September 29, 2003

Happiness is Death

Has anyone ever been totally happy with his own album? Can anyone ever be totally happy with anything? I think the answer to both questions is probably no, though a good friend of mine, arguing to the contrary, recently alluded to "all those people walking around in an ecstatic self-worshipping delusion in love with the sound of their own juvenilia." I guess there are such people, but most of them are probably in fact just as torn apart by inner doubts as anyone else and just haven't realized that the pretense of auto-enthusiasm doesn't always serve them as well they think it does. I'm not discounting the value of pure bravado, which works way more often and more thoroughly than it ought to. But I find I'm not often very impressed with super- self-confident people: there's rarely much of a basis for such high self-regard, so in the end they tend to seem kind of stupid. (Maybe "happiness" isn't exactly the right word, though happy people tend to seem kind of stupid, too; I suppose what we're really talking about is Satisfaction. But mis-using the word "happiness" in this way arguably creates more arresting aphorisms, so I'm sticking with it.) To adapt a platitude, happiness is just another way to say you've run out of ideas. Or so it seems to me.

Anyhow, we've got a finished, mastered album. I'm still at a loss as to exactly how to characterize it. It was once a collection of disparate ideas and ambitions each with boundless potential, many of them originating many, many years ago; it is now an inalterable artifact. I have to say I'm pleased with it overall, though there are still all sorts of little things I would have done differently if I had known what they'd be.

As I've written before, the process of writing, arranging, recording, mixing and mastering songs amounts to an endless series of compromises, and the compromising begins as soon as you wake up in the morning, before you even touch the guitar. From the very beginning, when it's just you and your guitar and your notebook and your cat in your bedroom, certain choices you make close off other choices. You may leave some questions open, as the cat doesn't really care, but at some point down the road, the choices gradually become more and more permanent, till they are, in the end, permanently permanent. Every point in the process, whether it's the choice of words, notes, chords, beats, sounds, musicians, instruments, speakers, effects, room, mics, etc. unavoidably leaves a mark on the resulting song, some for good, others for ill, most embodying an ineffable combination of good and ill, if such a thing is possible.

Your band will play it differently than you heard it in your head, which will sometimes be an exhilarating improvement and other times will make you want to kill yourself. When you try to get the band to approximate the head version a little more closely, you can wind up with something different from either. The more you play it, the more it changes. You start to wonder whether you can even remember what the original head version sounded like, or whether it was ever any good in the first place. In those cases where the band version is better than the head version, you'll find it extraordinarily difficult to get it to have the same effect on tape as it did when it "happened" that first time. And even if everything goes perfectly and you do wind up capturing the band version of the head version exactly as it was meant to be, you'll still wonder whether something is missing. And you'll be right, of course. Something's always missing.

Once you have all the tracks you can afford, you're faced with the absurd tragedy of mixing, which is like something out of Lewis Carroll: you turn something up, and something else is automatically turned down, as though by a pernicious, invisible hand; you turn that up and something else is turned down; you turn everything up and you're exactly where you began. And so on and so forth. Eventually, all the ideas, the ambitions, the mishaps, the fortunate accidents, the technical, the "spiritual," the result of every compromise and decision great and small must be flattened into two complementary pancakes, one on the left, the other on the right. Once this happens, your further pancake options are closed forever. There comes a time when the only change you can make is to delete the entire track. And at the risk of revealing just how melodramatic and sentimental I am about such things, that is just about the saddest thing I've ever heard of.

Nonetheless, that's where we are now. The one remaining decision, as far as the CD itself is concerned, is whether to drop one song which seems to have missed the mark a bit more than the others. (It's the most sonically adventurous arrangement, so leaving it off would tilt the character of the album towards "normality" in a small but significant way.) The other thirteen tracks, despite my obsessive-compulsive disorder, "feel" completed and appropriate and more or less effectively executed: that is, I believe they manage to get the songs across, which is the main point, and to work together as a whole, which is the other main point. The question is whether the album would be more complete, or less complete, if we leave the song off. I'm not sure if you realize just how amazing it is to have only one song in that category. I've released albums where every song is like that, where the album would be more complete if you deleted the entire thing. Maybe I'm exaggerating there. Though maybe not. Anyway, that song is on the borderline: ditching it will leave a hole, but retaining it might leave a hole as well. The question is, which course of action will result in the most attractive hole? That's the question.

On the whole, though, it's the best-sounding thing we've ever managed. It's certainly the most carefully recorded and planned album I've ever been involved in. And the songs, I think, are quite good. At some point, a point which is approaching very soon, my "happiness" in the matter will become irrelevant. All will be in the hands of a more or less indifferent general public, a small subset of which will take it personally (as they're supposed to) and pick it apart and argue and complain about it endlessly. Each person who bothers to listen to it will create their own "head version" of the album which will have as much to do with their own circumstances, needs, beliefs, etc. as with anything I or the band intended. If the past is anything to go by, some people will say it's the best album we've ever done, some will say it's the worst album we've ever done. Some will content themselves with withering commentary on our hair and clothes, which is in the end perhaps the only truly valid criticism. So it will go. It should be fun.

By the time it is officially released, I'll already be working on the head version of the next album. In fact the next album begins the second the the master arrives, and I'm already well into it. Three months from now, people will mention the "new album," and I'll have to pause for a moment to remind myself that they're talking about the stuff I was doing last year.

Have a good time, and rock out as much as you can. It comes out in about three months. Synchronize your watches.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 02:55 PM | Comments (22) | TrackBack

September 24, 2003

Playing Around

I'm doing some solo shows in mid-October with the legendary UK punk rock singer/songwriter/genius T.V. Smith. He's the guy behind the short-lived but extremely influential band The Adverts, best known for the brilliant single "Gary Gilmore's Eyes" and the classic album Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts, which is one of the finest albums to come out of the '77 UK punk scene. (And I'd say it's arguably the only really cohesive album qua album out of all of them.) It's perhaps less well-known that he's still at it, and has been putting out interesting, idiosyncratic records of carefully composed songs ever since they broke up in '79. He has a new album coming out next month, in fact. He's a great writer.

I still have extremely vivid memories of listening to the Adverts' records (and stuff I taped off the radio) at around age 13, trying to figure out how to play "Gary Gilmore's Eyes," thinking how cool it would be to be in a band like that, telling my friends "you've got to hear this 7"" and totally enjoying it when they looked at me like I was crazy. And trying to "write" my own songs like that, which didn't work out all that well but was worth a shot. (That song wasn't that easy to play on my dad's old spanish guitar because it had a minor chord and I hadn't figured out what those were yet-- all I knew is the chords I knew sounded slightly wrong. It was frustrating. By the time I figured them out, the guitar had been beaten into splintery, unplayable fragments that could not be taped together. I probably should have taken lessons or something...)

Anyway, it's pretty weird to think that I'm going to be playing shows with that guy now. Or I will be if I can get over being star-struck, at least enough to remember how my songs go. (There was one show a couple of years ago when I realized Jules Shear was in the audience and I quite literally forgot my own name-- "uh, I'm, um, um..." Luckily, someone happened to know and called it out, softening the brainlock and bringing that particular identity crisis to a close, but it was touch and go there for awhile. I'm going to have to write it down this time, just in case.) I've never seen TV Smith play, and I have to say I'm really looking forward to it.

As for what I'm going to play, I'm not sure, but I had this goofy idea that I might try to play the new album from front to back. I'm not sure if I could pull off some of the songs solo, but that would be the challenge, wouldn't it? I'll probably chicken out and do some familiar ones with new ones sprinkled in, as usual. But Bobby J., the MTX bass player, is probably going to play bass and/or guitar on a a few of the songs.

Anyway, the shows:

Tuesday, Oct. 14 -- Thee Blank Club, San Jose

Wednesday, Oct. 15 -- Cafe du Nord, San Francisco, with Penelope Houston.

Thursday, Oct. 16 -- The True Love, Sacramento, with Kevin Seconds. (Two shows, I believe.)

Friday, Oct. 17 -- Echo Lounge, Los Angeles.

Saturday, Oct. 18 -- X Records, 2484 Hamner Ave., Norco, CA, (909) 270-0999

Sunday, Oct. 19 -- Brick by Brick, San Diego.

I'm pretty sure that Saturday show is just going to be me, as T.V. Smith is playing at the Showcase Theater with the Vibrators (!) and I don't think they could get me on that bill. It should be a good time over at X Records, though.

More details will be forthcoming if they emerge and if I somehow end up knowing abou them. See you there, if you come. Well, I mean, obviously.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 06:54 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

September 18, 2003

post recording

Via Greg McIlvaine's studio blog, here's an interesting article on the drawbacks of the growing trend of ever increasingly loud CD mastering.

And speaking of studio blogging, Ken Layne has been at it as well, documenting the recording of his album. Check it out.

As for my studio blogging, I've finally succumbed to the fog of mixing and mastering and haven't been able to formulate a coherent thought on it. Thoroughly confused. In most ways, and all the ways that really matter, the album is essentially irrevocably past the point of no return, that is, even if something major needs to be changed, that's just tough. Pretty much, anyway, though some sonic tweaking, shuffling the sequence, and even the wholesale deletion of entire tracks, are theoretically still on the table. Unless we want to upset the entire program and schedule. But somehow, refraining from articulating it dulls the pain. Oh, there it goes. Ouch. I haven't heard the master yet (though I hear it's nice) but I'm not sure my fragile constitution can take it to be perfectly honest. Fate is a river, hope is a paddle, etc. Another report will be forthcoming if I ever regain my composure.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 05:49 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

ohh la la land

From Friedman's column on French perfidy:

What is so amazing to me about the French campaign - "Operation America Must Fail" - is that France seems to have given no thought as to how this would affect France. Let me spell it out in simple English: if America is defeated in Iraq by a coalition of Saddamists and Islamists, radical Muslim groups - from Baghdad to the Muslim slums of Paris - will all be energized, and the forces of modernism and tolerance within these Muslim communities will be on the run. To think that France, with its large Muslim minority, where radicals are already gaining strength, would not see its own social fabric affected by this is fanciful.

If France were serious, it would be using its influence within the European Union to assemble an army of 25,000 Eurotroops, and a $5 billion reconstruction package, and then saying to the Bush team: Here, we're sincere about helping to rebuild Iraq, but now we want a real seat at the management table. Instead, the French have put out an ill-conceived proposal, just to show that they can be different, without any promise that even if America said yes Paris would make a meaningful contribution.

But then France has never been interested in promoting democracy in the modern Arab world, which is why its pose as the new protector of Iraqi representative government - after being so content with Saddam's one-man rule - is so patently cynical...

But what's most sad is that France is right - America will not be as effective or legitimate in its efforts to rebuild Iraq without French help. Having France working with us in Iraq, rather than against us in the world, would be so beneficial for both nations and for the Arabs' future. Too bad this French government has other priorities.

And, via the Belgravia Dispatch, this hilarious excerpt from Le Figaro:
Sample graf: "...le probleme pour Jacques Chirac, aujourd'hui, est de transformer sa popularite dans le monde en influence sur le cours de l'Histoire. Quelle capacite a- t-il d'imprimer sa marque sur le destin de l'Irak ?....Il a moralement gagnČ la guerre. Reste, concretement, ne pas perdre la paix."

Translation: "The problem for Jacques Chirac, today, is to transform his popularity in the world into influencing the course of History. What capacity does he have to make his mark on the destiny of Iraq?...He morally won the war. What's to not lose the peace."

Posted by Dr. Frank at 05:21 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

September 16, 2003

All of a sudden, the world just got smaller and milkier...

It's world of laughter. A world of tears. A world of hopes, and a world of fears. It's a world where they have drive-through milk stores, if you can believe that. And it's a world where, apparently, the following actually took place.

I just got this email (bearing the title "When Worlds Collide") from Michele, famous blogger and this blog's generous, blogspot-removing benefactor:

So, I go to the drive-through Dairy Barn a few minutes ago. I'm playing Revenge is Sweet on the stereo. The kid hands me my gallon of milk through the car window and says "OH MY GOD! You're listening to MTX! I LOOOOOOVE MTX! Dr. Frank is the greatest! OHMYGOD I love him sooo much! Did you know he has a weblog? He does! It's, with a K, not a C. CHeck it out, he's so RAD!"

All in like two seconds. She didn't even give me a chance to get a word in. I just smiled and said "Cool, I'll check it out!"

What are the odds, eh? I'm sure this girl found it every bit as bizarre that a drive-through milk customer was listening to Revenge is Sweet as Michele found it bizarre to hear a cute, enthusiastic little advert for from a member of the Dairy Barn staff. There is, of course, just one moon and one golden sun, but this is pushing it, wouldn't you say?

The MTX-aware are a pretty small, incestuous, and cozy group, so chances are I know this girl, or at least have talked to her or corresponded with her in some way. I kind of wonder who it was. Anyway, whoever you are, thanks for the plug, and keep up the good work! We'll get 'em all eventually, one gallon at a time.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 02:50 PM | Comments (21) | TrackBack

TV's Rogue McCainiac

To my surprise, and believe it or not, this interview with Tucker Carlson almost makes me want to consider reading his kiss and tell book about cable news, though that's the kind of thing you think and almost never wind up doing and it's pretty unlikely that I'll actually do it in the end. He's funnier and more interesting outside Crossfire than he is within it, I'll say that.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 02:19 PM | TrackBack

September 15, 2003

Artificial Intelligence? That's the worst kind...

In keeping with the notion of trying to stimulate discussion and interest by letting bits and bobs of the album and album related stuff slip out gradually, and since I mentioned it below as a thematic touchstone, I'm posting the lyrics to "Everybody Knows You're Crying." (I don't know if it really has stimulated any interest other than mine, but I know the whole process of forcing myself to write about this stuff publicly has kept me engaged in way I rarely have been before-- often, by this time in the process, the songs are old news I'd prefer to forget.)

If I had an extra 40 bucks lying around, I'd run it through the Hit Song Science Polyphonic Human Media Interface and find out just where it falls on the Proximity and Affinity scale compared to "Angel" by Shaggy Featuring Rayvon and Juice Newton and Steve Miller or "All the Small Things" by Blink-182 and just how wrong all my choices have been. (Thanks for HSSPHMI link, Lynn.)

Herewith, the lyrics:

Everybody Knows You're Crying

Everybody says you shouldn't cry
everybody's standing by
and everybody's gonna roll their eyes
if you ever do

Everybody says it's not too late
and you can still participate
you take everybody's bait
and everybody laughs at you

they'll leave you crying all alone
they'll say they wouldn't have if they had only known
but you see the reality behind their indulgent stares:
everybody knows you're crying,
no one ever really cares

Everybody thinks you're a little slow
everyone wants you to know
they went through the same thing long ago
and it wasn't that hard to do

Everybody says they sympathize
you stand by while they describe
someone you don't even recognize
that's supposed to look like you

but they never can explain
how to live with such spectacular pain
and when you're at your weakest
they advise you to be strong
everybody says they've "been there,"
everybody must be wrong

ooh ooh ooh everybody knows you're crying

they send their love
and love is loud
they feel it's greatly to their credit
and they're proud
of their compassion
and it's true
but it doesn't have a lot to do with you

and you can't escape the conclusion,
though you don't like what it was:
everybody says they love you,
no one ever really does.

© Dr. Frank, 2003, Itching Powder Music (BMI)

Posted by Dr. Frank at 04:24 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Clear Thinking and Passion

Independent columnist Johann Hari has written some of the best and most interesting post-9/11 commentary, and is one of my favorite writers. Now he has a spiffy new website. It includes archives of his articles, which is nice as the Independent's recently-instituted pay-per-view policy made them unlinkable for awhile there.

I'd recommend browsing through the articles in the "Against Tyranny" category, and checking back often. (Johann's site is extremely well-organized, which is rare among journalists' personal web sites. No weblog, though, which is a shame, as this guy was pretty much made for blogging.)

Posted by Dr. Frank at 03:52 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 11, 2003

Airbrushing the Terrorists Out

Harry Hatchet provides some interesting, insightful commentary on the newly complicated intellectual, moral, and emotional world that confronts Leftists/"Internationalists" in the post-Cold War era. The springboard is this article by Roger Burbach, which casts post-9/11 US policy as a failure to have drawn the proper political and moral lessons from the Pinochet coup thirty years earlier, in effect presenting Saddam Hussein as merely the latest in a long line of Allendes. Whether or not that comparison is quite as thoroughly crazy as it sounds, it is clear that the impulse to react to contemporary events as though it were still 1973 is a strong one in some quarters and that indulgence in it doesn't often result in the clearest or most useful thinking about contemporary affairs. Harry thinks he knows how and why, and it seems to me he has a point:

Both events merit remembrance, both tell us something about the US, the world and how it has changed but the coincidence of the two anniversaries is unfortunate in one respect - it allows some people to escape from the uncomfortable truths about the atrocity at the World Trade Centre and take refuge in the comforts of old cold war certainties...

When the method of hegemony meant the US supporting Pinochet, Saddam or the Contras against 'our people', then it was easy for the left to decide where it stood. But when the method involves liberating Afghans or Iraqis (our people?) it makes things complicated. It involves a rethink and rethinking is not something a large part of the left seems to have much capacity for.

Aside from the intellectual challenge, the aftermath of September 11, 2001, was difficult for many on the left for emotional reasons. It was not hard to declare your solidarity for Chileans. it was strange to be in a position where your sympathy was with the America people, to see the citizens of the world's powerful nation as victims - we hadn't been there before.

Clearly some have found their 'solution' by airbrushing the terrorists out of the story of September 11.

We should remember Chile and honour the victims of the coup. But the coincidence of anniversaries cannot be used to escape from the complex realities of the present into the safety of an era that has ended.

It is a complex situation but surely not that difficult for internationalists?

When the US moved against Chilean democrats it struck against all those who hoped for peaceful social change in the world - we stood with the Chileans.

In the same way, the terrorists of 9/11 struck not just against America but against all of us who wish to live in a peaceful and free world.

They are not just America's enemy.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 08:24 PM | Comments (18) | TrackBack


I've never been a great one for commemorations and anniversaries and what not, though I say it with deep respect for those who feel differently when it comes to important matters. If I were capable of coming up with a few eloquent, perspective-restoring words in commemoration of the date, I'd give it a shot, but I know I wouldn't be able to swing it. There are those who can and have, though: if you haven't already looked in, check out Michele's Voices.

Despite this, I will say that the relatively trivial experience of catching a glimpse of the characters "9/11" on the top bar of my computer does thrust a tiny spike into my sense of well-being and peace of mind, as a purely personal, largely self-referential matter: it brings back the barest ghost of the sensation of that horrible and surreal day, of being distantly aware of, and strangely out of touch with, my own feelings of confusion and astonishment in the out-of-focus background, while the sharp image in agonizing focus up front was the suffering and anguish of my dear friend Tristin, whose close friend was among those murdered on AA Flight 11 . In truth, though, this is something you never forget, and today is not much different than any other with regard to remembering it. If you're in a commemorating mood, you could do worse than to read or reread Tristin's letter/article about her experience. That's what I did.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 05:02 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Niceness Factor

The album, so far, sounds Really Nice.

Still working like crazy on finishing it up, of course, but it's looking good. We'll have a few more "all-nighters," and probably bash away at it right up till the last second before the mastering on Tuesday. Funny how that always happens, no matter how well you do and no matter how much time you have. As of now, around half the songs are basically completed, though they may still need some tweaking here and there. (I would give one of my more or less essential limbs to have a couple more weeks to devote solely to creating and managing subliminal, tweaky, texture-y sounds. Then another two weeks to sit back and worry over whether we "went too far" and have the argument that always concludes "you can never go too far." E.g.: "I want the third bubbly noise-- the retarded distorted one on the left-- to burble in the fade-out and the backwards reverb feedback recedes, but do you think it might be burbling to much?" "You can never burble too much, you know." "Hmm, maybe we should turn up the burbling then?" "No, that would be too much. Are you insane?" Wild eyes, incontrollable shaking, dubious, self-questioning internal monologues all around. I love that kind of thing.)

The "done" ones include some of the most complex songs, arrangement-wise: "London" (which doesn't have a lot of parts, but the ones there are have to be balanced perfectly, which is more of a challenge than that presented by arrangements with a zillion interlocking tracks) and "Fucked Up on Life" (which is probably the most complicated arrangement we've ever attempted.) I think they sound really nice, but I also admit I have no perspective anymore. Ask me in around three years and I'll tell you whether I think this assessment of Niceness is warranted.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 03:08 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 08, 2003

The damn album still isn't finished, is it?

So I'm back in the USA, with a touch of jet lag, a still-unfinished album and a sheaf of obsessive compulsive notes (as I explained earlier.) We're really going to have to get cracking finishing it all up-- we've essentially got one week before Doomsday, i.e., the mastering date, after which everything is irrevocable.

In spite of the fact that it's not done, and the outlines of the final, final version are still pretty fuzzy, we're still supposed to be working on, or at least thinking about, other aspects of the finished CD, like the artwork, packaging, sequencing, etc. This is a bit strange, because all of those things are supposed to be subordinate to, reflective of, the essential character of the actual recorded music. It's a common situation. (One reason so many albums have incorrect lyric sheets is that the artwork/packaging had to be put together before the final versions of songs--which often change in the studio-- emerged.)

When I really get into it, I'm probably going to work up a post on the whole sequencing nightmare. Few people realize how important it is (as evidenced by how many albums are poorly sequenced) or how much of a headache it can be.

As for the other stuff, the first step is the title, which is still totally up in the air. Although it's the catchiest, most memorable one I've come up with, I'm leaning against "Yesterday Rules" at this point. The song from which that lyric was pulled ("She Runs out when the Money Does") isn't actually on the album, and while that has never stopped us before, I don't think it's a very accurate characterization of the feeling or spirit of the songs that are on it. On the other hand, if the comments on this blog were a focus group, it would come out far, far ahead. People seem to like it.

Despite the fact that it was (apparently) the title of a huge Guns 'n' Roses hit, "Don't Cry" is still in the running. That's because it does reflect a theme running through all or most of the songs. Not simply in terms of the songs that literally reference crying, though there are several, but in a more generalized abstract sense related to the possible, often perhaps unrecognized, double or alternate meaning of that phrase and others like it: it can be a thing you say to comfort someone who is suffering, but it can also be a harsher command pre-supposing an unspoken threat ("or else I'll..."), and sometimes it's a little bit of each at the same time. This is most literally and directly addressed in the song "Everybody Knows You're Crying," but it turns up all over the place in the album. Or it's supposed to. (Once again, I have to admit I feel a bit weird articulating this sort of thing in advance, as I did when I was detailing the ins and outs of the recording process: it seems a bit unseemly to telegraph this sort of thinking. Yet, I figure if you're going to do the Expose the Sausage experiment, so to speak, you might as well go the whole hog. I'm hiding nothing here, folks, though I realize it may make me look a little silly sometimes.)

Another advantage of "Don't Cry": it's a concrete image that will be easier to illustrate than something abstract and clever like "Yesterday Rules."

Or we could take a totally different tack. Part of me would get a kick out of calling the album "Sounds Good, Let's Move on." In fact, it's cracking me up right now. But that's more of an inside joke, only meaningful to me, the band, and the small subset of listeners who are also blog-readers.

Speaking of which, one idea for the CD is to include some of this studio journal stuff. What I'm picturing is a kind of mini-blog on the "enhanced" part of the CD itself, with live links so that people could leave comments directly from the CD if they happen to have an internet connection. I don't know if that would open a blog-swamping can of worms or not. I suppose we're dreaming of an album that would be successful enough that it would. Still trying to figure this, as everything, out. What do you folks think?

Posted by Dr. Frank at 02:50 PM | Comments (33) | TrackBack

The Rural Voyeur

I've written a bit here and there and now and then in this blog about the glories of rural Norfolk's scenery, though I suppose I really mean "atmosphere" rather than scenery per se. That is, it's not so much the way it looks, as the way it feels. It's a total accident that I ended up even knowing about it-- I'm related to it by marriage. Yet I've been coming here periodically for a few years now, and it's like nowhere else I've ever been. A bigger sky than Texas and ten times the atmosphere, along with a unique sort of spookiness.

Though he can hardly have been the first to notice, Noel Coward famously invoked Norfolk's "flatness" as a metaphor for an unsatisfactory emotional state in one of his plays. I think that's taking things a bit too literally, though I'm sure it got a laugh. Yet "flat" it is, especially compared with the terrain in England's other regions. It takes no more than a slight upgrade to make you feel as though you're the tallest thing for miles; you often find yourself standing on the center point of a horizon that is as close to a perfect, level, unbroken circle as anywhere you're likely to see. (Outside of Kansas, maybe, and trust me: it's a bit more impressive than Kansas, somehow.) Thus, a decided lack of claustrophobia, a novelty especially if you're used to navigating the Frogger-like streets of London. It also means the sky is huge, obstructed only here and there by the occasional scraggly tree or distant church tower. In the monochrome winter, when the trees are at their most skeletal and the sky proves, during the three hours or so of "daylight," just how many different shades of grey there can be, it conjures an otherwordlyness I've never felt anywhere else. It's just you and the sky, and you're basically standing in the middle of a black and white photograph. Yet even in summer, at those times when the sun is unobstructed, there's something "funny" about the light. The colors are muted, distant. Even the summer feels bleak, somehow. It's a matter of temperament, taste, and, I imagine above all what you're used to, but I find this distant-feeling, spacious, lonely, uncanny bleakness incomparably beautiful. You walk out the front door and step directly into a watercolor painting. I'm sure there are other places on earth where this happens whenever you step outside, but this is the only one of them I've ever been in.

It's an atmosphere that invites introspection, a feeling of detachment from the "real world," almost a painful awareness of oneself. I'm no expert on nature or naturalists or anything, so I don't know what I'm talking about, but I think I've heard that there's a notion among people who are "into nature" and hiking and so forth that they like to lose themselves in the landscape, feel as though they're "one with nature" (if indeed anyone ever says phrase that un-ironically-- someone must, sometimes, or must once have done so at any rate.) For me, though, what makes the Norfolk coastal countryside so impressive and striking is precisely the opposite: you can't blend in to it. You feel like an alien substance, almost utterly separate from what seems like a static, or at least a slow-motion, backdrop, like you've been cut out and pasted in to a world which has been punctured and the color slightly drained from it. It's a weird and powerful sensation.

And have I mentioned the dear little hobbits? Biffins, Bofurs, Bracegirdles, Proudfoots, etc.? They'll bring you back to earth, so to speak. They live in sweet little houses built from stones gathered from the seashore; I'm quite confident that when we are safely out of earshot they turn to one another and say things like "there's queer folk about, and no mistake," rolling every "R." But they don't quite seem to blend in all that well either. The landscape sets itself apart from hobbits and Big Folk alike. Believe me, I realize how fortunate I am to have been able to "live" the north Norfolk coast (or at least to spin it) as a quaint, Nazgul-free Lord of the Rings fantasy rather than as some kind of Straw Dogs scenario... And yeah, I may be exaggerating just a teensy, tiny bit about all this, but what the hell... it's really nice out there.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 01:34 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 04, 2003

If you turn it on, we'll alternate all night long

Matt Welch has a great article on the role of blogging as an alternative alternative in the Columbia Journalism Review.

It goes without saying, really, that the reason I noticed it is because it contains a link to this blog, as part of a "short list of favorite news commentators in the world"-- thanks Matt! I'm sure the visitors from the link, in view of the public's insatiable demand for punk-rock singer/songwriter news commentators, might in the end be a bit bewildered at the navel-gazing, neurotic studio journal cum travelogue into which this blog has morphed recently. You get to write about whatever you feel like when no one's paying you. That's the glory and the tragedy.

Anyway, Matt's article ably covers and provides sensible answers to the "is blogging journalism?" question that always hovers over the issue. (Literally speaking, as Doc Searls once remarked, bloggers are indeed journalists. I may not be much, but I'm literally more of a journalist than Maureen Dowd, who is more of a semaine-ist, if I'm not mistaken. I know, I know, the essence of Real Journalism isn't how frequently you do it; it's more a matter of figuring out a way to get the most money out of doing the least amount of it. That's where bloggers fall short, have it rather backwards in fact, and it's a sensible goal, surely. At least, I hope that's what they teach you how to do at J-School. Isn't it? Not that I'd know, of course. See what I mean about being able to write whatever you feel like?)

My favorite part of Matt's piece, though, is the behind-the-scenes look at the recent conference of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, an organization more or less dedicated, by the looks of things, to the vigorous propagation of the "dull pieties of official progressivism," to use Welch's memorably adapted phrase. ( How'd they let Welch in, anyway? Must have been some mistake...) Welch documents, incidentally, a semi-official Pretense of Hostility to Religion litmus test among those in the International Order of Self-perceived Journalistic With-It-ness. Far out, man. As a whole, it provides a more or less classic illustration of how an Old Guard (any Old Guard) will let go of its long out-of-date pretensions as the Avant Garde only when you pry them out of their cold, dead, wizened, alternative hands. Matt's prying as hard as he can ("...never in my life have I seen a more conformist gathering of journalists...") But so far, Alternative is still here to stay, as someone once said. Sad bastards.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 10:18 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

September 02, 2003

Yes, darling, but is it art?

One of the nice things about visiting England is that I usually get to see my friend Chris. I know him through my wife, who knew him when they were growing up in Norwich; he has London roots, however, and now he lives in Essex. Anyway, he knows more about music than anyone I have ever met. And unlike me, he seems to have the energy and attention span to keep up with new stuff. When the two of us start talking about music, practically no one we know can even pretend to participate, even though they like a lot of the same stuff-- the conversations require a certain amount of stamina, if not monomania. The other night at the Light Bar in Shoreditch we gave up the pretense of a collective social gathering. Or rather, everyone else did: we were essentially banished to our own table.

The curious thing is, though we grew up on different continents and were unaware of each other's existence, somehow we ended up being interested in pretty much precisely the same things. Like many kids, we both grew up seeing the world, and in a way our own questions, frustrations, and confusion about what life is about, how things are and how things ought to be, through the prism of the contents of our own individualistic, deliberately idiosyncratic record collections. (My source for pop esoterica was chiefly the import section of the Tower Records on Columbus in San Francisco, to which I gravitated because the people who tended to stand in this section flipping through the records tended to look cool and impressive and freaky. I would wait till they were finished and had moved on, because they scared me just a bit, and then I would quickly snatch and purchase random things I'd never heard of just because I liked the song titles and because they looked obscure. In at least a couple of cases-- the TVPs and the Soft Boys-- this led to lifelong obsessions.)

One thing comes up continually in such discussions: an incidental, yet important, part of that whole experience inevitably involves misunderstanding certain things about the music and musicians themselves. Some of the misunderstandings are based on things you read or heard somewhere; some begin life as reasonable inferences; and some you just make up because they seem interesting. Such misunderstandings contribute to a sort of personal mythology that in the end reflects a kind of truth about oneself, even if many of the illustrative details turn out to have been quite wrong. I don't believe I would have figured that out in anything like the same way without all my conversations with Chris. We really seem to have had pretty much the same record collection, and to have derived similar, though not always identical, inferences, epiphanies, lessons, and what not from them, to have stumbled upon some of the same truths about some things through some of the same misinterpretations about something else. The differences are instructive, the similarities downright uncanny. In other words, what we have here is an Amercan Anglophile and a British America-phile: two people separated by a common obsession with the Television Personalities.

We got together a couple of times in London this time, at the Light Bar, as I said, and at the Lamb and Flag near Covent Garden. As always, we talked a bit about current state of science on the subject of Dan Treacy, the TVPs' singer/songwriter/genius who had such a big, unlikely influence in forming our personalities and outlooks on life. As kids, we only knew him through his recorded music, generously augmented by our own romantic imaginations. (I think Chris saw the TVPs a few times in later life, though I never have; and he swears he saw him in street person mode at a London park a few years ago near the beginning of his famous disappearance, the incident that led to my own, oft-maligned song "I Don't Know where Dan Treacy Lives.") But as I've written before, knowing a person through his music isn't the same as knowing the real guy, even though it often feels as though there's no difference. As time went on, and as this or that plain fact about our hero or a newish interpretation of this or that song emerged which arguably contradicted or undercut the mythology, each was an occasion for self-examination. A new avenue of appreciation opened up, which cut across (or perhaps rather, ran concurrently with) all the others: the one which charts and puzzles over the evolution of your own understanding. Thus, a gradual transition from a naive to a more complicated understanding of what music ("art") "does." And for some reason, you can end up loving and appreciating the music just as much as or even more than before.

I've always felt that this background process is at least as important as what's in the foreground. I doubt, however, that I'd have arrived at quite the same understanding of it if I hadn't been able to compare notes periodically with a test subject other than myself. The other day, at the Lamb and Flag, the Other Test Subject (I admit-- it's a small sample) said between sips of Guiness what I've been trying to get at above much more clearly and simply: "the stuff you got wrong, yeah, is almost more important in a way, because that's the part that comes from you." And I think that is so right.

Is Music Appreciation always so radically subjective? I suppose at the level of obsession/fanaticism it usually is, even when you affect a kind of critical distance. It's impossible to disentangle the thread of "what it really sounds like" and the thread of "what it really means," from the thread of your experience of listening through the years. After that Bob Mould show, I put on New Day Rising for the first time in quite awhile. I paused briefly to marvel at how the New Day Rising that I remember, the one that always plays in my consciousness, "sounds" quite different from the poorly-recorded, relatively amateurish, bass-less, out of control actual recording. That lasted only a split second, though, as my mind immediately and automatically set to work filling in all the "missing" elements; the New Day Rising of the mind is far more powerful than anything that can come out of a speaker. I'm "hearing" it-- the "head version"-- now, in fact, and it's glorious. It's the Real New Day Rising. It can beat up your New Day Rising any day.

If I had never heard the Television Personalities before, how would I react if someone handed me And Don't the Kids Just Love It, say, and said "you've got to listen to this, it's brilliant"? I know from experience that there are those who, in this situation, turn out to be absolutely immune to this record's charm. (And I'd be less than honest if I failed to note that this itself plays a small part in its appeal, then as now.) They go swiftly from "okay, let's hear this dude you're always blathering on and on about" to "are you out of your mind? Take it off! Take it off! Quickly!" They do. Philistines.

Well, I'd like to think that even as an alleged adult I would recognize, upon hearing "Silly Girl," "Smashing Time," "Stranger to Myself," "This Angry Silence," or even "Where's Bill Grundy Now?" or "Little Woody Allen," that this was some of the most direct, sensitive, honest, engaging, sad, lovely, most "human" music I'd ever heard. But there's no way of knowing, as it is utterly impossible to imagine what I should be like as a person who had never heard these songs as a kid. The long-term experience of listening and thinking and mythologizing far outweighs the immediate experience of listening alone. It's all bound up in the initial experience of hearing it as teenager, being shocked at how much more "relatable" and less affected it was than the "normal" music all my peers liked, thinking something along the banal lines of "wow, this guy 'gets it' and I'm the only one who knows" and so on, as the initial reaction developed and was made complicated over the years. What it "really" sounds like is a relatively minor part, whether or not I pretend otherwise. When it comes to stuff I love, I'm a great Appreciator, and not much of a Critic. I imagine that goes for anyone who has, for his own acknowledged or unacknowledged personal reasons, fetishized an obscure, quirky, offbeat writer or musician and made the appreciation into a sort of personal totem. (Most fervent pop music fans, in other words.)

The weird thing is that, though I didn't plan it that way, I suppose in a minor way I'm kind of one of those guys myself, i.e., an obscure, quirky, offbeat, sensitive, gormless, stubborn, self-absorbed, unlikely small-time pretend rock star with a cult following (many of the adherents of which seem primarily to value the obscurity itself), liable to slip off the deep end at any time. Lord knows I have perpetrated in public a great many aesthetic and sonic crimes, for which, in certain circles, I am forgiven all too easily for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with anything I have done or have intended to do. "My people" must fill in all my blanks, and make their own silent, well-needed corrections, hear in their heads their own, augmented, enhanced, annotated Our Bodies Our Selves, as I do with the recordings of those among whose "people" I am. I can think of no other explanation for the indulgence so many kind well-wishers have shown towards some of the truly awful things for which I have, on occasion, been responsible. (Thanks very much, by the way.) Well, as everyone always says at one time or another: my music is really quite a bit better than it sounds. So, I guess, it goes.

Those conversations were only a few days ago, but now I'm holed up in Deepest Darkest Norfolk (about which more later perhaps) and they seem extremely far away in time and distance. London's still bustling, smoking, and throbbing, Dan Treacy's still in it somewhere, I've still got the album to fret about, but I'm in another world altogether getting swamped by countryside and there's more to life than rock, so bye now.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 06:22 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack