July 05, 2003

I Summer Where I Winter At

I saw Bob Mould at the Great American Music Hall the other night. I don't get out much, and even though I dearly love BM's music and have found delight and inspiration every time I've seen him play, I don't think I would have made the effort to go if it hadn't been for the fact that Kevin Army, a close friend and the guy who produces all my records, was on the bill as the opener.

This is a bit sad, but I have to admit: I rarely see shows anymore unless I or one of my friends happen to be playing. Even sadder, the latter is pretty rare, too. Most of my experience of clubs is hanging around in them waiting to go on. The process of going to the ticket window, giving my name and ID to the ticket girl, saying "I, um, think I should be on the list," getting the little tickets, handing them to the door guy and walking in was far less familiar than it ought to have been, and I didn't handle it quite smoothly. When the box office girl handed me the tickets-- which look like those little tear-off movie tickets-- my first thought was "why are they giving me drink tickets?" This was followed by "hmm, maybe Kevin, knowing I like to drink a bit, left them at the door for me? Oh, right, these are the tickets to get in! Duh!" At the door, I gave the guy the tickets and stood there like GHWB in front of a supermarket checkout, a clubbing naif, totally confused. I finally had to ask "so, uh, what do I do now?" He gestured and said something like "up to you, buddy." So in I went, feeling like a total idiot. Which I was. I should do more of this kind of thing. I'll get the hang of it eventually, I'm sure.

Anyway, it was a great, great show. Bob Mould has lost a great deal of weight, and I didn't even recognize him when he walked on stage. I thought he was a sound guy or something. Then there was this surreal moment when he picked up his guitar and strummed a characteristic chord-with-jangly-open-strings, and with that sound the unfamiliar figure on the stage suddenly snapped into focus visually, sort of "morphed" into the real Bob. His distinctive voice, the mere sound of which for me always conjures an instant cascade of memories, little snatches of what life felt like during various stages over 20+ years of listening to it, completed the "picture." (I understand that mistaking sounds for visions is a characteristic of schizophrenia, but in this case - I'm pretty sure - it was a function of a mildly consciousness-altering collision of emotion, memory, experience, and art.)

During the first half of the set, he played a 12-string acoustic guitar. The second half was electrified (no amp, though-- just one of those guitar sound emulator boxes that I'd describe better if I understood how they work.) Much of this second part was also accompanied by techno backing tracks, songs from and along the lines of the experimental stuff on the Modulate album. He had told Kevin backstage that the techno stuff was "all he was really interested in these days." There was, perhaps, a bit less interest on the part of some audience members, and I'd say the reaction was mixed. Some people really got into it though, and it was kind of fun to watch little pockets of thirty-something alterna-types getting into the spirit of things by busting out the dance moves, many of them adorably awkward. I didn't try to do any dancing, as that would have been wrong, but I did think the techno-y portion of the show was great, all the more so for being unexpected. And really, I would enjoy listening to Bob Mould sing in pretty much any context.

The best part for me, though, was as so often before the beautiful, moving, unadorned rendition of "Celebrated Summer" that closed the second encore. It's hard to explain exactly why, since it doesn't have that much to do with the literal content, but I always get a little choked up when I hear this song, particularly when caught up in the immediacy of the solo singer-songwriter presentation of it. I'm getting a little choked up just remembering it now. I guess that's how the emotion/memory/experience/art collision gradually builds its power over time. Or maybe I don't understand it all that well, at that. Whatever: I'm content to enjoy the mystery.

Kevin Army's set was great, too, in a (for me) slightly different way that I think is worth mentioning.

I've met Bob Mould a couple of times, but I really only know him through his music. One of the strangest and most powerful things about the singer-songwriter/audience relationship is this disconnected but oddly genuine-seeming intimacy you can feel towards someone you don't actually know. I know from the experience of being on the other end of it that this intimate "knowledge" of another tends to be inaccurate, sometimes wildly so. Knowing a person in person just happens naturally, while knowing someone through their songs takes some work and diligence, and there's no real way of knowing whether any inferences you make or impressions you get about the real guy are true. It doesn't matter whether or not they are, really. I can hear Bob Mould's often cryptic or buried lyrics, feel genuinely moved by them and try to explore why; in the process I may learn something about him, or I may not. His songs have meant something to me, so I feel this sort of affection not just for the songs but for him personally, which is the most natural thing in the world, but which is in a way kind of turning the concept of "affection" on its head. What I'm getting at is, it's not the same as a real relationship with a real person. But it can sure feel a lot like one.

Kevin Army, on the other hand, I have known well for close on twenty years. (I first met him somewhere between Zen Arcade and New Day Rising, so the time frame is roughly equivalent.) While I might, perhaps, learn things about him from his songs, a great deal of my experience in listening to them is colored by my knowing him personally. It's not exactly the opposite of the Bob Mould situation, but it's something like the inverse of the kind of relationship I was talking about. Just as I can't imagine what it would be like to hear a BM song knowing him primarily as a person,I can't quite put myself in the position of knowing Kevin only through what I can gather from the experience of listening to his songs. (If Bob Mould was my best friend, would some of the lyrics that seem cryptic to me now be less so? They might. The song would still be great, but to what degree might it be "differently great"?) I had never thought of it in quite that way before, but seeing the two songwriters in juxtaposition, I was really struck by it.

Despite having an "inside track," however, I think I'm right in saying that Kevin's songs are not in any way cryptic, and nothing is buried. They are rather remarkably, nakedly personal and direct, and they often leave the narrator/singer/character "entity" exposed in way that can be unsettling, uncomfortable, painful even. It's all simply out there. Many, if not most, of his latest crop of songs focus on the experience of being gay, and the process of self-exploration that results from coming to terms with the realization relatively late in life, as he has done. Some are affably-presented, relatively light-hearted treatments of this or that phenomenon or topic associated with gay culture, such as "Rainbow Cross". Others, like "Poster Boy for the Holocaust" or "Did Anyone Die Today?" are unnervingly direct and only sparsely encumbered with distancing devices. As my wife remarked during the set, it's like reading someone's diary. Even when they present you with it and say it's okay, you feel a little uncomfortable peeking inside.

Some of the songs are rather complex compositionally, with the occasional songwriterly bell or whistle that makes someone like me smile inwardly and say "good one." Many have quite beautiful melodies, and they are presented on stage with a good-natured, casual, even slightly goofy manner which relieves the tension. But the material is powerful and really doesn't pull any punches. I don't mean to make it sound too "heavy," because it doesn't quite come off that way. Much of it is fun, but it can be a complicated kind of fun.

Not all the songs are gay-centric, though as with all metaphoric language, the hints and nuances can cut several ways. "Take Me Away in a Helicopter," about the death of his father, is eminently relatable and even, I think, approaches actual poetry. "Flying Low," an old favorite of mine, borders on what I think rock critic types may occasionally mean when they pluck the word "anthemic" from their hoard of imprecise, intelligent-sounding terms. (Sounds good to me, and hey, it's better than "seminal.") It "feels" like a classic song that somehow has always been there, and evokes sentiments that would resonate with anyone who has ever felt that merely getting off the ground at all would be a signal achievement -- which is to say, I'd guess, practically everybody.

There's even one newish tune which deals with yet another angle of the bizarre complex of music-related redefinitions of what personal intimacy means. (I suppose that's the vague theme of this post.) I reckon you've never heard anything quite like "The Ghost of Jesse Michaels," which concerns the strange situation of the recording engineer/producer's intimate involvement in the work, but not the life, of an artist. I heard it for the first time that night, and it sounded like a "hit" to me.

Kevin has spent most of his career producing recordings of other peoples' songs rather than his own. You can't buy a record of these songs, and he doesn't play out very often. I hope someone puts them out someday, though. There truly is nothing quite like them, which is something you can't often say about music these days.

I didn't begin this post intending to write such a lengthy "review," or even intending it be a review at all. One thing I learned from the experience of watching Kevin and Bob is that there are still new things to learn, new angles on music and songs, and sometimes you may have to leave the house to stumble on them. Maybe I'll do it again one day.

Posted by Dr. Frank at July 5, 2003 08:55 PM | TrackBack

Good stuff.

My own relationship to this sort of thing is that when I started working for large book companies in NYC, about twenty-five years ago, and thus had access to hundreds of free books a month that were, you know, great books I really wanted, I went into a many years lapse of taking interest in buying books, given the vast overflow of books I wanted to read but didn't have time for, and the ability to get books from almost every other company simply upon request, as a "professional courtesy."

It's terribly confusing when such relationships are made a life less ordinary.

Posted by: Gary Farber at July 6, 2003 02:57 AM

I like Bob Mould for his great dancing.

Posted by: Richard Bennett at July 6, 2003 03:51 AM

Really great stuff.

Posted by: spacetoast at July 6, 2003 06:43 AM

...so great that I won't even mention my disappointment that there will be no forthcoming pics of Dr. & Mrs. Frank getting down on the dance floor.

Posted by: spacetoast at July 6, 2003 06:46 AM

This website is an example of something that might be very related to this post. I am a fan of the songwriting of Dr. Frank. I stumbled upon this Blog not very long ago, and I'm getting a side, seeing some writing, that isn't necessarily meant for the listener, or the fan. Yet it's somewhere in the middle there because it's not like getting to know the singer/songwriter personally either. It's just this zone. This other world, that maybe you weren't meant to know about, or maybe you were. Maybe it's okay, maybe it's not. I'm pretty sure it's okay here, but there is this weird sense that this is another side of the singer/songwriter you listen to that isn't produced for the fans of the songwriter's songs. That's a pretty cluttered statement but hopefully it makes sense. Anyway, when I first foudn this website, which came out of some sort of internet search or something on Yahoo, I kind of felt like I found Frank's Live Journal, which obviously not what it is. Although it would be hard to say the difference, i'm assuming it wouldn't be hard to use a livejournal as a blog, but I've never understood internet diaries. Those are meant to be locked and pressed under your mattress. Anyway, I feel a tad like a Voyeur reading this... oh yeah, and I'm a fan of bob mould. Did i get away from the topic?

Posted by: Chach at July 6, 2003 07:33 AM

Superb post. You should let yourself go and write at longer length more often.

Also, I'm married, 40, have a hard job and 4 kids. But you must, must, must get out to see bands at least a few times a year. I'd say, at this point, go ahead and stand in front of the stage with the regular people, too. That's where the show is.

Your discussion "about the singer-songwriter/audience relationship" is very perceptive. Same with writers, too. You do have a personal relationship with the person whose art you find moving, but it is pretty much one sided. The artist just broadcasts out into the void, and some stray postcards or emails or odd notes in crayon get handed back. It is not really a bilateral thing. The "person" whom the fan perceives "behind" the art may not have much to do with that person as a day-to-day person going about their business, or especially the probably over-glorified image many fans will have, even when they ought to know better. And it is always wrong to think that the artists work can tell you about the artist in any simple way. Douglas Patey wrote in his biography of Evelyn Waugh that Waugh's books were not so much autobiographical as "creative re-imaginings" of the actual events of his life. This phrase struck me as just right. It describes what happens very often with songwriters and poets, too. They re-imagine rather than simply depict, whether cryptically like Mould (or the guys from Mission of Burma or Wire, for example) or very directly, like your friend Kevin. But even in his case, there is a process at work which means that the guy you know and the artist who can be "known" through his work are pretty different people. This is so even if he wants to just "be himself". And most artists are a weird mix of lust to be in the public eye, and private or even reclusive and defensive attitudes. For example Merle Haggard writes very plainly, but he has said repeatedly that the "I" in his songs is always not him, but a character in a story. He is an actor wearing a series of masks, which allows him to be heartbreakingly personal.

Kevin's manner of diluting his intense subject matter with a "good-natured, casual, even slightly goofy manner which relieves the tension." Is very interesting. Bob Wills said the best songs have sad words but happy music. He was the master of that. It was his way of getting his personal hardships turned into art in a way the audience could handle, most people would just get drunk and dance, and the few people in the room who bothered to listen would get a tear in the eye -- so he hits everybody. Similarly, I have spent the last year listening to a lot of cub. That was a band with a light or even sugary surface, but with very great emotional depths. In fact, on the last album when they tried to make the "serious" ones sound heavier, the broke the magic spell. Anyway, this was a similar trick to what Ol' Bob Wills was doing.

Whoa. This comment is excessively long.

Keep up the good work.

Posted by: mjl at July 7, 2003 03:50 AM

Sad words + happy music = Fastbacks!
Also, Lisa from Cub did a brilliant collaboration with Kim from the Muffs called The Beards. Highly recommended.

Posted by: Mike at July 9, 2003 09:47 PM
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