Wednesday, July 28, 2010

FTW

I think it's from back in the old days before I did the internet, when I thought that "FTW" meant "Eff tha World!!!" It's all mixed up in my head and I'm really not sure where I got the idea. All that text-speak, OMG, rofl and my favorite that no one seems to ever use anymore, loveeeeeeee, was just penetrating my consciousness in about 2003 or 4, and I really think I had the FTW concept in my head before that. Like it was a holdover from my days in Boston punk rock or something. Maybe I'm mixing it up with FSU. That's probably it. In any case, I was surprised, about a year or two ago, when I learned (via Urban Dictionary, I think) that the greatly preferred translation is "For the Win". So you lay it down whenever you've trumped someone or proven something with a self-evidently awesome proclamation. Like QED, except that with QED you have to have said beforehand that you were going to prove the thing, and with FTW you can just bask in the glory, prior prediction optional. It's a nice facilitator of assertion-as-rigor on the anonymous internet. What's nice about it too is that the other translation pretty much always works in the same situation, so the acronym itself takes on the whole constellation of meaning and doesn't even need a referent, like zOMG or pwn. Or :$. :-)



My little girl has been potty-training these last couple of months, and it's kind of amazing to see how resistant a person can be to something we're all so used to, sitting on the throne when it's time to do your business. The mere suggestion of "Hey, want to go sit on the potty?" might be met with all manner of screaming, pouting, stomping, running around, you get the idea. We finally, just recently, realized that rewards are the way to go. Now we give her organic gummi bears, one for #1 and two for #2, and she begs to go to the potty. Twice in ten minutes even! Those gummi bears? For the wee, my friends, FTW. The wee one who goes wee-wee. Back when I was a pre-teen, I used to get rewards for stuff too. I was super into my Atari 2600, so my folks would get me game cartridges. I guess then, that I was doing stuff for the Atari - or to go all 2006, for the Wii. FTW!

I love the way you can play with meaning and make connections and the more you think about them the more real they seem; the more real, in fact, they are. We build all these systems and use one thing to mean another thing, until the original meaning is lost and you can build further meanings using the new meaning-unit. Hamburger used to be a sausage made in the style of Hamburg, to differentiate it from the frankfurter, how they did it in Frankfurt, and now we've got Major League Eating. There's a whole branch of human thought, semiotics, devoted to understanding systems of meaning, how they recombine and evolve and exert their own pressure on the things that get meant, so I'll be clear up front: I'm just playing. I don't have anything meaningful to lay down here, no rigor will be exercised. I just came to talk about records.

Records! These records I keep in my living room: miles and miles of living history, documents of musical events that happened at one time. I hear and see in them an undiluted history of the 20th Century, each one an immalleable statement to be decoded and put into its context. The medium changed the message, long-player albums elevating popular forms to the level of Great Art, the Beatles the Beethoven of my parents' time. The medium enabled the artification of techniques that never existed before: recording, mixing, sequencing; marrying image, information, music, politics and social commentary, celebrity and all the rest into a square package, one foot by one foot. The LP.

Since I began collecting (it was CDs when I was in high school - I didn't make the full-on switch to vinyl till college), I've kept my records strictly alphabetized by artist. The more records I get, the more corner cases I have to mash into that seemingly simple principle. I like Greek music, and French music, and Brazilian music - should I file in the same alphabet if the language is different? The whole system of meaning has a different infrastructure! I do anyway, cause being able to find stuff is more important for me than ideological rigor. I've made the concession, however, that if an English-speaking artist names their band something foreign, say, Le Tigre, I'd treat the article like a real word. So they go in L. Los Crudos is tougher cause they're American and bi-lingual, but I put them in C cause I think they'd want it that way. I'm just glad I don't like Los Lobos.

I find the whole filing system aesthetically satisfying to an almost indescribable degree. I love filing my records. I love it when I've listened to a new record enough that it's time to put it away. I love finding out who it's going to live next to, who its new neighbors are. I love the strange bedfellows my system creates, and I want to believe that there's a form, in the Platonic sense, a universal filing system where every single record ever made is properly filed and that my record collection is approaching that form with each new acquisition. One time when I was in high school, my best friend decided to test me by pulling a CD off my shelf and asking me which one was missing: I got it in less than a minute (it was BDP's By All Means Necessary, one of the best albums I can think of). That exercise would be tougher for me today, but I'd like to believe I'd eventually miss any one of my records. My system has itself become part of my experience, and now I've got the FPE to realize the full potential of that system. It's a nice arrangement.

Today, I've got two records that Frances pulled out together, their proximity suggesting the connection that I now force myself to make: both are records that meant one thing the day they were made, and have acquired over time new meanings that eclipse their original statements, in ways that are somewhat unfair but, to be fair, a little bit fair too. Neither is a record that I purchased on its own merits, at least not directly, and both will forever live in the shadow of a tiny piece of their message that seemed inconsequential at the time of their creation. I'd like to give the rest of these records a little time in the spotlight. Recreate the context: balance out the legacy.

First, a very special album: Tom Wilson's Gay Name Game. It's his first record, released on his own Aboveground Records in 1979. You've probably never heard of him, but he's probably never heard of you, either. Anyway, he's still around, and you can even still purchase original vinyl copies of this one and his other album, All-American Boy, as well as a bunch of other recordings that aren't on vinyl, from his website. He goes by his full name, Tom Wilson Weinberg, now - presumably the pressure to have a snappy show-biz monicker faded over time, or maybe he was sick of getting confused with all the other Tom Wilsons out there, like this guy, or this guy, or this guy, or this guy, or this guy, or... or... metadata... so many Tom Wilsons...

Tom's bio states that he "began singing original queer-themed songs in coffee-houses and gay pride events in the late seventies. His early albums "Gay Name Game" (1979) and "All-American Boy" (1982) were among the first in this new genre." It's clear we as a culture have still got a long way to go - but it remains amazing and encouraging to find a document like this one. Piano-accompanied, cheerful, witty ditties that are mostly about being gay, with a definite Broadway/cabaret feel, it's got some signifiers of gay culture, but this is a proud, confident record: there's nothing flaming here, no drag queens or screaming queers; he's got nothing to prove to anyone that wants to judge, no time for hate. Just a record about how he experiences life. My favorite song is "1:00 AM", a painful dialogue about an unsuccessful pickup (Guy 1: "You have a job?" Guy 2: "Yeah, I work in a restaurant." Guy 1: "Oh that must be fun! Good money, too. I've always wanted to work in a restaurant." Guy 2: "I hate it. But it's a job.") Nothing particularly gay about the humiliation of getting turned down in a bar at 1AM, except that it lets one guy perform both parts; in any case it's a really poignant piece, so bitter and banal you don't know whether to laugh or cringe.

Other highlights are "Second Runner-Up", a good-naturedly pissed-off romp addressed to Anita Bryant (whoa... try that page without the "3.html" part - someone seems to be parking on Anita's real estate!) whose title references her failure to win the 1959 Miss America pageant, and "My Leviticus" ("Men shall spill their seed, if they want to... That's my Leviticus"). There are a lot more songs here of course, but after a while the gentle, innocuous humor gets kind of stale. To be honest, I have a hard time getting through the whole thing - delightful singer-songwriter cabaret-pop, even when it's peppered with the occasional moment of urgent pathos ("Takin' away our hopes, our kids, our lives / Comin' at us with fire, and Bibles, and knives..."), just isn't my thing. I need something a little more oblique, something that makes me back up and say, WTF dude, what are you even talking about?

Something like "Lesbian Seagull".



Buried in the least visible place you can put a song, the fourth of seven songs on Side One, you still get the feeling he might have thought he had something special with this one. The acoustic guitar and soaring organ chords that augment the piano set it apart sonically from the rest of the album, and the lyrics, well, I can't really do the thing justice except to say that "Lesbian Seagull" kind of just leaves me stunned and speechless. Still and all, it fits in with the gently wacky mood of the record, and maybe it could have been a lost classic - but fate had another plan for "Lesbian Seagull". Yeah, it was in Beavis and Butthead Do America.

What's the real legacy here? Who gets to say? Which context has more significance, more meaning? If Mike Judge and I both single that song out as being, like totally WTF, bro, FTW, does it help or harm the original message of Gay Name Game as a whole? Does it matter?

Gay Name Game occupies, through accident of alphabet, the spot in my collection next to the eponymous (and only) album by New York City's feyest psych-rockers ever, The Wind in the Willows, released in 1968. It's hippies gone bananas! You see a record like this and all the ridiculous Summer of Love hype of fills you with revulsion, or nostalgia, depending on your birth year and cultural identification. On the front is a hippy-dipped-out-tripped-out painting of moon and stars over a lush field of flowers and trees; a ghostly Toad in a boat and his buddies, ghostly Mole and ghostly Whatever Other Characters from the Famous Book by Kenneth Grahame inhabit a lazy stream and its banks as the painting continues to the back. A photo of the band is charmingly cut-and-pasted into the field on the front: five earnest, dreamy, bearded young men and two young ladies, all wearing a restrained but unmistakable version of the youth uniform of the day: there's the Paisley, the Couch Upholstery, the Ruffly Ascot, etc. It's a bit of a somber mood overall, but for sure a period piece.

I've played this record more since Frances grabbed it for me than I ever had before, and it hasn't really grown on me - but then, I didn't hate it before. I've just gotten a little more comfortable with it. There are a couple songs I really like even: the opener, "Moments Spent", has a Love-like orch-pop lushness to it; their cover of the beautiful Everly Brothers song "So Sad" is tender and touching, a nice choice for lead vocalist Paul Klein's full, earnest and slightly overdone croon. I love the sound of the band: the seven members play a small orchestra, including harpsichord, double bass, flute, vibes, bassoon, piccolo, chimes, and (hippy alert!) tamboura. Speaking of tamboura, Side One's closer is a monster: "There Is But One Truth, Daddy". This is the one where the Indian drone-lute really gets its time in the spotlight. Paul (I think it's Paul), in a deadpan that manages to be sensitive and dreamy at the same time, reads a passage from the book (from a chapter, incidentally, called "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" that inspired another, more iconic band around the same time), and it's a doozy: full of stuff like "and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered". As he reads, the band trances out, organ, drone and all; I picture them swaying woozily and staring fixedly at a point a million miles away. After the passage is done, the ladies chant: "Be sweet to those whom fairness shows / Remind them of the good things they've chosen / There is but one truth, Daddy / There is but one truth, Daddy..." This one's got some nice shimmery finger-cymbals on it, too: pricks of light like stars in the early morning sky.

The only songs that I really have a hard time getting through are the old-timey numbers. I've complained about this a lot: take some psych record with some decent rock songs and some trippy acid folk or whatever and if it's from the 60s and there's someone wearing paisley on the cover you can be sure that sooner or later some asshole with a kazoo is gonna show up and the band's gonna ruin the party with some unbelievably lame vaudeville crap. What is it with hippies and vaudeville? Just awful. There's a few really bad kazoo songs on here, including a Roger Miller cover ("My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died", whatever that means) - but as I've mentioned before, musical torture is kind of part of my aesthetic, and I enjoy experiencing the album as a whole, so I usually do try to power through these. They do not make me smile, though.

So anyway, this band is famous, not for its crappy kazoo-drenched old-timey numbers, nor for its beautiful chamber-pop arrangements, nor for "There Is But One Truth, Daddy" (though they should be famous for that!), but rather for its finger-cymbal and tamboura player, who got way more famous nine years later as the furiously intelligent, angrily ecstatic, stunningly beautiful chanteuse who led one of my favorite bands to worldwide fame: Deborah Harry. That's right, Blondie was a hippy. (I know, she's not Blondie, I know, but their mainstream success obscured the fact that Blondie was a band name, like the Ramones or Television, commenting in its oblique way on the condition of the society around it, and not a quirky, new wavey nom d'artiste for a weird popstar. There was even a half-hearted effort to combat this - I'm not sure who was behind it - in the form of the slogan "Blondie is a band" that appeared on stickers and buttons and stuff, but I think in the end the band was wise to let it happen, and let the name mean whatever it meant. Once you decide on it and put it out there and people buy it, it's not yours anymore. The medium is the message, right?) So now any time you ever see the record, it's really expensive and someone has made some kind of indication that the pretty girl behind the main guy is, in fact, Her, and then you look and you're like, oh yeah, look at that, she has brown hair, whaddaya know, as if it was some big surprise to learn that she dyed her hair blond once she was in Blondie, I mean ok, I guess I was surprised but really, I guess my point is, poor The Wind in the Willows, their record even made the Top 200 and now the only reason anyone cares about it is cause She was in the band. And the arrangements are pretty and the songs are sensitive. Really, really sensitive.

No, really. Blondie is a band. The Wind in the Willows is a band. Deborah Harry's gargantuan presence and charisma overwhelmed both projects. But who owns the legacy? I own the records, and I prefer to allow them to speak for themselves.

So. Two records, two obscured messages, two inevitable-in-retrospect twists of fate, hanging out right next to each other in the "Wi" section of my record shelf. Just the type of thing that makes me love my filing system. For the Wi, my friends, FTW.



Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Void

Part 1: Night of a Hundred Beers



About ten years ago, my old band, Fat Day, went on our sixth or seventh tour. This tour involved a mini-opera that we wrote ("Oskarrensaga"), for which all the props were inflatable pool toys. Like all Fat Day projects, it was meticulously conceived, detailed to the point of obsession, immensely joyful for everyone who experienced it, and barely promoted or marketed in any way, beyond the almost-strategy of "rely heavily on friends in other towns to make cool shows for us and get their friends out to the shows". I think we secretly loved toiling in obscurity - it certainly made it more fun for the lucky few who did stumble across us, like they were members of some secret, elite club where people got to have fun and were free to just do stuff. And so they were. Anyway, it was fine for a band that wasn't particularly interested in increasing its fan-base beyond the bearded, awkward dudes hanging around the edges of the pit at cool punk shows. It's kind of impossible to describe how much fun it is to put on an explosive, homemade and totally new spectacle for a basement full of sweaty young people in a small town. And unless you've done it, it's hard to know the joy and satisfaction that can come out of getting totally ignored by anyone cool in a big city when you're trying to do the same thing - as long as it's a ridiculous enough thing to keep you entertained along with the twenty or so random bar-goers, weirdos, and rabid Fat Day fans who might show up in a town like Chicago.

Chicago. My home these last five years, I highly recommend it to all who ask. But there was a time when Chicago represented the low point of any tour, a place where no one knew my band or wanted to book us, but we had to stop here anyway cause how else were we gonna get from Kent to Fargo? The first tour set the scene for the experiences in years to come: we had a show with a tough-guy hardcore band at the Fireside Bowl, but the day we were gonna come play it we learned that the Fireside Bowl wasn't doing shows anymore, so the show was canceled. So we were saved the embarrassment of being the nerds in a room full of tattooed floorpunchers, instead spending the day in a traffic jam on the Kennedy Expressway on our way to Rockford. Welcome to Chicago!

Subsequent shows didn't treat us much better. Another that sticks out is the one where we thought we finally had the Chicago thing licked. Years later, we'd found our niche with the anarcho-vegan crowd, and got a show through some Boston ex-pats at the A-Space, a zine library / anarchist bookstore with a punk basement. Rumor had it that Martin from Los Crudos was planning to be at the show (was Limp Wrist playing? I don't remember!), and we had these super awesome analog synth helmets that we'd built ourselves and had written some pieces for. Fat Day 2.0 was in its infancy, ready to spring into full flower, and this was gonna be our coming-out party for the Chicago scene, and then all the punks in the world were gonna love us cause Martin was gonna be blown away and write about us in his zine and then MRR was gonna put us on the cover and Kill Rock Stars were gonna put out our records and we'd be famous! Punk-famous, anyway, which was what we wanted. I think. Anyway that's of course not how it worked out. There was a lot of humidity that day, and our helmets, ever sensitive to moisture in the air, decided not to work, so our always-laborious setup time was even longer than usual, and depressingly silent, with lots of uncomfortable shoe-gazing by the punks that came out for the spectacle. We finally went on without the helmets, our disappointment carrying over into a lackluster performance that didn't change any minds.

The Chicago icing though, the best Chicago show by far, was the "Night of a Hundred Beers". As I mentioned, we were doing this rock opera thing, Oskarrensaga, which involved, among other things, us inflating a sea serpent, a couple of swans, and a giant beach ball that we had painted to be an ogre head before each show. It was so awesome. Weasel Walter from the Flying Luttenbachers, an ally from way back, had booked the show, and his improv project Exoskeleton was playing, so it was sure to be a winner. No. No it wasn't. Weasel hadn't promoted the show, so no one came. There were these two kids that had driven three hours from downstate to see us cause they were, you know, fans, and then I think there was this one drunk guy and these three or four super done up teen girls who had ended up at the Fireside randomly. The evening wore on, and no Weasel, and no audience. The one other band that had shown up played (the charmingly named "C-Lit" from Detroit) and it got to the point where we just had to suck it up and do our set. As we were setting up one of the girls (who were pretty drunk) came up to us, batting her eyelashes and doing her best seductive coo, and said, "Um, it's my friend's birthday. Really! So could we like, play your instruments?"

Their version of "Happy Birthday" was so much better than anything Fat Day could ever have done. It was also the event which forever sealed Chicago's fate as the Worst Place for Fat Day to Ever Play.

Weasel eventually showed up as we were finishing our setup, and he brought his crew with him, the dudes in his band and also the dudes not in his band. As we finished our setup and played our set they remained in the bar, drinking and drinking. Apparently they had billed the show as, yes, the Night of a Hundred Beers, and so their mission was to, right, drink a hundred beers.

Welcome to Chicago!

(I just realized, I might be conflating two experiences that happened around the same time: in 1999 I went on tour with a band called the 914, and they played at the Fireside, and then the Fat Day Oskarrensaga tour was in 2001 or 2002 I believe, and had a Fireside stop as well. Exoskeleton played one of these, and Weasel booked the other one or possibly both. I don't actually remember which one was the Night of a Hundred Beers, so please forgive my faulty memory and correct me if you were there.)



Part 2: The Void



Weasel Walter first entered my consciousness sometime in the mid-Nineties, when my friend Morgan co-released a couple of the earliest records of his band, the Flying Luttenbachers. Morgan loved the way Weasel just went ahead and made it safe to put the free-jazz saxophone skronk in the DIY underground rock world. So did I. My band and I and our little scene always considered the Luttenbachers and their Chicago scene that included the Scissor Girls (the "New No Wave" scene) to be an evolution parallel to ours. The personality was a little different though: their abrasive aesthetic and complete embrace of art-as-revolution was a little cooler than the way Chimp Rock (yeah that was our scene) mixed no wave and noise with typical Boston obsessions like melodic indie rock (or in Fat Day's case, straight-ahead punk and hardcore). They were truer to their disaffectation than us emotional Cantabrigians. Still, in a world where you could count the people who found such dissections meaningful in the hundreds if not the dozens, they were kinfolk. The Scissor Girls played in my basement. Weasel wrote a song for my band.

Thus I describe Weasel as an ally, and so he remains. He eventually came to concentrate on drums, and the ever-shifting Luttenbachers lineups made it clear that it was simply the name he used for his solo project. His musical taste became better defined, and sometime around the early 00s he coined the term "brutal prog" to describe the suspension of all things sharp and angry that he mixed and matched in various solutions: death metal, free jazz, and the particularly ugly, symphonically-scaled prog rock of Magma and their "Zeuhl school" followers.

What can I say? I like it. Frances hates it. She picked it, though.

I guess Weasel's kind of an angry guy. He channels it into some great goof, though, as this clip from Chic-a-go-go shows. Few people make misanthropy seem so downright fun - or are they actually trying to make fun scary? I think they start with a lot of both, twist them all up together, and spit it out in a way that's just barely acceptable.

This record Frances picked, The Void, is from 2004 ("recorded... under the illegal Republican occupation of the U.S. government") and completes the Luttenbachers' 4-year project to chronicle the future demise of humanity over a series of albums that also includes 2001's Infection and Decline and 2003's Systems Emerge from Complete Disorder. The story, not a narrative so much as a loosely-defined plot on which to drape the ear-violence that Weasel and his friends here perpetrate, involves disease, its defeat of us people, establishing of a new order and eventual total cleansing into void. I guess it's the void itself that this album depicts. Unfortunately, I can't bring myself to listen to the other two records at the moment - I was fascinated by this project when it was happening back in the day, and while I still view it with a kind of respect and awe, I'm done with it, at least for now - so I'm not prepared to talk about how The Void is void-y, at least when taken as part of a larger work whose purpose is to trilogize the tale referenced above.

I do have some experience with the Flying Luttenbachers, and even more with music in general, so I think I can attempt to characterize its voidiness in those contexts. It's voidy. There's a lot of musical content, which is certainly not apparently voidy - but musical content is sound, a great medium to use if you want to describe the shape of something shapeless, having as it does no physical substance. If sound equals void, though, why can't we see the shape of nothingness in any given piece of music, like, say, "Fly Me to the Moon"? The content of music is emotion, and the closer you look, the more you find that emotion is what's been rigorously removed from The Void. (I suspect it's hard to find in any of Weasel's music, which makes it kind of arbitrary which album is actually the voidiest - but perhaps this is reason to think of this record as the clearest expression of his musical ideas.) There's a ton of proficiency; it's tightly constructed in its stream of consciousness and seemingly impossible to play, but there are no hooks at all, nothing to grab or take away. Anger? Rage? Nothing so emotional, no - the execution is passionate in how it avoids these. It's like these guys are playing until they sweat buckets and their arms fall off just to show how much they don't mean it. They really, really mean that they don't mean it. That's what separates Weasel's vision from his most obvious influences, and what makes this record such an achievement for him: it expresses what one can't in words, that the only logical response to all the hatred and misanthropy out there is to pull it inside you, remove its teeth and claws and present it back to the world nullified, as the shape of the void.

I get it. I feel the same way, or at least I have at times, and indeed the accepted narrative is that the infection of detachment and irony is the defining stance of my generation - those of us who were teens during the selfish 80s and formed our worldview in the years after Punk Broke. Meaning stuff is so dangerous for us. Our idealistic parents and little siblings don't get it, but we saw first-hand how the Firesign Theater turned into the National Lampoon and the Jefferson Airplane turned into Starship; Gallagher showed us that the hippies that went to Woodstock were the same yuppies that created Reagan; we saw how the coin was flipped and the revolution became its own undoing, and we vowed that we'd never give in. Our passion was in being whatever because whatever is the only thing that can't be turned into its opposite.

There's a hole in that argument though, which is that ironic detachment's nice when you've got the means, but not everyone can afford it. Some people don't have the luxury of not meaning stuff. "Gen-X" disaffected hipsterism always rang a little false to me; I always felt that I could see through the void to the other side, where words, actions and yes, music are allowed to have meaning. Despite their evident voidiness, I think the Luttenbachers get it too, their passion channeling into the strong intention to really mean it that they don't mean it. It's a pure void, direct kin to the urge to tell a story about ogres and fairies and populate its relation with pool toys - a liberation of music from the need to mean; by its dissembling, meaning all the things it's not allowed to say.