Michael Jackson and Cultural Relevance

Amid the 24-hour barrage of “news” about Michael Jackson’s death last week, I tweeted, a bit tongue-in-cheek, this question: Is anybody besides me willing to argue that The A-Team was more culturally significant in the eighties than Michael Jackson? My friend Adam wondered whether I and other skeptics were minimizing Jackson’s cultural impact, especially when you consider his record sales, both in the eighties and now, with the spike after his death.

As I commented on Adam’s post (and here comes my entire comment, with revisions), my tweet was half-cocked hyperbole, aimed at the even more hyperbolic coverage of MJ’s life and death. For example, despite the already sanctified media myth, MTV did in fact play music videos from black musicians before Jackson came along.

The man was extremely talented and, for a while, extremely savvy with his image and marketing. I can’t deny that in terms of record sales, Michael Jackson is and will remain a brand name to be reckoned with, but I don’t want to mistake popularity for relevance, or celebrity for significance. MJ is definitely an icon, but he’s also a bit of an empty signifier, a blank page we can project almost anything onto. (Something he no doubt encouraged throughout his career.)

My A-Team reference was a bit facetious, but in some sense, absolutely true for me on a personal level (just as my 5th grade soccer teammate John Booth’s U2 tweet, also mentioned by Adam, was true for him). Of the 12,000 or so tracks in my music collection, exactly one features Michael Jackson (“ABC” by the Jackson Five). Both now and in the eighties the man simply wasn’t on my radar screen (nor were the other titans of eighties pop, Madonna or Prince). Perhaps I am simply pop-musically tone deaf — I’ve never had a Jackson ohrworm. In contrast, I never missed an episode of The A-Team in the eighties, and when I go back and rewatch the show, I have to say that there’s more going on in any single A-Team episode, politically, economically, racially, and historically speaking, than in any MJ song or video.

Finally, I’m not qualified to psychoanalyze MJ’s life (I doubt anyone is), but I think a case could be made that Jackson himself was insecure about his own relevance. This explains why he sought to attach himself to the two greatest musical phenomena of the 20th century that preceded him: The Beatles, by outbidding Paul McCartney in 1984 for the rights to the Lennon-McCartney song catalog; and Elvis, by marrying Lisa Marie Presley ten years later in 1994, thus becoming Elvis’s posthumous son-in-law.

In Jackson’s mind, these earlier musicians were talismans, whose aura might burnish his own (in his mind) uncertain image.

Long Live Rock: Eric Andersen

Eric Andersen, The Tin Angel, Philadelphia, March 1999

Some concerts I remember only who went with me. Some concerts I forget because of who went with me. This show was neither, simply a moving performance I saw with some friends from grad school who are more or less out of my life, though not in any kind of sad way.

Eric Andersen, Ghosts on the RoadI discovered Eric Andersen by luck, browsing the central public library in downtown Cincinnati, summer of 1993, its reading areas dominated by stale, old, sleeping men. I saw this unfamiliar CD in the folk section, the album cover an arresting image of this grim, gaunt man, his face haunted, his eyes dark pools of regret. I took the CD home with me, and I didn’t immediately fall in love with Ghosts on the Road, not at first, but something about the songs compelled me to listen again, and again. The first track that finally pulled me in was “Belgian Bar,” a song that I suddenly realize has influenced my own travel writings, recalling those chance encounters, moments talking to a stranger, that linger in our memories, wisps of magic never fully realized.

Soon I was in captivated by another song on the album, “Irish Lace,” one of the saddest songs I’ll ever know. Andersen’s mournful liner notes describe “Irish Lace” as about two women. One lives not too far away and though she is still around you could say she has gone. The other has long departed this world but I couldn’t say she’s ever left.

I don’t remember if Andersen performed either of these songs that night in 1999, but it didn’t matter. The concert was splendid, full of Andersen’s reminisceces of Philly in the sixties and other American singers — Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Bobby Dylan, Townes Van Zandt — on the vanguard of the progressive folk scene. But even with these stories, the concert was not about seeing a relic, but a troubadour who’s seen something of it all. Live, Eric Andersen was more lanky than gaunt, with a touching sense of humor that betrayed none of the melancholy that first drew me to him.

Eighteen months later I was to see Andersen again, but by then, everything had changed.

Long Live Rock: Elliott Smith

The Black Cat, Washington, D.C., September or October 1998

I’ve been doing this concert series on and off for two years now, and a chance encounter with a bootleg recording of Elliott Smith performing John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” at the Black Cat club cracked open a forgotten memory, a forgotten concert.

In 1998 I saw Elliott Smith at the Black Cat, and I saw him cover “Jealous Guy.” But the performance I saw was not the live version you can find online, generally regarded as the best bootleg concert ever of Smith. That’s the April 17, 1998 show at the Black Cat. I don’t know the exact date, but memory and circumstantial evidence tells me that the concert I saw at the Black Cat was in the fall of that year, late September or maybe October.

No record of that concert exists.

I googled my heart out, scouring the web and local newspapers for a shred of proof that Elliott Smith was at the Black Cat twice in 1998, once when the widely circulated bootleg was taped, and once when I saw him.

Nothing.

It’s as if the show never happened.

I know it was the fall of ’98 because I was no longer living in D.C. and I made a special trip down from Philadelphia to see the show with Eileen. A special trip after we had already fallen halfway apart. By this point, every conversation left us, in Eileen’s words, gutted.

But we had the tickets, we had the plans, we had the Amtrak schedule, we had it all, and we went through with the concert. Back then the Black Cat was in the middle of a desolate strip of 14th Street. Whole Foods hadn’t been built, and gentrification was a word that only flittered across the pages of the City Paper, a word we laughed at in Logan Circle, when we saw the junkies and dealers come out as night fell, their needles sharp, their eyes hungry.

The concert that Eileen and I saw — unlike the gentle bootleg acoustic April concert — was hard-edged, sharp, maybe even brittle. I don’t think Elliott Smith even brought his acoustic guitar. It was all electric, backed up by the opening act. I don’t know their name, but even if I hadn’t forgotten it, it would have been forgettable. When someone from the audience shouted out “Angeles” as a request, Smith laughed sardonically and mumbled something about that song being impossible to play.

It was Eileen who turned me onto Smith. She had a knack for finding tortured, fated musicians. She adored Jeff Buckley, who drowned while we were together. She was devoted to Morphine, whose lead singer died just after we fell apart. And of course, she found consolation in Elliott Smith’s introverted lyrics, his dark view of the world, his bad haircut.

I guess I must sound hurt or angry, and I guess I probably am. I don’t know whether I’m angry at Elliott or Eileen. After the concert, after that night, I never saw either one again, though I sometimes heard and read their words, on the phone, in email, on CD liner notes.

Elliott Smith hung around for five more years, and that’s more than I can say for Eileen. She’s around, but she didn’t hang around.

Ten years have past, and somewhere along the way I had forgotten that show. Most times I forget Eileen too. But every so often, when I’m random shuffling through ten thousand songs, I hear Smith’s “Baby Britain,” and a lyric that reminds me of haunted, frightened Eileen, who, in the end, I hope has found her way: “You’ve got a look in your eye / when you’re saying goodbye / Like you want to say hi.”

Elliott Smith, “Jealous Guy” (Black Cat, April 17, 1998)
Elliott Smith, “Baby Britain” (End Sessions, February 22, 1999)

Pop Apocalypse: Shearwater’s “Rooks”

I’ve always been obsessed with end-of-the-world scenarios, from the original 1968 Planet of the Apes to Cormac McCarthy’s 2007 novel, The Road. I’ve tried to intellectualize my lifelong fascination, even teaching courses on Apocalyptic Literature. But no matter how many fancy words I use in my courses (“a posteriori apocalypticism,” “stigmatized knowledge,” “escalation ladder”), I cannot fully explain why I am drawn to these bleak tales of catastrophe and suffering.

Just yesterday I realized that my obsession with the apocalypse extends beyond literature and film into the realm of music. In fact, I can clearly recall specific periods in my life and the apocalyptic song that was on my life’s soundtrack at the time. Not counting REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” — a predictable contender on any doomsday playlist — here are the songs on my Armageddon song list:

  • In the early nineties it was “The Road to Hell” from Chris Rea’s Road to Hell
  • Later in the nineties it was Leonard Cohen’s “The Future” from the album of the same name (“It’s lonely here / there’s no one left to torture”)
  • In the days and weeks and months after 9/11 it was “The Dead Flag Blues” from Godspeed You! Black Emperor!’s f#a#∞ (“We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine / and the machine is bleeding to death”)
  • And now, the song that prompted this reflection, what I’ve been listening to obsessively, is “Rooks” from Shearwater’s Rook

Shearwater's RookWith the song’s haunting arpeggios and singer Jonathan Meiburg’s resonant falsetto, “Rooks” is at once unnerving and beautiful. The lyrics suggests that the End draws nigh, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Or rather, there’s nothing we want to do about it.

It not so much apathy we seek in the face of the disaster, but obliviousness: “The ambulance men said there’s nowhere to flee for your life / so we stayed inside / and we’ll sleep until the world of man is paralyzed”

Listen to “Rooks” by Shearwater: Download “Rooks” from Amazon.com

Thoughts on Ben Folds’ “Still Fighting It”

My friend Adam over at Random Thoughts Escaping posted the Ben Folds’ video of “Still Fighting It,” along with some thoughts about fatherhood.

I’ve always loved “Still Fighting It,” which got heavy rotation on WXPN when the song came out. I’d never seen the video before. I found it quite touching, despite wanting to resist the sappy father-son footage.

Now that I’ve finished watching it, though, I can phase shift back to my ice-hearted self, and ask this critical question: Why don’t my home movies look like that?

I guess because I shoot with video and not film.

And I don’t have a crew.

Or a baby grand piano.

Or a beach.

But…I do have the kid, and that’s what counts.

Long Live Rock: The Tragically Hip

Toledo Zoo Amphitheater, June 1996

The zoo is a crazy place for a rock concert, but for the Tragically Hip, this Depression-era amphitheater was perfect. And this was years before Gord Downie sang about Gus, the polar bear in Central Park (In Between Evolution, 2004). I like to think that the Toledo Zoo was his initial inspiration for this later polar bear song (“What’s troubling Gus / Is it nothing goes quiet?”). Anyone who has seen the Hip in concert, or heard Gord Downie on one of his solo shows, knows that he improvises extended monologues during instrumental breaks in the songs. On this particular night in June, 1996, probably during “New Orleans Is Sinking,” Downie went on a long surreal rant about bored polar bears panting in the sun in the American midwest, an improv piece evidently inspired by his pre-concert walk around the zoo. I think in this same monologue Downie riffed on dolphins too, talking about how the artist dolphins never swam with the rest of the pod.

I went to the concert with Scott, and maybe he remembers some of the monologue too. The Hip was the only live show I saw with Scott, though he and I saw dozens of movies together. I can’t remember how I got Scott hooked on the Tragically Hip, but I did. A month or two after the concert, when I moved away from Toledo, Scott surprised me with the Hip’s rare self-titled 1987 debut CD. By 1996, with moody songs like “Nautical Disaster” and “Springtime in Vienna,” the Hip had moved light years beyond “I’m a Werewolf, Baby.” How could they not?

As an aside that doesn’t fit in with the usual nostalgic tone of all my concert posts, I have to say that the Hip’s online presence is remarkably rich, a model of what a Web 2.0 rock band should look like. In true “Here Comes Everybody” fashion, the site combines Hip-produced content with fan-generated media. Every set list for every show ever is online — here’s the set list for the 1996 Toledo Zoo show. And fans can add their own concert stories in the “Hip Story Project,” which is essentially a digital archive open to everyone, much like the online collections my neighbors at the Center for History and New Media design.

Funny thing, though, I am not going to post my story — this story here — in the Hip’s archive. It belongs to me and my own collection of concert memories. Ultimately these stories are not about any particular band, or even the concert experience, but something much more intangible. The past. And not just any past. My past.