After Spotify

When I moved to New York from Minneapolis in 1988, I wasn’t looking to set the city on fire, at least not right away. As it turned out, I never did, but that is another story.

My goals were modest: to have a lease, a little  money in the bank, take a few trips each year, and to be able to buy any CD I wanted. It didn’t take long to become a huge success by those modest standards.

It was the early 90s. I realize in retrospect I was  working in a marketing department at the tail end of the Golden Age of Working in Marketing Departments. I was in books, at HarperCollins, and it was a common and lovely practice  to call your counterparts at any publisher or record company  to trade books for books or books for CDs. There were days when the mail drop on my floor would be teeming with jiffy bags and boxes of books and musical wonderment. A lot of it was junk, but you often got  more or less what you asked for, and there were a few serendipitous things I would never have thought I’d like. Nancy Wilson and George Shearing The Swingin’s Mutual, for one. Malcolm McLaren’s Fans, for another. Cibo Mato, Viva la Woman!

Between trading and buying whatever music I  wanted, my New York years produced a collection of CDs so large that it became a major project to pack it up when it was time to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest. I settled on large 240-cd folios, about six of them, kept some of the nicer big-format boxed sets, and put an ad on Craigslist for 1500 jewel boxes.

Fast forward eight years, and we are living in Kentucky in the age of  Spotify and instant musical gratification. Those folios sit on our porch and I very rarely have occasion to open them. Lo, the larges folios begat smaller ones, the “travel” kind that hold 48 CDs.  I created about six of these smaller collections for the car, but the adding and subtracting of CDs to the car folios quickly became tiresome, and the plastic dividers that hold the cds in place tore and fell apart. And then I discovered how easy it was to  load an IPod with a thousand songs and use it in conjunction with the car stereo. The CDs and their folios got sadder and more neglected, and crawled further under the passenger seat, with the golf  tees, candy wrappers, and empty bottles of Life Water.

And yet. Something in me recoils at limitless choices. From my teens through my mid-twenties, I remember expending much mental energy trying to listen to music I had read about, in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, or the local alternative weeklies in the Twin Cities. With the much-lamented passing of the indie KQRS, radio wasn’t much of an option and if you didn’t have friends who actually possessed the vinyl, you were out of luck. I was desperate enough to go halves on an album with friends, and let the friend keep the physical product, just so I could make a cassette.

I remember once interviewing to become part of a shared house with four guys from the western suburbs–Edina? Minnetonka? Wayzata?, in my mental map of the Twin Cities a mysterious Forbidden Zone populated by the rich, arrogant and decadent. These bros all  had asymmetrical haircuts, used copious amounts of hair gel, went to First Avenue a lot (for the dancy part, not the bands), and were “really into ABC.”

I  didn’t get the place in that house, needless to say, and never had a personal connection to anyone else who shared the communal enthusiasm for ABC. My curiosity had long expired, but just now I got up to speed via Spotify/Youtube. No regrets…..


For some reason, having the luxury of Spotify has taken some of the mystery, and joy, out of being a music aficionado. Being able to hear virtually any song I want on demand, has driven me backwards, made me appreciate serendipity and repetition.  I realize now I really like leaving a single disc in the car CD player for days at at a time. Last week, I played these three until the grooves wore out:

  • The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest (“What is a war if it doesn’t have a general? What’s channel nine if it doesn’t have Arsenio? … What are the youth if they ain’t rebellin’? What’s Ralph Cramden if he ain’t yellin’–at Ed Norton, what is coke snortin’?”);
  • The Stiff Records Box Set, Disc Three (Madness, Desmond Dekker, Tracey Ullman, Graham Parker, Tenpole Tudor, some truly daft things from one-hit wonders….);
  • George Strait’s Strait Out of the Box, Disc Two, his peak years, lots of hard country songs, plus the super-slick pop ones, eg. “The Chair”, one of the best stalker songs ever. A duet with Hank Thompson on “Six-Pack To Go”!

As for serendipity, I had taken for granted that local radio here in central Kentucky would not have much to offer. I didn’t try hard to search for good stations. My prejudice was that there would be lots of mainstream Nashville junk, the occasional classic country station, Christian rock, and cheesy mainstream pop with really obnoxious DJs.

My snobby ignorance persisted for over eight years, and then yesterday, I happened upon a station of bizarre eclecticism that played a succession of songs that were right in my wheelhouse, some of which I had not heard for decades. “I Wanna Be Sedated”! Ten Years After’s “I’d Love to Change the World” and “5:15” from Quadrophenia.

The video below is kind of amazing. I had forgotten I had seen the movie. I had not, however, forgotten a single word of the lyrics, which I hadn’t listened to since college. My teenage infatuation with late-period Who still being something of an embarrassment to me.

The lyrics to “5:15” are complete doggerel nonsense–“The ushers are sniffing/Eau de cologne-ing!”–but like  “madman drummers bummers” etc. from the early early skinny-hippy Springsteen, are somehow impossible to forget.

I realize that to this point I’ve failed miserably to tie this all together. Who can complain about the near-infinity of choices offered by a post-Spotify musical universe? And yet I appear to be doing just that. Something something Surprise Mystery Serendipity Tyranny of Choice. Just saying something has been lost with the absolute freedom of Spotify.

Perhaps a tendentious quote from an obscure Yeats play, Fergus and the Druid, will suffice. For now, it’s all I got:

And all these things were wonderful and great; But now I have grown nothing, knowing all

Semi-secret history of rock ‘n’ roll

The Passing Show, the BBC documentary about Ronnie Lane,  is now online,  in six parts. I own  it on DVD and watch it all the time. You really should spend the money to buy it, but I’d understand if you wanted to check it out for free, while it lasts, anyway.*

If you know and love Ronnie Lane as I do, watch  it. If you don’t know him, all the more reason to watch it.

Lane surfaced in the Small Faces, along with Steve Marriott and Kenny Jones (and later Ian McLagan), one of the best bands in the ridiculously thriving London R&B scene in the mid-60s (the Stones! the Pretty Things! the Yardbirds! the Who! the Kinks!). The Small Faces, minus Marriott and with the addition of Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, became the Faces, who might have been the GREATEST BAND EVER but it’s hard to tell, because their recorded output, while sparkling, is a little sparse. Playing live, they were legendary.

Lane wrote and sang a slew of good songs for Faces, but apparently was not allowed to sing live, except for the opening verse to a cover of “Maybe I’m Amazed.” I read somewhere that Ronnie once posed  an “It’s Rod or me” ultimatum to the rest of the band. If true, that was a fairly major miscalculation. (“Ronnie, we love you, but he’s ROD STEWART”).

While most Faces songs were boozy, bawdy and strutting, Lane’s were modest and introspective, though not without their own wit and raunchiness. Rod’s were Saturday night; Ronnie’s were Sunday morning. His greatest song, to my mind, is “Debris,” a son’s loving reminiscence, centered on the vivid image of his father combing through junk on blankets at open-air markets in London’s bombed out East End.

Ronnie walked away from the Faces at their peak. He took his money (which he apparently kept in cash, in a bag) and (over)paid for an old bus and a bunch of circus tents and formed the Passing Show, which toured the English countryside, with burlesque dancers and jugglers and sword swallowers and his band. No one really knew what they were doing, and everyone had a great time. Until the money ran out. He lived at a ramshackle farm, where his rock star buddies came around to drink and sing songs, and recorded several wonderful but not especially successful albums.

Then Ronnie got MS, which had also afflicted his mother. His famous music mates (Clapton, Beck, Winwood, Page, Charlie Watts) staged a series of benefits for him and for MS research. He got swindled for a shockingly large amount by a woman in Texas, ended up moving to Austin, and became a fixture of the music scene there when he was well enough to play. He moved a final time to Colorado, where the disease took his life.

The documentary is fairly conventional, but the details and love in the tales told make up for the formulaic structure. In this, the first segment, I especially loved Eric Clapton’s account of the first time he saw the aptly named Small Faces: “These little guys came into the guitar shop and they were really little, they looked like they were like four feet tall. It was like hobbits.” And Ronnie’s account of the early days: “I mean none of us could play. I was just learning to play the bass and Steve was just learning the guitar. But that’s all right. We was keen.”

I don’t know why his story resonates with me so much. His music was lovely, homely in the best sense. He turned his back on rock stardom and became a gypsy. He was the original roots rocker. He didn’t give a damn about money. In America, we prate on about following your dream, but always with the implication that eventually the dream will bring material success. Ronnie followed his, and the results were rather more austere.

Can you show me a dream
Can you show me one that’s better than mine
Can you stand it in the cold light of day
Neither can I

* The DVD runs 105 minutes, whereas the online version represents the trimmed 60-minute TV version.

Lady GaGa: “Disco Sucks” redux?

The official video for Lady GaGa’s “Bad Romance” (Alexander McQueen! Haus of GaGa!) is best viewed side-by-side with this inspired fan parody (Snuggies! WalMart bags!). Click here to do just that.

I find the strong reactions Lady GaGa inspires more interesting than her actual music and videos. (I do like some of her songs, but if I’m in the mood for dance pop, I’ll listen to Goldfrapp or the Norwegian singer/DJ Annie.)

Not many are neutral about Lady GaGa. Her fans adore her, and there are a whole bunch of them, but she also really really really gets up the nose of others, including,  predictably, Bill O’Reilly and the always entertaining Westboro Baptist Church, who has singled her out as having a “whore’s forehead” (it’s some nonsense from the Bible, apparently).

"whore's forehead"

There  are precursors to this. You could go all the way back to Elvis, I suppose, but I prefer to arbitrarily start with the loathing Madonna inspired from mainstream media when she first appeared on the scene, and especially (this really dates me) the Disco Sucks promotion night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979.

Don’t remember that one? Here’s an account via the Independent

The precise time and place was 12 July 1979 at Comiskey Park, Chicago, at an event overseen by W-LUP DJ Steve Dahl, under the banner “Disco demolition”. In the intermission of a baseball game between the Detroit Tigers and the White Sox, a huge pile of disco records was covered in lighter fluid and then set ablaze. Anyone who brought disco records to the game for burning was allowed in for a mere 98 cents. Dahl was an overweight, bespectacled shock-jock in military headwear who had himself actually hosted disco parties. But he saw an opportunity and sensed the backlash that was swarming around him. Live on television, the flames sparked a crowd-invasion, the field ended up trashed, and the White Sox were forced to forfeit their second game. The event made the international news.

It was the end of an 18-month campaign that had been brewing across Middle America in order to contain the music that had so caught the popular consciousness. That it was picked up by the media with such enthusiasm demonstrates the latent hatred that had been festering. Disco was diametrically opposite to the macho posturing of white rock – and since there were no bands in disco, no tours, or souvenir T-shirts, it was difficult to quantify. A few journalists wrote passionately about it, but in the main it was ignored or treated with disdain. As Craig Werner writes in A Change Is Gonna Come, “The Anti-disco movement represented an unholy alliance of funkateers and feminists, progressives and puritans, rockers and reactionaries. None the less, the attacks on disco gave respectable voice to the ugliest kinds of unacknowledged racism, sexism and homophobia.”

Is this all a bit strong? Maybe. And I really can’t stand seeing those final three words strung together like that. It sounds like a paper written by a sophomore at a very expensive, mediocre private college. But I do agree that virulent anti-disco, anti-Madonna, anti-GaGa reactions (typically from “overweight, bespectacled” types) usually stand in for something deeper and nastier.

more about “YouTube Doubler Beta | Mashup Helper“, posted with vodpod

Camera Obscura: More lush, orchestral melancholia …

… and it adds up to the sweetest thing.

Not to mention the fact that this video is absolutely wonderful. Attending  a costume do at a country house as Simon & Garfunkel, and meeting friends there dressed as the cover art from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors?!  Someone please invite me to these parties!


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