Deadheads and Haters

August 3, 2007

Every few years, one of Seattle’s free weeklies publishes a semi-ironic article explaining that the Grateful Dead are, in fact, not that bad. A few years ago, it was this review of Dick’s Picks in The Seattle Weekly; this week, Stranger music writer Jonathan Zwickel (one of the few music writers there who I can stand) admits that he, too, likes the Grateful Dead, and reveals the shocking secret there are other famous indie hipsters in Seattle who like the Dead as well.

See, there’s this code of religion in the indie rock world, at least in Seattle, although I imagine that similar rules apply everywhere. Punk is the best music and all of it must be appreciated for its energy and attitude and don’t-give-a-fuck youthfulness, no matter how derivative and boring it is. Not being able to play an instrument is cool because it makes no-talent writers feel like they, too, could be cool by playing in a rock and roll band.

Some classic 70s rock is ironically cool as well, but only if it’s guitar-heavy, second-tier, not-too-serious stuff. You know, the stuff you used to sit through while waiting for the good bands to come on when you listened to “classic rock” radio back in the 1980s. Listenable, not an immediate radio-changer like Journey or Bob Seger, but nothing particularly special.

Also: you have to pretend to like techno/DJ/electronic/whatever they call that videogame music these days, or you’re a dinosaur. You have to pretend to like hip-hop or you’re a racist. You have to pretend an ironic appreciation for disco or your a homophobe. You are allowed to have differing opinions about experimental stuff–noise, black metal, free jazz–as long as you pretend to like at least one of these artists or albums in one of these genres from time to time. Otherwise you’re shallow.

Anybody who’s hung out with “serious” music fans in the last 10 years knows exactly what I’m talking about.

The Grateful Dead are at the bottom of the list. They’re the opposite of punk: no cute lead singer, no thrashing, no tatts. Long meandering songs. Competent musicianship.

A few points to these writers:

  1. Most of us, music fans and musicians included, stopped caring about others’ taste in music some time after high school. OK, you might turn me on to something I’ve never heard before that I actually enjoy–that’s worthwhile. Or I might know that your parties will feature some music that I can’t stand (Gypsy Kings, Norah Jones). But the Grateful Dead are a known quantity. I get nothing out of knowing that you like, hate, or are indifferent to them. All you’re doing is playing the reverse-hipster card.
  2. Deadheads can be really annoying. But so can any type of hardcore fanatic. Sports fans, Christians, gay men who talk about nothing but gayosity.
  3. The first not-so-big secret about the Dead is that their albums were never a good representation of the band. You had to see them live. The second not-so-big secret about Dead shows is that the higher you are, the better they sound. I saw them three times on their 80s and 90s shed tours. The first time I was sober and was so bored I left early. The second time I was stupendously high and they rocked my world. The third time, I was fairly stoned and they were fairly good. Now you may think that’s not a talent, that every musician sounds better high. Wrong. Cheesy, poorly produced pop music sounds worse when you’re high. Some music sounds good sober, better drunk, but not so great high (Rolling Stones, Tom Waits). Some music is attractive when you’re sober, but opens up into something completely different when you’re high (Coltrane, Talking Heads, Pink Floyd). But the Dead are one of the few–perhaps the only–artist for whom one’s enjoyment is directly correlated to how high one is at the time experiencing them.

When people tell me they hate the Dead, I know they’ve never been really high and seen them live. When people tell me they love the Dead, I know they took psychedelic drugs at their shows.

Just like when the entire staff of The Stranger writes about how great Daft Punk was, I know (a.) they never lived through the epic arena rock shows of the 70s and early 80s and (b.) they were all on ecstasy or something better.


Jesse Sykes on Pitchfork

March 30, 2007

Funny interview in which Seattle downbeat alt-country chanteuse (how’s that for criticspeak?) Jesse Sykes disses Pitchfork. She’s right when she says people who buy music based on reviews are idiots–I’m left with a bunch of bad indie-rock LPs I’m trying to sell because of idiot reviews I’ve trusted. (I’ve added Soul Coughing’s 1996 record “Irresistible Bliss” to the list…not sure why I ever bought that.)

But her point about there being so many bands and so many critics was what really rang true. It’s like Lefsetz says–there’s no mainstream anymore. Everybody can play the guitar–or at least garage rock barre chord guitar. Everybody can sing–or at least indie-rock sing (slightly out of tune to show you don’t care) or amateur hip-hop sing (talk in rhythm over a beat). There are still the skilled workers in the background, the DJs and producers and drummers (especially drummers…thank God for good drummers), but everybody between the ages of 20 and 40 is in a band, was in a band, or has friends in a band. They all think they’re good. And with so many bands, and so few of them on the radio, and so few people with enough musical conviction to trust their ears, nobody knows what to listen to anymore. Hence the demand for all these new critical outlets. I mean, Rolling Stone and Spin haven’t been relevant for years to anybody but rural teenage mallrats. So instead we’ve got Pitchfork and college radio station bloggers and weekly paper bloggers and bloggers and more bloggers, with no particular credentials, but a lot of opinion.

So I can see why Jesse, who puts an enormous amount of effort into her music, is frustrated because some kid in Chicago didn’t like her album after a couple listens. But she’s also right–in the long run, if you really have something to say and you have the craft and patience and talent to say it well, then you’ll survive.


You know, just sort of that kind of indie rock thing

January 19, 2007

I used to be a skeptcical music buyer, purchasing new records (always records) only after I’d heard them, in their entirety, at somebody else’s house. Then, in 2000, I took a risk on The Moon and Antarctica by Modest Mouse and was completely blown away. It captured the feeling of growing up angry and jaded in a woodsy Seattle suburb in the 80s and wandering through the woods thinking big thoughts about life and death. I felt like I was 17 again.

So since then, I’ve occasionally bought records based on reviews or recommendations from friends or musical acquaintances whom I respect as players. Some of these work out OK–usually fairly obscure music that never gets any radio play even on college radio, like Friends of Dean Martinez or Secret Chiefs. And I still love the old standbys like Yo La Tengo. (The last song on their new album is the best piece of music I’ve heard come out of the indie rock world in years.)

But the other day I found myself looking through my record collection and seeing a lot of these indie rock records–the “you know, just sort of that kind of indie rock thing” pushed by Pitchfork and KEXP–that I really don’t like and will probably never listen to again. Like:

Calexico‘s last album. They used to be so interesting. Why would they do a straight indie rock album?

Wolf Parade. Issac Brock produced it, which I guess is why it sounds like junior-grade Modest Mouse.

Broken Social Scene. Not bad, but I cannot imagine ever listening to it again.

My Morning Jacket‘s last album, Z. I’ve tried about three times, I keep thinking I should just put on Crazy Horse. (I really liked the album before it.)

The Rapture. Big mistake thanks to reading Pitchfork a couple years ago. (Best album of 2003? Are you kidding me? I don’t know what was, but it wasn’t this.)

Of Montreal. Again, not horrible, but I doubt I’ll ever listen to it again. (This is one of their older ones, not the one with that let’s pretend we’re in Antarctica song, which is pretty decent.)

The Walkmen. Horrible mistake thanks to some chick in the Amoeba in SF who saw me considering it and said it was really great. I think it was the guitarist’s girlfriend or something–they were playing in town that night.

I am getting old. I put on David Bowie’s Low the other night and wondered why nobody makes good music anymore. I mean, what happeened to the spirit of adventure that let this platinum selling pop star make a great experimental record consisting mostly of instrumental synth tracks? Even the indie rock bands all sound like each other, like their only goal is getting on the radio.

Although at least I’m not as old and jaded as this guy.