some dude (I’m not picky about who so long as he was not at any point affiliated with Nuno Bettencourt) in brightly-colored pants singing about ladies in some fashion. I want two goofy-looking Dutch cats hammering away on the skins and blowing my damn mind on guitar, respectively. And lastly, I want a dude in a mullet, crooning background vocals, and playing something that resembles a bottle of Jack Daniels with strings.

It’s hard to fault Eddie for wanting to spend more time with his kid, but I was pretty sure the rock cognoscenti agreed that making family members a part of the band was a bad idea ever since Paul wanted Linda to join Wings. Recent public appearances by the man seem to confirm that the dude is back on the sauce. He’s acknowledged that when he was heavily hitting the bottle back in the day, Roth would talk him into things he might not have ordinarily thought were a good idea. It’s also pretty clear from Ed’s foray into the world of adult film soundtracks that he’s got a base need to be making music in some fashion, whether or not such ventures have any artistic merit. The last time all three of these elements combined, the band produced “Big Bad Bill Is Sweet William Now” off Diver Down. So I can’t see how this is anything but a bad idea.

There are plenty of people who argue that nostalgia is the enemy of rock and roll. When something like this Van Halen reunion tour happens, it’s hard to come up with an effective argument. I’m hoping The Police are able to provide one.

Otherwise, we’re going to end up with another album of music on the lute.

* Check that quote from the guy at Pollstar at the end of the AP story. Is that the most depressing thing you’ve ever read in your life?