Saturday, September 12, 2015

800 Words: Performance Part 1 (Updated)

A monkey could stand in front a band and do what I did last night. If anything, he'd be better than I was.

The position of the modern band leader everything that is wrong with music wrapped into one job. All you need is to be vaguely able to carry a tune and lack inhibitions and you can whip any audience into a state of excitement frenzied enough that a girl could come to the stage and fellate you and nobody would think there's anything weird about it. 

I had to be honest in the way I advertised for last night's concert, because I honestly didn't know if I could make it through the performance. So I simply wrote on Facebook: "Not gonna lie. The best advert I can do for tonight's concert is that I'm currently the most depressed I've been since probably July 2013. That means I will either give the best performance of my life or everything could go so wrong that you'll never forget it as long as you're alive. Either way, it'll be a great show." 

Fortunately, it turned out to be the former. It was the performance that both saved Schmuck and defined the nature of what the kind of band it will be going forward. I felt truly free onstage last night as I hadn't since I was eighteen years old, and under similarly dire circumstances which I needed to rise to. When I was eighteen, depressed to the point of schizophrenia-like symptoms, I came within a hairsbreath of being thrown out of boarding school and possibly being thrown out to the streets (I doubt my parents would have - but I doubt I'd have had the wisdom to know how to get along with them if I came back to their house). All that saved me was that at the moment of my lowest ebb, the high school was putting on the first few scenes of Fiddler on the Roof during Parents Weekend, and in a moment when the future of my very life may have been on the line, performing Tevye saved me.

Last night was not quite as dire, and yet the need to rise to the occasion, and the oasis I felt onstage, must have felt nearly as great. Before the performance, I liquored myself up at the bar next door, knowing that if I were sober, I'd never get through a minute of the performance. At the venue, the bartender saw that I was drinking heavily and became far more obstinate than I was. So I simply ducked out between our sets for a quick one next door. The result once I got onstage was a shot of adrenalin and confidence so massive that I felt as though the audience was simply an extension of myself. This feeling has nothing to do with music and everything to do with our pagan roots. I have no idea if the audience truly felt what I felt, but in my alcohol-and-self-intoxicated state, I felt like it must feel to be a shaman doing a rain dance, exciting the tribe with a primal power I'm not sure I ever knew I was capable of summoning. 

I may be nowhere near as smart as I think I am, but evidence over the years demonstrates that I'm a pretty brilliant performer. If I were truly enthusiastic about any music but classical music enough to learn it backwards and forwards, I don't doubt that with some luck I could have been some kind of rock star.

Please don't think I'm flattering myself too much by declaring something so bold and egotist, because it's just about the easiest job in the world. All you need is to be vaguely musical (which I am), a good performer (which I am), have a lot of luck (which I've never had much of), and be semi-attractive (which I definitely am not..., but looking at Gene Simmons and Billy Joel, maybe you don't even need that.). 

My short, squat, stooped, balding, prematurely middle aged self has never been cut out for much sex appeal. But even I have noticed that ever since I started leading a band, I'm ever so slightly more attractive to women. If you play enough shows as a lead singer, somebody stupid out there will find you sexy, somebody stupid out there will find you deep, somebody stupid out there will find your music good. Not that my 'fans' are stupid... but theoretically, you'd have to be an emotional idiot to respond physically to a man because of his musical acumen... not because musical acumen isn't a good indicator of sexual selection (scientific research shows, fortunately, that it is), but because no matter how good the music is, most music that attains any popularity has nothing to do with its musical quality and everything to do with the quality of the bombastic theatrics on display. And nobody does bombast as well as I do...

The chances that you're going to see a truly quality musical show these days are about as great as that a team of monkeys trying to type out the words of a Shakespeare play. There is no way that with the staggering lack of musical variety present in 95% of the world's bands that there will be anything remotely resembling a musical revelation - and that's just on the national level. There might be occasional beautiful moments of music, individual lyrical lines that are impressive, but everything about the modern concert venue is designed to be anti-musical.

The music is so loud that until your ears are deafened, it physically hurts to hear. The rhythm is so insistent and basic that nothing can dislodge its importance - at those decibel levels, there's no way that anything but rhythm can draw attention to itself. If you're dancing or talking, you can't, by definition, focus on the musical substance. At those decibels, no amount of ingenious musical structure, no amount of counterpoint, no amount of haunting harmony can displace the primacy of rhythm. You might be able to discern lyrics with a sleeve jacket while listening at home on a CD, or googling them while listening on a PC, but it's almost guaranteed that you will never hear the lyrics at a live band's performance. Music today is made on space-age technology. It's a golden opportunity to express more complicated and nuanced musical feelings than ever were possible before, but instead they're used to amplify our most primitive, animalistic urges - the human beast on steroids.

There are, thankfully, various genres that, to a greater and lesser extent, do away with the obliteration of music by decibels and pure rhythm. Jazz does it to at least a small extent, but while I have no idea what live jazz was like sixty or eighty years ago, modern jazz is much too loud, and usually much too non-sensical to have much cultural cache in today's world. Jazz has not been truly revolutionary in nearly ninety years, it reached the peak of its achievement almost eighty years ago, and there is no large swath of the earth where jazz truly influenced musical discourse in more than fifty years. I can understand the impetus to hear bands like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. It's like hearing the Vienna Philharmonic play Mozart or Schubert the Leipzig Gewandhaus play Bach or Mendelssohn - it may be a warped copy of the original, and the original musical revelation experienced by generations past can never be had again, but careful listening still reminds us exactly what was revelatory about it. The same decadent urges that by-and-large long since spoiled classical music have done the same to Jazz. To be sure, there are good creators of jazz out there in America - but are any of them anything more than good? Have any of them caused revolution and revelation to anything more than a small coiterie? Will any of them change the curvature of the earth? Could they ever? If you listen to Esperanza Spalding or Robert Glasper, you immediately hear the overwhelming influence of other genres that have long since superceded jazz in relevance: Soul, Funk, Hip-Hop. Some jazz musicians, particularly dogmatic ones, allege that Free Jazz is the way forward. But free jazz, like atonal composition, is really just a moment in time that prevents anyone enamored by it from having to deal with the realities of the present. Just as atonality began to be a stale idea by World War I, free jazz began to be stale by the late 60's.The world demanded something else, but its adherents would rather play nonsense than listen to more contemporary sounds of the world. Virtually anybody but a true believer can see that both as they're currently practiced are musical embarrassments - a musician's pure id vomited into sound. And even free jazz is preferable to most of what passes for the most avant-garde atonal classical compositions - which, but for the different instrumental combinations (usually), would sound pretty much identical to free jazz, but what free jazz musicians can accomplish in a half-hour, avant-garde classical composers take months if not years to put on the page. It's fine for people who like it - the sounds undeniably can have a certain mysteriousness to them, but to pretend that this music is anything but a grotesquely insufficient response to horror of modern musical noise would be laughable if so many millions of dollars weren't spent to train musicians to do exactly this.

(Newgrass, or in this case, Bob Dylan, done up with slick, vapid packaging as though it were an advertisement for tattoos and vintage clothing)

Lately, I've begun to play and hang around with a lot of bluegrass circles. To at least some extent, I do enjoy bluegrass. In some ways, it's a very human, relatively quiet, moving music. But I think I enjoy the humaneness of people who live a 'bluegrass lifestyle' much more than I actually enjoy listening to it. When I listen to bluegrass and its related genres for more than a few minutes at a time, it strikes me that this beauty is vapid as hell. The music is pretty, but is there any depth to this music? Surely, I understand, there is some depth to the original generation like Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Earle ScruggsDoc Watson, when Bluegrass was something new and fascinating. I can understand why people want to preserve the original tunes. What I can't understand is how much enthusiasm there is for new bluegrass music. As far as I can tell, it's just not that good... The 'pretty' songwriting of Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss  and Neko Case  and Sara Watkins seems to me the usual vapid sentiments about romantic love, couched in lyrics that are almost completely non-sensical which some fans no doubt mistaken for depth (though Sara Watkins, to her credit, seems to have at least a bit more substance than the others). Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris are more comprehensible, but no less vapid in what they express.

I think I've begun to realize what turns me off of the bluegrass scene and music. It has so little to offer those of us who need comfort in real darkness. With some obvious exceptions, it is fundamentally major key music for the major key sentiments of major key people. It's a music about what it's like to live a well-adjusted life, with no problem more substantial than a lover's quarrel. The vision it conjures can be tantalizing, but when it conjures that vision (and bluegrass didn't used to), it became vapid, bought and paid for, domesticated, utterly safe music for safe people. Like what we somewhat falsely in America called 'folk music' before it, it seems to be magnet for radical politics. But in these cases, radical politics is an anesthetic, preventing them from having to face the essential tragedy of human existence. It can be beautiful music that conjures pastoral landscapes and living close to the earth, but the pastoral landscapes at the river's has so little to say about the eruptive power of nature, too great for any human to bear.

But then there was the time I found gypsy music, and Orchester Prazevica...

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