Morrissey: Autobiography

I did it. I tackled 450+ pages of stream-of-consciousness, packed-with-meaning, ultra-moody pages writted by Morrissey, maybe even more for Morrissey himself than for his fans. I struggled to like him, I often hated him in fact, and other times I wanted to, quoting my boss here, “hug the shit out of him.” I think it turns out that I love him.

Steven Morrissey, the person, is at least half-full of shit, and maybe he’d admit that, too. He wrote his whole memoir in mostly the present tense, and without chapter breaks, and he had to know that that would drive people nuts. He also had to know that his complaining about record deals and interpersonal relationships and fame would come across as whiny and spoiled. But it’s his story, told without a super-clear timeline or a super-clear motive, and yet despite its haziness, the whole lot of his stories paint a very clear picture of him. It all comes down to the fact that, really, he’s just a very sensitive boy.

I often find it difficult to take very emotional, deep passages from recent memoirs seriously, because I feel like I’m too connected to the current world for it to hold any weight yet. The past is unknown, and thus its meaning is much heavier and more powerful. In the present day, give or take 50 years, nothing’s had time to settle yet. The effects are still hard to measure. Morrissey’s way of crafting his story, as pretentious as it may be, provokes such a strong image of suffering, as he saw it, that it’s hard to deny the intensity of his experience. Here’s an example:

p. 11 // “There is no gentle therapy for these deprived and confused inner-city slum kids, and there is no response to anything they say other than violence and more hurt. It piles up. This is the Manchester school system of the 1960s, where sadness is habit-forming, and where shame is cattle-prodded into kids who are in pursuit of bliss amid the unrelenting disapproval. Look around and see the gutter-bred – all doing as well as they can in circumstances that they are not responsible for, but for which they are punished. Born unasked, their circumstantial sadness is their own fault, and is the agent of all their problems.”

See, that’s beautifully written. It’s too long, of course, because Morrissey either had no editor or a yes-man who pretended to be an editor, but it’s so poetic. Despite his selfishness, he is constantly thinking and writing about the plights of others. Maybe he’s projecting his own suffering onto these others, but at least he’s not saying “I” all the time. And he taps into a world I know nothing about, a world that maybe some but definitely not all of his fans know about, that of slummy London and growing up knowing you wanted to be an artist and being largely uninterested in other people and feeling frustrated with the limited resources at your disposal. Thinking about it that way, his story is quite admirable, and the fact that he has gone through his career as an underdog (except in Los Angeles!) is a little baffling.

Then again, it’s not. He shoots his mouth off. He’s a militant vegetarian. He says one hilarious charming thing about getting punished for innocently dying his hair as a teen (p. 83 // “‘Yes,’ snaps Miss Power, ‘and YOU’RE another one not content with the hair color given to you by Christ.’ Baffled, I immediately imagined Christ setting my hair beneath a blow-dryer, but of course this is in fact Miss Power’s boorish way of drawing attention to my 14th-year adventure of hair of canary-yellow streak.”) and then on the very next page, dismisses his love for a great band (p. 84 // “Roxy Music will drop quickly from the emotional radar soon, as singer Bryan Ferry announces that his favorite food is veal – second only to foie gras in savage cruelty.”). I think the only proper response is to roll one’s eyes and soldier on, unless you’re David Bowie (p. 245, to Morrissey // “Oh, you must be HELL to live with.”) or a comedic genius. I assume comments like these alienate most people, and I get it.

And yet, even though he proclaims and admits and scoffs and regularly disapproves of these aforementioned most people, he’s still got it. Morrissey has softened in his middle age. As the book wore on, he got less sour, probably because he was finished writing about the long post-Smiths legal battle, and could focus on writing about his insanely triumphant solo career, and the part of his life that has contained the most love and acceptance. He also began to lose people he truly cared about, and perhaps lost a bit of the ego that kept him so isolated. His emotions seem freer to spill out outside of his gorgeous voice and his deeply personal music. Here are two passages that I found particularly beautiful:

p. 210, on the loss of his Nannie // “The soul is not everything. Her face, her arms, her hands, they need us still, and they are what we know of someone, and all of these have gone. The soul is said to be somewhere, but the soul has only ever been visible through the eyes.”

p. 363, on the decline of his aunt Rita // “You catch yourself lying, and you are choking on your own in-built censorship, and you are only able to watch as Rita becomes less and less present in the body that she had meticulously maintained all her life.”

Once he let his readers get inside his head about a topic that we’ve all thought about, it’s easier to identify with him, and to read his sensitivity differently. Yes, he’s a misunderstood artist begging simultaneously to be understood and ignored, but after so many years, he’s found his audience, and they’ve found him. Passages like these below no longer feel like complaints; they’re truths in his grand, artistic, stark world, one that on some level, we all relate to.

p. 171 // “Never do we hear of an artist who rips off a firm of accountants; never do we hear of the artist who embezzles the record company; never do we hear of the artist who defrauds the lawyer; never do we hear of the artist who fleeces the management – but the ferocity of such situations reversed is characteristic of how the music industry works, and why it works.”

p. 397, on marriage // “I wonder why they even bother with the ceremony. It seems like such a great deal of trouble for everyone, and merely because two people have found themselves sexually compatible – but with no suspicion that their feelings might change with time.”

p. 417, whilst touring in Italy // “Italians are blunt, but this is because they are relaxed, whereas in Los Angeles a sickbed politeness permeates all conversation – rendering it not conversation at all. The very proximity of people happily walking so close to one another in Rome is in itself a revelation to most Americans, who live their lives at yardage distance from one another lest a slight brush instigate court action.”

What I’m trying to say is, Morrissey, I love you, you handsome, wretched weirdo.

How Music Works

I want to apologize to David Byrne, and to myself, for taking five months to read this book. DB deserves better than that. I owe more to myself. There you go.

I’m what you’d call a newfangled Talking Heads fan. I don’t know much about them, but I know I love the song “Psycho Killer” because my coworkers sang it to me one day, and it was so insane that I instantly downloaded it and played it on repeat. And then I became sort of obsessed with David Byrne, and one time I thought I saw him in Oakland. (I didn’t.) So when I saw that he wrote a book about music, I thought it might be the perfect chance to jump-start my fandom, and learn a few things in the process.

His book is like a “Music for Dummies” book, except not for dummies at all. In fact, I may even be the target audience. I’m a media nerd, and a music fan, and this book pokes its nosy nose into several very nerdy aspects of music, while still maintaining its cool factor, thereby taking its readers to another level of nerd-dom. The hardcover version is even padded, just in case a few dummies pick it up by accident.

Byrne is not the most thrilling writer, but that’s because he’s a musician and an oddball and a self-diagnosed Aspberger’s-esque person. He doesn’t claim to be the most eloquent or the most descriptive or the be-all, end-all source on everything, but by making that claim, he actually lends himself a lot more credit. He also chooses not to make himself the subject of the book, but rather inserts his own experiences very democratically into the context of each chapter. He’s quite possibly the only artist in the world who can write truthfully and objectively about himself. It’s quite enviable.

His book is elegant, though, in its own simple way, because he uses his own experiences to color the technical terms and copious research that he did, and his anecdotes about touring and labels and contracts and venues and mentors sort of puts the whole book into very relatable perspective. Which is another enviable feat, considering that most books about music written by musicians are just recounts of all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and by the end of the book, you’re exhausted and completely alienated (if not still in awe). I particularly liked learning about the six different contract models and the differences between analog and digital recording — not every page pulled me in, but it wasn’t supposed to. It was supposed to replace whatever grandiose thoughts I had about the music industry with realistic ones, and it did just that.

I can’t recommend this book to everyone, because it plain won’t interest everyone. But musicians, music nerds, even technology and history buffs, all of you people (myself included) will feel enriched by it, and possibly a strange, distant kinship with David Byrne after reading it. Oh, that hair. Must be an over-60 David thing.

The usual quotes, here:

p. 110 // On mixtapes: “Other people’s music–ordered and collected in infinitely imaginative ways–became a new form of expression.”

p. 184 // “Simplicity is a kind of transparency in which subtle nuances can have outsize effects. When everything is visible and appears to be dumb, that’s when the details take on larger meanings.”

p. 273 // On more conservative cultures: “Pleasure needs a moral note to be acceptable.”

p. 296 // “Unlike religion, no one has ever gone to war over music.”

Smartass: The Music Journalism of Joel Selvin

Smartass is a pretty straightforward title for a book, no? Kind of gives the impression that its pages will be filled with constant sarcasm, biting wit, probably the description of a few fistfights resulting from those first two things. If this Selvin guy is a music journalist and a smartass, then certainly he got himself into a fair number of fistfights or word jousts. Or that’s what I thought, anyway. Turns out the book was much tamer than that.

In fact, it wasn’t about him at all. It was just a collection of most of his San Francisco Chronicle pieces, with a few magazine pieces and liner notes thrown in there for variety and good measure. It’s actually rather haphazardly assembled, as evidenced by the copious typos, which is disturbing if you consider that every one of the words in this book was published somewhere else before, but try not to let it bother you. There’s really too much good information in here not to read it, if you’re a fan of the whole Music Scene Thing.

I consider myself pretty well-versed in the music of my parents, which is probably exactly why my parents bought this book for me. They know I was secretly meant to live alongside them in the 60s and 70s, since I consider Creedence Clearwater Revival and Huey Lewis and the News among my favorite bands to this day. But in reading this book, in taking in the truly rich and often under-appreciated history of the San Francisco rock music scene, I realized that my musical education contains many holes. This plugged up quite a few, or at least sparked my curiosity in researching “new” bands on my own. The note I made most to myself in reading this book, for better or worse, was “check out more stuff by this guy.”

One mystery that was only partially solved by this book was that of the Grateful Dead. I still don’t completely understand them, but I do know that, had I been around in their heyday, I would have been a total Deadhead. I listen to the Dave Matthews Band, for dog’s sake. I like a jam band. I became rather enamored with the idea of listening to Merle Haggard, Boz Scaggs, Glen Campbell, Eddie Cochran, and The Band, and investigating Bill Graham, too, thanks to Selvin’s persistent, thorough writing. I wish this book came with a soundtrack, because it would be an exhaustive, fascinating survey of 40 years of solid rock.

Selvin’s writing is not as confrontational as I imagined it to be, which only makes me curious about his in-person presence. His words are clear and concise and flattering when they need to be, as when he described the Beatles in San Francisco (p. 127): “Borrowing a private jet that belonged to Frank Sinatra, McCartney showed up unannounced at a Jefferson Airplane rehearsal in the empty synagogue next to the Fillmore, carrying an acetate of the album the Beatles just finished recording, ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ more than three months before his bandmate George Harrison made his celebrated stroll down Haight Street in those heart-shaped sunglasses.” How dreamy those months must have been. But not everyone is displayed in that ethereal, favorable light. Thanks to frank portrayals of Sly Stone (p. 79) and John Fogerty (p. 232), for example, I learned that both of these extremely famous, charismatic individuals were also massive douchebags, enamored with their own talent and fame. Only Selvin can drop these names like he does, casually, and get away with it.

But Selvin is not a perfect writer, as he tend to exaggerate. He liberally throws around “the greatest” to describe several of his article subjects, which contrasts oddly with his mostly minimalist style and sort of dilutes the term by the time you reach the end of the book. He also falls prey to–or maybe he was the one who invented it?–cliched music journalism sentence structure. In describing Fogerty’s 1997 album, he lists songs with tired adjective lead-ins, which actually makes me not want to listen to the album: They range from the trademark twangy guitar of ‘Blue Boy’ to the Rolling Stones-style crunch of ‘Bring It On Down to Jelly Roll,’ from the country romp ‘Rambunctious Boy’ to the eerie ‘Walking in a Hurricane,’ the first single.” All music journalists do this, and it’s terrible. Let’s make a pact to stop, now.

I know I’ve found fault with the writings of a legend. I can’t help it. It’s in my nature to be critical, especially of another critic. But even with my nit-picking, I did take away the richness of his storytelling and the sincerity of his recommendations, which is really all any critic wants from a reader. And now I have to go raid my dad’s CD collection again.

Sound City

I like Dave Grohl. But I did not know I really liked him until I saw (a) this clip (thx, JH!)

and (b) this documentary, Sound City. Grohl, member of every rock band basically, penned the story for the movie and directed it, adding yet another notch to his artistic toolbelt. This guy is talented. It wasn’t a brilliantly-shot piece of art or anything, but it was certainly great and heartfelt. And of all things, it was about a soundboard.

Really! A soundboard. Specifically, the Neve formerly located in Sound City in Los Angeles, California, where all of these brilliant albums were recorded. The place was a dump but the board was a masterpiece, invented by Rupert Neve back in the day and worth more than I’d really care to think about. And it magically, scientifically engineered the sounds of all those albums we’ve come to love. Specifically, the crisp, clear, prominent drums, despite the Sound City studio being what looks like a terrible room for percussion. So it goes.

This documentary pulled in all sorts of big names — Stevie Nicks, Rich Springfield, Josh Homme, Tom Petty, Paul McCartney, Lars Ulrich, and Rick Rubin, to name a few — extolling the good times had in the studio and the precious clarity and perfection of the Neve. It also went a bit behind-the-scenes, interviewing the women and men who worked there and befriended everyone big-time without ever becoming famous themselves. Those producers and secretaries kept the place going even as it was falling apart.

Towards the end of the film, we learn that Grohl himself was [spoiler alert] able to fork over the cash to save the board after the studio itself, already sort of a dump, wasn’t able to stay open. The movie lost me a bit here, because it mentioned the dire financial circumstances and the subsequent burden on those behind-the-scenes people, but never really filled us in on what became of them. (I guess that’s what the internet is for?) Anyway, the good news is that, upon Grohl’s purchase, the board went to his loving home studio, and all those aforementioned people went to work honoring it the bets way they knew how: By writing and recording new songs. My favorite one to come out of these sessions (and onto a forthcoming album connected to the documentary) is “Cut Me Some Slack,” which you may have heard on SNL several weeks ago. Yes, that is Nirvana with Sir Paul at the helm. Trippy, no?

The cynic in me wants to find fault with Grohl’s pure, genuine devotion to this thing (and his cheesy voice-overs), but it’s so difficult! The movie might come across as saccharine, overly-kind, maybe even a little obsessive, but I promise you it isn’t. It’s truly sweet, and even sweeter that a musician so grounded in great music and so talented over the years was able to tell a story that clearly meant the world to him. Not bad for a first documentary, homes.
saccharine but mostly sweet.

Oh, and Rick Springfield’s dog was cuter than he was.

The Swell Season

If you’re anything like me, you were absolutely captivated by the simple romantic ambiguity of Once. (If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it now.) It was a movie untouched by Hollywood, pretentiousness, CGI, auto-tune, cynicism, any of those toxic qualities that are now basically commonplace in our blockbuster entertainment. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova made beautiful music, and maybe more, but that wasn’t important.

Except, it actually was. Turns out, there was more. This little documentary, which has the same name as their little band, explains how they actually fell in love while they made Once, and then stayed in love as the movie’s popularity picked up speed and earned them an Oscar, and then fell out of love as the hype died away and they were left to propel their musical careers without the aid of adrenaline.

It seems that Irglova was the catalyst for the whole breakup, though there’s no reason to blame her at all. She was so, so young at the height of her fame–maybe 19 or 20–and after awhile, it just got to her. She never felt like a celebrity, she never wanted to do celebrity things, and she never intended to be in the spotlight. Hansard, on the other hand, had started his music career at age 13 and had basically been working up to that moment. He was in his late 30’s when Once happened, as prepared as he could have been, and relatively comfortable in the spotlight. She still had her entire 20’s and 30’s ahead of her; he had lived them and come out okay. To be in those very different stages of life, experiencing the same thing–it’d tear anyone apart.

Irglova, despite her youth, always seemed wise beyond her years, even in Once. She has this very maternal, calm demeanor about her; the word “effortless” was bandied about several times in the movie, and I think it’s the most accurate adjective for her. Her voice, her musical knowledge, her poise all point to some sort of innate sense of confidence, but one that doesn’t manifest itself in arrogance. She was perfectly fine letting Glen take most the spotlight. She was the sturdiest possible backbone.

Hansard, while not necessarily her opposite, always seemed a bit frantic in his pursuit of fame, maybe because he knew it’d be taken from him as quickly as it arrived. I was never able to place how I felt about him when I saw Once, and even now, in a non-fiction setting, I still can’t put my finger on it. On the one hand, he’s got this incredibly passionate voice and charming Irish accent, but on the other, he takes himself really seriously and is sort of immersed in the pretentiousness of his story. He’s a talented musician, to be sure, but I can’t separate his fictional self from his real self; maybe he can’t either.

It’s hard to say whether he’ll really be successful without Irglova; their voices blend so perfectly together, their harmonies seem to create a magical third note even when there are just two of them. She’s off and married now, presumably with fewer cameras rolling. This kind of love story leaves you hoping that each gets what they want out of life, even if it’s a cliche. Even the messiest problems have the neatest solutions; “neat” and “easy,” however, are not interchangeable in The Swell Season.

Mayer Hawthorne and the County, 10.14.11

I love this man. And his band.

That’s right, folks. Mayer Hawthorne has rendered me boring and redundant as a writer. Well, almost. I just warn you that this post might be super-gushy, so tread lightly, and please forgive me.

I saw this dude last year, at the same venue (Bimbo’s 365 Club), with the same friends, and I had a great time. And this time around was even better. I think my only complaint is that his 75-ish minute set was too short. I mean, yeah, it was too short and I’m a fan so I want it to go on forever, but that’s actually not a very long set. Two hours is the respectable set length, I think. But whining aside, Mayer Hawthorne really knows how to put on a show. He just sort of happened upon this whole fame thing, but instead of being bumbling and awkward, he’s got this natural charm and confidence about him that makes for a lively, adorable stage show. I do wish he’d interact with the audience more (READ: I definitely shouted out “GO TIGERS!!!” twice, expecting the Michigan native to give me some sort of reciprocation, but I got nothing. Weak.), because I think he could benefit from a little, as the comedians say, crowd work. He really is magnetic though, with his unabashed suburban skinny white boy good looks and his simple, clean, beautiful voice.

The new album, How Do You Do is a delight. You should buy it. But it’s even more worthwhile performed live. He and the County dropped several new tracks including “The Walk,” “A Long Time,” “Dreaming,” and my fave, “No Strings,” like they had been playing them for years. But to my surprise, they also went with several crowd-pleasers from A Strange Arrangement, despite the fact that this show was an album-release party for the sophomore record. “The Ills,” “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” and my all-time fave, “Maybe So, Maybe No” got just as much love from the crowd as you’d expect. It was a constant state of soul music euphoria. To top it off, he also performed his rendition of “Love in Motion,” which he normally performs with Sebastian, as well as “I’ve Got A Crush on You” and Average White Band’s “Work To Do.” Solid night.

I may have said this before–and I’m too lazy to look and see if that’s true–but with all of the meaningless pop floating around, and all of the heavy-duty lyrics out there too, it’s so refreshing to have an artist like Mayer Hawthorne on the scene. His songs put a smile on your face so effortlessly because they’re good. Sure, he’s got the wordplay going (“You’re shaped like an hourglass / but I think your time’s up”) and the incredible Motown influence, but his music doesn’t stay on the surface or hit too deep. It’s at a balanced, manageable level. It can appeal to most people without being generic, because it’s so likable. And how can you not like this guy? He was wearing a red suit, for Christ’s sake.

What a ham!